Seattle isn’t known for its barbecue, but a rash of new spots have opened. Reporter Tan Vinh and barbecue judge Leslie Kelly try them out.

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The blue smoke billowing above the storefronts signaled it was time to find parking. The smell of hickory hinted we were getting warmer.

We went bar-becue hopping, my friend and I, with a stack of napkins and a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready.

The goal was to hit recent barbecue openings in the area.

The goal was to sample their brisket and ribs.

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A friend said it was foolish to feast at more than one barbecue spot a day. That friend was not invited on this trip.

I once stood in line for 3½ hours at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, for its famous brisket. Two days later, I lined up for nearly two hours at La Barbecue and nearly fainted under the Texas heat because I forgot to drink water that morning.

Joining me on this Seattle hunt, though, was Leslie Kelly, who once hit about 10 barbecue places in four different states in one day.

Kelly gets me.

Kelly isn’t just a barbecue fan but a trained barbecue judge in Memphis, a barbecue mecca. Currently a senior editor at Allrecipes in downtown Seattle, Kelly used to be the food critic at the major daily in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal.

For us, smoked meat is just part of the experience.

Like bourbon, barbecue is about heritage.

Barbecue is the most profound of food, the most visceral, the most intimate. It’s eating with your hands and often in large gatherings with close friends and family.

The memory of your best barbecue is heightened because your fingers are fragranced with mesquite smoke hours after the meal. Soap doesn’t wash it away easily.

“Barbecue is the cure for homesickness,” said Matt Davis of Wood Shop BBQ, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. His fondest childhood memories were gnawing on ribs while schmoozing with his parents and two sisters back in central Kansas.

“That’s what comfort food is — it reminds you of family and the place you grew up. The best flavor you can eat is nostalgia.”

On to our trip … First, the bad news: The trailer Kelly got me excited about — Campfire BBQ — closed last Sunday because the owner/pitmaster is recuperating from a back injury. It will reopen, maybe in six to eight months.

But we discovered another gem we’re just as excited about. Overall, the places we tried show some promise, but the food was uneven. Seattle’s not a major barbecue city. But it’s getting better.

Below are my notes, some scribbled on paper towels smeared with barbecue sauce.

 

Emma’s BBQ

5303 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-413-1523, on Facebook

Oh man, we wanted to like this place. Opened in the fall in Hillman City, Emma’s felt warm and inviting, hearkening to a time before the encroachment of boxy town houses.

But we made the mistake of not requesting the barbecue sauce on the side. Always request the sauce on the side.

Our smoked meats were submerged in a pool of brown sauce.

Kelly picked up a dripping rib. “This is tragic.”

“The texture is too soft; it tastes like it’s been steamed. It’s not bad. Just not what I think of when I think of barbecue,” she said.

I agreed, but I could see why many locals swear by this place. The meat isn’t smoky, but it’s succulent, used more just to mop up the rich, sweet barbecue sauce.

If the pitmaster didn’t insist the ribs were smoked, I would have thought they were plopped in a slow-cooker on low for eight hours.

The brisket was an improvement — after we brushed aside the coating of sauce. Kelly pointed to the pink ring under the bark, the crust of the brisket. “See, that smoke ring shows the meat has cooked low and slow, and the smoke has penetrated the meat, and with it some of the seasoning from the bark,” she said.

Kelly loved the side of collard greens and kale. “Tastes like real home cooking. Really tender. Nicely seasoned.” But overall, there was room for improvement.

 

Frank’s Smoked BBQ

2509 E. Cherry St., Seattle; 206-485-7222, on Facebook

Kelly liked the meaty, chewy bite of the ribs. The meat wasn’t fall-off-the bone tender. The part she bit came off, but the rest stayed in place. “The texture is what I want and expect in a rib,” she said.

Kelly wished there was more flavor, though, beyond saltiness.

The rest was unfortunate. The pulled pork was dry. Our brisket was too tough and fatty. “It was not cooked properly,” Kelly said.

Too many places we hit had cut the smoked meats and let them sit on the steam tables, she observed. She advises they cut to order. “Don’t separate the meat,” Kelly said. “As soon as you cut the meat or pull the pork, it starts to lose its integrity. It starts to get dry.”

 

Raney’s Bar & Grill

3923 Airport Way S., Seattle; 206-371-5078, raneysbarandgrill.com

It takes chutzpah to open across the street from Jack’s BBQ, one of the best in the city. But that’s what this popular food truck did in April when its bar debuted.

A bit different from the others, Raney’s serves smoked meats only on sandwiches or over salads. With the exception of its Kansas City-style tomato-based sauce, Raney’s doesn’t hew to any barbecue style in particular. Pork butt, chicken and beef brisket are smoked in apple- and cherry wood, and sandwiches come with grilled onions, Swiss-American cheese and red-cabbage slaw.

Ever the barbecue purist, Kelly didn’t go for that. “The cheese is too distracting. Cheese doesn’t go on any barbecue.”

Still, we thought this was the second-best place we sampled. The quality was consistent. The bacon, cured in-house, came in thick slabs, satisfyingly salty. Sandwiches were nicely layered with different textures of meat: pulled pork mixed with succulent shards and jerky-like ribbons and the “Beefy Dude” sandwich piled with brisket and meatloaf, the latter not smoked.

“They mixed it up,” Kelly said. “They tried new things. I like that.”

 

Wood Shop BBQ

2513 S. Jackson St., Seattle; 206-557-8090, thewoodshopbbq.com

This is yet another barbecue food truck that expanded into a restaurant, this time opening in January. Wood Shop has a small, shoebox-sized indoor-dining area but boasts a large patio.

I perked up when the tray of smoked meat arrived. The brisket, Central Texas-style, looked textbook-perfect. “Look at that, a nice, defined char, but it doesn’t taste burnt,” I said.

After a bite, Kelly added “silky and buttery.”

The brisket was seasoned with just salt and pepper. Salt keeps the meat from drying out. Rookies make the mistake of using too much garlic powder or paprika in a dry rub, which dries out the brisket.

“These guys know what they’re doing,” Kelly added.

We both thought this was easily the best brisket we had on this trip. I also think it’s in the running, along with the fatty cut at Jack’s BBQ, for best brisket in Seattle.

The brisket topped with the mac and cheese for $13 might be all you need. The cheese sauce tasted more like an Austin queso, a béchamel texture of six different cheeses coating the al dente elbow pasta, with smoked jalapeño to cut into the rich cream. Request the fatty instead of the lean brisket.

The Kansas City-style ribs, smoked over hickory and post oak, were also a winner. I folded the white bread over the ribs and pickles. Kelly liked her ribs as is.

Wood Shop also had the juiciest pulled-pork sandwich. The cook later confirmed what we suspected — the pork was pulled at the last minute so the smoked meat didn’t dry out.

There was one thing left to be done before Kelly took a bite. She topped hers with a mound of slaw. “This is Memphis style. It brings that crunchy, cool element, the contrast you want with your juicy, savory meat.”