he secret to great barbecue, according to Rodney Muirhead, is this: "The meat goes into the smoker completely raw and comes out completely cooked."
That sounds easy enough, but it requires a lot of patience—a virtue that many barbecue joints that pre-boil their ribs, bake their briskets and microwave their leftovers can't seem to muster.
As far as barbecue is concerned, at least, Muirhead is a paragon of patience. With his formula of good meat, wood smoke and lots of time, he has, over seven years, gone from slinging ribs at the Portland Farmers Market to running one of the nation's great barbecue destinations. At Podnah's Pit, our 2011 Restaurant of the Year, the trout is sweet, the biscuits flaky and the brisket soft as warm butter beneath its peppery bark.
Muirhead grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, a small town about the size of Milwaukie some 30 miles south of Dallas, best known as the home of the canceled Superconducting Super Collider project. He says he inherited his love of barbecue from his grandfather, an "old-school butcher" whom everyone called Podnah. Muirhead attended Texas A&M University and eventually wound up in the tech industry. In his early 30s, he took a break to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York, then returned to his former employer—working on "robotics for semiconductor factories." After moving him to Portland, the company then, in 2004, laid him off.
Naturally, Muirhead reacted by firing up the smoker.
"Me and Kyle Connaly, who I worked with...were both laid off on the same day," Muirhead says. "We started having parties at his house, just because we didn't have much to do. We were making barbecue for all the Texans that we knew in town." The parties were successful enough that the pair started selling Central-Texas-style (dry-rubbed, with no sugary sauces) ribs, brisket and lamb ribs from a stand at the Portland Farmers Market under the name LOW BBQ—short for "Laid Off Workers"—and immediately attracted a die-hard following of meat lovers. When the season ended, Muirhead and Connaly moved LOW to a Southeast Portland street corner, and then to the kitchen of Apizza Scholls on Monday nights. Connaly eventually left the enterprise—"he didn't like the restaurant world too much," Muirhead says—shortly after which they sold the business to Ken Gordon (of Kenny & Zuke's).
"I still wanted a restaurant," Muirhead says, "and I knew Cathy [Whims] was opening Nostrana, so I went and talked to her to see if I could go through the opening and work there for a while [to gain experience starting a restaurant]. Then I started looking for my own space." In 2006 he opened Podnah's Pit, named for his grandfather, in a tiny space—"If you counted the little bench next to the cash register," Muirhead recalls, "I think it was 34 seats"—on the corner of Northeast 14th Avenue and Prescott Street.
It was an immediate success, popular enough that the restaurant regularly ran out of meat well before the end of dinner hours. The opening was a cause for near-religious celebration among local lovers of Southern barbecue, and the excitement kept right on going. In our 2008 Restaurant Guide, I described the brisket as "tender as a soldier's kiss, smoked over the eternal fire of freedom, seasoned with true grit and served with sauce made from cowboy sweat and eagle tears, plus two sides." (I still stand by my review.)
But Podnah's had physical problems. The shotgun layout made for cold drafts most of the year and made squeezing in large parties tricky. In 2010, Muirhead and his business partner, Laika director Kirk Kelley (the man behind the anthropomorphic M&Ms commercials), grew tired of renting and, after nearly a year of searching, placed an offer on a former church on a depressed stretch of Northeast Killingsworth Street.
Click below to go inside the Podnah's Pit kitchen.
The buildout took nine months. "It was a church before we bought it," Muirhead says. "It had a drop ceiling with fluorescent lights and purple carpet. We completely gutted the whole thing." The finished restaurant, designed by Kelley and architect Sue Firpo, is a wonder. Bright white walls reflect the light that streams through the building's enormous windows, lending a warm glow to the banquettes, tables and bar crafted from enormous slabs of salvaged wood. The dining room seats 70, not counting the full bar. The staff has tripled in size. "I did not imagine something this big," Muirhead says. "I'm still getting used to how big it is."
Behind the scenes are even greater changes. The old Podnah's kitchen was so cramped that Muirhead had to keep his smoker on the back patio and cook all the sides with countertop appliances; the whole setup would fit in the new kitchen's walk-in fridge. The new galley is bigger than the old dining room, and encompasses a large prep space, a sprawling range, a small room full of chopped Willamette Valley oak and a new Ole Hickory Pits smoker fired, against the manufacturer's instructions, entirely with wood. Its racks, which constantly rise and fall on a carousel to ensure even cooking, can hold up to 500 pounds of meat. Muirhead runs it from 5 am to 5 pm, seven days a week.
The expanded restaurant has brought with it an expanded menu, including cocktails (heavy on fruit and brown spirits), eight beer taps, lots of side specials (a cheesy squash casserole was the highlight of a recent dinner) and even house-smoked bacons and hams on the horizon. But the heart of the Podnah's experience remains the enormous plates of brisket and spareribs, served with two sides and moist, sweet cornbread speckled with fresh kernels.
"We wanted to keep it as old-fashioned as possible," Muirhead says of his barbecue, "and do it the way it was being done 50 or 100 years ago." But what makes Podnah's not only a fine barbecue joint but a great restaurant is not Luddism but Muirhead's ability to simultaneously embrace past and present. If Podnah's were a classic Texas-style restaurant, the sides would consist of sweet baked beans and a slice of white bread, and the flatware might be chained to the table. My favorite dishes are all deviations from the strictest Lone Star conventions: the lamb ribs, rubbed with cumin, salt and pepper, and smoked just to the edge of medium-well; the trout, which gets 90 minutes in the smoker and comes out tasting like fish candy; and the Brobdingnagian breakfast tacos, stuffed with potato, egg, pepper, onion and chorizo, which, for $7.75, remain the greatest brunch deal in town. Muirhead, like all of Portland's great chefs, has melded a great culinary tradition with the Northwest's peculiar bounty with a mix of reverence and invention. Perhaps the secret to great barbecue isn't so easy after all.
Podnah's Pit, 1625 NE Killingsworth St., 281-3700, podnahspit.com. 11 am-10 pm Monday-Friday, noon-10 pm Saturday-Sunday. Breakfast 9 am-1 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$