Chef Kathryn Mathis and partner Chris Lower are confident their experiences opening a gourmet taqueria and hot dog stand will help their efforts to elevate the much-loved barbecue joint.
Their newest concept is Back Door Barbecue, 315 NW 23, which gets its name from, of all places, a parking lot.
Back Door is in a storefront from a bygone era, with art deco touches and pressed tin ceilings. It's next door to Grandad's Bar, across the street from Tucker's Onion Burgers. The only parking in front of the restaurant is a few metered slots along the north side of NW 23. All remaining parking is directly behind the Back Door, which is accessed from either an alley off Hudson Avenue to the west or from NW 24 to the north.
The other way to find the parking lot is by following your nose, which, if it isn't vexed by a head cold or the seasonal allergies, is sure to lead you to the smell of authentic barbecue emanating from an Enid-made Cookshack located in the rear of the kitchen.
Inside, you'll see Lower and Mathis have once again constructed a modern counter-service concept out of much-loved tradition as they did with Big Truck Tacos and Mutt's Amazing Hot Dogs.
And just as those two concepts offer up chef-elevated interpretations of the classics, so does Back Door Barbecue.
But not in the way you might think. Back Door has its own personality. Whereas Big Truck and Mutt's marry simple vessels such as tacos and hot dogs with exotic ingredients, Back Door's menu appears less anxious to reinterpret barbecue and more dedicated to following tried-and-true techniques. However, the sides and desserts are a little more adventurous.
Traveling extensively to draw inspiration, Lower said Franklin's Barbecue in Austin, Texas, made it clear what the goal should be.
“Perfect barbecue,” Lower told me a long time ago when the idea was gestating. “With some of the flourishes we've come to be known for.”
While a chef with Mathis' credentials is rarely asked to make sure her brisket bark is stronger than her chef's bite, she said barbecue was far from a foreign concept for the Guymon native.
“Growing up in Guymon, barbecue was like religion,” she said. “And our style was more of a Texas style. I grew up in Texas County — we could be in Texas in 20 minutes.”
Panhandle work ethic
Mathis — now overseeing three restaurants with an eye toward pizza for a concept called Gusto's in which she and Lower will team with Picasso's Shawn Fiaccone — says she gets her work ethic from her Panhandle heritage. She grew up where work started before and ended after the sun's daily job had begun and ended.
“My dad just turned 78. He started when he was 18; his dad signed it over to him when he was 21,” she said, speaking of the family's Mathis Oil Co. “He's been working there pretty much every day since.”
When Charles and Mollie Mathis weren't operating the company, they were food purveyors for the local church camp and other large-scale get-togethers for fellowship around Texas County.
“My grandfather was a scratch-cooker, and so was my mom,” Kathryn Mathis said. “My mom says I would leave in the morning in the truck with my dad and come home and cook with her.”
Mathis went to Edmond on a tennis scholarship at what was then Central State University, graduated and started cooking around town for a couple of years. She moved to Tulsa. She happened into the kitchen of a French restaurant called Montrachet, owned by Lower and chef Kurt Fleischfresser.
“I was in Tulsa for about five years, came back here a little while and worked at Portobello, then moved to Austin.”
It was there Mathis built her culinary reputation in many restaurants and ultimately as a private chef. She returned, opened Big Truck with Lower and Johnson, and the rest is history.
Barbecue gold standard
Meanwhile, Lower had been tinkering with the idea of opening a barbecue joint for several years, even flirting with the idea of a partnership with Charles Smith of Leo's Barbecue fame.
Ultimately, Lower determined he had the only folks he needed in Mathis, chef Amie Gehlert and pitmaster Kenny Talley.
The menu at Back Door includes two kinds of brisket: standard and fatty. Now, if fatty brisket doesn't sound appetizing to you, the only conclusion I can draw is you've never had the pleasure of offering respite to a thick slice of barky, buttery fatty brisket upon your tongue. And if you've never done that, it's furthermore clear that you've never known the euphoria of plunging your teeth into that smoky shard of beef to release its full expression of succulence to baptize your palate in truth, justice and the American way.
Fatty brisket — to those of us raised in the Texas Hill Country — is the gold standard for barbecue. Most briskets are brutally trimmed and robbed of their potential for flavor by being sliced into thin veils of flavorlessness.
But fatty brisket is barely trimmed of its cloak of natural fat, placed in a low-heat smoker fueled by wood and eventually wrapped in foil or parchment so the fat, which has since metamorphosed into smoky, organic beef butter, doesn't wander off before a very sharp knife comes along to slice away inch to inch-and-a-half-thick slices that cling to their natural flavors the way a good running back clings to a football. The ensuing slice, the fatty brisket slice, can't help but be juicier and tastier than its poor, over-trimmed cousin. It's not a fair fight, but since Back Door offers both, try some of each and judge for yourself.
My favorite part about Back Door Barbecue is where it is and where it's headed. Ask any barbecue pitmaster how he/she developed mastery, and the unequivocal answer will be repetition.
With each brisket, rack of ribs or tray of burnt ends that enters and exits the smoker, Mathis, Gehlert, Talley and crew will be that much better. Great barbecue isn't developed overnight, so we are the lucky diners who get to gauge and participate in what looks poised to become a signature barbecue joint for Oklahoma.
There's much more to Back Door Barbecue than fatty brisket. Ribs, bologna, pork belly and burnt ends are available. Vegetarians will be delighted that Mathis' crew smokes Portobello mushrooms daily, but carnivores need not shy away from this delight.
Meats can be bought by weight or plate. The Daily Beast gives Back Door a creative outlet like the Fifth Amendment at Big Truck Tacos. Options such as lamb and duck are part of the roster for The Daily Beast.
The restaurant also offers a first-rate burger and a handful of sandwich options, highlighted by the PB&J, which has no peanut butter or jelly.
“The PB&J has been one of our bigger sellers,” said chef and partner Kathryn Mathis.
And why not? Pork, brisket and smoked jalapeno are welcome at any party.
The sides are not an afterthought at Back Door. Mathis doesn't do afterthoughts. Ever have a cookie at Big Truck?
The potato salad is chunky and flavorful. The slaw isn't overly sharp or soupy with vinegar, and includes a little cilantro and jicama for added flavor and texture. The creamed corn is not the creamed corn my mother served from an aluminum can. Mathis' is based in cream cheese and major in velveteen finish, which serves as a swift and effective balancing vessel for rich, piquant and bold barbecue flavors.
As for dessert, Mathis serves jar pies, which are almost as clever as they are delicious.
“For an extra dollar you can take the jar home,” she said. “If you bring the jar back, you get your dollar back.”
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Loaded Fries, which are the apple of my wife and son's eye. A monstrous mound of fries topped with smoked jalapenos and onions and cheese. And then you can top it with your choice of meat. This dish does not do a nuanced dance across the palate, it winds up and smashes the diner in the face with a flavor hammer.