Pandemic Job Losses Led to the Rise of Grasslands Barbecue in Hood River

Smoked black pepper chicken so tender it can be sliced with a plastic fork has become a customer favorite.

Three friends, laid off from their jobs during the pandemic, launched a barbecue food truck in Hood River in 2020. This normally wouldn’t be news; barbecue restaurants have a hard time cutting through the noise if they lack prior hype, a devoted social media following, or an effective PR firm. But Grasslands’ DIY approach and connections to the craft beer industry have helped the business slowly build a fan base the old-fashioned way, via word of mouth.

Co-founder Drew Marquis grew up flipping burgers in Oklahoma before moving to Texas to explore a culinary career. In Dallas, he helped open what would become an acclaimed Italian restaurant and learned to handmake pasta and cure salumi. That experience sparked his interest in Italian culture and an internship at a Tuscan farm followed in 2012. Marquis later returned to the kitchen at DeLaurenti Food & Wine in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where he met his future wife, Nicki, and began smoking meat in their backyard as a hobby.

In 2020, Marquis joined the team at Wood Shop BBQ, but his time there was brief—COVID forced the restaurant out of business. However, he wasn’t about to abandon his passion, and started selling smoked meats to his friends via a pop-up called Bootleg Barbecue, lighting the spark for what would become Grasslands.

The business grew with the addition of two partners: Sam Carroll, a Texas native who attended the University of Oklahoma with Marquis and worked his way up to the head brewer position at Portland’s Occidental Brewing, along with their mutual friend Brendon Bain, a sous chef for Tom Douglas restaurants and a live-fire cooking enthusiast. After Carroll was laid off from his brewing position during the pandemic, they all agreed to try something new.

The cash-strapped trio placed a bet on a custom food truck and began popping up at various locations under the Grasslands brand while waiting for their kitchen on wheels to be completed. Their first event at Level Beer’s flagship in Northeast Portland was a hit, drawing a line of customers down the parking lot. Grasslands grew in popularity thanks, in part, to its menu—an alternative to brewpub burgers and pizza—but also saw demand from patrons eager to attend outdoor events during a pre-vaccinated pandemic era. But could that enthusiasm travel with them outside of Portland and beyond COVID restrictions?

In June 2021, Grasslands set up its food truck in a grassy field in Hood River adjacent to Ferment Brewing. After restaurants struggled to stay open when pandemic dining regulations were in place, and customers continued to seek safety in the open air, Ferment was more than happy to let Grasslands’ guests use its outdoor deck to eat their barbecue and pair it with a house beer.

But the brewery connections go further than that. During the offseason (currently underway until March), Grasslands’ founders collaborate with breweries—everyone from Ruse Brewing in Portland to Seattle’s Holy Mountain—on custom beers. The processes of brewing and cooking parallel each other, and those experiences have led to tiny tweaks in recipes that deepen the flavor of the barbecue. In less than two years, Grasslands’ food has gone from passable to magical.

On a frigid December day near the end of Grasslands’ season, I waited in line to grab a plate of food and run for cover. Inside one of Ferment’s heated patio yurts, I dug into more than a half-dozen different items, each as impressive as the next.

Honey-whiskey-cider pork belly burnt ends were a seasonal highlight. A crunchy, caramelized, slightly burnt coating formed a shell around the moist inside, with layers of fat and meat stacked like lasagna dressed in a sweet, creamy sauce.

A breakfast brisket sandwich elicited memories of campground cooking. Thick-cut slices of brisket had a deeply integrated but not overpowering smokiness and a crust of charred bits of skin and crushed black peppercorns. The center was so soft, with a jellylike texture, you could have practically spread it on a biscuit.

One of Grasslands’ hallmarks is its special attention to sides. Cheesy hominy is a perfect example of a non-meat dish presented with just as much care as the ‘cue. Starchy beans with the texture of edamame were enveloped in a savory onion and garlic sauce blanketed in a thick cheddar cheese skin.

Smoked black pepper chicken so tender it can be sliced with a plastic fork has become a Grasslands favorite. But don’t miss the Hop Sausage when it’s available. This handmade brat is perhaps the business’s best bridge between barbecue and beer, with skin as thick as that of any hospitality worker who has made it through the pandemic. The sausage has a smokiness as dense as a Prohibition-era tavern, a tongue-tingling spice courtesy of paprika and a grassy flourish thanks to the use of pungent hops. And it passes the snap test, breaking with a satisfying squeaky crackle. The sensation sticks with you long after your plate is clean, and I can’t wait to experience it again once Grasslands reopens. March can’t come soon enough.

EAT: Grasslands Barbecue, 403 Portway Ave., Suite 300, Hood River, grasslandsbarbecue.com. 11:30 am Saturday until the food sells out (generally by 4 pm). Reopens in March.