Has Columbus reached peak BBQ?
That might seem the case, but then again, when you build it—be it taco stands or beer halls or juice bars—they will come.
And on this, the opening day at Downtown’s newest barbecue joint, Pecan Penny’s, the buzz and lunch rush had wiped them out of “’cue” completely. I couldn’t get a fix until at least 5. Then I overheard the evening shift meeting…
“Folks, that’s what happens in the world of smoking barbecue. You’re going to run out.”
Exhausted yet beaming, pitmaster Greg Schmidt was all too happy to take a break after selling out of his maiden smoke.
“I’ve probably walked about four miles within a five-foot radius today,” says Schmidt. “But I’m in my own world back there. It’s like a dream come true.”
Living in a part of the country not particularly known for barbecue, it’s not so much about traditions and recipes passed down for generations, as much as it’s about technique and consistency. In that absence of history, Schmidt is highly skilled when it comes to the pedagogy of smoking meat. He pursued the hobby since his teens, later in life throwing backyard barbecues, smoking whole hogs, and eventually catering for friends on the side. His talent caught the attention of Kevin Burns and Brad Hobbs, the duo responsible for The Walrus and Olde Towne Tavern, who lured him away from his career in graphic design to man their latest concept full-time.
“Greg built what he’s done organically and passionately as a home-smoker,” says Hobbs. “It was a no-brainer to hire him with the wealth of knowledge that he brings.”
As with smoking meat, the concept of Pecan Penny’s is extremely minimal. The menu is split into smoke, sides, snacks, and sweets (pecan pie of course), and the interior, which now occupies the former home of Ray Johnson’s Seafood Market, is revamped with garage doors, cafeteria seating, and an industrial turquoise and pewter motif. Those basic ideals really free up the decision making and allow Schmidt’s handiwork to take center stage.
“BBQ is so prevalent right now, that everyone has their own idea of what designates BBQ from a certain region,” says Schmidt. “You could call what we do Central Texas BBQ, because it’s dry-rubbed and kissed with smoke, but you’ve got the option of six different sauces. I just want the meat to taste like meat, first and foremost. Today I dubbed it CBUS-B-Q.”
That menagerie of sauces, gives Schmidt’s “CBUS-B-Q” a distinctive, choose-your-own-flavor-adventure when you choose to divulge. All house-made, they take the most pride in their family recipe-derived “G-Daddy” and “Hot G-Daddy” sauces, with shades of Kansas City in the mix, they are the thickest and smokiest of the bunch. There are also two styles of the lighter, vinegar-based tang from the Carolinas, a sweet and minimal Memphis glaze, and the almost-ranch of the Alabama white, which is primarily for chicken. Try a dinner of smoked wings and hushpuppies if you’re hankering to try them all.
“We wanted this to be barbecue that takes from all of our loves,” says Burns. “We traveled all over and did a lot of research and took something from each place to put this all together.”
Besides the requisite draft selection and craft cocktails that Burns and Hobbs’ establishments are known for, or the mac and cheese and the soon-to-be-coveted collard greens that are standard issue menu items these days, Penny’s successfully surprises with a number of treats. The aforementioned pecan pie is a standout, then again, as a namesake it has to be. The hushpuppies, one of the few vegetarian options (but you know what you’re getting, right?), are a perfect balance of crisp and cakelike, and could serve as a meal with the accompanying smoky horseradish. Or, for a couple quarters, you could be adventurous and try a Kool-Aid pickle. A delicacy of far Southern gas stations, the bright and tangy spears are new to Columbus. Not for everyone, but reason alone to venture to Penny’s.
So to answer the initial question….peak barbecue? Downtown is starting to get crowded, and it certainly could use a patio teeming with smoked meats. Especially with Schmidt’s vision guiding the ship.
“There’s a place down here for everything,” ends Burns, before returning to the busy grind of the very first dinner shift. “This place has sat empty for a while now and for some reason it just screamed barbecue. Here we are.”
Fresh Taste: Pecan Penny’s
113 E Main St. www.pecanpennys.com