Every summer, a predictable ritual takes place. After hibernating comfortably since the previous autumn, men attired in aprons emblazoned with the slogan “kiss the cook” will selflessly volunteer to “cook” a meal. This, of course, means barbecue, a decidedly masculine affectation and the only type of cooking most men can be entrusted to do. When this ritual is completed and guests are sated, lavish praise and thanks are heaped upon the “chef.” In truth, the only aspects of this ritual for which men are typically responsible is getting the grill lit, placing the meats on the grill and turning them (after our female better halves warn us that the meats are burning). Normally all the preparatory work—buying the food; preparing the salad, vegetables and desserts; preparing the meat for cooking; organizing plates and cutlery; preparing the plates—is done by our wives and girlfriends. Ditto for the post-dining rituals—clearing the table, doing the dishes and putting everything away. Insouciant clods that men are, we can’t figure out why our ladies are upset when we asked how they enjoyed their “night off.”
While most of us endowed with the XY-chromosome pairing can identify with the scenario described above (which some women might find entirely accurate), Katie Calico and her husband Chris White have a more egalitarian relationship when it comes to the barbecue ritual. The two own and operate the TFK Smokehouse, an endeavor which requires equally exhausting effort from both of them. We first observed them prepare then serve meals out of their barbecue mothership, one of the very best mobile food kitchens (food truck for you, Bob) an endeavor which nearly wore us out. They performed the same type of prep work the brick-and-mortar restaurants do, but they did so in a much more confined space, a food truck other food truck vendors refer to as “The Cage” for its mix of industrial meets artistic design.
TFK, by the way, doesn’t stand for “Truck Food Kitchen” as we had surmised before meeting Katie. It stands for “Talking Fountain Kitchen,” in honor of Katie’s erstwhile venture, Talking Fountain Gallery and Boutique. Before launching the TFK Smokehouse in November, 2013, Katie owned and operated the gallery on Lead Avenue. She explained that “talking fountains” don’t speak on their own; for centuries, fountains have served as meeting places in which citizens of Rome could express themselves—even during Mussolini’s regime. The idea of expressing yourself any way you can resonated deeply with Katie who continues in that spirit even though her primary focus has expanded to now include the culinary arts.
The TFK Smokehouse is reflective of the creativity formerly on display at her gallery. Once a flatbed trailer sporting stainless steel tables, the Smokehouse underwent a significant make-over. Many of the display fixtures and racks from the defunct art gallery were repurposed for the truck along with other artistic treasures. The result is a rather unique food truck that belies any stereotypes you may have about food trucks…at least in terms of appearance. From a functional standpoint, however, the Smokehouse is everything you would expect a great food truck to be. The aromas wafting from this mobile conveyance are akin to smoke signals beckoning you to sample the fruit wood-perfumed fare.
When we asked to which style the Smokehouse subscribes from among the four regional pillars of American barbecue (Memphis, Texas, Kansas City, Carolinas), Chris told us they employ the St. Louis style of barbecue. On a per capita basis, St. Louis consumes more barbecue sauce than any city in the nation and boasts of former world barbecue champion Super Smokers among other purveyors of outstanding barbecue. He added that the influence of molasses is readily apparent on their sauce. It’s also apparent that savvy diners keep track of where the Smokehouse will be parked. In the time it took us to finish our lunch, dozens of diners had queued up and ordered food either to go or to consume at one of La Cumbre Brewing Co’s shaded picnic tables.
3 June 2017: In that time, the most frequently ordered item appeared to be the Burqueno Cheesesteak (smoked prime rib with grilled onions, green chile and Asadero cheese on a toasted baguette). In this town only the transcendent green chile Philly from Philly’s N’ Fries is even in the same ballpark as this behemoth sandwich. Several elements make this a special sandwich. First and foremost, it really is made with prime rib, not some inferior cut of beef. That prime rib is lightly smokes so as not to detract from the native deliciousness of that cut. Secondly, the green chile actually bites back. You probably won’t be reaching for water (unless you’re from Colorado), but you’ll definitely get a little endorphin rush. Third, the toasted baguette is courtesy of Albuquerque’s premier bakery, Golden Crown Panaderia. No one in this town knows bread as well as Pratt and Chris Morales.
3 June 2017: On the date of our inaugural visit, the Smokehouse menu featured six sandwiches, each served with a side item (your choice of cole slaw, potato salad or kettle chips). Roasted green chile can be added to any barbecue sandwich for a dollar more. It’s a very worthwhile investment especially with the BBQ beef brisket sandwich (smoked beef brisket on a bed of cole slaw with the Smokehouse’s sweet BBQ sauce on a toasted bolillo roll. This is a very good sandwich with contrasts (the crunchy, tangy cole slaw and the sweet sauce, for example) which work very well together. The brisket is shredded into tender tendrils of moist, juicy beef. True to its genesis, the St. Louis style sauce is very much on the sweet side. Thankfully other elements provide a nice counterbalance.
3 June 2017: For lesser appetites, the Smokehouse offers “pint” sized barbecue sandwiches for about half the price of the standard-sized sandwiches. These pint-sized treasures are available in your favorite meats (brisket, pork, chicken). A vegetarian-friendly sandwich christened the Bella (balsamic-glazed portabella mushrooms on a bed of coleslaw with the Smokehouse’s sweet sauce on a toasted bolillo roll) is another superb option. The balsamic glaze imparts vinegary notes that work very well with the sweet sauce. The portabella mushrooms have a meaty texture and earthy flavor, but it’s just a bit obfuscated by the sauce.
On Wednesday, 3 October 2017, the mobile smokehouse with a siren-like appeal launched a brick-and-mortar operation in the cute big red barn that previously housed Kasey’s Restaurant & Pub on Washington about a mile south of Central. For Katie, who once worked in the food truck on a 103-degree day while nine months pregnant, getting out of the elements is a blessing. A larger venue also means she and Chris can expand their menu to showcase bodacious barbecue that just can’t be contained in a mobile kitchen. Visit the TFK website and you’ll notice the restaurant’s full appellation is TFK Smokehouse and Art Barn. In addition to culinary arts, Katie is exhibiting paintings of her “beautiful friends” which hang on the wall. Reminiscent of the Talking Fountain gallery, the entire venue showcases art in various mediums.
Though the brick-and-mortar restaurant will attract new guests, habitues of La Cumbre Brewing Co. consider Saturday, October 14th a day which will live in infamy. That’s the last day the TFK Smokehouse rolled onto the familiar parking lot to feed cerevisaphiles. Many of them will be making the ten mile trek to experience their familiar favorites at a new location. Occasional specials such as the Burqueño Cheesesteak are now part of the daily menu. Oh, and what a menu! It’s got everything from salads and sandwiches to smoked meat by the pound to bbq platters. For those of us who love our meats slathered in sauce, the Smokehouse now gives you a choice of four sauces: Carolina BBQ, Tangy Cider BBQ, Green Chile BBQ and a Sweet BBQ. You can also order a flight of all four or enjoy the meats san sauce.
27 October 2017: Joining me during my inaugural visit to the barbecue barn were my great friends Bill Resnik and Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, both tough critics when it comes to barbecue. Ryan has been smoking meats for years and has visited many of the prestigious pantheons of Texas barbecue. The Land of Enchantment’s barbecue hasn’t impressed him much. Similarly Bill prefers smoking his own meats though he has an affinity for Powdrell’s barbecue sauce. The TFK Smokehouse would have to be pretty darned good in order to impress these two. It is!
27 October 2017: Six appetizers adorn the menu–everything from lemongrass chicken satay to fried asadero mac n’ cheese bites. While all are tempting, Peter, our ebullient server steered us toward the special of the day, brisket nachos. Great choice. Picture a creamy asadero cheese sauce, house-pickled jalapeños, scallions, and some of the most tender and delicious brisket you’ll find all piled onto deep-fried flour tortillas cut into triangle shaped chips. These are some of the very best nachos in town with every component a perfect complement to the others. Asadero is a great choice for a cheese sauce, a mild tasting, nicely melting cheese with a pleasant acidity and fresh flavor. The pickled jalapeños have a nice balance between sweetness and piquancy. The star of these nachos, however, is the brisket which is redolent with fruit wood smoke. Each tender tendril of brisket is moist and delicious.
27 October 2017: Peter was two-for-two in the recommendations department. When we queried him about the pastrami used on the Smokehouse Reuben, he explained that a recent guest said the Reuben should win a Nobel prize and that the pastrami is smoked on the premises though it’s brined elsewhere. The menu describes the Smokehouse Reuben as “a pile of TFK smoked pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, grilled onions and housemade Russian dressing on toasted marble rye.” Pile is a good term. The sandwich is generously endowed with some of the very best smoked pastrami you’ll ever have. The smokiness is tempered by the tangy, assertive sauerkraut and a delicate Russian dressing on a fresh marble rye canvas. The most prevalent flavor is that of the pastrami. Everything else is supporting cast, but the type of supporting cast which should win awards (maybe not a Nobel prize, but…).
27 October 2017: Bill’s inaugural selection, the meatball platter with two sides, also proved a winner, too, though the sweet sauce is practically lacquered on each meatball and virtually covers the bottom of the plate. The meatballs themselves are terrific, fashioned from housemade smoked pork tenderloin and bacon. They’re fork tender, moist and just a bit smaller than a ping pong ball. The appetizer menu offers an alternative meatballs option, smoked pork chile cheese meatballs, which shouldn’t be quite as sweet. Bill raved about his Caprese salad side though he couldn’t find much mozzarella in it.
27 October 2017: Ryan’s meal choice was the three-meat combo featuring brisket, pork and baby back ribs, all prepared to Ryan’s liking. He appreciated the meatiness of the baby back ribs. All too often you have to commission a search party to find much meat on baby backs. These ribs also have a nice bark and an obvious smoke ring, very endearing qualities on any barbecued meat. Ryan also loved the brisket, the Lone Star state’s favorite barbecue. Both the brisket and pork are cut thick with flavorful fat left on–again as it’s often served in Texas. Nary a disparaging word was heard at our table as three tough critics all certified TFK Smokehouse barbecue as very, very good.
From among the four sauces, there was consensus as to the one we enjoyed least. That would be the sweet sauce which we all found to be almost cloying. Ryan and I enjoyed the Carolina mustard sauce with its tangy kick while Bill was partial to the tangy cider BBQ sauce (which even reminded him of his cherished Powdrell’s sauce). Neither of us discerned any heat at all in the green chile sauce, but at least it wasn’t cloying. Consensus was also decreed that none of the meats needed sauce. That’s one of the signs of truly great barbecue.
16 December 2017: During her inaugural visit to the brick-and-mortar instantiation of the TFK Smokehouse, my Kim also opted for the three meat combo though she substituted a grilled chicken breast for the baby back ribs. The chicken breast is the only meat which isn’t smoked though it is thoroughly rubbed with a wondrous house concoction. As did Ryan, my Kim sampled the flight of sauces, but concluded that good as the sauces may be, they are wholly unnecessary. It’s obvious the pitmaster knows what he’s doing!
16 December 2017: When the phenomenal Bucketheadz closed its doors early in 2017, we feared we’d seen the last of fried macaroni and cheese in Albuquerque. It’s a terrific appetizer with which we fell in love back in Mississippi half a lifetime ago. TFK’s version is as good as any we had in the Magnolia state and on par with Malaika’s version at Bucketheadz. Picture breaded and fried asadero mac ‘n cheese bites shaped into glorious golden wedges and served with your choice of the green chile bbq sauce or the classic sweet bbq sauce. Asadero is a creamy, virtually oil-free cheese with a slight tang. It’s the perfect choice for fried mac ‘n cheese. The green chile bbq sauce with a discernible bite is the perfect foil for this delicious starter.
The Food Network’s Eat, Sleep BBQ program would have you believe that it’s no longer sufficient for a barbecue restaurant to feature the tried and true standards–low and slow smoked beef and pork either or both rubbed and sauced. In the contemporary fruited plain, even barbecue has become avant-garde, just another platform for experimentation. Recently celebrated on the aforementioned networks were such inventive barbecue dishes as barbecue brisket ramen noodles (The Granary in San Antonio, Texas), brisket barbecue egg rolls and burnt end nachos (Sauced in Petaluma, California).
Those bastions of barbecue have nothing on the TFK Smokehouse whose own unique barbecue dishes are certainly Food Network worthy. Some of those unique dishes such as the Burqueño cheesesteak and barbecue brisket nachos began as specials, but are now on the regular menu. You’ll want to follow TFK on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss (as we did) such creative wonderment as the Smokehouse Chicken Carbonara (farfalle pasta in champagne cream sauce topped with grilled chicken, bacon, tomatoes, green onions, and shredded Parmesan) and smoked brisket Stroganoff. It’s reason enough to visit Facebook.
16 December 2017: In his inimitable style, Gil’s Thrilling pollmeister (my spellchecker insists on poltergeist) Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) described TFK’s Hawaii 505 Barbecue Sliders as “knock you socks or thongs… aka go-aheads…off” as well as “scrumpdillyiciously yummy.” Good call, Bob! My first inclination was that most “sliders” tend to be rather small, sometimes almost bite sized. While that may suit someone with an avian appetite, big guys like me consider most sliders mere canapes. The ever-reliable Peter assured us the three-per-order sliders have as much meat as any other sandwich on the menu. Soft, toasted Hawaiian rolls courtesy of the Fano Bread Company, a premier Duke City bakery are the canvas upon which this sandwich is made. Indeed, there is plenty of the TFK’s addictive smoked pork as well as a tangy coleslaw, grilled pineapple and sauce. Rather than the house sauce, I asked for the Carolina bbq sauce, a tangy mustard and vinegar-based sauce with a lip-pursing tanginess that contrasts nicely with the sweet pineapple. This sandwich quickly dispelled any notions I had about the sliders being too small. You’ve got to open wide to get this skyscraper of a sandwich in your mouth. Its size isn’t the only surprise. More surprising is its sheer deliciousness.
16 December 2017: The TFK Smokehouse dispels another menu about barbecue restaurants. If you believe barbecue joints serve only cobbler (and cobbler ala mode) for dessert, boy are you in for a treat. Diet be damned when such deliciousness as a fried pineapple chimichanga is available. Yes, it really is a fried tortilla bursting at its seams with pineapple and white caramel topped with vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with plenty of cinnamon. It’s absolutely delicious, well worth the extra hour of time on the treadmill. Best of all, it’s a dessert big enough to share and big enough to sate the sweetest of sweet teeth.
More than most Albuquerque area restaurants, the TFK Smokehouse does a terrific job of posting on its Facebook page what it’s daily specials are (including tempting desserts and specials you’ve probably never before seen at a barbecue restaurant). Alas, the page also includes photos of some of the featured fare. It’s food porn that’ll have barbecue aficionados salivate with lust. That lust is justified. The TFK Smokehouse was one of the city’s very best food trucks. Now it’s one of its very best barbecue restaurants.
400 Washington Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2017
1st VISIT: 3 June 2017
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: BBQ Bella Sandwich, Burqueño Cheesesteak, BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich, Coleslaw, Potato Salad, Baked Beans, The Smokehouse Reuben, Hawaii 505 Barbecue Sliders, Fried Pineapple Chimichangas