Mike's BBQ: Going from the smoker into the fire

Michael Strauss of Mike’s BBQ selling barbecue outside El Bar in Kensington on Friday, July 7, 2017.

We all have dreams. Some actually follow them.

Michael Strauss used to put on backyard barbecues for friends and families. When, in 2013, he and a business partner career-changed to open Tap Room on 19th Street, a pub in the Girard Estates section of South Philadelphia, Strauss immediately bought a smoker for the bar. Then he went for the big-time, buying an 84-inch smoker mounted on a trailer, which he bills “Mike’s BBQ” as he parks outside events and bars and sets up a table. Emboldened by the public reception, this week he signed a lease for a restaurant version on 11th Street near Morris in South Philadelphia, due to open this fall.

Tell me about the career change.

I worked in a small, boutique commercial real estate business in South Jersey, and we did a restaurant, shopping center, liquor licenses, and it was just very boring for me. I left making money to not making money. At least I’m having fun. I have no complaints.

How did the deal come about for the Tap Room?

My partner Pete Fry and I had known each other since high school, and we were talking. He was a partner in a printing business. I was a partner in the real estate business. We were talking one day about how much we hate our jobs, yadda, yadda, yadda. We love beer. We love food. Let’s open a bar. It took us 12 hours to decide.

Where did you look for a bar?

Roxborough, Manayunk, and we looked in Fishtown — before Fishtown … it was like even Fishtown. We liked the spot in South Philly because the bones were good. We didn’t have to do a lot of rehab. The owners were willing to work with us. Our goal was to purchase the building, which we finally did. They offered us a lease purchase, so that helped us get our foot in the door.

How does barbecue fit in?

I’m 48 now. The first time I probably smoked something on a barbecue I was probably in my mid-20s. I bought a small stick smoker that I still have in my backyard, and I always just enjoyed smoking ribs. That was my favorite thing to smoke. I just kept smoking them and smoking them until people were really, really enjoying them. Then I started smoking brisket, and it became the white whale or whatever — trying to get it perfect because it’s a very, very hard piece of meat to get right. I guess my obsession with that kind of led me here, honestly. We started doing some smoking at the bar. Then, eventually, I decided I wanted to take it to another level, so I drove down to Georgia, and I got a custom-built Lang smoker. It’s an 84-inch chamber, and it’s built for mass production. The most I’ve had on there were 20 briskets. That was quite a bit. That was for the Italian Market Festival. Every week I’m somewhere. Every week. I’m either at a brewery or at a bar like the El Bar, or I’m doing a private event, but every week I’m always somewhere.

You do pork, and you do brisket. What else?

It depends on the venue. For most of the pop-ups, I do pulled pork and brisket sandwiches. I also do ribs sometimes if I feel I’m in the mood for that. The hard thing with ribs is holding them. This event here is like seven hours. To hold ribs and keep them juicy for seven hours, it’s impossible. Sometimes I’ll bring a very limited amount of ribs, and when they sell out, they’re gone. That way everyone at least gets a good bite. I also do chicken wings. I prefer to do those where I have a fryer because you can never get the skin crispy enough smoking it. I’m just never happy with that. You got to almost overcook them to get the skin crispy. I’ve done sausages at the SausageFest. I made my own pastrami sausage, and we smoked it. That was a pretty big hit. I also do a lot of crazy fusion stuff. I do a French brisket pho dip sandwich. I do banh mi with smoked brisket. I did a smoked brisket cheesesteak. I did a pork Italiano with broccoli rabe. It depends where I’m at and what mood I’m in. I like to change things up a lot.

I’m not going to ask you your secret, but OK. I’ll ask. What is it?

I feel like I don’t have any secrets. The brisket rub is mostly 50 percent salt, 50 percent pepper. I use different kinds of salt, and then I add in other spices. A little garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, and honestly I never do the exact same rub every single time. It always changes. The pork is more of a Cajun rub and probably has less sugar than most people use. Then the ribs — pretty much just the standard rub. I think it’s more the process of cooking it and holding it that make it a little different. Brisket. That’s the tough one.

Have one tip?

You definitely want to have patience. You don’t want to rush it. With briskets, they have what they call a stall period. I think a lot of people don’t realize the stall period. When the brisket hits about 170 degrees, the fat on it starts to melt, and it actually cools the brisket down. You could sit there at 170 or 180 for an hour and it won’t move. A lot of people will start making their flame higher and start cooking it at a much higher temperature, which is going to start to dry it out. If you have patience, it’ll cook through. I look for 203 to 205 degrees, and I only serve the smoked meat that I make the same day. I don’t reheat unless the dish calls for it, like brisket burnt ends.

Tell me what the restaurant will be like.

I have two plans. My one plan is based off of the minimal amount of funds that I have. It’ll be open three or four days a week, maybe four or five hours a day, and we’re going to do a limited amount of barbecue until we sell out. If an investor comes on board that I’m speaking with, I’m going to add some spirits and beer. Not a bar. More like a tasting room. I don’t want a place where people are just doing shots and stuff. Just where people can enjoy a beer with barbecue. Just something very simple like that.

The future of the Tap Room?

I’ll still be a partner and owner in that. I have a good partner there. I have good management there, a good chef there. They can keep an eye on that, as well. My focus right now, personally, is the barbecue.