Smokin': Melbourne's love affair with American barbecue

Urban cowboy Mike Dupes at Le Bon Ton.
Urban cowboy Mike Dupes at Le Bon Ton. Photo: Simon Schluter

Imagine back in the day, a charismatically weathered Texan cowboy, squinting over a smoky pit, waiting for the hog meat to cook. He'd probably never even heard of Melbourne, let alone envisaged tattooed chefs squinting through a similar haze in an inner-city beer garden on the other side of the world, decades down the track.

Melbourne has taken to American barbecue with gusto. Joints are popping up all over town, including hot New Orleans-inspired bar/diner Le Bon Ton, Nieuw Amsterdam and Bluebonnet Barbecue at the Beaufort.

Since the American barbecue, craft beer and bourbon restaurant Meatmother opened a year ago, co-owner Neil Hamblen says it has smoked its way through more than 5000 kilograms of brisket, 4100 racks of spare ribs and 4400 kilograms of short rib - clearly there's a market, and Hamblen tips the ''barbecue frenzy'' to continue. ''We're close to nailing down a second site,'' says Hamblen, who is looking at premises in the city and Brunswick with a plan to open by the end of the year.

So why has American barbecue become so popular here?

Alabama-born, Dallas-raised Jeremy Sutphin, chef at Collingwood's Le Bon Ton, attributes it to adventure and awareness. ''I've been here eight years and the palates are searching for something different - and people are becoming more aware.'' Likewise, Mike Patrick, ex-San Telmo and half of Fancy Hank's Bar-B-Que, attributes it to Australia's love of something different. ''The traditional Aussie barbecue is not under threat, however more and more people are using the old Weber to try out a low-and-slow pork shoulder or a brisket these days. This is a great way to spend a Sunday - start the barbecue early in the morning, invite your friends and family over in the afternoon, have some chicken wings and drinks while you wait for your brisket to finish, really make a day and night of it.''

Barbecue taps into Melbourne's current Americana madness and it's a perfect mix of artisanal, rootsy and social - sourcing great cuts, using old-school methods, placing it in a new environment and, most importantly, pairing it with rockin' tunes.

The key difference between a good ol' snag-and-chop Aussie barbie and an American one come down to pit and plate. The traditional Australian barbecue generally involves cooking something on a hot plate, while American barbecue involves smoking meat for a long time in a ''pit'' barbecue, with no direct contact with a flame.

Barbecue comes from the word ''barbacoa'' - a traditional pit barbecue that started in the Caribbean. People would dig a hole, build a bed of coals and wood, bury a whole hog (or some cow heads), then cover it and let it smoke for 24 hours. It spread from the Caribbean through to Mexico and up into Texas.


''That's how they did it back in the day, cowboys and vaqueros, the Mexican cowboys who were working as ranch hands for the white cattle pioneers,'' says Sutphin. ''In West Texas, there were a lot of oil drums, so they started building offset pits from oil drums. They're fashioned on that shape, then the firebox is off the side. You put your wood in for smoking and you control it through your input and outtake - you can turn it down to keep the fire down if you want to smoulder; if you want it to burn hotter you open it all the way so more air's flowing through because oxygen feeds fire.''

In America's barbecue belt, there are four basic styles of barbecue - Kansas City, Carolinas, Memphis and Texas - although within those styles, you'll still find variations from county to county. Choices in spice mixes to dry-rub the meat with, the kind of meat used, whether the meat is ''mopped'' with sauce towards the end of the smoking process, the kind of sauce the meat is served with and the type of wood it's smoked over determine regional styles. Texas is beef country, so you won't find much pork in Texas barbecue joints. ''Pork's more south Memphis and Carolinas style,'' says Sutphin. ''It goes back to how the country was settled. In the south, with the civil war, there was a poorer culture, so they ate a lot of pork and fried chicken.

''Depending on where you are in the country, they'll use different blends for dry rubs - paprika, sugar, lemon pepper, garlic, cayenne. Texas traditionally, especially in the centre and west, uses the ''Dalmatian blend'' - salt and pepper - and that's all. ''In Kansas City, they'll do a dry rub and then they'll mop it. Which is, after a certain amount of time in the smoker, they take a mop - literally - and mop it in their sauce so it glazes on there. Texas barbecue traditionally doesn't do that; it's just the meat, salt and pepper and smoke. They'll have condiments you can add. In the south, in Memphis, it's a sweeter, tomato-based sauce and the Carolinas is heavy vinegar and a lot of pork. Really sharp.''

Classic sides include coleslaw, potato salad and, in Texas, ranch-style beans - pinto beans in a chilli base with added water or beer, sometimes even coffee or whiskey. People will often add the little off-cuts of the brisket, known as ''beans with burnt ends''.

''There are different little things people will do,'' Sutphin says, ''but traditionally it's coleslaw, potato salad, pickles, sliced raw onions, some kind of bread - some joints you go into, you'll get half a loaf of your cheap white bread and you just make a sandwich.''

So are you ready to get your smoke on? Let's mosey.

Barbecue how-to

So you've been bitten by the barbecue bug and want to DIY?

First up, remember the basic definition of barbecue, which Bob Hart from the Australian Barbecue Academy describes as ''the enlightened application of heat and smoke to protein, vegetables and even fruit, out of doors''.

Mike Patrick's mantra is ''low and slow''. He says, ''Monitor heat and time. Don't try and rush barbecue. It's ready when it's ready.'' Of course, use the best quality meat and produce you can afford.''Get to know a good butcher, like Leo Donati in Carlton and Jonathan's in Smith Street (Collingwood),'' says Hart, who runs classes on how to barbecue meat, fish, asparagus, even cheese. Oozy, smoky … mmm.

If you want to take it to the next level and get a custom pit smoker, Silver Creek Smokers is a Melbourne operation building excellent units but, for the home, a good Weber kettle barbecue is still a great place to start.

Start thinking about what kind of wood you want to smoke over - different woods impart different flavours. The boys from Fancy Hank's use salvaged chestnut timber from a friend's chestnut farm. With a history of cooking with wood after years at Ladro and San Telmo, Mike Patrick has noted a conscious effort to use sustainable sources of wood fuel in the industry. For a more Australian spin, a company called Aussie BBQ Smoke supplies woodchips like lemon-scented gum, winery grapevine wood chips and spice rubs such as the outback-inspired ''Convict Rub''.

Then comes the fun part - the experimenting. Try different woods, rubs, meats and sauces to create your signature dish. As Jeremy Sutphin says, ''People shouldn't be afraid to experiment. There are ways to smoke without having one of those huge units. There are certain techniques that are tried and true, but how you spice it up, as long as you like it, it's your preference.''

His favourite barbecue dish is baby back pork ribs. ''I'd normally use hickory, but applewood is really good with pork. I dry rub them with a special spice mix, but I use apple juice - it gives them a sweeter taste. I mop them in apple juice, some butter, so they're really sweet and moist, and the last hour they're on, I'll mop them with my sauce. That's not really traditional for Texas but I was born in Alabama and I've dabbled in different styles of barbecue. Adding that sauce in the last hour just caramelises and glazes it, makes it sticky and melt-in-the-mouth.''

Meat the makers

Here are some places that specialise in the delicious dark arts of smoked meats.

Colourful and casual, BBB does a range of sandwiches (including the beef brisket Dorothy for $10.90) but the platters (from $35) are the best of all worlds, with brisket, wings, ribs and sides like crisp, sweet onion strings, plus a suite of sauces.
764 Glen Huntly Road, Caulfield South, 9523 7410 & Shop 2, 27-31 Hardware Lane, Melbourne, 9670 9388

Saddle up for 16-hour pulled pork shoulder ($6, 100 grams), Texas-style beef brisket slugged with house-made coffee and molasses sauce, plus beer can chicken and Roseanne Cash's potato salad.
Mercat Cross Hotel, 456 Queen Street, Melbourne, 9348 9998,

The boys from Chingon have taken over the Glasshouse Hotel, bedecked it in a sultry Louisiana vibe and put a couple of smokers out the back, where Jeremy Sutphin (ex-Fog) makes 18-hour mesquite-smoked brisket (from $18), 12-hour mesquite smoked pork shoulder (from $16), cherrywood smoked pork sausage and brilliant southern sides.
51 Gipps Street, Collingwood, 9416 4341,

Meatmother smokes its meats over oak for up to 12 hours (meat trays from $19), and serves them with Texas toast and sides like chipotle slaw or smoked corn. Snack on jalapeno poppers and craft beer while you wait. The mac 'n' cheese here is legendary.
167 Swan Street, Richmond, 9041 5393,

While you can get meaty at dinner, lunchtime features a barbecue meat tray for $22, with either beef brisket, jerk chicken or pork belly chops, served with cabbage salad, mash and gravy, pickles, bread and sauce.
106-112 Hardware Street, Melbourne, 9602 2111,

American barbecue meets trailer trash at this Fitzroy pop-up, which opens on Thursday April 16. There'll be a King of Brisket competition, local buskers and visual artists alongside beef ribs, smoked cheese macaroni and pulled pork.
83 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, until April 27.