This new restaurant, with its slowly smoked meats, takes barbecue back to the basics with mouth-watering results.
– By Lisa Monti
There’s a new barbecue restaurant that specializes in low-and-slow, oak-smoked meats like you would find in Central Texas, the heart of barbecue country. It’s billed as “live fire craft barbecue,” and y’all, with this newest addition to our barbecue restaurant lineup, we’re going to need more napkins.
Salt Pepper Oak opened on Kapalama Drive off Kiln-Delisle Road in February. While technically in Pass Christian, the restaurant is located in what locals call the “back of Diamondhead.” They currently offer Saturday-only lunch service, and folks have been lining up for prime meats, dynamite homemade sides, and hard-to-resist desserts. It even offers a sample platter for those interested in trying a little bit of everything.
“The reception has been tremendous,” said chef/owner Vincent Hunt. “We’re off the beaten path, but this style of barbecue is a destination. You just can’t get this anywhere else.”
Hunt, a Pearlington native, spent 20 years in restaurant development and operations and has opened 20 restaurants in his career. A friend introduced him to Central Texas barbecue, made famous by James Beard Award-winning chef Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue is in the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame.
“Central Texas barbecue developed as a way for meat markets to preserve meats that didn’t sell. The restaurants were built alongside the markets, and they had offset smokers. The flavor is completely different because it’s all wood and no gas. The rub is literally salt and pepper, and the wood is oak,” Vincent said.
He’d been working on the development of his Salt Pepper Oak barbecue concept for the last five years. When the old Cuevas Too Restaurant spot became available, he thought it was the perfect location to bring his dream home and said, “Let’s do it.”
Vincent said the restaurant name comes from legendary chef Anthony Bourdain’s bottom line description of what makes Franklin Barbecue so good: a simple salt and pepper rub and a low burning oak fire. (Look for a painting of Bourdain in the dining room.)
Using Vincent’s design, his twin brother Andrew, with help from their dad, fabricated a pair of steel smokers where brisket, ribs, chicken, and other items are smoked for more than a dozen hours to develop deep flavor and that melt-in-your-mouth texture.
As a tribute to their grandmother, one smoker is named Lottie Mae, who also has the brisket burger named for her. The smokers work like a convection oven and pull the smoke and heat across the meats to render fat and give them flavor. “It takes forever,” Vincent said of the process.
The brisket is the prized, pricey star of the menu, and cooks for 15 hours to create a dark “bark” and render the fat. Sausage takes three days to make: one day to grind and cure the meat, one day to make links, and a third day in the smoker. The jalapeño sausage, rich and spicy with the signature snap, is well worth the wait.
Besides its unique Central Texas flavors, the restaurant opened with a scaled back operation. For its weekly Saturday service, Salt Pepper Oak takes online pre-orders orders all week, and those orders are ready for pick-up on Saturday morning. Customers who come to dine in the restaurant order meats at the first station, where Vincent cuts them to order. “I don’t slice anything until you order it to guarantee the freshest meat possible,” he said. Side orders come next, followed by the dessert station. Help yourself to some utensils, tomato or vinegar-based sauces and a handful of napkins before finding a spot in the dining area, which seats 41. Vincent’s wife, Anna, who moves things along in the pick-up and serving lines, is the interior designer behind the restaurant’s fresh decor.
Salt Pepper Oak’s menu of course centers around the meats, sold by the half pound or the plate. Brisket heads the list that also features pulled pork shoulder, pork belly burnt ends, turkey breast, beef and pork ribs, house-made sausage and chicken, served with sliced potato bread and house-made pickles and onions.
Brisket slices, lean or fatty, are amazing, the pulled pork is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and the generous turkey slices benefited from the smoke. The pork belly burnt ends topped with a light peach glaze made that guilty pleasure even better tasting.
The Lottie Brisket Burger, brisket and pulled pork sandwiches come with your choice of sides that are also served by the pint. Choose from smoky pork and beans flavored with pork and brisket, a hearty cabbage slaw, creamy mac and cheese, smothered green beans and mayo or mustard-based potato salad, all made in house and tasty.
Desserts are made from scratch by pastry chef Claudea Lacy. The two rich cheesecakes including a banana pudding version are drizzled with caramel, the brownies and an oversized chocolate chunk cookie are not to be missed.
Vincent is sticking with traditions for the restaurant. Barbecue is always served for lunch, not dinner, and uses oak, not gas, to cook with.
“This to me is what barbecue should be,” he said.
At this writing, Salt Pepper Oak customers can pick up their pre-orders on Saturdays from 10 to 11 am. Doors open at 11 am for dine-in and take-out and close at 3 pm, or when everything is sold, which is usually before 3.
Good news for current fans and future customers: Salt Pepper Oak’s one-day-a-week schedule is about to expand. Vincent plans to unveil Smoked Meat Fridays soon, offering plate lunches with chicken, pork chops, meatloaf and more, using recipes he’s developed. And in the fall, look for specialties such as brisket tamales and chili in addition to brisket slices.
Salt Pepper Oak
16940 Kapalama Road, Pass Christian
Hours: Saturday 11 am - 3 pm or when sold out
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