By Mike Ryan, OCJ Field Reporter
Few meals rival the tastes, aromas, and visual pleasures offered by good barbecue.
Famed American writer and food aficionado Jim Harrison once said that the sensory experience provided by authentic barbecue makes him “rethink food as a sacrament and those who man the barbecue pit as priests of a holy substance.”
The barbecue establishments featured here are a testament to Harrison’s observation. These purveyors of smoked meat from across the state each have their own distinct personality and style, which is reflected in the mouth-watering barbecue that they serve up in their unique restaurants.
Velvet Smoke BBQ, Cincinnati
Todd Wernicke is Velvet Smoke BBQ’s Executive Pitmaster, serving up high quality meats such as Duroc pork and Angus Beef to hungry restaurant patrons throughout the Cincinnati region. The folks at Velvet Smoke got their start in the barbecue business as competition cooks and judges on the Kansas City Barbecue Society circuit.
“Through the years of honing our craft on the competitive circuit, we have developed techniques and flavors that have proven to be winners at the judges’ tables and on our customers’ tables as well,” Wernicke said. “We feel that our time on the competitive circuit makes our BBQ unique by bringing that knowledge and the flavor profiles associated with it to our customers. All of our pitmasters are Grand Champion winners, which not many BBQ joints can say.”
At Velvet Smoke, they use only the highest quality ingredients and make all of their sides, rubs, and sauces in house from scratch. The restaurant’s specialty is their delectable burnt ends.
“Our specialty is burnt ends, which is my personal favorite as well. We have customers who will come in and inquire about them and ask, ‘Why would I want something that is burnt?’ They aren’t actually burnt, but are cubes from the fattier point end of the brisket that we leave on the smoker a little longer to get more of what we call ‘bark’ in the BBQ world. Bark is the crust that forms on the outside of the meat from the combination of rub and smoke,” Wernicke said. “Combine the extra moisture from the fat and the bark from the extra time in the pit — it’s heavenly. I’ve never heard a complaint. Once someone tries them, they are hooked for life.”
Experts at their craft, the award-winning pitmasters at Velvet Smoke Barbecue serve up the smoky, sultry tastes of summer.
“Good barbecue comes from the proper amount of smoke and seasonings and knowing the proper tenderness to achieve. Every piece of meat is different; a true pitmaster knows exactly when that particular cut of meat is done and is at optimum tenderness to be served to our standards,” Wernicke said. “Barbecue is a food which I associate with gathering friends and family together: a lazy summer day, the sweet smell of smoke wafting through the air, and good times. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Meat, fire, friends, and a cold beverage — that spells summer to me.”
Velvet Smoke BBQ opened its first restaurant in 2012 and now has three locations in the Greater Cincinnati area. Menus and further information can be found at www.velvetsmokebbq.com.
The Port Lounge and Smokehouse, Thornville
Visitors to The Port walk into a smokehouse and bar that has the feel of a Southern honky tonk, complete with an open-air atmosphere filled with unique decor and the smell of wood smoke, outdoor seating, and live bands on the water who perform regularly throughout the summer months.
Owner and pitmaster Mark Bernhard’s smokehouse, which is open seasonally from the last weekend in April through mid-September, is an offshoot of his year-round bar, The Port Lounge, the first licensed liquor establishment in Perry County after Prohibition. Located on popular vacation destination Buckeye Lake, The Port is accessible by car and also has docks available for hungry lake goers to tie up their boats and come ashore for a cold drink and some hot smoked meats.
“Our signature beef brisket and ribs are the number one sellers. We are conveniently located only 2 miles off of I-70; the highway often brings people from hundreds of miles away to our restaurant for our barbecue. A lot of people from Texas say the brisket reminds them of home and that our brisket is comparable to anything they’ve had in Texas BBQ country. All of our meats are dry rubbed and our six signature homemade barbecue sauces are served on the side. For side dishes, our homemade Mac and Cheese is a hot commodity. We sell it by the wheelbarrow load; our grilled asparagus is also a big hit,” Bernhard said.
Along with the live music on holidays, weekend nights, and Sunday afternoons, The Port often has special events and BBQ meal deals.
“In honor of my father, ‘Big’ Chris Bernhard, founder of The Port Lounge, we offer the popular ‘Big Chris’ Feast for Two, which consists of 1.5 pounds of smoked meats of the customer’s choice, three sides, and beer bread, which is baked daily on-site. The last Sunday of each month at 2 p.m., we have a Lobsterfest where guests are served clams, mussels, and a whole fresh Maine lobster that never touches land, going from boat to truck to table overnight,” Bernhard said.
Bernhard enjoys manning his smoker and the friendly atmosphere at his business.
“We don’t use any gas in our pit like many barbecue restaurants do; the amount of wood that a lot of people use for a burn doesn’t even get my smoker started. The fire in the smoker never dies during the summer months and I am smoking fresh meats five to six days a week. I have a great staff, the food is great, and I enjoy serving it to the customers. I like cooking for people and feeding people and seeing that pleased smile on their faces when they bite into our authentic barbecue,” he said.
They can be reached at 740-246-5000 and are also on Facebook @PortSmokehouse.
Hickory Pit BBQ, Delphos and Wapakoneta
Small business owner Bryan Hutchison’s entrepreneurial spirit and love of
barbecue inspired him to get into the barbecue business. Hutchison raises feed crops on his farm on the Allen/Auglaize county line and owns several enterprises throughout the region. Out of his two gas station/convenience stores in Delphos and Wapakoneta, Hutchison sells his signature product, Hickory Pit BBQ.
“We offer Certified Angus beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken, and baby back ribs. I make a sweet house sauce with a lot of brown sugar. The pulled pork is by far the customer favorite, but I prefer the beef brisket,” Hutchison said. “It gives me great joy bringing an excellent product to my customers’ table that I would eat myself.”
In 2008, when Hutchison purchased his convenience stores, he knew he wanted to offer his customers more than the standard pizza and roller dog fare typical of gas station marts.
“I wanted to do something food-oriented at the gas station and I knew I wanted it to be a destination, rather than a run-of-the-mill convenience store,” Hutchison said. “Barbecue is something that I always enjoyed eating, but back in ‘08, I had to drive an hour plus to find good barbecue. So I figured, why not set up a BBQ joint?”
Over the past decade, Hutchison has worked hard to establish Hickory Pit BBQ’s reputation for excellent food and customer service. People come from near and far to pick up Hutchison’s signature meats.
“At The Point gas station in Delphos where Hickory Pit BBQ is made and sold, we open at 5 a.m., and by 7 a.m. the place is full of local farmers and laborers. The Point/Hickory Pit BBQ is a gathering place to meet up, get coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and a sack lunch of BBQ for the day’s work. At lunch, a lot of local guys come in on their breaks, especially during harvest time,” he said. “This is one of the benefits of being on the outskirts of Delphos. The store in Wapakoneta is just off I-75, and as a testament to the quality of our barbecue, we get a lot of travelers who stop by once a year on their way to or from someplace to gas up and specifically to purchase our smoked meats.”
More about Hickory Pit BBQ can be found at hickorypitbbq.net.