The Pitmaster Nap at Eater Portland’s 2018 Food Cart of the Year, Bark City BBQ, is basically a pile of meat. It has a sausage, ribs, pulled pork, and turkey, not to mention the various sides. What it doesn’t have, unlike many of the barbecue platters in town, is brisket.
“It’s kind of like the IPA of barbecue,” says Bark City pitmaster Michael Keskin. Keskin, who worked in Portland restaurants like Paragon and Podnah’s Pit, now runs a barbecue cart in Southeast Portland food cart pod Hawthorne Asylum. It’s been his dream to open a barbecue cart for years, but as Portland develops a stronger and stronger barbecue scene, Keskin had figured out how to distinguish himself: Letting the Texas barbecue others have mastered take a backseat, allowing himself to create his own versions of classics.
The Pitmaster Nap, then, ends up being a sampler tray of his greatest hits. Here, we break down the intricacies of Keskin’s sampler tray, from the sides to the sausages.
The ribs at Bark City are an amalgamation of various ribs Keskin has eaten in his barbecue-obsessed years, including the ribs at Rendezvous in Memphis. Ribs start with a dose of Carolina mustard vinegar sauce, before they’re rubbed with a combination of paprika, black pepper, dry mustard, and cumin, among other seasonings. The ribs smoke for about four hours, occasionally mopped with a combination of pickle juice, cider vinegar, water, and beer. The ribs come dry, but it’s smart to ask for one wet and one dry — the wet ribs are tossed in barbecue sauce. “All the Texas boys are about dry-dry-dry,” Keskin says. “I wanted to do something a little different.”
The pulled pork at Bark City gets a similar treatment to the ribs — same marinade, same rub — before they hit the smoker. The pork shoulder goes in for about 10 hours, before it hits another fork in the road: If the pork comes pulled, it ends up tossed with Carolina vinegar and mustard barbecue sauces. If it comes chopped, on the other hand, it ends up chopped and tossed with Carolina vinegar and Bark BBQ sauce. Something noticeable in both the ribs and the pulled or chopped pork are the notes of vinegar in the sauces and marinades, similar to the various barbecue styles spotted in North and South Carolina.
When Keskin was in college, summer nights often involved beer links. “We would drink and throw those Johnsonville beer brats on the grill,” Keskin remembers. So he decided to recreate those college memories and make his own. Keskin combines pork and brisket trim for his sausages, as well as Caldera lager, dry mustard, cumin, salt, garlic, and crushed chile. The sausages cure for two days, which helps the smoke adhere to the sausages. When they finally make it to the smoker, they smoke for about an hour, giving them just enough snap and juiciness.
When Keskin started building his menu, he knew he wanted to have some sort of healthy option. The turkey, however, has become one of his best items, and perhaps the most distinctive. Keskin brines turkey breasts in salt and pepper for 24 to 48 hours, before they smoke for 1 1⁄2 to 2 hours over white oak. Then, the turkey sits in foil with butter for about 10 minutes. The turkey is remarkably simple, and particularly good with the barbecue cart’s Alabama white sauce.
The Pitmaster Nap comes with a choice of sides, ranging from barbecue beans to coleslaw, but the move at Bark City is to go with the restaurant’s pickled avocado and its potato salad. Keskin spotted the recipe for pickled avocados on Pinterest and loved the idea — the fattiness of the avocado would mimic the fattiness of the meat, with a little acid for contrast. The potato salad, on the other hand, is a classic picnic potato salad: celery, pickles, egg, mayo, dijon, Yukon Golds, and celery salt. But every plate also comes with a Texas candied jalapenos, pickled barbecue onions, and a wedge of cornbread, baked in a cast-iron skillet each morning.