By Maya Dollarhide
One late night back in 2014, restaurateur Keith Elson was hungry.
“I’d had a few beers and I wanted to make a sandwich or two,” says Elson.
The experienced chef dug around in his refrigerator and pulled out a container of his homemade barbecued pulled pork. Since he was out of rolls, he decided to use taco shells.
He heated up the pork, tossed it with some Cholula hot sauce and barbecue sauce, added cheese and lettuce, and put it in a taco.
“It was really good, so I made a few kinds and then tried the recipe out on friends and they loved it,” recalls Elson, who was in the market to open a restaurant, but didn’t want to offer standard American fare. He began to think barbecue plus Mexican would be a unique way to go.
Fast forward to 2015: Elson opened TaQue Mexican BBQ in Ashburn, Va., and currently serves a variety of tacos, burritos, and other dishes—many made with his signature smoky meats that are hand- pulled and purposefully lean. (See his recipe for Pulled Pork on p. 57.)
“I hate fatty meat. In fact, growing up, I didn’t like a lot of tacos and burritos because the meat wasn’t lean enough for me,” says Elson, whose recipes harken back to the “fresh Latin flavors and spices” he discovered in his grandmother’s kitchen.
“My grandmother is Polish, but she grew up in a Chicago neighborhood that was primarily Hispanic. Because of her surroundings, she cooked with many Hispanic spices and other ingredients that she found in local stores,” he says. “She has influenced how I cook and I use some of her recipes at my restaurant.”
A Popular Preparation Process
The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot 2016” Culinary Forecast lists smoking at #3 in a list of five top food preparation methods. Why? Because with the right equipment, it is a relatively simple way to prepare all kinds of foods, the experts at Synergy Consultants report. There are many restaurant-grade smokers available, depending on a restaurant’s needs— everything from stainless steel indoor models to outdoor pellet smokers. The wood chips
or chunks used for smoking food come in an array of options: apple, maple, cherry, ash, hickory, alder, and mesquite—the latter frequently used in Mexico due to its availability.
Unlike the popular, high-heat pizza ovens that cook a pie in minutes, barbecuing or smoking foods in a pit or smoker uses much lower temperatures (anywhere from 180°F to 220°F) and cooks those foods for a longer period of time. Using low heat helps the wood smolder, infusing the ingredients with an appealing smoky flavor and, as Elson discovered, renders out much of the fat.
These days, the popularity of smoked foods (smoked ice cream, anyone?) goes beyond traditional American barbecue. In the last two years, the industry has seen a rise in smoked menu items—a list that now includes cheese, vegetables, nuts, eggs, and even fruit. And its popularity continues to grow. Baum + White- man’s “Food & Beverage Trends 2016” report says menus this year will have “an emphasis on smoked and charred flavors, even in desserts and cocktails.”
In addition, the terms “burnt” and “charred” were found on two percent of menus in 2010. Today, those terms can be found on seven percent of menus—a five-point growth that represents a “crucial” marker that smoking food isn’t just a fad, information from Datassential reports.
Ideal for Ethnic Dishes
Smoking meat, fish and vegetables is a great way to enhance a restaurant’s cuisine, as the smoke itself actually becomes an ingredient, Elson notes.
“Depending on the wood, the length of time for smoking, etc., you can create a unique taste and experience,” he says. “Our customers love the smoky taste of the food, too.”
And it’s an especially ideal option for preparing Mexican and other Latin-inspired fare: The technique, after all, has been around for centuries, and can still be found in restaurants and homes all over Mexico and Latin America.
“Mexican food is known for a certain level of spice and flavor, and for me, great Mexican means tasting the ‘freshness’ of the ingredients like pico de gallo or guacamole,” Elson says. “Smoking meats allows for a different flavor combination that transcends the original meats...like great guacamole transcends an avocado.”
Restaurants Warm Up to the Smoked Foods Trend
For restaurateurs just getting used to smoking ingredients, perfecting one dish is a great way to start.
In Beacon, N.Y., a small town nestled along the Hudson River, Tito Santana Taqueria owner Kamel Jamal smokes brisket, but is still working on the perfect smoking method for his chicken and pork dishes.
“We have been smoking for the past four years, and we further the [meat’s] taste profile by throwing in onions, peppers and other vegetables with the brisket,” Jamal says. He uses an electric smoker, and keeping with the Hudson Valley tradition of supporting local businesses, uses apple wood from nearby Warwick, N.Y.
At TaQue, Elson relies on both an outdoor bullet smoker (named for its shape) and a stainless steel one that resides in the restaurant’s kitchen. He smokes brisket for 12 hours, pork for 10 hours, and chicken for 8 to 10 hours, and hand pulls all the meat after it is done. He combines the shredded meat with queso blanco, pico de gallo, chipotle, and other peppers and sauces for his tacos, burritos, and rice bowls.
And in Appleton, Wisc., Michael Whiting and his wife Maria Hernandez Rodriguez offer smoked fare at their family-run Mi Casa Mexican Grill.
Whiting started smoking food for two reasons. “My wife’s family, who are all from Veracruz, do a majority of the cooking here, and they all enjoy eating traditional dishes that incorporate smoked foods,” Whiting explains. “The second reason was because no other Mexican restaurants in our area were offering smoked cuisine. We thought it would provide our customers an option they may have never been aware of or considered. Smoking food provides a flavor profile that is unique.”
His customers appear to agree; his restaurant has rave reviews on many sites including Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Whiting, who has been smoking food for over a decade, handles the restaurant’s outdoor and only smoker. He uses an Arizona BBQ Outfitters Tombstone BBQ Pit, which is temperature-controlled with a small computer called CyberQ Wifi from bbqguru.com. With four temperature probes and a fan to help keep a constant pit temperature, Whiting says it is not essential but comes in handy for “long cooks.” What is essential, he adds, is an accurate thermometer to ensure the food comes out of the smoker at the correct temperature.
Whiting’s pit is typically heated with apple and hickory chips, but he’s also used cedar and mesquite. Because his pit is outside, the biggest challenge is the cold weather, common to central Wisconsin. “We typically will not smoke if it is below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, as we are cooking all of this outside.”
Whiting smokes fish, beef, pork, chicken and vegetables for dishes including Mi Casa’s smoked rainbow trout tacos, beef rib tacos, homemade bacon, and a smoked Scotch egg wrapped in homemade chorizo sausage.
“One customer favorite is a family recipe called Pollo Machado. We use homemade ham, homemade bacon, and chicken. They all get mixed with season- ings and then baked in the oven. It has a wonderful flavor, which you will not find anywhere else, Whiting says. “There are so many rewards to smoking foods. Nearly every special we serve starts with the smoker.”
Maya Dollarhide is a New York-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to el Restaurante.