It's a frosty winter's day in this historic town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, but inside a little red-brick restaurant called The BBQ Joint, the vibe is warm and the barbecue is smoking hot.
Savory aromas waft from the open kitchen as chef/owner Andrew Evans and his staff chat up lunch patrons while serving finger-lickin' food.
The menu in this cozy, colorful spot — with its sawdust-covered floors and an antique painting of a portly Berkshire pig — might be described as down-home fare meets epicurean flair.
The ribs, brisket, chicken and pork, sourced from artisan farmers, have been brined and rubbed with secret spice blends, then cradled for hours inside huge stainless-steel smokers with applewood and hickory chips. As things heat up, smoke flavors the tender, juicy barbecue.
Homey sides evoke Grandma's recipes: mac-and-cheese, collard greens, yams, smokehouse chili, cornbread muffins, all made from scratch, in house.
They're the kind of eats that have put famous barbecue destinations like Memphis, Tenn., and Kansas City, Mo., on America's culinary map. Yet here in Chesapeake Bay territory where the beloved blue crab reigns, Evans has folks craving 'cue.
"Barbecue is the only truly indigenous American cuisine. I've become a bit obsessed with it," he says. "It started as a side hobby and has become my passion."
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Evans is a fine-dining chef turned barbecue master.
Born in New York and raised in Ohio and New England by a single mother with a "curious" palate, he and his brother grew up eating curries during an era of bland TV dinners.
Exposed to new cultures and cuisine during family vacations to Europe and the Middle East, and a solo jaunt after high school to England, Abu Dhabi, Bali and Australia, he relished "new depths of flavors."
By the time he was a student at the University of Virginia, he was cooking part time at local restaurants while juggling studies in Far Eastern religions. "I did it for extra money," he says. "I never dreamed it would become a career."
Yet when Evans graduated and landed a desk job, he had an epiphany.
"That night, I begged for my old kitchen job back," he recalls. "I went to culinary school the next year and haven't looked back."
After backpacking across China, Japan and Thailand, then returning to Australia, he spent six years as a line cook and chef at leading restaurants in Brisbane.
"I got married, and my eldest daughter was born there," says Evans, 48, now divorced and raising two girls. "Back home, I was a regular guest chef at the Australian Embassy. I have dual citizenship."
In 1999, he landed in Easton and began restoring an 18th-century mansion, turning it into a boutique hotel and upscale restaurant in the center of town.
The Inn at Easton opened a year later, showcasing the chef's modern Australian cuisine with Chesapeake Bay influences, and gaining national attention from diners and top critics alike. The late R.W. "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times noted in a review: "I could scream, [the food] is so good."
The recession and personal demands led Evans to close the restaurant in 2008; he sold the mansion a year later. After launching a Thai establishment that had its fans but "wasn't a good fit for the area," Evans said, he decided to gamble on something new.
He'd already stumbled into the world of competition-quality barbecue after being invited to judge the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue Competition. He quickly embraced the sights, sounds and heady aromas of this cooking technique. Eventually he tore up the carpet, purchased smokers, printed menus and Thai Ki was transformed into The BBQ Joint in 2010.
It was a hit.
Joe Davis, a seafood lover raised on the Eastern Shore, ate there the first day the doors opened.
"The barbecue is really good," says Davis, a CPA in his 50s. "In a small town, you typically don't have much variety in terms of ethnic cuisines and interesting restaurants, particularly done this well. It's been a welcome addition."
Al Silverstein, president and chief executive of the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce, notes that barbecue has enhanced the county's growing reputation as a foodie destination.
"Most restaurants here have a crab dish, and seafood is still a big part of what draws people. But when you have excellent food, new visitors coming, it lends economic value," says Silverstein. "Andrew is a great entrepreneur and chef."
In its July 2012 issue, Food & Wine magazine named The BBQ Joint in one of the best barbecue establishments in the country. And now Evans has taken 'cue beyond the Eastern Shore. Last July, he opened a second location in Pasadena in Anne Arundel County.
He shuttles between the two businesses and can be found happily commanding a pig-pink van that tows his trusty smoker to catering gigs with partners like Gourmet by the Bay, based in St. Michaels.
"There's been a resurgence in barbecue. Brides and corporate clients are asking for it," says Sidney Davenport-Trond, co-owner of the catering firm. "Sometimes we serve it on china."
Meanwhile, Evans and his Walk the Swine barbecue team are garnering accolades on the national barbecue competition circuit.
In 2013, they won first place for pork at the Middletown BBQ Cook-Off in Delaware. A year earlier, the group won for best sauce at the Safeway National Capital BBQ Battle.
As the chef mingles with diners, it's clear he takes pride in what's on every plate.
"Our baked beans have 18 ingredients," he says, ticking off a list that includes black beans, freshly ground dried chiles, barbecue trimmings, molasses and red peppers. "I've spent seven years perfecting my rubs and sauces."
Small details matter: The fresh apple cobbler boasts a crunchy pecan topping; the popular Redneck Nachos are drizzled with chipotle cream; and the lemonade is freshly squeezed. Specials run the gamut from smoked meatloaf to barbecue quesadillas and brisket Reubens.
"I'm always chasing flavors, striving to get better," Evans says with a wide smile. "That's my recipe for food and, really, a blessed life."
The BBQ Joint
Chef/owner Andrew Evans — whose Walk the Swine team is prepping for the upcoming 2014 Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit — is calling on 'cue enthusiasts to lend their taste buds for free sampling sessions.
Alternating between the Easton and Pasadena locations, participants can sample chicken, brisket, ribs or pork, in exchange for their honest evaluation of the flavor, to be noted on judging sheets, followed by an open discussion.
Tastings kick off at 6:30 p.m. sharp. Guests (no fellow competitors, please) must sign up at the restaurant location of their choice. There will be a tasting March 5 and March 12 at the Pasadena location, and one on March 10 at the Easton location.
If you go:
•The BBQ Joint. 216 East Dover St., Easton 410-690-3641
•The BBQ Joint. 33 Magothy Beach Road Pasadena 410-360-1600