Portland Is the Unlikely Barbecue Hero the West Coast Needed
As with so much of the very best barbecue, you have to really want the brisket that Texas native Kyle Rensmeyer is selling—you need to be prepared to go the distance. The little blue trailer that Portland, Oregon’s Holy Trinity Barbecue calls home is not a thing one just happens to run across; it hides behind approximately six construction fences, adjacent to a shuttered strip mall, currently under redevelopment, out along one of the last great unwashed commercial thoroughfares, Powell Boulevard, in Portland’s increasingly scrubbed-up Southeast.
Once you realize that the cart is actually open, and that all you need to do is cut through the alley, past the dumpsters, finally hooking back around, you’re there. Should you happen by on a weekday morning, and you really ought to, preferably as soon as possible following the 11:00 o’clock opening, you will find yourself with mostly unfettered access to some of the best brisket, ribs, and Texas-style links being smoked on the entire West Coast right now. Not bad for a business that until recently had no visible presence beyond Rensmeyer’s Instagram account. Not bad, either, for a guy breaking into a considerable scene, one that has slowly been gathering momentum since 2015.
That’s the year Matt Vicedomini, who does not hail from Texas, but rather, Long Island, as in New York, set up his groundbreaking cart, Matt’s BBQ, over in North Portland. Having learned the trade in Australia of all places, Vicedomini gave the city what many considered to be its first legitimately competitive barbecue—the sort of place you could stop on your way in from the airport, having flown from a serious barbecue destination, wolf down a bit of brisket, and definitely a juicy jalapeño cheese sausage, and walk off thinking, hey, you know what? This guy knows what he’s doing.
There has been so much else that has happened, since Matt’s blazed onto the scene, leading us to where we are now—in 2017, Virginia native Michael Keskin opened Bark City BBQ, which now resides in Southeast’s spiffy new Hawthorne Asylum cart pod. Barely out of the gate, Bark City was named—and for good cause—food cart of the year by more than one local publication. As of last spring, a Portlander would have traveled far in search for a more delicate lean brisket, something too many pitmasters, even some very famous ones in Texas, often fail to deliver.
Of course, we also saw the inevitable expansion of the Matt’s empire, the subject of a flurry of local press—Vicedomini joined up with local Thai food luminary Earl Ninsom to create Eem, one of the city’s most likable restaurants at the moment, quite literally a Thai and barbecue mashup. He also opened Matt’s BBQ Tacos, a modest Southeast cart currently enjoying considerable national attention, opening bright and early on Hawthorne for Austin-style breakfast tacos. Last year, Top Chef alum Doug Adams opened Bullard, named after his tiny East Texas hometown, at downtown’s sparkling new Woodlark hotel, where you can watch Adams himself slicing beef ribs and other smoked meats, exhibition style, out in front of an open kitchen. And then, finally—at least for the moment, there’s surely more to come—we have Holy Trinity, once again raising the game. Perhaps you never thought of Portland as a barbecue town. Well, now would be a good time to update your files, because the city has never had it so good.
But just how good? Best on the West Coast good? As good or better than Texas? On a recent weekend, I was able to round up a group of experienced barbecue hounds, a group with extensive on-the-ground tasting experience, everywhere from small-town South Carolina to Texas to Southern California, the latter suddenly, improbably, home to some of the country’s most exciting barbecue. At each stop, we had two goals—in a city like Portland, where there’s already so much to eat, a city where so many people travel from so far away just to eat, was this worth adding to the itinerary? Also, how does the barbecue rank nationally? It’s one thing for Portland to like the barbecue—it wouldn’t be the first city to declare itself an important player, without having much perspective on the matter—but is it really as good as the work being done elsewhere? Out of a group of seven stops—bear in mind that for some, this was not our first visit—here are the three we liked best.
A more knowledgeable group of tasters you couldn’t have asked for, than the one that tore into this low-key cart’s generous, namesake combo platter ($22), a simple but stunning collection of the classics. Each bite of brisket was a winner, from the very lean up to very not, all of it better than numerous recent tangles with Texas brisket. Two of our tasters—one, a Missouri native, the other a Tennessee-dwelling barbecue nut who smokes his own—couldn’t stop exclaiming over the ribs, easily the best of the weekend. Barky, peppery, smoked right to the limit but no further than necessary, they disappeared from the tray just a touch quicker than the smile-bringing rendition of the classic, no screwing around Czech sausages that worked just fine for generations of Central Texans. Everybody agreed that the sides—cheese grits with a hint of green chile heat, and pinto beans with pulled pork—lacked the same essential quality as the meats, but we were mostly too distracted by the giant $5 boat of jojos, those quintessentially Oregon, pressure-fried potato wedges, from the neighboring cart (called, quite simply, Jojo), served perfectly crispy and pillowy alongside an array of cart-made dipping sauces. Our group of four walked away feeling really good about eating far too much smoked meat for one sitting; if you’ve eaten a lot of barbecue professionally, you know that’s a relatively rare feeling. Were I to compile a list of the most noteworthy Texas-style outfits on the West Coast right now, I’d comfortably place Holy Trinity fairly high up there.
Michael Keskin’s earliest barbecue memories are not Texas-based, and one of the greatest things about this exemplary cart is that it is all about Keskin doing what he likes, whether that’s serving up a pile of high-quality, all-natural pork ribs on slices of white bread, unapologetically doused in barbecue sauce (housemade, of course), the way he remembers eating ribs in the DMV, back in his earlier years, or churning out delicious sausages that come out like high-end interpretations of the beer brats integral to any Midwestern outdoor function, tailgate-based or otherwise. You can go any way you want to here, really, and we did, ordering the purple-glazed blackberry St. Louis ribs, and they were delicious, as expected, based on previous visits. Brisket was the second best of the weekend, once again very good served up lean, and don’t miss a wedge of the fluffy, nearly cake-like cornbread, a savory, affordable treat at $1.50 a slice. (That’s not the only deal on the menu—as with nearly all of our stops in Portland, the food here represents very good value.)
Snag yourself a table at this bright, energetic new restaurant and you can’t help but feel like you’re exactly where you need to be; sharp service and a why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-sooner concept, combining Texas barbecue, Thai street food and boozy, fruity cocktails, have rocketed Eem right to the head of the class, making it one of Portland’s essential stops right now. Word has traveled far—one of our tasters, Food & Wine contributor Andy Wang, made a late-night visit shortly after flying into town, splashing images of the jungle curry, with its giant hunks of smoke-ringed brisket, across social media. “I’ve had better brisket and better curry [in Los Angeles] in, like, the last two weeks,” he admitted the following day. “But the combo is compelling and delicious.”
That seemed to be the general consensus—great idea, great restaurant, but both Vicedomini and Ninsom are, to put it mildly, involved in a lot of projects right now, and there are times where you can sense this, rather keenly, and not just at Eem, either. At its best, the food continues to shine—pert, dry-rubbed baby backs fragrant with Thai herbs, a lush massaman curry crammed with smoked lamb shoulder, and some of the most craveable fried rice in the city, smoky with chopped meats, studded with shishito peppers and scallions, and fragrant with garlic and tamarind ($9). Find a better late-night plate around here (they’re open until midnight on weekends). We’ll wait.