by Hilary Langford
The steps leading to the front door read, “Meat This Way.”
They might as well say, “Stairway to Heaven” because Richmond’s purveyor of Texas-style barbecue is changing the game — not just in the city, but across the region.
The story of ZZQ Texas Craft Barbecue writes itself, and it’s owners Chris Fultz, a Texas native, and Alex Graf tell it no fewer than three or four times a day to fans who’ve waited hours to get in the door.
Over a tray of various smoky morsels and pickled slaw, the pit masters beam relaying it. “It’s mythical,” says Graf, laughing.
The two connected in 2011 after both wrapped up divorces.
Graf was member of the River City Roller Girls. After catching a match one night, Fultz sent her a Facebook message. So began the wooing, of which barbecue was a big part.
From there, the road to marriage and business success verges on a fairytale, albeit one in which the prince uses a spare rib instead of a slipper.
“We were at this Memorial Day cookout with mutual friends, and I saw her across the yard, so I brought her one of my smoked ribs,” says Fultz.
Powered by a little smoker, the two whipped up eats at a humble pop-up behind Ardent Craft Ales one day a week. They usually sold out within an hour and a half. Growth from that point on was incremental. “We never took on more than we could handle,” Fultz says. “I’m proud of that.”
As with much of this narrative, luck inserted itself again. On a road trip to Texas, the pair met pit legend, John Lewis. In conversation, it came up that ZZQ probably needed a bigger smoker. “At the end of the trip, we got a call from his dad,” Fultz says. “He said they’d build it for us. It was four times bigger than what we had, and that allowed us to build the brand.”
Ultimately, that led the couple to finally open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, fittingly next to Ardent.
It may be in Richmond, but it feels all Texas. It’s not surprising the place looks sharp considering both have architecture backgrounds, but it’s the vibe that’s astounding. “We researched everything from serving styles to patios and the cooking,” says Graf.
Under a constant curl of smoke, their Scott’s Addition space is a down-home experience, not unlike a roadhouse. Its wood-planked walls showcase everything from photos of road adventures to neon signs. The soundtrack is heavy on country, with the likes of Dwight Yoakam and Sturgill Simpson cranked.
Three stuffed cows keep a watchful eye from atop a bar stocked with libations rarely seen outside of Texas, ranging from Austin-based brewery Jester King to a slew of agave spirits and nonboozy favorite Topo Chico.
Six draft lines pour a little of everything, but there’s always one dedicated to their beloved neighbor Ardent.
“They were incredible champions of us even before the beginning of this,” Graf says.
You might want to prepare for your first visit, though. Don’t make an amateur’s mistake and arrive an hour before closing. You’ll find yourself with nary a slice of the coveted beef brisket. If that happens, know that you can’t go wrong with anything on their gloriously simple, but well-curated menu of meats, sandwiches, and house-made sides.
The chopped brisket proved to be a solid Plan B, with the perfect balance of tender beef and savory burnt ends. The jalapeño mac and cheese featured a blend of cheeses and finished with a nice kick. Then there was the squash casserole, which avoided the pitfalls of mushiness that often accompany the dish.
If you have room, they also offer creamy whoopie pies and banana pudding. Worth noting, I stalked the sliced brisket for a few days and finally landed a pound at lunchtime, which I promptly destroyed as I enjoyed a Proven Theory IPA from Benchtop Brewing Company. Pure deliciousness. There’s a reason why there’s a line outside, y’all.
So, what’s the secret to this goodness?
According to Fultz and Graf, quality beef is critical (theirs is hormone free and humanely farmed). Fultz explains that it’s hard to find trimmed, seasoned meat that’s appropriately smoked in this part of the country.
“You can find it; it’s just not prepared on an offset smoker,” he says. “We’re dedicated to the way they smoked it a 100 years ago when Germans and Czechs started figuring what to do with these cast-off cuts of meat,” he adds.
“And the fat is the butter that makes that whole brisket. Don’t cut it off,” Graf says.
When it comes to the sides and desserts, Graf says they’ve got an ace card in hand. “We’re a barbecue joint with a culinary director,” she says.
“That’s extraordinary.” Russell Cook, formerly of Millies and Balliceaux has been integral to helping the duo scale portions to feed the masses.
“We don’t know anything about running a kitchen, much less how to serve up 1,200 servings of macaroni and cheese in one day. That’s the part he makes work. We wouldn’t exist without him,” says Fultz.
Clearly, things are working out.
Their brick-and-mortar location is less than a year old, but it’s caught the attention of everyone from Thrillist to The Washington Post, but perhaps most meaningful to the pitmasters is a particular article by smoked meat prophet, Daniel Vaughn.
“Growing up in Texas, I worship these guys. Meeting him was one of the most nerve-racking days of my life, and he wrote some amazing things about us that I still can’t believe,” Fultz says.
The pair just purchased a new 1,000-gallon smoker that they’ll soon pick up in Austin. It’s on a trailer, which will enable them to have overflow capacity and do some special events like the Charleston Wine & Food festival this spring. They continue to play with menu offerings, including a portabella sandwich for vegetarians, and hope to pair up with other breweries and cideries for seated dinners, something they just did with Blue Bee Cider.
“We’ve managed to cultivate the same kind of consistency and hospitality at scale without it being a machine,” says Graf. “The reward?
Our guests are getting the vibe and experience we have been striving for them to get, and they are happy.”