I had high hopes for barbecue in Portland. It’s a big foodie city, and since it rains some, the wood should be pre-soaked. I selected Podnah’s as likely to have the best barbecue in the city, and I was not disappointed.
Podnah’s is definitely a Texas-style place. Western music is playing — good — and the decor includes paintings of cowboys and country singers. The tables are butcher block, the floor is concrete, and the ceiling is high. It’s a pleasant place and popular. It was busy when we arrived a little after 6:00 on a weeknight, and packed by 7:00 with a nice group of customers.
And I can see why. The Podnah’s folks know what they’re doing. I ordered a brisket plate, in keeping with the Texas decor, with lima beans and macaroni and cheese (both daily specials rather than regular menu items, I believe). And it came with cornbread.
The brisket was very good. It’s easy for brisket to get dried out, but this was moist and tender, and it had a smoky flavor. The meat was well-trimmed, with no large blob of fat such as annoyed me at The Beast in Paris and at DCity Smokehouse. Because that was so good, I believe they trim the fat after they cook it, as they should. It comes with pickled jalapeños, sliced onions, and white bread, just as in Texas. (On request here, rather than automatically. The onions were Walla Walla onions, which are sweet and delicious, much like Vidalia onions (and like Vidalias, they start losing sweetness after they’re harvested). Usually I eat the onions with the brisket, letting the sharpness of the onions contrast with the richness of the meat, but these onions were so sweet and so fresh that I ate them separately.
Nancy ordered the smoked free-range chicken with cole slaw.
She liked it a lot. Again, it was moist and flavorful, and had not dried out the way chicken breasts so often do. I verified this with a taste — it had good flavor with some smoke.
The sides were good, but had some room for improvement. Nancy’s cole slaw was made from very fresh vegetables, and a sprinkling of jalapeño helped brighten it even more. The sauce was all vinegar, and Nancy thought it could use something to smooth it out.
The lima beans were in a soupy presentation that was tasty, but it overwhelmed the special taste of the beans themselves. It would have been just as good with, say, cannelloni beans. Again, it was good — you’ll like it — but I was thinking of the lima beans I’d had in eastern North Carolina recently. Not everyone likes lima beans the way I do, and I suspect that most people raised outside the Deep South would prefer Podnah’s version.
The green chili macaroni and cheese had a delicious sauce, made with poblano peppers, below that melted cheese topping, and the penne rigate was perfectly al dente. It tasted very good. As a suggestion, I think it would be better if they used a smaller pasta — elbow macaroni or shells, so that the sauce and pasta could mix a little more thoroughly. But if you see it on the menu, order it.
And the cornbread was good. It was not marred by the usual excess of sugar (honey was available on the table for those who wanted it that sweet), and it was very buttery.
They have several sauces. I did not use them on the brisket because it didn’t need any sauce. Brisket shouldn’t need any sauce, really. I tried each on the bread, though. Their main sauce was thicker and sweeter than I like, but a good sauce, well above average for that kind of sauce. The spicy mustard sauce is very spicy, and likely to overwhelm the meat flavor even while it satisfies the need for heat. The Carolina-style sauce was thin and vinegary, and Nancy liked it on her chicken. It had some sweetness, but not too much.
You look to Portland for good craft beer, and, again, it does not disappoint. I highly recommend Breakside IPA. It’s brewed just a mile or so up MLK from Podnah’s, and it is delicious — citrusy with good bitterness. If you see some, buy it.
The people at Podnah’s Pit are very nice, and were happy to chat about their operation. The Pit part is a little misleading — being a Texas-style place, they cook with indirect heat in an interesting box-style cooker that places the heat relatively high, in the upper right corner. (The blackened area is, of course, the firebox.) I don’t know if they have fans that help circulate the heat, convection style, or if the lower part is a holding area. I should have asked.
They slow-cook the meat exclusively with Texas oak, which I take to mean post oak. And they use stacked wood, not wood pellets or other fake wood. The big butcher block with the roll of butcher paper follows the Texas practice. If you order meat by the pound, that’s how you get it, wrapped in butcher paper — straight outa Texas.
They were nice enough to give me a taste of their pork. Again, it was tender and had a mild smoky flavor.
I have long had a prejudice against box smokers, but I have had to reconsider it. Too often people use them because they are lazy, and treat the box as if it were no different from oven or a, shudder, microwave: the meat usually comes out dry or mushy, with insipid bark. I find, however, that some people know how to use the box, how to use real wood and manage the fire with care and attention, and to produce really good barbecue. The scales dropped from my eyes when I tasted the brisket cooked by Brandon Woodruff, the Paganini of the box smoker, at Pendergast Smokehouse in Amsterdam. It’s all in how you use the box. Podnah’s does it well.
Here I add my usual gripe, a la Mr. Dick and Charles I’s head, that DC should be able to attract someone who knows how to use a box smoker properly. I long ago gave up on the prospect of an actual pit in DC, but it Portland, and Amsterdam, and, it sometimes seems, everyone else in the world can have good barbecue, so why can’t we? Perhaps it’s Divine punishment for our peculiar sins. https://johntannersbbqblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/why-people-hate-washington/.