In the fiercely competitive world of barbecue, which inspires team and regional loyalties more intense than anything this side of football and politics, it’s not easy to be a legend. But Joe Davidson is. Food guru Anthony Bourdain called the Kansas City Oklahoma Joe’s the best barbecue in the world. Joe Davidson discovered a sure-fire recipe for success: grit, moxie, devotion and 25 years of hard work.
‘I’m still working every day, still learning every day,” says Davidson. “Once you stop getting better, you’re going backwards.” That’s why whatever time of day you walk into Oklahoma Joe’s, Davidson’s bright and bustling barbecue palace in Broken Arrow, if you don’t see Joe – tall, rail-thin and alert – waiting by the counter to greet you, chances are he’s supervising the cooking in back.
“Cooking in back” barely begins to describe a set-up as formidable as a steel mill. Huge clanking belts move the meat – 150 slabs of ribs a day! A half-ton of brisket! – through smokers taller than a man. The huge firebox must be fed like a dragon. And yet no two racks of ribs are alike and each requires as much individual attention as an entree in a fancy downtown restaurant. In fact, Joe likes to hire chefs from those upscale restaurants (“they have to unlearn a lot, though” he says), and his Broken Arrow kitchen is helmed by Kelsey Knouse, until a few months ago executive chef at Wolfgang Puck Bistro located on Brookside. If you look at the line of sous-chefs, prepping sides and grouped into stations, it looks a lot like a high-end eatery.
Every kitchen tells a story. Usually, it’s the same story. A young lad, fascinated by food as soon as he could walk or smile, treks to New York or Paris and works in the kitchen of a famous chef. But the story is different here. Picture a young, strong welder working in the oilfields of western Oklahoma. He earns enough to put himself through college. And one fine day in 1987, he’s a grad school assistant at Oklahoma State University. One of his colleagues challenges him to build a smoker. He does. Then he builds 12 more and sells them at the state fair. The backyard business takes off, and within a decade he’s selling 100,000 smokers a year. Finally fascinated by food, he enters the maelstrom of competition barbecue. His first attempts founder. But he learns, perfects his skills, and in 1993 he wins his first world championship. He wins many, many more after that.
Then came the restaurants. First in 1994 in Stillwater, then in Kansas City, and now in Broken Arrow. What you get at the restaurant is what Joe served to those competition judges. The same top-quality meat carefully selected, the same vibrant, tangy dry rub (Texas purists don’t use spices, says Joe, and their meat’s too bland), the same cooking technique: low and slow with a pecan wood fire. The ribs spend four hours in the pit, the brisket a lot longer. It’s hot enough (275 degrees) to melt the fat and yield a glowing, caramelized crust sweet as candy, and smoky enough to give that classic pink smoke ring, juicy and packed with the kind of flavor that puts a gleam in barbecue lovers’ eyes. The pulled pork, moist and tender, is also a winner. If they’re serving “burnt ends” when you go, grab them. They are cut from the best-marbled part of the brisket, brushed with sauce and smoked again for an extra layer of caramelized goodness.
Tulsa is now Davidson’s home base. I can’t guarantee the quality, he says, unless I’m there every day. And he loves the thrill of it, of having an 80-year-old man tell him that those were the best plate of ribs he’d eaten in his long life. Oklahoma has more barbecue champions than any other state, says Joe, but it’s never got the recognition it deserves. Now, thanks to Joe Davidson, it will. 333 W. Albany, Broken Arrow. www.okjoes.com