Adrian Miller does his research. In his brand-new book, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” the James Beard Book Award winner and certified Kansas City Barbeque Society judge lists an 18-page bibliography. And Miller’s restoration and celebration of the history of barbecue from a Black-centered perspective is not just food for thought: “Black Smoke” also offers up 22 recipes — from famous pitmasters’ secrets to Miller’s mom’s banana pudding — plus miniprofiles of fascinating figures such as John Henry “Doc” Hamilton, a renegade Seattle barbecue magnate of Prohibition times.
In the name of research, Miller also ate — a lot — at more than 200 Black-owned barbecue spots all across the USA. Being no fool, he then narrowed all that meat-eating down to his 20 favorites for inclusion in his book. It’s a list that will surely prompt a legion of summer road trips, while hopefully also putting “Black Smoke” out there where it belongs, getting a little greasy in hands all across the land.
Right here in Seattle, we’ve got one of Miller’s top 20 spots: Lil Red’s Takeout & Catering (which, warning, given the mania for lists combined with the mania for barbecue will likely have quite a wait for the foreseeable future). Erasto “Red” Jackson runs Lil Red’s out of a low-slung building on the busy stretch of Rainier Avenue just north of Columbia City, and contrary to what the name might imply, Red is not lil. “I enjoy feeding people …” Red said last week on the phone. “My goal is to try to get everybody my size.” He laughed.
The “Lil” of Lil Red’s is actually his wife, Lelieth Jackson. She’s of Jamaican heritage, and she handles that side of the menu. Part of her purview is the making of a traditional rum cake that the author of “Black Smoke” calls simply “fantastic,” and rightfully so — it’s dense, rich, almost black-brown, the scent nearly flammable with spirits, the flavor rife with spice and nuanced tropical-tasting sweetness. Intense and intensely good, Lil’s rum cake is what every fruitcake wishes desperately it could be, deserving of a place on a list of best desserts ever, anywhere. It is also excellent to eat for breakfast.
But wait — back to barbecue. Red espouses what’s often called a nondenominational style (which, “Black Smoke” notes, is apropos given Black barbecue’s church background). “I took a little bit from Texas, a little bit from Memphis — I take a little bit from Kansas City …” as he put it. “And, you know, I just throw it all together.”
Red’s ribs seem less thrown together, more exquisitely engineered. He butchers them St. Louis-style, then also borrows a little of North Carolina, applying a tangy, fruity vinegar mixture (“what I call a rib sauce”) during the cooking to imbue the pork with more flavor. This application of goodness gives parts of the ribs’ exterior a burnished, glossy, deep red-brown, while the scent and flavor of smoke go through and through without overpowering. The meat holds firm with all its different hues and glistening fat, but then pulls right off the bone, leaving just the right gloss on the lips and fingertips. “Black Smoke” author Miller says that he’s a rib guy, and that he loved these ribs. “I just loved the taste of the meat — it actually tasted smoked,” Miller said via email, also lauding “the Caribbean flavors that accented the dishes” overall at Lil Red’s.
Red said that he sets out to give his meat plenty of flavor for those who don’t like barbecue sauce on top. Then, for those who do, he builds a bridge from Jamaica to the States, offering both a tomato-based sweet sauce plus a thick, clingy jerk sauce that starts out multidimensionally flavored, then proceeds to clear your whole head with glorious heat. If a customer wants spicy barbecue sauce, Red suggests they mix them together. “Actually,” he said offhandedly, “they complement each other very well.”
The approach to barbecue that Lil Red’s takes seems a combination of improvisation and deep thought, of respect for all the animals involved — the meat, the cook, the customer — without the need to hew to any particular philosophy, save that of making things good. (This also seems mirrored in the décor of Lil Red’s small storefront, which includes a quote from Deuteronomy, a picture of Bob Marley wreathed in smoke and a dangling sign reading “BE NICE OR LEAVE.”) A lot of barbecuers make much of their selection of wood. Red expressed some envy of what gets burned in Texas and down South, “all that great oak, and hickory, and stuff like that.” But here we are in the Northwest, so he just uses maple and cherry wood.
Then, decisions that seem simply made are infinitely not. Red tested all kinds of bakery buns for his sandwiches before settling on Macrina brioche ones, pillowy soft yet substantial enough to withstand a mountainous onslaught of his pulled pork (which also comes “Black Smoke” recommended). The buns get toasted for “that extra layer of firmness, too.” Red said he kept his love of cheesy cream-sauced fettuccine in mind when rethinking macaroni, ending up with a recipe that uses eight different cheeses. “And then the fact that I use the giant elbow noodles, so that the cheese actually gets into the noodle itself,” he said, “so when you bite into it, cheese actually squirts into your mouth.” Red’s macaroni and cheese is spectacular, as are Lil’s candylike caramelized plantains. (“If you’re coming in counting calories,” Red advised, laughing, “you might want to come back when you’re not.”)
Miller also gave the nod to Lil Red’s brisket (firm but tender meat with an inch of wobbly fat along the peppery-spiced top) and to the banana pudding (layered with adorable mini-Nilla Wafers, topped with a sticky-fruity compote, absurdly wonderful). Red takes pride in the coarse-ground sausages and the tangy, peppery smoked deli turkey, all done in-house — the Lil Red’s space formerly belonged to Mondo & Sons meats, where Red worked for the fourth-generation family that ran it before they moved the business to Tukwila. He credits that experience for learning how the sausage gets made.
But the bigger Lil Red’s story is one of his own curiosity, ingenuity and perseverance. Red grew up in the Central District, eating at neighborhood barbecues and, on occasions when his grandma had a little extra money, enjoying the work of the famed, now-departed R&L Home of Good Bar-B-Que on Yesler Way. His grandma also had a little hibachi in the backyard, where he got his grilling start around the age of 12. Before he got the Lil Red’s space in 2017, he was selling plates of food out of the back of his 1991 Volvo station wagon on weekends, driving around to Jiffy Lubes, barbershops and down to the port of Seattle.
Red called the inclusion of Lil Red’s in the “Black Smoke” list of the nation’s best Black-owned barbecue “very humbling.”
“I’m just the local kid that had a dream,” he said. “And, you know — I just — I’m just glad that everybody’s enjoying what we’re doing here. I put my all in everything that we do …
“I can’t wait to read the book.”