I’ve never taken sides in the regional feuds over the best style of barbecue. Whether it’s from Memphis, the Carolinas, Kansas City, or Texas, I believe about barbecue what Duke Ellington did about music — that there are only two kinds: good and bad. Give me a perfectly smoked and finished rack of ribs, pork, or beef fired over hickory, apple, maple, mesquite, or alder and I couldn’t care less where it — or you — came from.
To me and lots of others, the smell of meat over slow-burning hardwood is like perfume. You can catch whiffs of it on certain days as you drive up Cerrillos Road or Old Santa Fe Trail with your windows down. When you do, look for the red Santa Fe BBQ truck parked in a lot, a lazy curl of smoke coming from the big black smoker that’s hooked to the back. The truck, a vintage 1982 Grumman, has a hinged panel on one side that swings open and serves as a takeout window. The menu — which includes pork or beef ribs, brisket, sausage, pulled pork, often corn on the cob, and almost always club-sized turkey legs — is taped to the side. Want baked beans or slaw to go with your meat? You’ll have to supply them yourself.
Place your order and Steve Schmidt — the pit master, as he’d be called in many a barbecue mecca — climbs down from the back of the truck and steps to the smoker. To get the full effect, follow him. The sight of those dark racks and the smell of smoke as he opens the big lid are heady. He burns apple, cherry, and hickory wood, depending on availability (on one occasion, he used peach). Having tried them all, I’d say the hickory gives the richest, deepest flavor. The fruit woods are lighter, even sweet.
Schmidt will let you choose the rack that you think looks best, selling you as he does. “Look at the finish on this one,” he’ll encourage. Back in the truck, he’ll ask if you want the ribs cut apart. Say no. The membrane of connective tissue on the ribs’ underside will be easier to pull away if the rack is left whole. Also back in the truck, he’ll construct whatever sandwiches you’ve ordered, stuffing the buns to the point where the meat slides out into the foil wrapper. With his tongs, he’ll offer you a taste before he adds the sauce, and he’ll ask if you want smoked green chile on top. You do.
Schmidt is glad to talk about his methods, whether you ask or not. He gives his meat a good rub — the mix is a secret, but he admits that coffee is involved — and puts it on the smoker before sunrise to cook at 200 degrees. On the two days a week he’s out, he’s usually set up by 10:30 a.m. But don’t show up to purchase a rack then. Wait until the middle of the afternoon, when the ribs have had a long slow-cook time — they’ll be more tender (you can also call and have Schmidt hold your order for afternoon pickup). The beef ribs can be a tough chew when purchased early in the day, but later on they’re a pure meaty delight. If you wait too long, though, you may find the ribs a bit dry. I got a pork rack around 5 p.m. one Tuesday and found most of the flavorful fat cooked away.
The term baby back, usually referring only to pork ribs, is applied to beef as well here; loin might be a more accurate description. But what’s in a name? Time your visit well and you’ll enjoy the smokiest ribs in town, regardless of what meat you prefer.
The sandwiches are even better than the ribs. Both the brisket and the pulled pork are moist and smoky. The sausage, a fine grind of pork and beef, is extremely flavorful and so large it hangs off both ends of the roll. The turkey legs are especially tasty. You can slice a serious pile of meat from one or just pick it up and gnaw away. The corn, when available, is smoky as well, though tempered with lots of butter. The three sauces (sweet, regular, and Santa Fe hot) are variations on a theme: thick and slightly tangy with vinegar. The sweet is a touch, well, sweeter than the regular, and the Santa Fe hot is so spicy it defeated even a double dose of my acid-reflux medicine.
The best way to guarantee Schmidt and his truck are out and to confirm the location is to check the Santa Fe BBQ Facebook page. Your nose will tell you when you’ve found them. ◀