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From Mizuna to smoked meats: Chef Mike Jones adds Texas-style barbecue eatery to his repertoire

September 26, 2018

Mike Jones is expanding his repertoire from Mizuna to include slow-cooked, smoked meats at a new Texas-style barbecue restaurant.

The longtime Spokane chef and restaurant owner opened Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue in downtown Spokane in early September. It specializes in wood-fired, spice-rubbed brisket, pork ribs, pork shoulder, pork belly and chicken.

And it’s “been a long time coming,” said Jones, 43, who’s been actively pursuing the project for about three years.

That’s when he visited Austin, Texas, and became enamored with smoking pits and the entire Texas-style barbecue process. The trip solidified his decision to open a barbecue restaurant in Spokane.

“That trip was, like, OK, I’m ready to go explore and make sure I really want to do this,” he said.

Barbecue is a big departure from his other eatery. Jones is the chef and owner of Mizuna, which started as a vegetarian restaurant and remains vegetarian- and vegan-friendly. Jones has worked there since shortly after Mizuna opened in 1996. He bought it 10 years later.

Mizuna is known for specialties such as its Grilled Ginger Tofu Salad, Coconut Lentil Dal and Quinoa Meat Loaf.

The menu at Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue is much more meaty – with an array of smoked meat sandwiches and combination plates with one or two meats plus one or two sides such as smoked Gouda mac and cheese, sweet potato fries or braised greens.

“They’re pretty much polar opposites,” Jones said. “I just felt like Spokane had a niche to fill and that was barbecue.”

Construction delays pushed back the opening of Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue by two months. Jones had initially been hoping to open the restaurant around the Fourth of July.

“I feel like Spokane has always had barbecue, but usually it’s slow-cooked meat that’s slathered in barbecue sauce,” Jones said.

He provides barbecue sauce at Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue. It’s made from scratch in-house. Jones describes it smoky, acidic and tangy but not too spicy.

But the idea, he said, is to offer dry-rubbed meats that are “smoked to where you don’t even need barbecue sauce.”

Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue serves lunch and dinner. But it isn’t a walk-up counter like so many barbecue joints in the South and Midwest. Expect table service and black cloth napkins. Dishes are simply but elegantly plated on plain white dishware.

The dining room is warm and inviting, done in red brick and wood. Plenty of natural light comes in from a pair of skylights and front wall of glass. There’s a casually elegant lodge-like feel. But the Western-style ambiance isn’t overdone.

“I don’t want it to seem like you’re walking into a country-western bar,” Jones said.

The dining area seats 49. But the entire space stretches some 3,000 square feet. It’s mostly kitchen.

Jones had the kitchen built out to accommodate a custom-made smoker with three pits with weighted lids. It was made by Carlson Sheet Metal Works in Spokane. And it’s the heart of the operation.

Jones fires it up with apple wood, more readily available in these parts than the oak traditionally used in Texas.

Smoking meats, he said, is a kind of balancing act that requires near-constant attention.

“You have to really try and maintain your ideal temperature in the smoking box,” he said.

For him, that’s 275 degrees.

“You don’t want the wood to burn fast or it’ll produce too much heat and not enough smoke. But you don’t want it to burn too slow or the smoke will be too heavy.”

Variables include the size of the logs, how seasoned they are and how hot the fire is burning.

Cooking starts at 4 a.m. every day except Sunday when the restaurant is closed. In the beginning, Jones was there at 4 in the morning and stayed past closing time and clean-up. Now, he usually arrives by 8 a.m.

He expects to spend about 80 percent of his time at Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue for the next several months and at Mizuna the rest. Eventually, he plans to split his time evenly between both restaurants. He’s hired five servers, one host and five cooks at Austin’s Live Fire Barbecue to start.

He’s also streamlined menu from what he had originally planned, cutting back on grilled items to focus, at least for now, on smoked meats.

Brisket is an early top-seller.

Eventually, Jones is also hoping to experiment with game meats, duck and more.

Meantime, for lunch, look for half of an apple-wood, smoked chicken or pork ribs with two sides, each for $16.95. There’s the popular brisket sandwich with grilled onion, roasted shallot aioli, tomatoes and two sides for $14.95. Also on the lunch menu: a smoked chicken and Gouda sandwich, pork shoulder or pork belly sandwich, and pulled pork quesadilla, all with two sides for $14.95 each.

Sides run from $4.95 to $6.95 and include a bacon-sprinkled, blue cheese-dressed iceberg wedge salad as well as baked potato salad, sweet potato fries, seasoned wedge fries, barbecue beans with burnt ends, braised greens, corn on the cob, and smoked Gouda mac and cheese.

Small plates at dinner run from $8.95 to $11.95 and include fried okra with roasted shallot aioli and smoked jalapeno aioli and smoked pork belly tacos.

At dinner, choose one smoked meat and a side for $16.95 or two smoked meats with two sides for $24.95.

Don’t skip dessert.

Jones asked his mom for an old family recipe for pecan pie “that’s better than any pecan pie that I’ve ever had in any restaurant. It’s been passed down by her mom and her mom. It’s been around for awhile. She promised to share the secret.”

She did, and a slice now sells for $6.95.

Also on the dessert menu: house-made banana-bourbon ice cream for $5.95 and apple-berry crisp topped with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream for $6.95.

The bar is whiskey-forward with 16 bottles of rye and bourbon. Manhattans, Sazeracs and Old-Fashioneds are house specialties. Look, also, for a limited selection of tequila, gin and vodka.

There are eight taps featuring mostly regional beers, including two IPAs and two pale ales. Rainier is also on tap, along with a pilsner, porter and cider.

Beer and wines were chosen to pair well with barbecue, particularly Spanish wines and reds from California and Washington.

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