WHEN I TOLD my ol' Dixie editor that I wanted to write a piece on Podnah's Pit's newest incarnation, his response was concise and direct: "Sounds good. Although anyone who prepares barbeque 'Texas style' should be shot."
There was a time I might have agreed with his conviction. Barbecue (we'll stick with Podnah's spelling hereafter) breeds fundamentalists, and the particular regional methods of cooking and smoking meats may be the most divisive break in the Southern United States since the Siege of Vicksburg. The varietal I was raised on favored wet rubs and pork ribs that required as many wet naps as I had fingers. Barbecue meant pig. Brisket wasn't even on my radar.
At 19, when I visited my college girlfriend's parents outside of Houston, I remember my excitement to try genuine Lone Star fare. Yeehaw. As it turns out, boring people in the Texas suburbs eat at the same chain restaurants as boring people here at home. My impression, formed from restaurants that had no business forming my impressions, was that Texas-style barbecue meant dried-out cuts of beef I had to force down with generic store-bought sauce.
Then I found Podnah's, its smell luring me from a bar around the corner. I didn't get to eat on my first visit; there were more clusters of waiting customers in front of me than there were tables in the restaurant. But I returned. I won't say I was converted, I just became something of an agnostic, or maybe a polytheist. I pray toward Memphis and Lockhart alike.
Podnah's Rodney Muirhead has become known for his slow-smoked meats—both of the pork and beef variety—garnering attention, despite his regional handicap, from the likes of Bon Appetit and the patron saint of douchebag foodies, Guy Fieri. That attention, along with a cult-like following among local enthusiasts, has allowed Muirhead to expand. His new restaurant on NE 16th and Killingsworth should ensure that when the smell draws them in, curious passersby can get a table (that same night).
The new space is a far cry from the narrow quarters of Podnah's old digs. It's big and airy, with a good four times as much seating. Broad windows allow plenty of natural light, and while it's decidedly sleeker than the former space, the light and unstained wood creates an inviting, casual atmosphere.
Anyone scared that the scale would change things—that Podnah's would go Hollywood or major label, or whatever's the restaurant equivalent—need not worry. My old favorites have made a seamless transition, and the only real changes are improvements.
The signature dish, to my mind, remains the same: the St. Helens brisket ($12.50). Smoked daily for 10 hours over oak hardwoods in a pit of his creation, Muirhead's brisket has a perfect consistency—a little bit fatty, but never verging on rubber. The bark is thick with a big smoky flavor. For my money, the plate lunch/dinner is the way to go, but there's also a sandwich option ($9.50) and a Tex-Mex platter ($12.50) that comes with flour tortillas, pinto beans, and a pretty solid house-made salsa.
The ribs, as I mentioned, aren't the sopping wet type. Cooked with a simple dry rub of salt, cracked pepper, and cayenne, most of the flavor comes straight from the meat and from Muirhead's magical pit. (Several sauces of varying flavor and consistency are on the tables. All are fabulous.) For my appetite, a half rack ($17) is more than enough—six thick, meaty ribs and two side dishes, plus a wedge of corn bread (full racks go for $32, and quarter racks for $10).
The pulled pork is a formidable menu option as well. It's smoked for 12 hours then dressed with a spicy vinegar sauce. The sandwich is $9.50, but I think it's worth the extra dollar for slaw; its sweeter vinegar dressing complements the pork nicely and does wonders for the texture.
Other menu highlights include lamb spareribs ($16), smoked chicken ($12), and smoked ruby trout ($11.75). Though it seems like a guilty pleasure, everyone I talk to recommends the wedge salad ($4.50), which leads me to believe that no one feels too guilty about eating iceberg lettuce. I don't either... I'd bathe in their house-made blue cheese. The must-have side dish is—and this is coming from a collard-greens partisan—the baked beans. Not a stretch to say they're the best I've ever had. The pulled pork dominates the flavor, but I don't even want to know how much brown sugar it's loaded with (for my tastes, if not my health, the balance is perfect).
A bigger kitchen seems to allow a little more flexibility for specials, too (keep an eye out for Muirhead's stellar prime rib), and the house-made chips and salsa lead me to believe we're in store for some all-too-rare Tex-Mex.
I guess iced tea or beer have seemed to me like the natural fluid to wash down barbecue, but another feature of Podnah's 2.0 is their full bar. I've yet to take advantage, but the Bloody Mary I watched the bartender concoct makes me want to come back for brunch. And as soon as I finish digesting that brisket, I'll be there.