When you walk into The Smokin’ Oak Pit and Drinkery in downtown Vancouver, your response is likely to be primal. Your animal senses perk up at the first whiff of woodsmoke and the mouth-watering aroma tells you that meat is on the menu. There are plenty of options: pulled pork and pork spare ribs, smoked sausage, chicken, and meltingly tender brisket.
“Brisket is the star of the show,” says Erick Gill, co-owner with Bryan Rodgers. “If there’s any one thing to take from eating at the Smokin’ Oak, we hope it’s that.” Order a plate of brisket or a brisket sandwich, or go for the Texas Trinity, a hearty platterful of sausage, ribs, and brisket, plus a mason jar brimming with tangy, creamy potato salad. The two addictive sauces—one for beef, one for pork—are family recipes; one is from Rodgers’ grandmother, and the other is from his grandfather’s best friend, who was bequeathed the recipe by the owner of his favorite barbecue joint in Laredo.
Round it out with collard greens, jalapeño beans, and smoked beets with chèvre, or up the ante with mac ’n cheese and some thick-sliced white bread with sweet raw onions and pickles. Don’t leave without sampling the savory cornbread, smeared with a generous dollop of honey-butter. “Cornbread has been very polarizing since we opened,” explains Gill, noting that some people are surprised when they bite into this dense, buttery, slightly salty bread because they’re expecting something sweet. Rodgers chuckles and quips, “We need to get our lingo down: ‘This isn’t corn cake. It’s cornbread.’” The cornbread, however, is a tip-off that the Smokin’ Oak’s Texan credentials are legit.
How did genuine Central Texas barbecue end up in downtown Vancouver? Rodgers—who has family all over Texas, but mainly Tyler—grew up eating slow-cooked meat from his dad’s custom-built smoker, which Rodgers later used for occasional catering jobs. Rodgers met Gill when they were students at Washington State University in Pullman. When I ask Rodgers what they studied, he grins and says, “It woulda been nice if we did some of that.” Gill laughs and says they took classes in restaurant and business management, although Rodgers admits that he was “interested in other things.”
After college, the friends kept in touch. They bounced around the country, working in the hospitality and service industries, but eventually gravitated back to Vancouver. They had Rodgers’ dad’s smoker and a hankering to do something more serious. Their dream to open a restaurant, which had been simmering on the back burner for many years, became a reality with a Kickstarter campaign and support from family, friends, and other downtown Vancouver restaurateurs. Except for the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC, everything in the restaurant was built by Rodgers and Gill and their friends—although the slick, contemporary space, featuring masculine materials like cement, wood, and glass, looks professionally designed. They also constructed their own smokers from repurposed propane tanks (a word of warning: don’t try this at home). The thousand-gallon smoker produces most of the meat for the restaurant, sometimes assisted by a 580-gallon mobile cooker for catering jobs. “It took us almost a year to build those things,” says Gill. “We picked up some welding skills along the way and they turned out pretty good, that big one especially. It hums right along.”
The 22-foot smoker is almost always going. “Somebody’s here 24 hours a day,” Gill says. “We only lock that front door for about four to five hours out of every single week. We’re closed on Mondays because we have to clean the pits.” Rodgers outlines the grueling schedule: the overnight pitmaster is on site from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., then the morning shift takes over. “We have an amazing team back there that comes in every morning at 7 a.m. and every day we make this stuff from scratch,” says Rodgers. They open for lunch at 11 a.m., ready to serve the meat that’s been smoked overnight. “We really like to stress…that we don’t sell yesterday’s smoke,” says Gill. “So if you come in here and you order brisket, it was cooked that night for that day.”
Gill’s wife, Kimba, is the third member of the team. “She runs all the front house stuff and does all the scheduling and the books and all the stuff that we’re not smart enough to do,” jokes Gill with a dose of seriousness. Gill estimates that he and Kimba have a combined 30 years of experience working in Vancouver’s food scene. “We’re Vancouver people,” he says. “We felt like the location here in town was just at the right place for something like this”—across the street from the Hilton, around the corner from Esther Short Park, and within easy walking distance of the new waterfront development.
I slice off another piece of brisket with my knife and fork and dip it in sauce. Rodgers watches me with a wry smile and says, “This is hands food. If you don’t wanna use silverware…” Gill finishes his sentence: “We’re not here to judge, that’s for sure.” I laugh because I feel just the opposite: completely at ease. I’m actually thinking about my mother, a stellar cook who was raised in Texas, and who fed me on savory cornbread, beans, and collard greens. Eating at The Smokin’ Oak is like sitting at my mother’s table; each bite is elementally comforting, rich with layers of flavor and a certain indefinable something that might be called love.
501 Columbia St. in Vancouver
Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight
Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday