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For Alabama barbecue, Brick Pit is the place to stop

Above: the pulled pork platter at the Brick Pit in Mobile, Ala.; below: pit boss Keyon Williams, who runs the smoker. Above: the pulled pork platter at the Brick Pit in Mobile, Ala.; below: pit boss Keyon Williams, who runs the smoker. (Jonathan Levitt for The Boston Globe)
By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2009

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MOBILE, Ala. - The center of great Alabama barbecue may be Decatur, in the northwest corner of the state, where Big Bob Gibson started serving smoked pork with a distinctive tart white sauce in 1925. Or it might be Tuscaloosa, where Dreamland Bar-B-Que has been slow-cooking ribs since 1958. But many think it's in the southern tip of the state, just 10 miles from Mobile Bay, at the Brick Pit. This place hasn't been around as long as the others - just 15 years -but it's already a classic.

Outside, the Brick Pit looks the down-home part: gravel parking lot; pig on the sign; an old smoker billowing sweet smoke and beckoning the passerby. The low-slung old ranch house is shaded by evergreen oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and a grand magnolia. Owner Bill Armbrecht, a native of Mobile and a former yacht captain, says that a barbecue restaurant should have character.

"They're joints really," says Armbrecht. "They should have a homey feel and they should specialize in pure barbecue. That means no fried fish or fried chicken and not too many sides. The best places in the country have a very focused menu, they do what they do, and they do it really well. For us it's pork ribs, pulled pork, and smoked chicken."

Inside, white walls are covered with happy graffiti - signatures and scrawls and gushy regards. Customers order food at the back window, then sit down and wait. The meat is cooked in a blackened, bank-vault-sized smoker that Armbrecht calls "Big Red." "She's old now and she's been rode hard," he says. "But she's still cookin'." The heat comes low and slow from a wood fire.

Armbrecht uses mostly pecan wood. It's plentiful on the Gulf Coast and has a mild, sweet flavor - perfect for long smoking. He also uses a little bit of hickory. For real barbecue, he says, it's necessary to use hardwood, not charcoal. And there is no direct fire. That would be open-pit barbecue, which Armbrecht says is "just a fancy name for grilling, what you do on the back porch."

He's proud of his process. "We're a throwback to 50 years ago," he says.

For pulled pork, pit bosses Jerry Edwards and Keyon Williams start with 9-pound pieces of shoulder. They pick cuts capped with slabs of fat heavy enough to hold up to long smoking. "The fat is what bastes the meat and keeps it from drying out," says Armbrecht. Shoulders are smoked 25 to 30 hours. "Some people, purists, say that's way too long," he says, "but as it cooks it soaks up the sweet, mellow smoke, and the fat renders away, leaving just tender meat. We don't even season with a spice rub. The seasoning is in the smoke. It's an art form."

Cooked pork shoulders go from the smoke room to the kitchen, where big chunks are pulled from the bone by hand. Some are meltingly tender, others crispy with a deep, smoky crust. On top of the meat goes a generous ladle of Armbrecht's sweet and spicy sauce. "It's my personal recipe," he says. "It's the perfect sauce blend for smoked meat, sweet but not too sweet and just spicy enough. For good barbecue, some people say it's quality of sauce. Some say it's quality of meat. But for me it's the marriage of the two - the way they go together."

Barbecue is served on partitioned plates with a thick slice of white bread and sides of beans or potato salad and cole slaw. The slaw, Armbrecht's wife, Susan's, recipe, is sweet and fresh. Beans cook inside the smoker (the restaurant has no oven, so everything is cooked in the smoker).

The traditional accompaniment is sweet tea. After the meat, it's time for dessert. Banana pudding, made by Miss Iona Waits - the mother of a former server and "a sweet Southern lady from Mobile," according to Armbrecht - is the only one on the menu.

Like everything else, it's perfect and simple.

The Brick Pit, 5456 Old Shell Road, Mobile, Ala., 251-343-0001, www.brickpit.com