'CUE IN THE 'QUAH : For barbecue, it's all about the sauce, tenderness

May 17—May is National Barbecue Month, and Tahlequah has boasted its fair share of restaurants offering their own takes on brisket, ribs and pork.

After a day on the Illinois River, many visitors enjoy eating at Roxie's BBQ on State Highway 10. Owner Tyler Wagers said most people don't have the patience to prepare barbecue correctly.

"Bark — the rub you put on it that thickens up on top of the meat — is a combination of several things, and people are looking for a specific taste," Wagers said. "And in the last 15-20 years, people have started getting into the sweeter barbecue sauces."

Wagers didn't grow up with sweet sauce. He asks people, if they had the best and softest brisket and he had a comparable brisket, what would make one or the other the best?

"I always say it's the sauce," Wagers said. "Ours is not molasses, ketchup and Karo syrup-based. Ours is a water-based sauce and a lot better for you, and totally different than any sauce I've ever tasted. The sauce recipe is my dad's."

Serving an overpowering sauce does not allow the taste of the meat, which the cook spends 12-15 hours preparing, to come through, Wagers said.

"Allowing the fats to render and break down is what brings the flavor to the brisket," Wagers said.

Wagers cooks smaller meats like ribs, hot links, chickens and bologna on an "Ole Hickory Pit."

"The reason I use it is, it's more consistent and I don't have to babysit it," Wagers said. "It fluctuates between gas and wood, and I use pecan and hickory."

On his stick burner, he uses post oak to start and build the fire, then pecan or hickory, depending on what he is cooking, Wagers said.

Wagers' father, Roxie Wagers, started making barbecue with Homer Dotson on Muskogee Avenue in 1951. Roxie moved to a location on Muskogee Avenue next to Mazzio's, and Tyler and his brother grew up in the house behind the restaurant.

"They were a mainstay in the community for years," Wagers said. "My dad purchased this property [on S.H. 10] and he had a honky-tonk bar and restaurant."

Brian Fritz recently returned as the manager of Rib Crib at 1909 S. Muskogee Ave. He said hard work is the secret to great barbecue.

"And people don't realize we smoke the meat right here at the restaurant," Fritz said. "I've worked with barbecue for 35 years, and it's all about being consistent with the end result."

The Rib Crib has a proprietary rub for ribs, pork and beef, Fritz said. When cooking brisket, Fritz said, the "stall" is where many people mess up a brisket.

"The stall happens at about 150-165 degrees, and that is where the collagen and connective tissue reach a 'cooling' effect,'" Fritz said. "Don't stop there with the cooking but continue until it reaches 195-205 degrees for tender meat."

Aimee and Gary Mason stopped at Rib Crib for a special treat after a doctor's appointment last week.

Gary ordered the hot link and chopped brisket sandwich. Aimee said Gary has ordered the same sandwich for 20 years when they go out for barbecue and she always gets the Carolina pulled pork with coleslaw inside the sandwich.

"I don't like my sauce sweet and I don't want [spiciness] to take away from the flavor," Aimee said.

Rick Davis, owner of Double Barrel Championship BBQ, said he started doing competition barbecue about five years ago. He has participated in over 100 contests and won several. His restaurant is housed inside of Tahlequah Drug Co.

"We make all our own sauces," Davis said. "We've got five options: regular, which is a mild sauce with a bit of sweetness; a hot one; and one I created called the Crossroads, which is a combination of the Kansas City Sweet mixed with a Carolina vinegar, making it a tangy sauce. And we have an extra-hot one that has ghost pepper and Carolina reaper. It's very hot, and a raspberry chipotle sauce."

The Carolina reaper is hotter than a ghost pepper and has been bred to be the hottest of all, said Christian Noteworthy, who is one of the cooks.

"With brisket, you need flavor and moisture. If you can accomplish both of those, it's going to be a good brisket," Davis said.

Davis said the bark can't be too hard or it makes it difficult to slice. Davis teaches barbecue classes and instructs his students on the best way to determine if the bark is set.

"If you take your finger or a utensil, run it across the meat and the bark doesn't come off — the bark is set," Davis said.

The brisket comes from the front of the animal, and Davis said there are two briskets on a cow — a right hand and left hand.

"It carries a lot of the weight and that's why it can be tough," Davis said. "The brisket we use here — and I think we may be the only place in the state that does — is American Wagyu, which is the highest grade you can get."