With luck, you have forgotten how hard it was to find decent barbecue in Boise before the turn of the millennium. Growing up here, before the Food Network graphically marketed every regional cuisine in America, even the word "barbecue" meant something far different than it does in Texas or St. Louis or Carolina.
In my house, when we said, "We're having a barbecue," it meant cooking burgers and dogs on a hot gas grill. Now we know the difference between grilling and true barbecue.
The basics: Barbecue is about slow smoking, with early rising pitmasters tending fires in coal-black towers and barrels. We know, too, that these individuals are notoriously secretive with their methods and tools. The kind of wood is specifically chosen, not random. Dry rubs are treated like magic potions. And sauce never applied during cooking is often a guarded family recipe.
In Boise, we have finally been visited by this rich cuisine including several roadside trailers that have set up camp in the last few years. At first glance, the menus seem similar, but these three popular Boise barbecue stands each has a style of its own. Here's a look at what they do best.
BOB'S TEXAS BBQ
Many of the customers at Bob's Texas BBQ are looking to feed a crowd. One day, while I stood in line at the State Street trailer, strung with Christmas lights and seared with branding irons, a family was picking up an order that came to almost $200.
Barbecue travels and reheats well, and Bob's is ready for volume. On the regular menu is a Family Reunion pack, which feeds 50 to 60 and runs $339.99. A $15 "cowboy combo" was a little more in line with my appetite, with two baby back ribs, chopped brisket, pulled pork and two sides. But this proved to be enough food for two entire meals.
At Bob's and other BBQ carts, on-site dining is an afterthought. Here, there are a few tables with mix-and-match chairs under a carport, encamped with the service trailer and smoker, a long cylinder set out by the busy road under a Texas flag. Service is upbeat and quick. Food is packaged to go, and it's just as good by the time you get it home.
The meat is smoked with mesquite, which makes for a sharp smoke flavor that is distinctly Texan. All of the meat had terrific bark, the crisped exterior that often separates good barbecue from great. The ribs were thick and tender, but not falling apart. Both the chopped brisket and the pulled pork were a little dry better the next day when reheated with just a little water, and delicious with Bob's "kicked up" sweet barbecue sauce, with distinct cayenne and black pepper. While the coleslaw was pedestrian, I really liked the straightforward potato salad, full of chopped pickle. The smoked mashed potatoes, sliced bread and sweet tea were all great touches I didn't find elsewhere.
But if there is one thing you should not miss, it is the "second-cut" brisket, $6.25 for a half pound. (All of the other meats are also sold a la carte by weight). If brisket has ever failed you, this is the version that will win you back juicy, deeply marbled, with a high-contrast pink smoke ring on each long slice. When someone from Texas says the word "barbecue," this is what they mean.
CUTTER'S GRAND BBQ
At the busy intersection ot Glenwood and Chinden, Cutter's occupies an encampment of trailers and equipment under a cloud of smoke. The smoker is a tall black shaft on wheels. Under a carport is a wide, low, open grill, custom-made with a long rotating spit. A trio of picnic tables is in direct sun in the parking lot.
Under the tent, a friendly, hard-working young man guided me through the menu and assembled my order using shears to split a half rack of spare ribs ($12 with sides), packing a slit bun with shredded pork and smooth, sugary sauce to make a sandwich meal ($7), and wrapping up a half chicken in foil ($9). At lunch, each of these meals includes a bag of potato chips and standard-issue coleslaw; at dinner, you can and should opt for smoky, salty beans, slow simmering in a cauldron by the cash register.
The beans are almost like a smoked chili, with pork belly and cubes of brisket. On Saturdays, brisket and pork belly are among game-day features. But Mike, the owner a welcoming guy who talks fishing with his customers will tell you baby backs are always the top seller.
The portion size of the sandwich was ample, and the ribs were thick and meaty. But both were denser and more sinewy than I prefer a knife was needed to get to all the meat on the ribs.
The best, unique feature was a flavorful dry rub shaken onto the meat just before serving, with the flavor of celery salt and a little heat. This was terrific on the half-chicken, with crispy skin and the collapsing, juicy meat I was looking for. Whole birds are a steal for $14.
Cutter's opened a second location at 3310 State St. last year.
BOISE ORIGINAL MFT BBQ & VEGAN FOOD
Easily the most ideologically ambitious barbecue establishment I tried was Boise Original, a mobile operation that most often resides in the parking lot of Stonehenge Produce on the Boise Bench. (Until recently, the business ran under the name B-Hive BBQ & Vegan Food. They have partnered with My Family Tradition, a local company that makes rubs and sauces, some of which are used here at the stand.)
At Boise Original, the menu is split right down the center with traditional "meaty" items and a slate of from-scratch vegan entrees and sides. This means there are two smokers, one for each philosophy, and a sibling pitmaster for each.
Here, too, there is a small seating area in front of the jet-black trailer, with a self-serve cart of utensils and napkins.
One appreciated touch here that I didn't find elsewhere: toothpicks. (Something that no barbecue stand I visited had thought of, but seems necessary: a single-serving wet-nap. Right?)
I'll admit doubt. The mere presence of vegan food might make one suspicious of how Boise Original might fare with meat; peaceful coexistence is a challenge. But the family has traditional barbecue-competition experience as well, and my wife and I were pleasantly surprised by how good the pulled-pork sandwich ($7 with sides, $6 a la carte) was here.
The pork is not fully shredded, but left instead in twists and nubs held together only by the exterior bark, smoked in pecan wood for a mellow flavor. The couple dining next to us raved about the tri-tip sandwich ($7), also served on a hoagie.
The baby back ribs ($12 for a half rack with sides) were very good, too, with a house-made, sweet, red rub and MFT barbecue sauce pooled like warm honey.
I didn't love the jerk spaghetti squash ($10 with sides); though the squash was cooked well, it was too heavy on cinnamon and clove for my taste. But Brad, one of the owners, told me the smoked tempeh sandwich ($10 with sides) has converted some meat eaters.
The vegan sides we tried were impressive. The country beans are bright and sweet, full of peppers and carrot and tomato we didn't miss meat here. The coleslaw is mixed with shredded apple and sprinkled with black sesame seeds (tasty even though it wasn't spicy, despite the menu description). And the potato salad was deliciously creamy for being egg-and-dairy free. The nonvegan mac-and-cheese is well-made, too, not just noodles with melted cheddar cheese.
I'm hopeful for the owners, as Boise Original opened this year and is starting small, with only word-of-mouth advertising.
One must-know: Beverages are not offered at the stand. We were steered next door to the produce market, where debit cards are not accepted. Bring cash or be ready to pay the ATM fee.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org