Rob Bechtold, owner and pitmaster of the newly opened NOLA Smokehouse on Jackson Street at Annunciation, has been working for a foothold in the burgeoning New Orleans BBQ scene for several years. After a brief stint running Smokin' Buddha BBQiuex in Metairie in early 2012, Bechtold and his wife Emily did everything they could to bring their food to hungry people in New Orleans. Bechtold would deliver plates to your door, they popped up at various places from The Avenue Pub on St. Charles to the courtyard behind PJ's Coffee on Magazine and Jefferson.
Through it all, Bechtold has consistently provided some of the best smoked meat in town, along with sides like corn spoonbread and market vegetable and popcorn rice salad. During Lent, he appreciates the fact that many of his customers won't eat meat on Friday and will offer chargrilled oysters with smoked shrimp butter and crawfish etoufee. At his restaurant, he sells out of his occasional smoked prime rib special within moments of announcing it on social media.
NOLA Smokehouse has been open since St. Patrick's Day 2014. The corner location can be easy to miss, since there's no sign, but look closely for plumes of smoke behind the wooden fence next to the red cinderblock building and you'll know you are in the right place. The restaurant is open from 11am until they sell out (which happens frequently by 2pm or so) on Thursday-Saturday.
In November 2013, New Orleans Magazine feature writer Sara Rohan called Bechtold's BBQ the "Best Overall," which helped pave the way to finalize financing and support for the brick and mortar shop on Jackson. Here now, Bechtold talks to Eater about about his passion for smoke, the challenges he's faced, and some surprising facts about New Orleans' BBQ preferences.
How did you get into the business of smoking meat?
Me and some friends around the city noticed there was no smoked meat around - this was before the Joint and all them - so at crawfish boils and such we started bring pork butts to smoke. We'd mess around with flavor and techniques and see who could get the most flavor. We basically started in backyards in order to fill this BBQ void in New Orleans.
What are your thoughts on the growing New Orleans BBQ scene?
It's awesome. It's a true reflection on how chefs are combating the void or hole we had in our cuisine. There's more chefs coming from different parts of the country, and our own chefs traveling more. Katrina moved everyone and their palates around - there's a huge influx of people coming in and coming back from other places. I'm really glad - it's long overdue. I mean, NOLA is the best of everything culinary, why shouldn't that include BBQ?
What is your most popular meat?
Brisket. I have no idea why, you'd think being in New Orleans it would be pork. I probably sell three times more brisket than pork. When people from Texas try my brisket, they say it's right on point. Also popular are the ribs. I always sell out of ribs, I'll smoke 24 racks and they'll be gone by 2pm.
What's your favorite cut of meat to work with?
Pork belly is my favorite - it's so succulent, so decadent, so delicious. The pig in general is great - pork has been part of BBQ since day one. Yeah, give me some pork belly, some greens, and cornbread, and you've got a happy southern boy.
What are your future plans for NOLA Smokehouse?
Well, we're trying some brunch food this month, like a fishing pole out there to see if there's a bite. With brunch, I try not to take it too seriously, just serving some big ole biscuits, some red eye gravy, other stuff I think tastes good. We had to stop doing dinners, because the A/C here tends to be less effective the later in the day it gets, especially with the cinderblocks. By 7pm, it can get to like 96 degrees, which is not a great dining experience. I'd like to keep showing off my chef skills, doing soups and salads.
I like working with seafood, but oddly enough it's a bit of a challenge to get quality fresh fish in the city- you really have to pay top dollar for it. I'm not gonna sell out and serve something subpar just to get a product to the table.
What's it like finally having your own place?
It can be scary, everything can change from day to day. We sell out intentionally. I only do as much meat as I think we're going to sell - everything I sell is fresh. When we don't sell out, I'm bringing everything left over to the Bridge House that night. We only use social media and word of mouth, but we're also starting to get some great press and reviews. The locals are incredible, and we are getting new regulars, folks who discovered us after all the popups. Regulars keep the lights on and wood in the pits - if you don't support these places, they're gone.
Getting a sign has been a challenge - the permit process and cost to do so. But selling out every day without a sign is pretty cool, too.
What is your meat philosophy?
Fresh is best. Know your product. Low and slow. Use natural hard woods. Those rules make my BBQ great every day. It's really simple but very easy to mess up. I don't hide behind walls, you come in, you'll see me in the kitchen. I'm doing everything I can to make sure you're getting a perfect bite in your mouth.
We're trying to do something special, something small, and we're trying to do it right.