The Smoke Be With You Always
How Federal Hill Smokehouse came to flavor a neighborhood
Good barbecue doesn't come without a little seasoning. Federal Hill Smokehouse proprietor Ryan Atzert has had plenty, especially these past couple months. The flames have been raging inside the firebox of his reverse flow smoker for seven straight weeks, a hot streak
It's 5:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and Atzert is dutifully working to ensure that at least some of those carnal appetites go fulfilled, reaching deep into the cavity of the multi-tiered smoke chamber to pull briskets. After a year-and-a-half of syncing his Circadian rhythms to roughly coincide with the smoker, he has a heat map of the chamber committed to memory. He knows the sweet spots for every form of meat he serves (brisket, pulled pork, ribs, turkey, and sausage) in every size and quantity. I observe him spritz each glorious hunk of beef with apple cider vinegar, wrap it in parchment, and return it to the far end of the smoker for its juices to settle.
Stacks of wood fuel Federal Hill Smoke House's smoker.
I casually inquire about the significance of these steps, to which Atzert replies, "I don't know why; it's just something I saw and started doing." (Though he reckons it enhances the
This offhand remark more or less encapsulates how his operation came to be — he tried something and liked it, his family and friends started liking it (although he concedes "family is supposed to tell
"I washed dishes at the Avalon Hotel and dropped chicken cordon bleu in the fryer," says Atzert of his previous experience in a professional kitchen. "But I've always felt I've been able to adapt to cooking; it started as a hobby and blossomed into a business."
Despite naysayers who said he would be a fool to open a restaurant in Federal Hill's locale, he pushed forward with the knowledge that the infrastructure was already there (the former J & S Restaurant operated in the same building from 1963-94), the fact it would complement neighboring Ink Assassins well (satisfying hunger before or after lengthy tattoo sessions), and the confidence that "if it's a good product, it will be successful," no matter where it is.
Atzert's connection to the Independence Hill
"What's the big deal with outsiders coming into your area and being seen? For example, the giant Martian grasshopper [painted on the Grasshopper clothing and gift shop] catches your eye."
The key to good barbecue is a good smoker and Federal Hill understands that.
Customers have to be aware you exist, and to that
"I was in the movie
The Force was not with him in the early goings, as he broke his leg shortly before the restaurant's debut in December 2016. Atzert's wife Autumn was instrumental in saving the business from falling to the dark side during those first three months, after which she implored her husband: "Don't get sick, don't take a day off, and I'll just do sides."
Since then, he has faithfully abided those instructions, harnessing the Force that is, in reality, the Smoke and it's all around us. The reverse flow smoker works via an offset design — oak logs are loaded into the firebox (something of a chimney) and smoke is forced into an inlet under the meat and back around over top.
Beyond that, Atzert doesn't overcomplicate things. He does not enlist any sort of top-secret proprietary spice blend or magic powder in his cooking — in fact, the brisket and turkey are seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper (the ribs and pulled pork add paprika, garlic, and onion powder to the mix). It's the care and attention he takes that make all the difference, and have ironically transformed this champion of the underground into something of a sellout (he routinely prepares over 100 lbs. of meat a day, and it's usually gone by 3 p.m., when business hours end).
Despite this, he remains incredibly humble. "I just work, man. I'm tired a lot of the time but it's never tedious."
He leaves would be Padawan pit-masters with the following advice:
- Have patience —"Let the smoke do what it's supposed to do."
- Have fun — "Don't make it stressful. Give yourself more time than you think you need."
- Do your homework — "There is plenty of material online."
- Stick to your strengths and listen to your spouse — "Sometimes I get excited [about something that comes to mind] and say: 'We're doing this!' And my wife is just like, 'No, you're not.'" (See the Blueberry Cobbler Riot of 2017; the couple quickly reverted back to the beloved peach variety)
Federal Hill Smoke House is located at 2609 Peach St. and is open Monday-Saturday for lunch, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or until the food sells out). View menu and prices at federalhillsmokehouse.com
Matt Swanseger, meanwhile, is still figuring out how to work his microwave. To get a conversation spinning, key email@example.com into your