Smoke and Fire
Every chef has his or her own specialty. For some, it is crafting a mean burger. For others, it is sautéing vegetables to sheer perfection. But for Tim King, it is barbeque. Tim is the co-owner and head chef at Slabtown Ribs & BBQ in Portland (2606 NW Vaughn St.). If you’re ever in the mood for a rack of ribs or a pulled pork sandwich, venture over to Slabtown where you’ll find Tim working the pit to serve up barbeque Portland style. No matter what kind of barbeque you’re in the mood for, Tim will be sure to show you his own take on how barbeque is done. Coming from a chef that is experienced in the restaurant industry, he is skilled in the ways of meat and barbecue.
Slabtown has won several awards including Grand Champion in April and May of 2009 at Oregon Spring Training in Portland, Pike’s Place Market in Seattle and Smokin’ on the Columbia in Astoria. They also placed second place for chicken and third place for ribs at the Eastern Oregon BBQ Festival in Condon in July of 2009. In October of 2009 at The American Royal, aka the Superbowl of Barbeque Competitions in Kansas City, Slabtown ranked 24th out of 467, coming in fourth place for its Pork Butt and 14th for its brisket.
In terms of why he finds the restaurant business both rewarding and challenging Tim says, “I enjoy cooking traditional BBQ. It is not easy and when people express their gratitude it sure makes those early mornings worth it.”
The origin of barbeque can be traced way back to when the Spanish explorers settled in the Caribbean and learned the natives were preserving their meat- primarily in the sun. The indigenous people of the Caribbean coined the word barbacoa. This referred to the way they slow cooked meat over wooden racks and pits, allowing the smoke to keep bugs away from the meat. Eventually barbeque began to spread as the Africans and Europeans migrated to the Southern half of the United States. In the US, barbeque is mainly known for its roots in places like North Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas City and Texas.
While there are a variety of ways in which to prepare barbeque, each technique has found a niche in kitchens all across the world. Sauces and side dishes also have been crafted over the years in order to pair with particular types of barbeque. Some of the most common side dishes to accompany main dishes that have evolved since the beginning of barbeque history are cornbread, deviled eggs, baked beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, hush puppies and grilled vegetables. As barbeque has migrated from the Southern states however, chefs are trying their hand at finding new things to accompany it.
Over the last several years, there has definitely been an increase in the food and restaurant industry in Portland. The demand for not only exquisite food has heightened, but the desire for something different. Being located in the Pacific Northwest leaves room for foodies to explore a little of everything, especially in a place like Portland where people have migrated from all across the globe. Food is the one thing that will never go out of style in this city.
No matter how long it’s taken for barbeque to find a home in Portland, we’re just glad it’s here to stay. Tim gave us some tips and insight on how exactly he does barbeque.
Where are you from?
I am originally from a small farming town in Delaware. Moved to Maui after college.
What brought you to Portland?
Maui is where I studied food management. I met my ex-wife there. She is originally from Portland and we decided to move here so she could be closer to her family. We are still business partners.
If you weren’t living in Portland, where would you live?
Maui. Because it’s “no ka oi.” I lived there for 8 years before and loved it. My brother and his family live there too. It’s sunny and warm all year. Lots of nature, the ocean, whales and bikinis!
What is your history like as a chef?
I have been in the restaurant business for 36 years. I have worked every position there is. Eight years in Maui was a great experience. I also worked at the Westin Maui and learned from chefs from around the world.
What made you want to open and start a restaurant?
Working in restaurants is tough so if you’re going to do it, do it for yourself.
When did you open Slabtown?
When opening a restaurant where did you look for locations?
We wanted to keep everything close. All within four blocks
Why did you choose Northwest Vaughn for Slabtown’s location?
We took over a space next to Acapulco Gold that use to be a naturopathic doctor’s office.
Why did you decide to focus on BBQ?
We already had two restaurants and were doing competition barbeques. We would have the public sample our food at competitions and they would ask for caterings. Then we started vending BBQ. Then we opened a brick and mortar restaurant six years ago. It just kept growing and growing.
Tell us a little about the history of BBQ, what makes it such a unique and appealing entree?
There are debates about the beginnings of BBQ but BBQ how we know it today has its roots with Southern plantations and stockyards of the Midwest. The workers on the lower levels of society would get the least desirable cuts of meats. These cuts would require strong seasonings and long slow cooking times. Slowly BBQ has made its way into everyday life.
Do you think the evolution of BBQ has changed for the better?
The problem now is that demand has increased and caused wholesale prices to soar. It’s become more popular which is good and bad. There are more barbeque restaurants, which increases demand thus raising prices. What used to be inexpensive cuts are now as much as steak and loins. BBQ cuts use to be the least expensive cuts.
What foods pair the best with BBQ?
Coleslaw, Mac n cheese, baked beans, greens
What is the process like from start to finish in preparing a standard BBQ dish for you?
Wake up 5 a.m., fire up the pit, we start with the different cut of meat and trim away excess fat and such. Next we use our own BBQ rub and apply it to the outside of the meat. Next we build a fire in the firebox of the smoker to get the pit up to 225 degrees. This takes about an hour. We maintain the fire till the meat is done. Depending on the cut it can take anywhere from 4 to 16 hours.
Where did the name “Slabtown” originate?
Slabtown is the name that was used for this section of Northwest Portland around the turn of the last century. Residents would stack “slab” wood in front of their homes for heating and cooking. There were two sawmills in the neighborhood back then.
What have been some struggles about owning a restaurant?
Paperwork is the worst. So much paperwork.
What’s your personal favorite item on your menu?
Smoked brisket chili Mac.
How do you feel that BBQ thrives in a place like Portland?
Portlanders love food and good BBQ is hard to find.
Where do you get your ingredients from?
The beef is Angus from Idaho. We have used the same local produce company, Rinella, for all our restaurants for over 15 years.
What are your future plans and goals as a chef?
Try to sell my interests before it kills me.
Would you ever consider cooking things other than BBQ?
I own a Mexican restaurant and a neighborhood tavern specializing in handmade burgers and pizza.
What are the other restaurants you own?
Acapulco Gold and Crackerjacks. We bought Acapulco as a turnkey business. I have and can cook anything so the kind of cuisine that our first restaurant offered didn’t matter that much.
Are your other restaurants located where they are for specific reasons?
Being close to each other makes responding to issues quick and efficient. Slabtown is connected to Acapulco Gold.
Do you feel like Mexican food is more successful in a place like Portland?
People will eat Mexican food more often than BBQ. The flavors of BBQ are strong and many people don’t like the smoky flavor. Everyone loves Mexican food though. In the south and Midwest BBQ is a way of life; people will eat it once or twice a week. In Portland it’s more like once a month or two.
Would you ever consider opening a BBQ food cart in Portland? Or one for your other restaurants?
We have had a few offers to that but you lose quality control the more you spread yourself out.
Are you considering opening other restaurants?
Three is plenty under the conditions now. I already work 7 days up to 16 hours per day.
In a place like Portland, where a lot of things are becoming vegan-based, would you consider making this an option for you to explore making?
We’ve done a few vegetarian items for caterings but I don’t think you should try to be something you’re not. However almost everything is gluten free.
What is your favorite food or meal?
I eat a lot of Thai food. I do trade with a nearby place and it’s a nice change from the flavors I eat every day.
Who inspired you to become a chef?
No one really. I’ve been doing it for 36 years. It’s the natural progression of being in the restaurant business. When you become an owner you morph into things you need to become to succeed.
If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring chefs or restaurant owners, what would it be?
Don’t hire friends. Keep track of everything. Save as much money as you can before opening.
What can people expect when they come to Slabtown?
It’s a clean and simple restaurant. Service is friendly and food is traditional BBQ. We do a daily special that gives me a chance to play around. We’ll do meatloaf, prime rib, Cajun just to name a few.
If you weren’t a chef, what other job would you want to explore?
Refrigeration repair man. I think I have paid for his vacation home in Mexico.
What do you enjoy most about the restaurant industry?
Being around food all the time. I love to eat and you’ll never starve working in the biz. And I love seeing happy faces when they taste traditional American BBQ.
Have you ever considered relocating?
Only when I’m working the pit and it’s raining and dark.
Do you feel like there is a lot of direct competition in terms of other BBQ places in town?
Oh yeah. It seems there are BBQ carts and BBQ restaurants on every block.
What’s your favorite music to listen to while working in the kitchen?
Deadmau5 and EDM. The beats really help you in the early morning to keep you going.
Can you tell me a little about the awards you’ve gotten at Slabtown?
Doing BBQ competitions for 10 years we have accumulated a lot of ribbons and trophies. The two most significant ones are from the ‘American Royal’ in Kansas City. There were 500 teams from around the world including eight from the Pacific Northwest. We got a ribbon in brisket and one for pork butt finishing 24th overall. We were the only Northwest team to get any ribbons. And Chris, my business partner just missed a top ten finish in the dessert category with her cheesecake.
What has it been like opening a restaurant with another person?
It nice to have someone that shares the same goals and ideas that you do to run the business.
Do you have any good recommendations of other good restaurants to eat at in Portland?
Maiphai Thai food on NW Thurman. I love their lemongrass chicken. I get cheesesteaks and hoagies from Philadelphia’s in Sellwood. Jake’s crawfish for steak and seafood when I am out on a date.