Last year, Laurelhurst Market chef Ben Bettinger started serving a smoked-chicken sandwich topped with what he called an “Alabama white sauce” in the Northeast Portland steakhouse’s parking lot. The only problem? Before launching the restaurant’s pop-up and its spin-off restaurant, Big’s Chicken, Bettinger had never heard of the style.
That puts Bettinger in good company. Though it seems to be popping up on menus throughout the city, one of Portland’s most name-checked new barbecue styles is one you’re probably unfamiliar with.
When most people talk about Alabama-style barbecue, they’re actually talking about Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q restaurant in Decatur, a city of about 50,000 people in northern Alabama. As the story goes, original owner Robert Gibson created the sauce in 1925 for a friend who didn’t like the more common tomato-based versions, instead combining mayonnaise, vinegar, apple juice and cayenne pepper to make a sauce he would “baptize” or dip his chicken in.
Outside of that chicken, Portland’s barbecue scene isn’t too dissimilar from Alabama’s, which takes the best-of-the-best from neighboring barbecue capitals rather than focusing on a singular style of its own. Both here and across the Heart of Dixie, barbecue joints pull their favorite styles together, like the vinegar-sopped pulled pork of Eastern North Carolina, the long-smoked briskets of Texas or the saucy ribs and burnt ends of Kansas City.
But unlike Portland, Decatur can claim a legitimate contribution to America’s barbecue landscape. And lately, this “Alabamian’s ranch” has appeared as a marinade or condiment at barbecue joints across the country. White sauce even served as a crucial plot point on food-crazed comedian Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, “Master of None” (close watchers will note the episode took place in Nashville, but the sauce is pure Alabama).
In Oregon, food carts and restaurants promoting their “Alabama-style barbecue” have made occasional appearances over the years. But recently, smoked chicken and mayo-based sauces have cropped up everywhere from Alabamian-owned food cart Dinner Bell to Russell St. BBQ’s just-opened Southeast Portland restaurant to Big’s Chicken, the North Tabor restaurant built to house Bettinger’s popular smoked-chicken sandwiches.
Northeast Portland’s 14-year-old Russell St. BBQ has actually served some variation of smoked poultry and white sauce for years, owner Sharon Santucci said, after the restaurant’s chef (and Santucci’s wife) Diane first discovered the style on an epic barbecue crawl from Kansas City to North Carolina.
“Diane went to Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, a big institution, and found smoked chicken and white sauce,” Sharon Santucci says. “My wife is allergic to tomatoes and so immediately was like, ‘Oh, what?!'”
After experimenting with several versions, white sauce made its first appearance alongside Cornish game hens as a weekly special. Then, about four years ago, after the Santuccis started using Scratch Farms chicken, the condiment grabbed a spot on the regular menu. This month, the dish migrated to the full-time menu at the restaurant’s brand-new meat counter on Southeast Belmont Street, which quietly opened last week.
For Sam Mouzon, chef/owner of two-month-old barbecue cart Dinner Bell, it took leaving his hometown of Gurley, Ala. to realize that white sauce-doused barbecue chicken had become popular outside of his Northeast corner of the state.
“We’ve been trying to slowly reintroduce the concept here in Portland,” Mouzon said, whose half barbecued chicken can be served dunked in white sauce upon request. “I got looked at here a little crazy the first few times. Out here, so few and far between are familiar with the idea of it.”
In a city that’s come to expect good barbecue from food carts, Dinner Bell’s stylistically varied menu brings variety to downtown 10th and Alder cart pod. Alongside the white sauced chicken, Mouzon is serving pulled pork, ribs (sometimes baby back, sometimes spare, maybe lamb in the future) and the occasional regional Southern dish (most recently plump shrimp and creamy grits with porky collard greens).
While Alabama white sauce remains a niche style, its simplicity of ingredients — a combination of fat, acid and aromatics — has been helping make some of Portland’s best smoked chicken of the past few months.
According to chef Bettinger, its was Laurelhurst Market co-owner Dave Kriefels who first suggested experimenting with a mayo and apple cider vinegar sauce for his smoked birds.
“When we first started doing Five Napkin Chicken, I wasn’t trying to do barbecue, I was just making good chicken with an awesome sauce,” Bettinger says.
Nevertheless, Bettinger’s version isn’t far off from the original, combining mayo with yellow mustard, apple cider vinegar, honey and dried herbs. Now Big’s Chicken uses their “white gold” sauce everywhere: As a baptismal dip for smoked chicken, as a topping for the finished sandwich, even as a condiment for crisp JoJos. For Bettinger, the sauce earned its nickname because “it tastes like gold and I want to put it on everything.”
“It’s the caramelizing sugar and fat,” Bettinger says. “I remember (the chicken) not having enough flavor coming out of the smoker and all of a sudden the white gold takes it to a different level.”
— Samantha Bakall