T&R Taste of Texas
3621 Broadway, Sacramento
July Fourth is the biggest barbecue day of the year, a party where the fragrant smoke from backyard grills mingles with the acrid fog from neighborhood fireworks displays.
Fireworks are fun, sure, but we're particular about grilled goodies. Locally, our go-to spot is T&R Taste of Texas, opened in 2011.
There, pitmaster Rodney Ray smokes ribs, tri-tip, pork shoulder, chicken and hot links over hickory, mesquite, applewood and pecan, depending on what's cooking. All the side dishes are made from scratch, including the new entry of jalapeño-corn gumbo.
Ray has been around 'cue for 30 years, beginning at age 12 when he did all the barbecue-related "grunt work" (trimming ribs, prepping fresh chicken) at his uncles' farm in Lubbock, Texas. They smoked brisket and other meats on a 25-foot-long "trailer pit" and sold it to a hungry clientele that kept growing.
Young Rodney learned the trade from the coals up, so to speak.
"People are really loving barbecue these days," he said the other day. "Whenever they show a barbecue cook-off on one of the food channels, 10 people will come in to T&R and say, 'I was just watching TV and thought of you.' "
If Ray were to host a Fourth of July barbecue party in his backyard, what would it be like? More important, would we be invited?
Here's what he had to say.
What kind of grill do you cook on at home?
My smoker is a split 50-gallon metal barrel, but you can smoke all day on a kettle-style grill. I use a mixture of Kingsford charcoal and mesquite lump charcoal. For smoke, I put on chunks of wood. Pecan or apple for lighter and sweeter meats like pork and chicken. Hickory or mesquite for beef.
Do you sear your meat?
I prefer to smoke all the meat over indirect heat at 200 degrees. I look for white ash and want to be able to put my hand over (the coals) for five seconds before I have to pull it away.
What's the must-have tool for your barbecue?
A pair of 2-foot-long heavy-duty tongs, so I don't get my hands burned.
How about an instant-read thermometer for pork shoulder or tri-tip?
No, I like to do it the old-fashioned way, feeling the meat with my hands. That's how they do it at the fancy steakhouses.
What's on the menu for your perfect barbecue?
We'll get the party started right with barbecued meatballs, Lit'l Smokies (cocktail links), guacamole and chips. Then St. Louis-style pork ribs, lobster tails and big shrimp on the barbie, tri-tip, chicken, corn on the cob, ranch beans, green beans, collard greens and my mama's mac 'n' cheese.
What's to drink?
Corona and Dos Equis beers, and margaritas, of course.
Where do you source ingredients?
Costco, across the board for everything.
Lobster and shrimp at a Texas-style hoedown?
My uncle and I want to open a restaurant in Australia, two blocks from the beach, and put shrimp on the barbie. It's in my five-year plan.
For my party, I'm going to split big prawns down the back, sprinkle on salt and pepper, cook them like mini-lobsters and dip them in butter. I'm going to put the lobster tails on the grill, crisp them up and drench them in butter.
Are you marinating anything?
No, everything is rubbed (with a spice mixture) that's the Texas way. I used a family recipe (that includes) a blend of brown sugar, paprika, garlic, salt and pepper. When you do a rub right, it makes the meat delicious and the sauce becomes a complement to the rub. If you don't want to make your own rub, there are some pretty good ones on the market.
Sweet meets heat in your sauce. Will you serve it on the side?
Most true barbecue people want the sauce directly on the meat. I take the meat off the pit, let it rest for 10 minutes, sauce it and then cut it. As the sauce sits on the meat, it breaks it down and makes it more tender. If you put on the sauce before you cook, the sugar will burn and you'll have scorched meat.
Kansas City-style means spareribs that have been trimmed into a rectangle, eliminating the gristle. Will your party guests get fall-off-the-bone meat?
That's not what a rib is supposed to be. When I bite into it, I want to pull the meat off and leave teeth marks. I want some chew. I don't parboil or oven-bake my ribs before I smoke them. You might do that with fatty, tough cuts, but I want only the best ribs in my backyard 90 percent meat and 10 percent fat from grain-fed pigs.
Cooking all this food is going to make a mess of your pit. How do you clean the grill?
I burn it off the next time and brush it down. That way the flavors stay in the pit, and the pit builds its own character. As a pitmaster, I have learned the characteristics of my pit over time and how long it takes to cook different meats.
About that corn ...
I leave the husks on and put the ears over indirect heat for 15 to 20 minutes, turning them a couple of times. Then I take off the husks and salt-and-pepper and butter the ears.
One cool thing I do when I cater is put raw ears of corn into an ice chest, cover them with hot water and put on the lid. Twenty minutes later you have perfect corn, like you're in Nantucket.
And the beans?
Every family has a recipe, and I'm cooking beans from one that was 100 years in the making. I use ranch-style beans, also called Texas brown beans, but you can use pinto beans. I sauté ground beef with onion and garlic, and add it to the bean pot and cook the beans for hours. If time is limited, there's (packaged) Bush's or B&M baked beans.
Why collard greens?
I prefer collard greens over turnip or mustard greens because I grew up picking, cleaning and eating them. I add smoked turkey instead of ham hock for a sweeter taste.
Is dessert ready?
Yes peach cobbler and berry cobbler, I love them both. And let's go for some ice cream on top.
What's going to make your party great?
Sharing the meal with friends and family. There have been people I've loved and people I love to be around at every great barbecue I've been to, all my life. In the South, blocks of people get together for barbecues. In California, we're so busy we don't make the time to do that. But we should. Life is short.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.