The day Katie Calico’s second child was born, she was running pulled pork sandwiches from her and her husband’s little barbecue truck, TFK Smokehouse, to hungry patrons at La Cumbre. Three days later, she was back on the brewery’s patio again, surrounded by family, keeping watch on the truck.
Calico said when the truck first opened in 2012, “We didn’t anticipate nearly as much what happened… When we started, we assumed we’d be doing easy days, and then we started parking at Marble downtown – and it’s insanity,” she said. But it was fun.
Unsurprisingly, the pair has shown no signs of slowing down. Since opening their brick-and-mortar restaurant under the same name, the Whites have barely had time to catch their breath. The cheffy yet nonfrivolous barbecue truck, a favorite on the brewery circuit for the past five years, has preserved menu favorites like the “Burqueno Cheesesteak” with smoked prime rib and the “Smokehouse Reuben” with smoked pastrami. They’ve even ventured a few unconventional twists from standard bbq joint fare in their new menu items like the vegetarian “BBQ Bella” mushroom sandwich, brisket nachos, and even a spinach Caprese sandwich.
White continues to smoke in his own style, which he dubs “Albuquerque barbecue.” It’s neither Texan, Carolina or Kansas City. He uses fruit-wood instead of hickory or mesquite, red chile instead of cayenne and eschews pre-made spice mixes in favor of his own original blend, which lends an aromatic, smoky flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the meat. In keeping with the hometown undercurrents, hearty baguettes and green chile-cheese bread for TFK’s sandwiches come fresh-baked from Golden Crown Panaderia in Old Town, and with the beer and wine license on the way, local favorites like La Cumbre and Bosque along with selected craft beer from out of state will soon flow from their 17 beer taps.
White came up in restaurant kitchens, most recently as the 6-year sous chef at Slate Street Cafe. With his own project, the aim is not just to provide uniquely Albuquerque flavors, but also to recreate the spirit of breezy backyard get-togethers. “I’ve always just felt that barbecue was a fun food,” White tells me. “It reminded me of good times and hanging out with friends in the backyard, grilling some meat.”
Evidence of the care taken in White’s kitchen is close at hand. The combo platter I ordered was enough food for two. Carefully bundled up by White and nestled in the passenger’s side of my car to take home, it revealed mounds of thickly shredded pulled pork, meltingly tender brisket, and flavorful ribs with just enough chew. The potato salad was superb – a star in its own right rather than an afterthought, and the sweet and green chile sauces – part of a generous “flight” deal of four sauce flavors – proved to be addictive.
Maybe it’s the trappings of a stationary kitchen that make it seem so enjoyable for White and Calico. A stand-alone restaurant has provided some added comfort to the TFK operation, which in the truck days could only run on pint-sized sinks and counters, with daily strap-downs of equipment and ingredients for transport. At the new location, the pair is able to maintain an expanded menu and even plans on opening for breakfast in the near future. “It’s fun to be able to offer more stuff, and so we offer a lot more sides than we did on the truck,” Calico says. Almost everything is made in-house, and never frozen. The mac-and-cheese has been especially popular. Whereas before the pairs’ daughter Ava enjoyed taking orders out of the truck, now the teen sits quietly at the diner-style counter, playpen at the ready on the floor, and watches her baby brother.
Such a large space has also given the Whites room to spread out. The smoker has its own yard out in back of the barn-style building, and Calico has set up a table with jewelry and other small local art for sale. Her own bright paintings line the walls, and she has plans to give other local artists a spotlight to showcase their works. And for White, having a full kitchen is a relief. “With the food truck it felt a lot more like camping,” he said. “Everything’s kind of there, but you’re not really home – you have the comforts of home, but you’re not really there. I feel much more at home with this.”
A space you can’t pack up and move is not without its challenges, though. Managing the notorious unpredictability of the Albuquerque dining crowds makes the earlier days of parking at a brewery with a predictable stream of traffic look like a breeze. And there’s nowhere to hide if the brisket runs out. Or the ribs. Or the pork.
But the 16 hour (give or take) overnight smoke, which obviously can’t supplement a last-minute shortage, is really what makes the food so good, and the easy friendliness with which the Whites and their staff communicate with their diners even better. Katie is full of ideas and plans – bubbling with energy as she spreads out coloring pages depicting barbecue sandwiches on the counter to amuse kids and decorate the walls – while White, smiling, bandana wrapped around his head, masterminds flavors and keeps the kitchen running smoothly. Katie explains, “I think people respond because Albuquerque is unique and kind of quirky. They liked our weird truck – they remember us from the breweries like – ‘it’s that crazy truck!’ They respond to the fact that we’re a family – that they see us… They know us personally.”
For the Whites, it’s clear that Albuquerque – and the new address – is home.