Diving Into the Backstory of Orcas Hotel's Brand-new Smoker (And a 5-star BBQ Sauce Recipe)
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
Orcas Café’s first “Smoker Saturday” plates of ribs and brisket sold out in a hurry—without so much as being written on the menu board. (The specials went quickly on Sunday too after they were posted on Orcas Hotel Instagram page.)
But the hotel’s brand new smoker was a long time coming: When asked to trace the history of how it came to live in front of the hotel's cafe, Chef-Owner John Cox goes back hundreds of years.
“Well,” he says, “I was born to a sixth-generation Texan.”
Translation: When it came time for him to select a smoker for landmark Santa Ynez Valley farm/restaurant Bear and Star, it could only come from a Lone Star spot.
The very best Texas craftsman Cox could find, who was also willing to personalize the smoker rig, was Remington Chadwick of Johnson Custom Smokers, based in Ennis, Texas, between Dallas and Austin.
And what a rig he sought.
Cox requested a mobile restaurant trailer of sorts, complete with a massive competition-grade, reverse-flow off-set smoker, built-in refrigeration, a generator, lights, a Big Green Egg grill, a sink, and according to unconfirmed reports, a small casino lounge.
This thing was an absolute juggernaut, 30 feet long, heavy-duty half-inch steel thicknesses, fireboxes with spring-handle vents, counter-weighted doors, and heat-resistant handles, ready for catering gigs or to give the ranch its own kitchen.
“You can drive it anywhere!” Cox says.
And that was part of an ambitious pilgrimage to not just acquire said epic equipment but the skills to maximize it: They’d pick it up in Ennis and roll it across Texas, visiting master barbecuers, practicing how to use it, while working their way to the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo BBQ Cook-Off.
Only when Cox and his wife/hotel co-owner Julia Felder came to retrieve their rolling smoker in Ennis, it wasn’t ready. The master meaty mission was thrown into chaos.
The ensuing two-week reroute took them through Austin and across the state doing some ambitious red-meat R&D at the state’s most celebrated masters of the grill. Cox (above) and Felder tried as many as four barbecue joints a day.
“It got to where we weren’t sure we liked barbecue any more—and certainly to the point where we weren’t eating to eat,” Felder says. “We were eating to taste.”
When the smoker was finally ready only two days remained before the cook-off championship.
They drove the farm truck over and hooked it up to the trailer.
Then the real adventure began.
Cox estimates it took 15 minutes to successfully back it out.
He describes merging onto Dallas’ seven-lane Central Expressway as a waking nightmare.
With their final night before the state fair showdown, the Bear and Star team met up with the creators of legendary Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap and got at least one practice round of brisket under their belts.
Come championship time, it couldn’t have been clearer which of these contestants didn’t belong.
Surrounded by Chevrolets, the Bear and Star team took an embarrassingly extended amount of time to maneuver its Ford F150, California plates and massive white-roofed grill into position.
“We were like the California circus,” Felder says.
“People were just shaking their heads,” Cox adds.
Surprises awaited: There was more than brisket in the contest. Ribs, chicken and jalapeño poppers were also in play. Betting stakes were too: For $100, contestants could be eligible to win the cumulative pot.
Bear and Star chef Jeremy Tummel committed he was throwing in—and promptly learned that meant he was on the hook for $500, since it was $100 per category, including overall.
“My wife’s going to kill me,” he said at the time.
The team scrambled to Safeway to buy what ribs, chicken and jalapeño ingredients they could.
Their competitors were equal parts curious, amused and confused by the California crew who brought kumquats to include in some creative sauces.
“What are those tiny oranges?” their neighbors asked.
Others sensed the outsiders could use a little help.
“They started to feel bad for us,” Cox says. “Some started giving us tips. Another asked, ‘When are you going to wrap your ribs?’ We were like, ‘Uh, when do you typically wrap yours?’ We had no idea—we probably would’ve totally dried ours out."
They did have some slick techniques Cox calls “cheffy tricks”: a vacuum tumbler that spins meats and sauces in such a way that it approximates three days of tenderizing and marinating in minutes; intense Balinese pepper to swap in for more basic black pepper; distinct Japanese koji, a natural source of MSG.
They also had a killer chicken recipe built around garlic, smoked paprika, cayenne, salt, sugar, then kept the birds moist with a sprayed mist of Coca Cola, olive oil and cider vinegar.
“We were pretty sure we were going to lose badly,” Felder says.
When neither the team's ribs or poppers placed, it seemed all the more clear the California clowns were outclassed.
Then lightning struck. Their chicken took first.
Smiles spread wide. The restaurant owner let out a happy yip. Chef Tummel exhaled a gargantuan sigh of relief. Then the brisket claimed third.
The team had cooked well enough to win third overall, and now has the big rodeo buckles to prove it.
When it came time to order a smoker for Orcas Hotel, they knew who to call.
Last week a one-ton reverse-flow T-pit smoker, complete with a stainless steel Orcas Hotel insignia on its hood, arrived at its new home, all the way from Ennis, Texas.
Cox is looking forward to doing whole-smoked chickens, turkeys come Thanksgiving, slow-smoked steaks, chilies and much, much more.
“There’s all sorts of stuff you can influence with a smoker,” he says.
With the brisket and ribs sold out, the smoker’s debut weekend wrapped with alderwood-smoked half chickens accompanied by baked beans and violet corn.
Replicating such dishes can be difficult without a smoker in your stable, but one of the most memorable flavors of the weekend is totally doable for home cooks.
Chef Quinn Thompson crafted a zinger sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce made from grilled peaches, whiskey and roasted jalapeños.
Look for the recipe here soon.
And if you're the betting type like ol' Chef Tummel, bet on the relentless smoker specials continuing at Orcas Hotel.