Interview: ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque

Virginia has many things to offer that aren’t readily found elsewhere: rich history, relatively perfect run of all four seasons, and, of course, great shirts made in our capital city. Believe it or not, before proprietors/husband-and-wife team Chris Fultz and Alex Graf hatched ZZQ Craft Barbeque, finding authentic Texas barbecue in the Old Dominion was a challenge (yeah, we said it.) When we first tasted ZZQ’s beef brisket we were instantly transported to Lockhart, TX – more on this later.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves. Are you born and raised Virginians?

FULTZ: I was born in Austin, Texas and raised in Mesquite, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. I studied architecture in undergrad and moved to Virginia in the mid-nineties to pursue a master’s degree in architecture from UVA. I landed a job in Richmond and moved here in 1996.

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GRAF: I am a Virginian, my folks moved from the Midwest when I was two. As a teenager visiting family  in Central Texas, I tubed the Guadeloupe.

Where did your love of Texas barbecue stem from? What makes Central Texas BBQ so special?

FULTZ: My earliest memories were barbecue at my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve and on   fishing trips with my dad. My dad had a knack for finding small roadside barbecue vendors on the way home from fishing. My first brisket on butcher paper was sold to us from a guy doing what he loved on a country road outside of Dallas. Honestly, my love of Texas barbecue was inspired by the absence of it after moving to Virginia. Primarily it was the lack of good beef brisket, which of course I took for granted until I moved away from Texas.

I have always been a purist at heart, in about everything I do, and Central Texas Style is the bedrock of all Texas barbecue. It originated in German and Czech markets in the 19th century in Central Texas. They brought smoking traditions from Europe and applied this to undesirable cuts of meat that did not sell. The smoked meats were sold by the pound on butcher paper, similar to your local butcher, and served with simple sides such as a slice of tomato, onion, or avocado, maybe a wedge of cheese, and some white bread or crackers. As popularity grew the markets evolved into barbecue joints.

You’re both architects. What are some ways that barbecue and architect design are similar?

FULTZ: You’ve probably heard the description of architecture as a blend of art and science and smoking meats is no different. Similar to architectural design, barbecue is a process that requires an understanding of the science of cooking with fire and practical knowledge of the elements of barbecue; the smoker, the weather, the fire, the meat, etc.. For me, the most important similarity between architecture and barbecue is how essential intuition is. I was always more of an intuitive designer and trusting my instincts smoking meats has served me well.

GRAF: The creative process involved in cooking is the similar, pursuing a vision and hoping like hell it plays out.

Describe to us what a pitmaster does. How did you learn the tricks of the trade?

FULTZ: It’s funny because I am still a bit reluctant to use that term because every time I cook I learn something new- no two cooks are alike. The pitmaster has to light the fire, tend the fire, prep the meat, cook the meat, and make sure it is held properly until service. A typical day cooking brisket lasts about 18-20 hours.

GRAF: The pitmistress does the rest!

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What makes the perfect brisket? Any tips for at-home chefs?

FULTZ: The perfect brisket starts with a great cut of beef with good marbling. The final product should be tender enough to cut with a fork without falling apart and have a rich bark that is a savory blend of smoke, spice, and succulent fatty goodness.

One of the most important aspects on cooking meat is proper resting. When your brisket reaches your desired internal temperature or tenderness let it rest for at least an hour in order for the muscle fibers to fully relax and for the rendered fat and collagen to redistribute. If you don’t do this you will lose everything you worked for!

If someone were going to Texas in search of the best brisket, where would you tell them to visit?

FULTZ: I would have them try old school and new school barbecue. I would have them experience old school tradition first in Lockhart,Texas – the epicenter of Central Texas Style barbecue. In Lockhart I recommend Smitty’s Market followed by Black’s, then Kreutz. From there I would travel north to Lexington, Texas on a Saturday morning and try Snow’s Barbecue. After breakfast at Snow’s I would travel a few miles north east to Taylor, Texas and try the legendary Louis Meuller Barbecue – order the beef ribs!

For new school “craft” barbecue I would head to Austin and try La Barbecue, Micklethwait, and Stiles & Switch. Unless you want to wait in a four to six hour line I would avoid Franklin Barbecue. La Barbecue is every bit as good and is supervised by the pitmaster that co-founded and perfected Aaron Franklin’s brisket, John Lewis.

Word on the street is that you’re a reformed vegetarian. Does ZZQ have any offerings for those going meat-free?

GRAF: Reformed, well at least former. I quit eating meat as an adult for about a dozen years. Long before I encountered Chris, I found a rack of lamb that brought me back. Now it is important to me, that we offer something for the brisket lover’s friends that might not eat meat. So I make seitan that then is smoked.  I get that there are so many reasons a person might make the choice to live meat free but we have options. Vegetarian options include the Jalapeno Mac n Cheese, Buttermilk Potato Salad, Terlingua Cole Slaw, Mama Singh’s Black-eyed Peas, Oranges Texas Caviar, and the hand made smoked seitan.

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While the brisket is the star of the show, what kind of sides does ZZQ offer?

GRAF: In addition to the list above there is Blackstrap Collard Greens, Frijoles de Charro and we pickle our own red onions.

What do you hope to develop for ZZQ in the future? Any product development or dreams of bottling your sauces or rubs?

GRAF: We are in the process of designing bottles for our sauces. Currently we have one sauce, but are working on one or two more.

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 What does the future hold for ZZQ? How do you see Texas barbecue evolving in Virginia?

FULTZ: 2016 will be a big year for us, now that we have Max and can cook more volume, we are serving meats by the pound on butcher paper on metal trays. This style in Virginia is not without its challenges; for example, in our first couple of outings we discovered that some customers require a bit of education on how to order barbecue on a tray. The culture of barbecue in any region is meant to be a communal dining experience and building a tray of barbecue is no different. I think once people get the idea of ordering a big tray of meats and sides together, sitting at a picnic table, and sharing the experience of eating the food it will catch on quickly. In our mind, there is no better barbecue experience.

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You can find ZZQ Barbeque (and Chris, Alex, and Maxine) at Ardent Craft Ales in Scott’s Addition every Saturday from 12pm until they’re sold out.

Lead photo by Betty Clicker / All other photos by Fred Turko of Fred + Elliot Photography.

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