“These are the twins,” says 2Fifty Texas BBQ’s pitmaster Fernando González, gesturing toward a pair of 1,000-gallon smokers custom built by Primitive Pits in Georgia.
The twins are beasts. Mirror images of each other, the tubular mobile smokers each stretch 20 feet and weigh close to 2 tons. Painted rich garnet in cheery defiance of the stereotypical black, they are parked under a corrugated tin roof behind the award-winning barbecue joint González owns in Riverdale, Maryland with his wife Debby Portillo, who serves as their company’s CEO.
Opening one of the smoker’s doors, which slide upwards with the aid of custom-made counterweights to provide a small respite for the pitmasters, González reveals rows of well-seasoned, dark-crusted briskets, each sitting on a sheet of aluminum foil that curves up to protect the flat flap on one end and the fat-laden point on the other.
He eases back the aluminum foil on the closet slab.
“It’s developing bark; the fat rendering already,” he says. “They’re looking great.”
He picks it up and tries moving the flap up and down, but there’s not much wiggle to it.
“You want it to bend in both directions,” he says. “When you can do that, all the collagen and connective tissue has broken down and most of the fat has rendered.”
Placing it back on the grate, he closes the door.
“Pitmasters should be able to determine if meat is ready by look and feel alone,” he says. “That’s when you achieve perfection, when you can know exactly what’s happening by looking at it.”
All told, these briskets will cook for 12 to 14 hours before they will pass muster and are ready to be rested, chilled down and finally, sliced.
Walking to the hitch end of the wheeled smokers, he swings open the door to the firebox. A low fire made of crisscrossed white oak logs over red coals blazes away. Each of the twins goes through a cord and a half of wood a week.
“We spend a lot of money on wood,” González says.
Like the smoking process, the mantra with the fire is low and slow. Too high and the smoke will overpower the meat; too hot and the meat will get burned. Each protein and cut has its particularities, so pulled pork, turkeys, ribs, chickens and sausages all need to be treated differently. There are endless details to remember; countless decisions made during each smoke session to ensure success.
“You have to be obsessed, and I guess I’m obsessed,” González says. “But there’s no other way to do it. If you really want to nail every single pound, you have to be obsessed with it.”
The whole process is hands-on.
“You can do this with an automated, set and forget system, but it will never create the same result,” says González, who requires new employees to work alongside an existing pitmaster for months, and pass a test after studying Aaron Franklin’s 16-episode MasterClass on barbecue before they work a smoker alone.
A few feet away from the twins, sitting forlornly the restaurant’s parking lot with a for sale sign on it, is the 500-gallon Amish-made smoker González used when he and Portillo opened 2Fifty BBQ in April 2020. It seemed like it was going to be able to handle the job. Then in November, 2Fifty hit number one on Tim Carman’s annual barbeque ranking roundup in The Washington Post.
“All of a sudden, this gigantic, three-level smoker was too small,” González says.
Long lines became the norm. Frequently, potential guests were sent home empty-handed, where they cataloged their grievances in one-star Yelp reviews. To help meet the intense demand, the first smoker was ordered from Primitive Pits, but they realized even that wouldn’t be enough so a second was ordered. Each one took eight months to build and carried a price tag of $25,000, but the pair quadrupled the amount of space available for smoking meats, allowing González and his team to 50 briskets at a time.
This setup is a far cry from González’s first smoker, which the former civil engineer made from a propane tank based on instructions from legendary pitmaster Aaron Franklin, who he now refers to as his “pitmaster sensei.” That was eight years ago, when he and Portillo were still living in their home country of El Salvador. He became hooked on Texas-style barbecue while traveling to the Lone Star State as a part of his work for the couple’s shipping company and decided to learn the craft.
The process was sometimes more error than trial. He powered his smoker with whatever tropical wood he could get his hands on — sapote, mango and orange — but they weren’t great for barbecue. The police were called several times over smoke complaints and González admits he burned a lot of meat in the beginning.
He has come a long way since then, but still demurs when asked if he considers himself a master of the craft.
“No,” he says. “I don’t have that approach. We are only as a good as our last cook. We are always learning. Just when you think you know everything, barbeque will throw you to the ground and say, ‘You have no idea what you’re doing.’”