If you believe in forever
Where baby backs are never bland
If there’s a barbecue heaven
Well you know Mr. Pete is lending a hand, hand, hand.
Shortly after Arthur Bryant died in 1982, the Kansas City Star published a cartoon depicting St. Peter greeting Arthur at the gates of heaven and asking, “Did you bring sauce?” A quarter of a century later, I can imagine St. Peter asking Pete Powdrell if he brought the secrets to his extraordinarily tender brisket. What the legendary Kansas City barbecue giant Arthur Bryant was to sauce, Pete Powdrell was to beef. Albuquerque’s indisputable king of barbecue was called home on December 2nd, 2007, but he left behind an indelible legacy that extended far beyond serving some of the best barbecue in the west.
Pete was a second-generation sharecropper who in 1958 escaped the small town racism of Crosbyton, Texas to start a new life in Albuquerque. Fifty years later, Pete’s circle of friends and mourners included most of New Mexico’s political power brokers as well as tens of thousands of customers who loved his barbecue and the gentle man perpetually attired in overalls who prepared it.
To chronicle Pete’s life (and someone should) would be to celebrate the sheer determination and drive of a man whose greatest of many gifts may have been perseverance. He literally had not much more than the clothes on his back when he arrived in Albuquerque with his wife and eleven children, but he was determined to make a good life for his family.
Since 1962, the Powdrell family has operated several barbecue houses in the Duke City. Their initial restaurant venture, a take-out diner on South Broadway, launched four years after the family relocated to Albuquerque. The inspiration for Pete’s original, authentic Southern-style barbecue was family recipes he began perfecting during backyard and church cookouts in Texas. Those recipes dates back to the 19th century near Baton Rouge, Louisiana where his grandfather Isaac Britt began the Powdrell family legacy of incomparable barbecue.
The word “institution” is bandied about too easily these days, but in Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House, Albuquerque has a bona fide institution that continues to stand the test of time against the formidable onslaught and riches of corporate pretenders, many of whom fall by the wayside while Powdrell’s continues to thrive. Drive by Powdrell’s and the wafting fragrance of hickory smoke literally invites you to step inside and partake of old-fashioned barbecue. Not coincidentally, Pete’s son Joe will tell you his father was much like the hickory wood used at the restaurant–hard, stubborn and consistent.
The reason for Powdrell’s continued success–some of the very best barbecue in the west served by a warm family in welcoming milieus. East side residents frequent Powdrell’s on Central Avenue between Eubank and Juan Tabo while west dwelling citizens visit Powdrell’s on North Fourth where barbecue is served in a stately brick home on the National Historic Registry.
Ann Powdrell, who was eleven years old when the family traversed the winding Route 66 in their move to Albuquerque, takes care of the kitchen in the Fourth Street restaurant. She is a sweet, gentle woman with a raconteur’s gift for enthralling guests with stories about her fabled family. On an infrequent slow lunch hour, she might even show you the veritable museum collection of family memorabilia upstairs. More than likely, however, she’s in the kitchen preparing the dishes which help make Powdrell’s the legendary barbecue restaurant it is.
Powdrell’s hasn’t been a local secret in a long time, but it’s a claim to fame of which we’re all proud. Over the years Albuquerque’s finest gift to Route 66 barbecue tradition has garnered a lot of recognition from beyond the Duke City. In 2004, Sunset magazine published an article celebrating the west’s best BBQ. Calling the west a “barbecue frontier,” the magazine trumpeted Powdrell’s baby back ribs slathered with tart, spicy sauce. Culinary sojourner Michael Stern, co-founder of the Roadfood Web and publishing dynasty loved Powdrell’s beef, proclaiming that “it isn’t the extraordinary tenderness that will make you happy; it’s this meat’s flavor.” In his thematic tome, Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Road Trip! author Ray Lampe hits the road and introduces America to the best barbecue in the fruited plains. Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House was one of only four New Mexico venues singled out by the self-professed Dr. BBQ.
My first impression of this very special barbecue was formed in the late 1970s while living on the south side of Central Avenue not more than three hundred yards from Mr. Powdrell’s. With the most faint of breezes, the aroma of succulent meats smoked low and slow wafted toward my cramped quarters like an irresistible siren’s song. It was a tantalizing temptation no one could resist. The genesis of the olfactory arousing aroma was indeed hickory smoke-saturated meats, the memory of which imprinted themselves on my taste buds with an ineffaceable permanence. In Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House, barbecue Nirvana beckoned and I answered.
Over the past few decades my travels have allowed me to experience barbecue from the four American epicenters of barbecue excellence: Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and South Carolina. Though I have found barbecue that is more lauded, only Mr. Powdrell’s has the taste of being home.
The stately brick home on North Fourth street which houses Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House still looks very much like the family dwelling it once was. From the built-in china cabinets to the hardwood floors, it is an inviting setting for dining, an invitation infused by the provocative hickory smokers near the parking lot.
In describing the west’s barbecue as “unburdened by the orthodoxy of such hot spots as Texas and the Carolinas,” Sunset magazine may have well been describing Powdrell’s where the menu has a whole lot of Texas, a little bit of Memphis with a touch of Kansas City for good measure. In other words, the menu has a bit of everything then some.
Being unburdened, Powdrell’s can serve such non-traditional starters as mushrooms prepared in butter as well as all the favorite fried appetizer favorites. It also serves some of the best blue cheese dressing in Albuquerque, a dressing ameliorated by just a bit of feta with some very high quality blue cheese. It’s perfect–neither too thick nor too thin and runny, not too strong or sour. It’s the blue cheese dressing Goldilocks would choose.
The menu includes a veritable smorgasbord of sumptuous sandwiches generously engorged with smoke-infused meats slathered with a tangy sauce. The sandwiches are excellent, but most diners queue for barbecue dinners, all of which are served with two sides and Texas toast.
The combination platter (pictured above) features a pound or more of some of the best Mr. Powdrell’s has to offer–chicken, ribs, sausage, links and some of the very best brisket in the world. The brisket is the pièce de résistance, indisputably the very best in town (and nothing else is even close). It is smoked at low heat for eighteen hours and when done is refrigerated then heated again. The process somehow imbues the brisket with an uncommon tenderness that belies what can be a leather-tough cut of meat. Michael Stern is absolutely right in declaring the flavor of this meat to be your source of happiness. This is an absolutely delicious brisket that would convert the most staunch of vegetarians.
If you’ve ever lamented the dearth of truly outstanding chicken wings in Albuquerque, Powdrell’s will make a believer out of you. These wings are imbued with a hint of smoke before being deep-fried to seal in that smokiness and flavor while melting off that layer of fat just underneath the skin. They are then glazed with a tangy, spicy barbecue sauce so unlike the sauces wings restaurant describe as “inferno,” “nuclear” and the like, but which don’t deliver. Powdrell’s sauce has the zesty tanginess of orange peel, the pleasant piquancy of peppers and the sweet-savory goodness of ingredients that work very well together. The wings are moist, meaty and utterly delicious.
The perfect accompaniment for those wings is a dish of black beans and rice quite unlike what you might see at a Cajun restaurant where such a dish isn’t prepared with smoked sausage, celery and a tomato sauce base. Ann Powdrell describes it as one of those dishes her mother created out of whatever was in the refrigerator. You’ll describe it absolutely delicious.
Not even the very best restaurants do all things well though the great ones tend to come close. At Powdrell’s as at most restaurants in Albuquerque, the Achilles Heel seems to be catfish. It’s the one dish I’ve enjoyed least at Powdrell’s and that’s not solely because of my eight years in Mississippi (America’s catfish capital) helped me appreciate the qualities of catfish done well. The coating on the catfish made it very difficult to cut into, normally an indication the inside is dry (it was). Fortunately the catfish was offered as a special of the day along with another meat. The brisket was as wonderful as the catfish was disappointing.
Much better is an entree of broiled trout which is as tender and moist as the catfish is tough and dry. Two delicious filets are served with two sides and Texas Toast. The filets are brushed lightly with butter and served with a nice char. A squeeze of lemon or a small application of tartar sauce and you’re good to go. The only drawback to eating broiled fish, no matter how good it may be, is being surrounded by the fragrant bouquet of bodacious barbecue. You may want some of Powdrell’s barbecue sauce on the trout, too.
Powdrell’s meats are the antithesis of the type of meat to which I refer as Ivory Snow in that it’s NOT 99 and 44/100 percent pure. You’ll find a fatty or sinewy meat here or there and plenty of dark meat, but that’s, in part what Duke City diners have loved about Powdrell’s for generations. It’s a bit sassy and a bit imperfect, but always comforting and delicious.
In 2010, Powdrell’s East Side location was selected by Duke City voters as the inaugural winner of the city’s “rock this restaurant” challenge, qualifying for a complete make-over. It’s a testament to just how beloved this bastion of barbecue has become over the years. In honor of its selection, Powdrell’s introduced an “everything but the kitchen sink” sandwich called the “Rockin’ Po-Boy,” a beefy behemoth that would test the mettle of a professional gurgitator. Available in six- or twelve-inch sizes, this sandwich is engorged to its spilling point with beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked turkey, onion rings, French fries and coleslaw slathered with barbecue sauce. There’s obviously no need for sides because they’re inside the sandwich. You’ll be hard-pressed to finish this hard rockin’ sandwich.
Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House
5209 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 13
BEST BET: Barbecue Brisket, Chicken Wings, Rockin’ Po-Boy, Babyback Ribs, Okra, Corn-on-the-cob, coleslaw