Photograph by Ryan Kurtz
To smoke meat well requires the patience and commitment of a monk. “This is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Elias Leisring, owner of Eli’s Barbeque, as he affectionately pats one of the two enormous custom-made barbecue smokers set up behind his East End restaurant. Each is the width of a Metro bus, charred black from years of hickory-smoked haze and an endless train of pork shoulders shuffled in and out. “That’s one reason why we stay open seven days a week,” Leisring adds. “It’s just easier to keep the snowball rolling.” But there’s more to good barbecue than a high-endurance machine. It’s a team effort that requires preparation, instinct, adjustments, and a little luck, from sunup to sundown. Here’s what it takes.
7 a.m.–10 a.m. “At this volume level, we need a smoker manager,” explains Leisring. In this case, Shane Williams (right). Roughly 65 pork shoulders go into the smoker each afternoon, with a cook time of 14 to 18 hours, depending on size, weather, and cooking temperature (which averages about 225 degrees). Williams, or another smoker manager, arrives bright and early to pull them out. “It’s a lot of maintenance and gut-instinct type work, because every shoulder is from a different animal,” says Leisring. “Smoking so that all parts are awesome—that’s the art of this.” Once the shoulders are removed from the smoker, they cool briefly before being pulled.
9 a.m.–11 a.m. Once the shoulders exit the smoker, ribs, turkeys, and hot dogs go in. The ribs, cut down from spare ribs to a St. Louis style (a rectangular cut), and turkeys are pulled out of a daylong wet brine using sugar, salt, and water with a little lemon, honey, and garlic. All meats are smoked at 200 to 265 degrees, though the non-pork-shoulder options, due to their density, take a lot less time—up to five hours for ribs and 30 minutes for dogs.
11 a.m. Lunch service starts. Due to their high volume, Eli’s works one day ahead: Nothing that came off the smoker today will be served until tomorrow. “That allows us to serve a more consistent product,” says Leisring.
3 p.m.–5 p.m. As the ribs, turkey, and dogs finish, raw shoulders are dry-rubbed with brown sugar, salt, garlic, cayenne, and other spices and prepped to cook overnight. Eli’s depends on hickory wood for its propane-start smokers; more wood is added over the course of the day when needed. “It’s a constant struggle to keep the temperature consistent and prevent flare-ups from happening,” says Leisring, “Something is always changing, whether it’s the weather or the machine malfunctioning because it was manufactured by some redneck in Missouri. There are constant workarounds.”
5 p.m.–9 p.m. Dinner service heats up and continues until the restaurant closes at 9. “Right now we do about 65 shoulders a day,” Leisring says.
11 p.m.–7 a.m. The restaurant may close, but the smoking never stops. By the time the last employees leave at 11, the shoulders have gotten a solid six to seven hours of hickory smoke. Overnight smoker temperatures are held consistent by a propane fire until someone arrives in the morning to check the progress. “Sometimes we’ll come in and the engine broke overnight. It’s not uncommon,” says Leisring. “But we just hope everything is good when we get back.” Scrapping the pork is expensive, that’s why it pays to work a day ahead.