The barbecue upstarts from Austin welded their own smoker and are on a cross-country road trip bringing brisket and ribs with them wherever they go.
When most people think of food in Austin, Texas, barbecue is undoubtedly one of the first things that comes to mind. Good brisket and ribs are everywhere in the Texas capital. And while legendary spots like Franklin and la Barbecue have an outsized impact on the barbecue landscape (as well as outsized lines), new restaurants and trailers are opening constantly—ten new spots opened in the last three months alone. One new Austin-based barbecue business that isn’t set on staying put in the capital city, though, is Rattle Creek Meat Co., which is currently on a summer-long tour across the United States.
Mat Gonzalez, a former pitmaster at la Barbecue and Kelsey Small, who manned the pizza oven at Austin hotspot Bufalina, started Rattle Creek with the simple goal of bringing barbecue back to its communal roots. They wanted their early events in Austin to feel like parties. And after getting booked to cater a couple weddings in Connecticut and Idaho they had a moment of inspiration: The barbecue road trip. Equipped with a Ford E-250 van with a bed bolted in the back, a trailer and a 14-foot smoker Gonzalez welded himself, Rattle Creek departed Austin at the end of July on a three-month tour of the United States to throw barbecue pop-ups in Nashville, Brooklyn, Portland and L.A.
Even with the ability to pick up and move quickly, though, Rattle Creek is mostly focused on just serving the best barbecue they can to people who might not be accustomed to it. “We’re not trying to set up a brick and mortar where we just sell brisket, ribs, sausage, potato salad and coleslaw,” says Small. “We want to do events that are way more inclusive and we wanted to get away from the line culture where everyone waits seven hours to eat lunch.”
Small and Gonzalez feel that inclusivity extends not just to the atmosphere but to the cooking. It lets them experiment with flavors that might be chastised at more traditional barbecue spots, like Kreuz Market or Smitty’s in Lockhart or even Salt Lick in Austin. “A lot of other barbecue places have to stick to a certain tradition because they’ve been doing it for 40 or 50 years,” says Gonzalez. “We can have more fun and try out new things that don’t just have to be Texas barbecue or the traditional way that its been done for the past century.”
As a native Californian, Gonzalez certainly doesn't feel hemmed in by Texas barbecue tradtion. You can see some influences from outside the Lonestar State in dishes like Rattle Creek's serrano ginger agave glazed pork ribs and chicken mole tortas. “One of the things that we’re doing that is a little different is we’re adding hints of interior Mexican flavors, like with our mole barbecue sauce or adding extra spices to our rub,” says Gonzalez. “A lot of that comes from the flavors that my grandmother raised me with. As well as trying to make it inclusive and a party, we’re also playing around with some flavors to see what else we can do.”
One of the challenges for their travelling barbecue show is simply acquiring the ingredients. At the first wedding on their summer calenda in Wallingford, Connecticut, Rattle Creek cooked barbecue—along with slab pies for dessert—for 180 people. Over Labor Day weekend they’ll cook for more than twice that many at The Suttle Lodge inside Oregon's Deschutes National Forest. Those kinds of numbers makes it an immediate scramble for supplies as soon as they arrive at their destination. “We’re sourcing ingredients through restaurants that we’re working with, along with local vendors and farms and reaching out to people ahead of time,” says Small. “Whenever we land somewhere, we’ll just run to 600 places for seven hours. Get home, realize we’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff, go back, come back four hours later.”
A month in, though, the growing pains and the day-to-day problem solving is still part of the fun. Sure, there are a lot of logistics to figure with each event—from where they are going to source their meat to how they will keep everything refrigerated properly—but Gonzalez and Small, who you'll rarely see without smiles on their faces when they’re working, don’t just take it in stride, they relish in the challenge.
And as they embrace that challenge, the Rattle Creek boys know what they’re really after, “If it ever does turn into a brick and mortar or a more stationary business, I’d like to hope that it would be something that never feels like work, even if we’re working 20 hour days,” says Gonzalez. “As long as we keep having a good time with it and keep putting out a good product, then it’s a success to me.”
You can catch Rattle Creek at Spirit of 77 in Portland, OR on August 26th, The Suttle Lodge in Sisters, Oregon on September 3rd and at Bigfoot Lodge East in L.A. on September 21st. Right now they plan to head back to Texas in October, but check back at their website for more event updates.