Who knew that, in 2020, walking into a restaurant and sitting down for a meal would, at least temporarily, become a thing of the past? That we would suddenly ransack grocery store aisles for beans and rice, that buying fresh produce or sitting down to a sublime dinner would suddenly require careful strategy?
If David “Uncle DT” Thom didn’t know any of these things, his business model is at least tried and tested for the time of coronavirus and social distancing.
As Santa Fe restaurants shifted to curbside pickup or delivery-only last week, Thom was only pivoting back to his original business model at Uncle DT’s Smokehouse on Rufina Street. In addition to hot pickup or delivery barbecue and sides made to order by the plate or the pound, Thom’s one-man operation had been offering frozen and vacuum-sealed brisket, smoked chicken and turkey, pulled pork, ribs and tofu for more than a year before Uncle DT welcomed his first in-house diners earlier this winter. The vacuum-sealed meats he sells keep in the freezer for at least two years, Thom says, and his boil-in-bag reheating plan requires less than an hour before dinner is served.
A visit to Uncle DT’s Smokehouse yields the kind of reassuringly no-frills visuals you’d expect to see at a pitmaster’s digs. The storefront is a converted garage complete with corrugated tin, turquoise floors and black walls featuring memorabilia from Thom’s career as a bluegrass musician. One overhead light flickers occasionally and atmospherically. If beer were available, we decided, we might eat at one of the four small tables inside – but since it wasn’t, we opted for takeout. We figured that was what Thom did best, anyway (and, a few days later, taking food home became the only choice).
Four days a week, Uncle DT’s lunch and dinner menu offers smoked brisket, chicken, pulled pork or tofu sandwiches or plates, as well as pork ribs, coleslaw, potato salad, cowboy beans and cornbread – and occasional specials (when we went, beef ribs and smoked turkey were also available). Thom, who uses antibiotic- and hormone-free meat whenever possible, draws inspiration from Texas BBQ – as a touring musician, he logged time in the smoked meat Valhallas south of Austin.
The deep-brown, caramelized “bark” crust on the outside of his beef brisket testifies to his bona fides. He gave us a plastic baggie of au jus for the brisket, instructing us to heat it and pour it over the meat when we got home. But the beef’s flavors in combination with Thom’s mustard-forward sauce were so beguiling that we only remembered the jus halfway through. The rest of the Styrofoam takeout box ($18.99) was filled out with Lay’s potato chips and sides of vegan, but piquant, cowboy beans and a fresh, crunchy coleslaw that could have used more zip.
Another night, as the first edicts to stay home rolled in, I made a DoorDash order from Uncle DT’s. After I tipped Brittany, my delivery person, with cash in an envelope left in the mailbox, she told me through the coyote fence that most people were not being so insistent about keeping their distance. (A day later, I got a DoorDash email about how to officially request a no-contact delivery.) After divesting the moveable feast of its boxes and thoroughly washing hands, dinner was served.
The menu’s flippant description of the Kit Carson Smoked Tofu Plate ($12.99) may have made me giggle – “Kit was an intrepid explorer. You can be too!” – but big flavor of the marinated and paprika-rubbed bean curd was no joke. I’d order those dusky tofu rectangles again over many other meats in these parts. A Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwich ($8.99) on a plain, squishy bun looked deceptively simple in its box, but heaped with coleslaw and slathered with more of that mustardy sauce, it became a complex feast – and, crucially, the time it spent in a box and a car didn’t make the bun fall apart. A large, cakelike slab of moist deep-dish cornbread ($2.99) was studded with corn niblets and mild, but tasty, green chile. The creamy potato salad ($2.99) contained a crisp trifecta of celery, scallions and a most inspired addition of edamame beans.
“Trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man,” M.F.K. Fisher wrote in 1942, when wartime rationing changed how Americans ate. Her words might well apply to the new food systems we’re navigating now, along with the limited decisions we face. Uncle DT’s has only one employee and, on March 18, like many restaurant owners, Thom posted a letter to his customers about the extreme sanitizing precautions he is taking during the COVID-19 outbreak. So for now – at least when it comes to delicious takeout barbecue – we need only worry about the dignity of one man.