Steve Schmidt knows smoke.
Around noon on a clear, chilly December day, Schmidt stands in front of his custom-built barbecue smoker in an empty lot on Cerrillos Road, country music playing from a small radio, the aroma of meat and hickory smoke filling the air. He checks the smoker’s built-in timer: eight hours, 47 minutes.
“Usually, on a full day, it’s around 15, 16 hours,” he says. That puts Schmidt’s wake-up time somewhere around 4 am.
“You start early,” he admits, grinning. “And a lot of people, they know it’s ready by 12 or 1 o’clock.”
Having been in the meat-smoking business for just three years, Schmidt says he’s “a baby at this”—but he has a history with other kinds of smoke. For 20 years, he worked as a tobacconist. Three years ago, he sold his Rio Rancho cigar shop, hitched the smoker to his truck, and started up a mobile barbecue business in Albuquerque. A year ago, he moved to Santa Fe, where he now spends two or three days a week parked at different locations around the city, selling slow-smoked, “New Mexican-style” ribs, turkey legs, brisket, pork and sausages until the meat runs out.
“My banker says: ‘Steve, your money doesn’t smell like cigars; it smells like smoke now!’” he laughs. “I say, ‘Well, that’s better!’”
Whenever he’s out—usually Tuesdays and Fridays—he’ll post the location on his website so his regulars can find him. But the scent of the woodsmoke—Schmidt favors fruit woods such as peach and cherry, but also uses classic hickory—and huge “BBQ” sign also help lure newcomers and tourists. Schmidt says his business has doubled since moving the operation up to Santa Fe.
Still, selling slow-smoked barbecue is a lengthy, labor-intensive process. Each day, Schmidt estimates he sells around 40 baby back ribs, 45 turkey legs, 25 pounds of brisket, 20 pounds of pork and around a dozen sausages. After letting the meat thaw for several hours, Schmidt applies his special dry rub. “There’s cocoa in it, and coffee—I won’t tell you anything else—and that brings out the meat flavor,” he says. After he’s dry-rubbed all of the next day’s meat, Schmidt lets it sit overnight. The next morning, it’s ready to be smoked slowly, for several hours, at 200 degrees.
The result is worth waiting for. The baby back pork ribs ($24 for a full rack; $13 for a half) are impossibly moist and juicy. A purist’s dream, they taste less like the smoke or the dry rub than pure, unadulterated meat; a good dose of Schmidt’s homemade, seriously spicy Santa Fe barbecue sauce lends a jolt of extra flavor and spice. The smokiness of the hickory takes center stage in the big-as-your-head turkey legs ($8); going all gladiator on your lunch never tasted this good.
Unfortunately, Schmidt only takes cash, so this was all we could afford—but that’s probably a good thing given the Texas-sized portions; even Schmidt himself mentions the virtues of moderation.
“My doctor says, ‘Steve, don’t eat your barbecue!’” Schmidt says, laughing. “I say, ‘No, Doc, I’ll just taste it’—you have to taste it, but he doesn’t want me eating a rack of ribs every night, you know?”
Despite the hard work, early rising and winter chill, Schmidt is jovial and upbeat. He doesn’t have any interest in opening a restaurant, he says, in part because he enjoys the one-on-one encounters with “all kinds of interesting people.”
“It’s fun. I enjoy doing it,” he says. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not work.”