Though loyalists to any cuisine have strong opinions about their food favorites, devotees of barbecue tend to be particularly passionate in their points of view. American barbecue (aka BBQ) is something of a polarizing food, with purists decrying grilling over smoking, red sauce over white.
My sympathies are extended to the poor souls who choose to open up BBQ joints in the Pacific Northwest, as they perhaps unwittingly conscript themselves as a target of ire for anyone who has ever set foot in the Southern U.S. If I had a nickel for every online user review bemoaning the lack of “authentic” BBQ in Western Washington (or in the entire Western U.S., for that matter)…let’s just say the cash sum would buy a lot of smoked ribs.
Earlier this week I decided to check out one of the establishments that has dared to attempt BBQ in the Greater Puget Sound Region: Celtic Cowboy of Edmonds. Born in Scotland and seasoned in Texas, the Cowboy’s proprietor in February due to a personal medical issue. Fortunately for Edmonds, and smoking delightful meat for cowpokes and city slickers alike.
Set a block away from the buzz of Highway 99, Celtic Cowboy occupies the converted half of a garage shared with Russell Sign Company. The fragrance of smoke from fruit and nut tree wood wafts across the parking lot, reassuring BBQ-seekers that they've come to the right place. A picnic table is available on-site, but the Cowboy is primarily a spot for take-out and catering.
Though I'm no expert on BBQ technique, I do fall into the camp that believes copious sauce does not good barbecue make. I prefer my meat with smoky undertones, sauce available separately for application as desired. Upon seeing that Celtic Cowboy’s posted rules of BBQ 101 instruct sauce to be provided only on the side, I suspected we’d get along well.
I was further reassured by the basket of Zapp’s potato chip bags ($1.00) on the counter, as the Louisiana chip maker’s Spicy Creole Tomato (spiked with Tabasco) is a divinity among salty snacks. In a nod to the Celtic Cowboy’s Scottish blood, a tin of haggis rests on the counter. BBQ haggis is not offered on the menu. Diners can instead sate longings for Scotland's fare with a piece of Scottish hortbread as dessert ($2.50).
For my meal I picked a combo plate ($14.00) bringing together a chosen duo of sides (the list includes potato salad, baked beans, coleslaw, or macaroni & cheese) with a choice of either two meats or one meat plus one sandwich. Though the pairing of a whole sandwich plus a helping of meat sounded like a ridiculous amount of food, I couldn’t resist requesting both a bun filled with pulled pork and a gargantuan portion of brisket. And for next week’s feat, I will embrace veganism.
Once home, I approached my Celtic Cowboy meal sides first, breaking off a bite of cornbread muffin flecked with jalapeno. Considering that the muffin set me back $1.50, I was a bit surprised that it was the size of…a standard everyday muffin. In terms of taste and texture, however, $1.50 seemed fair. The delightful yellow cornbread was moist and slightly sweet, its pieces of pepper pleasantly zinging the back of my tongue.
I’m not particularly strident in advocating one particular BBQ method over another, but potato salad is a topic about which I can be quite persnickety. I’m convinced that my own father makes the best spud salad around, and I have shamelessly co-opted his recipe featuring Yukon Golds, crunchy dill pickles, and a special secret ingredient. Celtic Cowboy’s potato salad is a straight-shooter, small cubes of tater blended with bits of celery and pickle, dressed in the familiar tang of mustard and mayo. Not extraordinary, but a good delivery of a classic.
More unexpected was Celtic Cowboy’s riff on macaroni and cheese, a penne-based version graced with a faintly garlicky sauce. Almost Alfredo-esque in nature, the elevated take seemed somewhat out-of-place alongside rustic fare such as coleslaw and ribs.
Cautious not to fill up before the main attraction, after a respectable sampling of sides I turned my attention to my sizable paper boat of cubed beef brisket. Inherently a tough cut of meat, brisket is at its best when pampered with a lengthy cooking time. While Celtic Cowboy’s beef didn’t achieve true fork-tender status, the smoke balance of the meat was simply superb. Complementing the brisket bites was the restaurant’s mild, tangy tomato-based sauce—served on the side, of course.
My BBQ fave for the evening proved to be the exceptionally tasty pulled pork sandwich, a soft burger bun bursting with shreds of spicy meat. Tender, smoky and juicy, the pork’s chili kick could only have been improved upon had I topped it with a scoop of coleslaw for an extra buck.
After its false start earlier this year, Celtic Cowboy is now riding tall. Bold flavor, down-home dishes and signature smokiness are the highlights of this culinary rodeo.