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October 19th, 2011 BEN WATERHOUSE | Restaurant Guide
 

Restaurant Guide 2011: Podnah's Pit, Restaurant of the Year

In its new home on Northeast Killingsworth, the five-year-old restaurant is better than ever.

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The secret to great barbecue, according to Rodney Muirhead, is this: “The meat goes into the smoker completely raw and comes out completely cooked.”

That sounds easy enough, but it requires a lot of patience—a virtue that many barbecue joints that pre-boil their ribs, bake their briskets and microwave their leftovers can’t seem to muster. 

As far as barbecue is concerned, at least, Muirhead is a paragon of patience. With his formula of good meat, wood smoke and lots of time, he has, over seven years, gone from slinging ribs at the Portland Farmers Market to running one of the nation’s great barbecue destinations. At Podnah’s Pit, our 2011 Restaurant of the Year, the trout is sweet, the biscuits flaky and the brisket soft as warm butter beneath its peppery bark.

Muirhead grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, a small town about the size of Milwaukie some 30 miles south of Dallas, best known as the home of the canceled Superconducting Super Collider project. He says he inherited his love of barbecue from his grandfather, an “old-school butcher” whom everyone called Podnah. Muirhead attended Texas A&M University and eventually wound up in the tech industry. In his early 30s, he took a break to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York, then returned to his former employer—working on “robotics for semiconductor factories.” After moving him to Portland, the company then, in 2004, laid him off.

Naturally, Muirhead reacted by firing up the smoker.

Podnah's Pit - IMAGE: Jarod Opperman
“Me and Kyle Connaly, who I worked with...were both laid off on the same day,” Muirhead says. “We started having parties at his house, just because we didn’t have much to do. We were making barbecue for all the Texans that we knew in town.” The parties were successful enough that the pair started selling Central-Texas-style (dry-rubbed, with no sugary sauces) ribs, brisket and lamb ribs from a stand at the Portland Farmers Market under the name LOW BBQ—short for “Laid Off Workers”—and immediately attracted a die-hard following of meat lovers. When the season ended, Muirhead and Connaly moved LOW to a Southeast Portland street corner, and then to the kitchen of Apizza Scholls on Monday nights. Connaly eventually left the enterprise—“he didn’t like the restaurant world too much,” Muirhead says—shortly after which they sold the business to Ken Gordon (of Kenny & Zuke’s).

“I still wanted a restaurant,” Muirhead says, “and I knew Cathy [Whims] was opening Nostrana, so I went and talked to her to see if I could go through the opening and work there for a while [to gain experience starting a restaurant]. Then I started looking for my own space.” In 2006 he opened Podnah’s Pit, named for his grandfather, in a tiny space—“If you counted the little bench next to the cash register,” Muirhead recalls, “I think it was 34 seats”—on the corner of Northeast 14th Avenue and Prescott Street. 

It was an immediate success, popular enough that the restaurant regularly ran out of meat well before the end of dinner hours. The opening was a cause for near-religious celebration among local lovers of Southern barbecue, and the excitement kept right on going. In our 2008 Restaurant Guide, I described the brisket as “tender as a soldier’s kiss, smoked over the eternal fire of freedom, seasoned with true grit and served with sauce made from cowboy sweat and eagle tears, plus two sides.” (I still stand by my review.)

But Podnah’s had physical problems. The shotgun layout made for cold drafts most of the year and made squeezing in large parties tricky. In 2010, Muirhead and his business partner, Laika director Kirk Kelley (the man behind the anthropomorphic M&Ms commercials), grew tired of renting and, after nearly a year of searching, placed an offer on a former church on a depressed stretch of Northeast Killingsworth Street.

Click below to go inside the Podnah's Pit kitchen.

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