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How San Antonio’s Best Barbecue Spot Is Breaking All the Rules

At the Granary, a chef with a fine-dining background and his beer-loving brother are turning barbecue on its head.

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Situated in an old converted house in San Antonio’s red-hot Pearl Brewery complex, it’d be easy enough to dismiss Tim and Alex Rattray’s first restaurant venture as hipster barbecue. Open since 2012, the Granary’s wood-paneled dining room is set with rustic picnic tables; a butcher’s diagram of a pig labeled in French watches over diners. The menu touts “responsibly sourced” meat, and there’s a craft brewery in the back overseen by a guy with a magnificent waxed mustache.

At lunch, the Granary does a bustling counter-service business slinging brisket, ribs, sausage, and all the expected sides: baked beans studded with burnt ends, coleslaw, potato salad. The three-meat plate will look familiar to any Texan well-versed in their state's most prized cuisine, though the painstaking attention to detail here certainly isn't the norm; the traditional accompaniments of pickles and white bread, so often relegated to Mrs. Baird's and Sysco, are both produced in-house (and both very much worth eating solo).

It's when the sun goes down and the restaurant switches to full table service that things start to look a little more unfamiliar. Southern-style grits are turned into fritters and anointed with country ham "salt," dry-aged quail rests on a bed of savory oatmeal and malted barley, and pork fried rice comes to the table looking more like something from elBulli than your local Chinese takeout spot — and definitely not something that would ever be found at a Texas barbecue joint.

For patrons expecting traditional 'cue, the seasonally-rotating dinner menu can sometimes land with a thud. "The food is beautiful and artistically presented, with a huge and expensive selection of wine. What is this, New York?" a Yelp reviewer writes. "That may be how they eat BBQ in the Northeast, but it's not how we serve and eat BBQ in Texas."

But for every disgruntled Yelper that dismisses the Rattrays' fancy barbecue as Yankee stuff, there are two dozen more diners that rave about it — including Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly and arguably the leading authority on the state's smoked meat institutions. "Something about serving smoked shoulder clod with coffee quinoa crunch and tomato caramel on a Texas barbecue menu seems like a punchline," Vaughn admits. "Then you take one of the best bites of shoulder clod you've ever eaten and realize it's no joke. Their creativity may be mocked by so-called die-hards, but few barbecue restaurants are as meticulous with their cooking techniques, or as thoughtful in the sourcing of their products. The effort shows up on the plate."

This is Texas barbecue through and through, albeit done the Rattray way.

Indeed, one bite of the tender brisket edged in glistening mahogany bark and it becomes evident this is no Brooklyn transplant. This is Texas barbecue through and through, albeit done the Rattray way; the brisket's been rubbed with a spice blend that includes coffee and cinnamon, and the beef short ribs are brined pastrami-style before hitting the smoker.

One can hardly be shocked that the Granary would have its dissenters, though: Barbecue may be the closest thing to an official state religion that Texas has, with family dynasties that go back more than a century and an unwritten rule book on the "right" way to do to things. (In Central Texas, that's low and slow over hardwood, with little more than a simple salt and pepper rub.) Just 90 minutes up I-35, the tech-fueled liberal enclave of Austin is thoroughly saturated with upper-echelon barbecue, and Dallas and Houston have made their own strides in recent years, with world-class places like Pecan Lodge and Killen's. But San Antonio's never been lauded for its own barbecue scene, especially back in 2012 when the Granary first debuted.

"On the weekends, me and Tim would drive up to Austin and do brewery tours and we'd always stop for something to eat," says Alex, the younger of the two brothers (and owner of the aforementioned mustache) who heads up the microbrewery side of the operation. "That's kind of how the idea for the Granary happened. We said, 'You know, there's no good barbecue in San Antonio — what if we did a place where you made everything in house, including the beer?'"

Two years later, that 'what if' turned into a reality, and by then the concept had evolved. Older brother Tim, the brains behind the culinary side of operations, would draw on a fine-dining background that had taken him to kitchens like Le Cirque and Le Bernardin. He paired that experience with his science degree from Texas A&M to dream up a seasonally-rotating, consciously sourced dinner menu that would push barbecue into uncharted territory.

"We can do all the cool technique stuff that we want, but if we’re not smoking meat, then none of us have jobs."

"We saw barbecue as an avenue that hadn't yet been pushed much beyond the traditional," Alex explains. "That was really Tim's idea — he wanted to take something that was very familiar to people and do something a little different with it." In a 2013 Food + Wine piece, the late food writer Josh Ozersky pronounced Tim "probably the only modernist barbecue chef in the country," a title that still largely rings true today.

But despite the elaborate plates with ingredients like cured egg yolk, dehydrated quinoa, and carrot paper, the Granary is undoubtedly a barbecue restaurant, even when the sun goes down. As Tim explains it, 95 percent of the menu involves some amount of smoking or live-fire cooking — including the granola that, along with a root beer foam, jazzes up a plate of otherwise simple roasted root vegetables. "I tell my [kitchen staff] all the time that the smoker is the most important piece of equipment in the building," he says. "We can do all the cool technique stuff that we want, but if we're not smoking meat, then none of us have jobs."

But smoke is used judiciously here, so as not to conceal the flavor of the high-quality (and high-dollar) meat. Briskets are sourced from 44 Farms, a Central Texas ranch that supplies many of the state's finest restaurants, like John Tesar's Knife. "We wanted people first and foremost to taste the protein," Tim says. "That's been something that we really believe in. Smoke should amplify or enhance what you're eating, not be the main taste in your mouth."

One dish where that philosophy shines is the customer-favorite brisket ramen. Tim's version starts with a shoyu broth that gets its deep, rich flavor from pork neck bones that are smoked before finding their way into the stock pot. "Smoke and global flavors work really well together," Tim says. (The menu's international influences can, at least in part, be attributed to years the brothers spent living in London as kids.) The noodles are made in-house — something most ramen-yas don't even do — with Alex's brown ale lending a subtle nutty flavor to the dough. Garnished with luscious smoked brisket, a creamy onsen egg, crispy fried shallots tossed in the house barbecue rub, and a crispy collard green leaf, what could easily be a novelty dish is instead a carefully considered composition that wouldn't be out of place at one of the country's more progressive ramen spots. The dish also smartly utilizes the same brisket that's already being smoked for the lunch menu, just one example of how the dual-concept restaurant strives for a zero-waste kitchen.

The Granary may very well be the only barbecue place in the world that makes its own ramen noodles — not to mention the beer that goes into them. Alex's journey to brewmasterdom started back in college, when he studied abroad in the UK. "We took a tour of the Guinness brewery in Ireland, and I really fell in love with the history of the brewery," he reminisces. On his 22nd birthday, Tim gifted him a home-brewing kit, and things spiraled from there.

While Alex's overarching goal is simply to make good beer, there are some things he takes into consideration when it comes to pairing beer and smoked meats. "We try to brew stuff that's well-balanced, with a drier finish, because you want something with a little bitterness to cut through the fat of the meat," he explains. In addition to year-round brews like rye saison and brown ale, seasonal specials might include a coffee IPA wafting an aroma of fresh-ground espresso or a smoked pale ale brewed with agave nectar. Alex handles the nonalcoholic side of the beverage menu, too, tapping a spicy house-brewed root beer and sodas in seasonal flavors like cantaloupe-fennel.

For diners expecting the traditional 'cue pairings of Lone Star beer or Big Red, cantaloupe-fennel soda and smoked beers can raise some eyebrows. While San Antonio's dining scene is beginning to hit its stride and garner national attention, neither the moneyed sophistication of Dallas, the remarkable ethnic diversity of Houston, nor the lovingly embraced craft movement of Austin quite exist. To paraphrase Eater critic Bill Addison's recent look at the local dining scene, in San Antonio there's Tex-Mex, and then there's everything else. This is, after all, the established hotbed for cheese-smothered combination plates and the prized creation that is the puffy taco; it's considered the epicenter for the oft-misunderstood cuisine that's currently having a heyday in New York City, of all places.

"I don’t know of another kind of food that has brings out such a sacred resistance to change in people."

"San Antonio is still finding its identity, so to me, it's a really exciting time: Sometimes when there aren't any rules, people take more risk," says Tim. But the city's up-and-coming nature also presents its challenges. "There are so many people in San Antonio that are still old-school in how they eat, and they just want meat and potatoes," says Alex. "People in Texas grew up eating barbecue with their grandparents, so I guess they have lot of emotional attachment to it. But I don't know of another kind of food that has brings out such a sacred resistance to change in people."

Four years into running a successful restaurant in a city with a burgeoning dining scene, Alex says they're definitely feeling the pressure to expand. "Since San Antonio is all of the sudden getting some attention and spotlight, it sometimes feels like if you don't open something tomorrow, the world's going to pass you by and all the good spots will be taken," he says. "I think right now we're really just focusing on trying to keep the Granary the best that we can."

Operating what essentially amounts to two restaurants under one roof certainly comes with its own set of unique challenges: In addition to preparing two very different menus — each with its own lengthy prep list — there's also the issue of operating with two very different service styles. Each staff member has to be trained in both counter service and table service, and be knowledgeable about both menus. "It definitely can create some logistical challenges," Tim admits, "but since this is our first restaurant, it's just normal to us."

And don't rule out another restaurant in the Rattrays' future: "There's definitely other stuff in the pipeline we'd like to do," Alex says. Just don't expect to see a second location anytime soon. "I can't speak for Tim, but I don't think we would do another Granary," Alex says. "It's in a really unique building, and I think if you try to replicate that somewhere else, it won't have the same feeling. We wouldn't want something that felt like it was a copy, without any original feel." And with the brothers Rattray at the helm, originality is all but guaranteed.

Smoked is a column that profiles barbecue restaurants of note.


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