For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by cooking with fire. Whether it be grilling over a bed of hot embers, pit cooking, or a low and slow barbecue session in my own backyard. Barbecue is where fire meets obsession and when done well and with care it yields incredible results. With experience, patience, and the right ingredients it can almost be replicated time and time again.
With this latest entry, I’m going to take you on a tour of Portland’s thriving BBQ scene. This style of cooking encompasses many cultural backgrounds, each with their unique flavor profiles and techniques, so for the sake of brevity I’ve focused solely on Southern Q.
Prior to writing this post, I had already visited many local establishments since first moving to Portland years ago; there are the known standards, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t seek out an off-the-beaten-path jewel.
In Peru, where I’m originally from, we have a saying: “If you’re willing to talk about politics, religion or soccer, you’re willing to go the distance.” When it comes to American Barbecue, it follows a similar criteria and many times will spark a great debate amongst traditionalists and aficionados.
Take a trip through the Southern Barbecue belt and you’ll come across a myriad of sauces including the vinegary Lexington-style in Northern Carolina and its delicious mustard-based cousin nearby in Southern Carolina. The mayo-inspired sauce rules in Alabama. And there is the sweet and tangy saucy elixir in Memphis, add more sweetness and some tomato, and now we’re taking a trip northwest to Kansas City. This is just the beginning, and we haven’t even gotten started on the whiskey-based reductions yet!
There are the smoking techniques such as the Texas Crutch, 3-2-1, tried and tested cold smoking, amongst others. There is also the choice between fruitwood or nutwood depending on the type of meat, as well as wood pellets, which some may prefer. When it comes to seasoning it can be as simple as kosher salt and black pepper or more complex dry rubs. And while we’re still scraping the surface, there are always going to be personal preferences from fall-off-the-bone smoked ribs, babybacks, St. Louis style or a finish with a bit more bite that you have to tug a little harder to get to the succulent meat.
One thing is certain, there is no right or wrong approach to barbecue. It is all delicious in its own way and subject to personal choice, unless of course it is just burnt, permeated by black smoke, bone dry or worse, raw. And although many boxing enthusiasts believe that the late Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer that ever stepped into the ring, and very well could be, what about Tyson, the Sugar Rays, Pacquiao, or Joe Frazier? All these and other gladiators before them were equally as important (albeit not as entertaining) and a pleasure to watch while displaying their own styles round after round. Ultimately, we can’t escape subjectivity.
Barbecue in Portland is not (and may never be) as good as some of the most beloved institutions in the South. This may simply be because we are not in the South, as it isn’t ingrained in our culture and daily way of life. That said, there are dedicated men and women here with the passion to bring their establishments to life while elevating this city’s culinary scene.
My criteria was simple, the barbecue had to be stellar in flavor, texture, and presentation. I kept an open mind while visiting fifteen locations and I expected that not every single dish they served had to be exceptional. It is tricky to pull off the perfect trifecta: pulled pork, brisket, and ribs (or supplement pulled pork for sausage for a Texas trinity). Instead, I focused on what was truly noteworthy, in addition to the atmosphere and overall dining experience.
It felt a bit daunting to narrow down my top five picks, and definitely my #1 choice because every place shines with its own specialty and uniqueness. But if I had to choose the best I’d say that pound per pound my all-around pick was Matt’s BBQ on MLK.
The Main Event:
1. Matt’s BBQ
Matt himself is unassuming, works arduous hours, and you can see the passion in his one-man operation by the product he proudly puts out. Surprisingly enough, he is a Long Island native who carved his craft in Melbourne, Australia, of all places. Matt focuses on Texas-style ‘cue including the juiciest oakwood-smoked brisket I’ve had in a long while. The side dishes were a great accompaniment, as was the slightly sweeter sauce served alongside the beef, home-made sausage, and finger-lickin’ ribs — all on top of a slice of white bread, as it should be.
Matt’s BBQ is a cart, with a great vibe and a crowd converging from all walks of life. There is no line yet, but I’m sure there will be soon as word is getting out.
The first time I stepped into People’s Pig I was immediately transported to a local gem I visited in Ubud, Bali, that specialized in pork ribs. People’s Pig does not feel like your regular restaurant, instead it’s reminiscent of those wonderful hole-in-the-wall establishments you might find in the deep South. The smells are in-your-face, the oven is filled with all kinds of delicacies smoked ahead of time, and the meats being served are superb-looking with a proper smoke ring for days. Definitely try the St. Louis style pork ribs, brisket, and the fried chicken. The sides are equally as impressive.
People’s Pig is not for the BBQ purists at heart, it’s not Tennessee nor Carolina-style, it’s its own, and certainly worth checking out.
3. Podnah’s Pit
The gold standard in Portland and synonymous with BBQ. Podnah’s has been around for over ten years at its present location and it’s on most locals’ go-to list and on visitors’ radars. The owner’s roots go back all the way to Texas, and it shows in the food that comes out of the packed oak hardwood smoker. In true Southern style, the best thing to order is the Pitboss; you get a little bit of everything in one plate including their home-made sausage, brisket, pulled pork, and ribs with a choice of any of their awesome sides and head-nodding cornbread.
Perhaps on a separate occasion make sure to head on over next door to their Tex-Mex restaurant, La Taq, and order their brisket tacos filled with the same meat which comes out of Podnah’s smoker.
Reverend’s has only been around for a few years, but it has already branded its mark in the local barbecue scene, so much so that they often provide other restaurants with their cooked meats. Their sauce game is on-point, so is their slowly-smoked brisket with a perfectly rendered fat cap. The chopped pork doused in a vinegary Carolina style sauce is heaven on a plate. The latter can also be found at Pine State Biscuit’s menu known as the BBQ Biscuit and it’s probably one of the best renditions of pulled pork I’ve ever come across.
5. Miss Delta
I’ve always liked Miss Delta, going as far as ordering their food for a small wedding party a couple of years back. Miss Delta is the most Southern comfort food nook on this shortlist serving up side-dishes like hush puppies, beans, and the best crunchy yet soft collard greens around. The brisket is done with pride and patience, and it shows in its beautiful dark bark.
The partners, Nick and Marcus, are great guys who are happy to talk about BBQ and the quirky photos on their walls any day of the week.
While speaking of catering, make sure to also check out Sugars Barbecue in St. John’s for any of your needs.
The Runners Up:
Don’t forget to try Russell St BBQ who carries a great sauce selection with a Texas-style menu. Southland Whiskey Kitchen was also up there on my list with proper ribs you can wash down with any of their well-curated whiskeys or bourbons. I never thought I’d say this, but if you’re looking for a great vegan barbecue option and meat doesn’t float your boat, order the Slosmomofo dish at the Homegrown Smoker Vegan BBQ cart.
Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to try Smokehouse 21 nor Pine Shed Ribs and Barbecue in Lake Oswego, which many people swear by.
Aside from the opportunity to search high and low for the best barbecue flavors and textures around the city, the best part of it all was the people that I met along the way who truly made this a memorable experience. There was the passionate conversation I had with U-licious about the history of BBQ in Portland, exchanging pulled pork tips with Mrs. Sassy and at a later time with her husband, Boss Hogg, from Sweet Street BBQ, to my unforgettable chats with Theodis about the future of the Barbecue scene. Theodis runs Cason’s Fine Meats with his son, TC, in Kenton. Make sure to pick up some of their ribs to-go on any given weekend.