Issue 16.2: April/May 2013

Smoking Guns

Story by Dave Choo
Photos by Dana Edmunds


Crash and Lisa DeJournett owe all their success—and their suffering—to kalbi.


“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for kalbi,” says Crash, describing his awkward introduction to the world of competitive barbecuing. “When people on the Mainland bite into a good piece of kalbi, they go crazy. They can’t get enough.”


 Seven years ago Crash and a buddy entered a barbecue competition in Arizona, even though the only outdoor cooking the two did at the time was in their backyards. The competition, which was sanctioned by one of the national barbecuing organizations, required contestants to submit four dishes: half of a chicken, ribs, pulled pork and sliced brisket. But there was a fifth, “ancillary” category, a sort of catchall in which contestants offered an item of their choosing. Crash, who grew up on O‘ahu, went with the Korean-style short ribs marinated in a garlicky soy sauce and sugar mixture, an Island favorite. Good thing, too: “We tanked that day, finishing dead last in all four of the main categories,” says Crash, who at 6’3” and three hundred pounds earned his nickname when he fell on—and flattened—a coffee table during a party. “However, out of twenty-seven entrées, our kalbi finished in second place. We got to walk,” that is, to go onstage to collect the award, “and that was it. I was hooked.”


 Two years later Lisa started competetive barbecuing as well, and she and Crash named their team the VRM Pit Crew (VRM being the initals of their three children’s names). Nowadays the husband-and-wife grill masters are working at a level most backyard meat-slingers can only dream of. They compete about nine times a year, primarily in Arizona. And while they have yet to win a grand championship, the DeJournetts have been category winners many times, including once when their ribs beat out those by the top barbecue teams in the country. And their kalbi is a perennial winner.


 I’ve come to the DeJournetts’ Kailua home to get an, um, crash course in barbecuing. I’m hoping to learn the nuts and bolts, in part because last summer the web site released a curious poll. In an effort to “settle America’s barbecue debate once and for all” (apparently, there is one), more than a thousand people were asked to name the best barbecue destinations in the country. Most of the results were unsurprising: The carnivore capital of America, Texas, took first with 43 percent. Next came Memphis (24 percent), North Carolina (15 percent) and Kansas City, Missouri (13 percent). But the surprise was number five: Hawai‘i, with 5 percent, beating out such barbecue Babylons like St. Louis, as well as up-and-comer California. 


Barbecue is widely considered one of the most American of foods, so how could faraway Hawai‘i, with its distinctly Asian-influenced cuisine, reach the grilling inner sanctum? Do Mainlanders know more about teriyaki beef, hulihuli chicken and kalua pig than we locals assume? Or maybe people interpreted the poll question as asking, “What’s the best location in which to barbecue?” But if that were the case, why wouldn’t other sunny, beachy, meat-loving places like Florida and South Carolina have beat us? I didn’t know the answer to these questions, so I sought out a couple of Hawai‘i’s grilling glitterati, hoping to find out.


The smoker in Crash and Lisa’s garage in Kailua looks like a giant metal pill capsule. Wisps of blue smoke leak from the top, filling the garage and eventually the whole neighborhood with the aroma of burning wood and roasting meat. The DeJournetts know a little about the state of the state’s barbecue world. They’ve competed in the Islands’ only sanctioned competition, held in Hilo every summer as well as several other local cooking contests. And Crash started, a forum for spreading the barbecue gospel. At its core are about twenty local cooks, who make Crash optimistic about the Islands’ barbecue future and maybe give a little insight into why we made the list. “Hawai‘i is a foodie state and an outdoor state, so the potential for barbecue competitions—sanctioned or not—is huge,” says Crash. “Hawai‘i people are very creative. They don’t have the cookie-cutter approach like they do on the Mainland.”


When I mention the Amazon poll, Crash and Lisa are also surprised—and a little dubious. It’s not that Hawai‘i’s grilled delights aren’t delicious; it’s just that, well, they’re not really barbecue. “Technically, barbecue is smoking—cooking at low temperatures and for longer periods of time,” says Lisa. “Mostly, what people in Hawai‘i do is grill, cooking directly over very high heat for short periods of time, things like kalbi, hulihuli chicken and teriyaki beef.” 


To give me a taste of true barbecue, Lisa is cooking ribs using the “three-two-one method.” She’d started several hours before I showed up, applying a “doctored” commercial dry rub heavy on garlic and onion powder to the ribs and smoking them upright on a rack for three hours (the “three”) over a guava- and ‘ohi‘a-wood fire. The usual Island favorite, kiawe (mesquite), is too strong, says Crash. After smoking, Lisa wraps the ribs in foil with clarified butter and steams the meat for two hours (the “two”). Then she lets the ribs “rest” and firm up before placing them on the grill and basting them with barbecue sauce every fifteen minutes for an hour (the—you guessed it—“one”). 


But those are just the basics; barbecuing the perfect ribs is a complex and unforgiving art. They must be cooked at precisely 250 degrees, says Crash. Precisely. He points to a small metal box called a stoker attached to the bottom of the smoker and linked by two wires to his laptop. Crash explains that wind, rain and other conditions can all bring down the temperature, so when the computer senses a dip, it activates a fan that stokes the fire and brings the temperature up to the magic 250. This is critical, he says, because meat stops absorbing the fire’s smoky flavor below 140 degrees; above 250 degrees the meat cooks too quickly. Slow-cooking imparts more flavor. Then there’s the smoke; too much is overpowering, too little is pointless. The steaming and grilling are necessary if you want that fall-off-the-bone tenderness—but not too much, because the meat should also adhere to the bone. “When you bite into the rib, you should leave a bite mark and be able to see the whiteness of the bone,” says Lisa. Anything short of this perfection and your seven-hour ribs are big, fatty losers.


Finally we head to the kitchen, where Lisa lays out two racks of ribs on a cutting board: gorgeous reddish brown with a lacquer-like finish. It could be the most beautiful food I’ve ever seen. While I’m admiring, Crash and Lisa critique. The brushed-on sauce has given the finish a grain like that of tree bark, says Crash, a definite point deduction in competition. Lisa remarks that one rack has a better texture, probably because it was slightly thicker, she says, something they’d never have allowed in competition.


I can’t see any difference myself. The outer layer of both racks is spicy, tangy, slightly crispy with a thin crust; the meat inside is everything you could want in a rib—salty, smoky, moist, tender. When I pull my mouth away from the rib, I leave a half-moon bite mark so perfectly round, so symmetrical it looks like something out of a cartoon.


They are—easily—the best ribs I’ve ever eaten.


Reno Henriques would never be voted off the island.


I’m thinking about Survivor as Reno (why do barbecue enthusiasts have such awesome names?) lists his myriad talents. He can butcher and kalua a wild pig. He can hook a marlin and smoke it. He can spear tako (octopus) and tenderize its rubbery tentacles until they’re butter-soft. He grows taro, which he steams, pounds, bakes and fries into all kinds of deliciousness. Definitely the guy you want on your island.


Henriques is showing me his trusty smoker, which sits in the parking lot of his Kane‘ohe restaurant, Fresh Catch. Its chamber is a re-purposed metal filing cabinet, about four feet tall with a corrugated metal roof. It looks like something from a post-apocalyptic nightmare, blackened and decrepit, like a firebombed outhouse. Attached to the chamber is a metal box filled with smoldering charcoal briquettes and chunks of kiawe wood. Henriques drops a piece of sheet metal on top of the box, and smoke races up through the filing cabinet and out through the roof. “How do you regulate the temperature?” I ask as smoke billows into the clear morning sky. “Before I start, I spray-paint the smoker,” he says, pointing to its soot-black door. “I know that the temperature is right when the paint starts to peel.”


He’s joking, sort of. Truth is, he doesn’t monitor the temperature, doesn’t know or care at what degree his meat cooks. (“Numbers stuff,” he calls it.) He does know how much meat to put in the smoker, how big the fire needs to be and when it will be done. He can tell from the color, the amount of smoke and the smell how well things are progressing. Henriques has been cooking since he was about 12, when he discovered an old smoker under his father’s house. He started with a marlin he caught with his father. “I sold smoked marlin along the highway for five dollars a bag. They were all laughing at me until I came home with four hundred dollars,” says Henriques. “Pretty soon people were asking me what else I made.”


Henriques opened his first Fresh Catch restaurant about five years ago in an old Pizza Hut in Kaimuki. His menu featured only two entrées, furikake salmon and “smoke meat” with onions, along with some poke (a local favorite of raw fish and spices). Today he offers forty-three different items, but he says that his cooking remains simple and straightforward. He claims that most of his food features no more than four ingredients. Several years ago he opened his Kane‘ohe location because his friends were tired of driving into town to get his food.


Today Henriques is making his smoke meat, strips of two-inch-thick pork butt soaked overnight in a soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic and ginger marinade. He’ll leave the smoker largely unattended, checking on the fire every half-hour or so for about four hours. Ribs he’ll cook in about two and a half hours. While we wait, I sample some of Henriques’ barbecue: smoke meat cut into bite-size pieces and drenched in a teriyaki-style sauce. It’s got a good chew to it that quickly gives way to a tender middle. His smoked tako is salty and has a stronger smoke flavor. His tako poke is mellower, and the tako is amazingly tender, like a good steak. It’s one of those foods that could become dangerously addicting.


“My secret is that I put the tako into a cement mixer with lava rock. Works every time,” says Henriques. “When I was a kid, I threw sixty pounds of tako into my mom’s new washing machine. Ho, I got dirty lickin’s after that.”


After a lifetime of mere grilling, I try my hand at true barbecuing. I trim two racks of ribs just as Crash and Lisa taught me. I apply a dry rub that I mixed myself and then smoke the ribs over chunks of apple wood I bought at Home Depot. After three hours I wrap them in foil, but I use root beer as my steaming liquid instead of butter. Then I baste the ribs in an Italian barbecue sauce.


After six hours of cooking, I study my handiwork: The sauce is nearly black and makes the meat look charred, a definite deduction in competition. Some of the meat has shrunk away from the bone, probably because my fire was too hot. And the sugar in the root beer must have burned. But then again everything looks burned. When I bite into a rib, the meat falls off the bone and onto my plate. Disaster! But at least they taste good. They’re reasonably smoky, and the meat is tender, even a little juicy. Despite their flaws, these are the best ribs I’ve ever made.


I’ve got a long way to go, though, before I acquire the DeJournetts’ precision or develop Reno’s instincts. I note a few improvements I can make: I need a better meat thermometer, maybe one of those digital ones with WiFi. And a stoker: No self-respecting barbecuer would cook without one. Then I look outside at my mango tree, full of blossoms. A little puréed mango would sweeten up the sauce without using too much sugar. As I make a checklist of other fruits, juices and spices I want to try, I realize that it’s going to be a long time before I go back to grilling my old standby—kalbi.