Talking Meat with Jack Timmons of Jack’s BBQ in Seattle
Little in this world is more comforting than a heaping plate of properly smoked barbecue. Whether pulled pork, brisket or links is your jam – it’s an undeniable truth that meat smoked slow and low is a delectable pleasure. Your friendly neighborhood caveman would likely agree.
Seattle has its fair share of BBQ joints but few compare to the sweet smoky Central Texas-style prepared at Jack’s BBQ in SoDo. Equipped with two massive smokers measuring over 25 feet long – they serve some of the sweetest, smokiest ‘cue for miles around. Eater had the opportunity to talk meat with pit master and proprietor Jack Timmons about what makes his namesake restaurant the place to be. Here’s what he had to say…
Where does your passion for barbecue come from?
Well, I come from a family of people who are service oriented. My parent’s house is one of those places where you can’t walk in the door without being offered something to eat and drink. I was good at math so I went into engineering at Texas A&M – but I never had a passion for it. It’s a great way to make a living but I wasn’t in love with it.
Since I’m from Texas I’ve always had a little smoker in my back yard. I missed the people. I mean – the food and people from Texas are outgoing and rambunctious. So I started playing with barbecue and I discovered famed and self-proclaimed BBQ snob Daniel Vaughan who, at the time, had already visited over 500 restaurants (and just surpassed his 1000th in less than eight years).
Daniel was just at your place in Seattle. Where did you guys eat?
We went over to Bourbon and Bones in Ballard and then on to Campfire BBQ – which is a food truck and it was good. They had an offset smoker and the pit master is from San Antonio – he does Texas style.
We also went to the place next to Il Corvo called Hole in the Wall and then on to my place – all in the same day. And Daniel ate every single meal.
So how did you get into the business?
After spending years at Microsoft I found my true passion was for BBQ. I went to ‘Barbecue Summer Camp (Yes, this is a real thing) at the Meat Sciences Department of Texas A&M. It’s sponsored by a historic food society called Foodways Texas which I’m a proud member of.
To me, when I looked at it – I felt that there’s two ways to get into it. To put your toes into the water so to speak. One is to do food trucks and the other is to do events. I hate sitting in food trucks handing out food to customers through a square hole. So I did events. I talked to a guy in NY named Daniel Delaney who had gone to Texas and had the same experience I did – he had a ‘wow moment’. He bought a smoker and a truckload of post oak and went back to Brooklyn to get to work.
Sounds like you were both very motivated to get your smoke on!
Well he created a website to have a series of events for $25 a ticket. It went viral and he had like 4000 people sign up. He ended up selling over 2500 tickets in about 2 weeks and made 65 grand before he even started.
You have to create a buzz, get a following and have a series of events. He did it weekly and I did it monthly at what I called the ‘Seattle Brisket Experience’. It was basically a test model where I could build up a following like Daniel did.
I like the festival experience, talking to people, being on stage to cut meat. I’d go to breweries, hire a band and bring a bunch of people to drink beer and eat meat.
What’s your advice for people looking to open a restaurant?
Get a story. You need a story. You can’t just open a pizza place – you have to have a story about why that place is great and it should resonate with people. It’s got to be something you enjoy. I love making BBQ. It’s like when you’re camping and putting logs on a fire getting ready to cook. Here, I’m smoking cigars in the morning out by the pit. It’s fun!
What is the essence of Texas BBQ?
Well, you know, I grew up in Dallas – and the BBQ there wasn’t that great by today’s standards. East Texas is really no different than Louisiana BBQ. Lots of sauce, use of pig and fried stuff. In West Texas you cook over a coal fire. And in South Texas you bury stuff in the ground – it’s called ‘Barbacoa’.
Now in Central Texas you cook in an offset smoker with a clean wood fire. A lot of flavor comes from that. And they don’t have corn there so they eat BBQ with white bread. We get a lot of requests for cornbread here but don’t have it. But we do have hush puppies that are insanely delicious (writer’s note – they are indeed).
What’s the historical significance of Central Texas barbecue?
It was all started by German and Czech immigrants. There was a big migration of people in the mid-1800s that were brought in to work by a large company. They opened up butcher shops and they would smoke meats that didn’t sell well. One of the places is still there in Elgin called Southside Market which is something like 140 years old. They’ve got big old brick smokers with fire on the ground with a clean burning fire – most often using post oak. You get a better meat flavor when you smoke that way.
It’s also interesting to note that people of color would go to these places in the late 1800’s as then they weren’t allowed to go to restaurants due to the Jim Crow laws. A restaurant was defined as any place with plates, cutlery, etc. So they’d go to BBQ places where they’d have they’d have the knives chained to the walls and you could use them but not take them with you. The old BBQ joints were like the first integrated restaurants because at their core they were butcher shops – you buy meat by the pound, they chop it up and hand it to you. Then you’d go to a different room if you want sides and to eat.
Where do you get your beef?
We get our meat from St. Helens and RR Ranch in Eastern Washing. It’s grass-fed and corn finished. I like the corn finished – fat is soft and spongy on the meat. A student at A&M discovered that it’s good fat – monounsaturated fat. So BBQ isn’t unhealthy after all!
It’s interesting to note that 80% of beef eaten in this country comes from farms with 50 head of cattle or less. All the beef is raised very differently. Sure – they’ll end up in feedlots for slaughter where there’s thousands of them. But the diversity in how they are raised makes it hard to be consistent.
I think beef we use here at Jack’s BBQ is better than that in Texas due to raising the animals in a more moderate climate. You don’t have to cross-breed and harden your stock to survive a hotter summer or colder winter. The air here is better – super fresh, super moist. There’s no need to put buckets of water in the smoker to keep it moist. It is one of the unique experiences of Seattle. Now Jeff Savell at the Meat Science department at A&M called bullshit on this. But I don’t know about that (smiling).
What is your secret sauce?
We make a traditional Texas red sauce. Our secret for the spicy sauce is that we only use real peppers. Guajillo, Chipotle and Jalapeños.
Is the famous Franklin BBQ really all that?
It’s got to be the best brisket in Texas. Whatever his model is – the way he smokes it and lets it rest – that’s a big part of it. Also how you store it. You wrap it in wax paper and let it rest. He gets all his brisket very consistently in shape and size and that makes a big difference too – going with a producer with a good genetics program. The great thing about Franklins is that he set the bar real high and we’re all trying to be like him. It’s the perfect brisket.
What are some other BBQ joints in the Seattle area that you enjoy?
The one I went to mostly in Seattle was the Frontier Room before it closed. It wasn’t prefect – they had a gas smoker. But they had a decent brisket, cowhide booths and good cocktails.
In Texas I go to the Pecan Lodge in Dallas. Also, Rodney from Podnahs’ Pit in Portland. also went to Texas A&M and was a high tech guy on the west coast. He started about 10 years before me – he has it dialed in. He helped me get this place going and they helped me design the kitchen here. I consider him a BBQ buddy and friend.
What is your favorite cut of meat?
The beef rib and then the moist, point of the brisket. I also love the cheddar jalapeno sausage we make here – I could eat it every day.
If I’m not eating BBQ – I eat a lot of Asian and seafood. Since I’m surrounded by meat every day – I try to do something else to mix it up.
What kind of music is playing in the kitchen during prep?
A mix between hip hop and show tunes. One of our kitchen managers likes show tunes and he’s able to sing along with them. Oh, and a lot of classic rock.
It seems like you have a pretty loyal following. How are you engaged with your community?
Well, we just started a philanthropic program this week called ‘Make a Chili Wish’. Every Monday we’re going to give out a giant hotel pan of chili for like 50 people. We’ll ask the dining community to make recommendations for who to give it to. We also deliver to Police Stations and places like that.
When I was doing my Seattle Brisket experiences on Pier 66 – like 200 guys would get picked up every night on busses around town. They were being helped by the St. Martin De Porres shelter and they’d have to be sober to come in. I’d bring in BBQ and one of my bands that would play acoustic music. It was pretty terrific.
What is your last meal?
I think I’d go to Thierry Rautureau and ask him to make me a French dinner. Although chicken fried steak sounds really good too. I’d have a Manhattan made by Murray Stenson. It’s always something special to drink something made by him.
What is your karaoke song?
It’s Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash – of course! There’s a very small audio spectrum required. Plus, it’s pretty appropriate for a barbecue guy.
*Portions of this story originally appeared in Eater Seattle.