Article and photography by Fitz
Lead photo of Pitmaster Bob Roberts inside Redwood Smoke Shack
Redwood Smoke Shack is the best food truck operating in Hampton Roads today. Having just debuted in February of this year, what thirty-eight year old barbecue pitmaster Bob Roberts lacks in years of operation, he more than makes up for with his command of smoked meats. Anywhere and anytime Roberts parks his new wheels on the block for service, he captures the hearts and bellies of chefs, food journalists and foodies on a level not seen locally since the rise of Chef Ross Riddle’s Hashi truck. Assuming Redwood maintains its current speed of delicious excellence, or dare to imagine, Roberts accelerates to an even higher gear, he is poised to be a substantial driver in the direction of Hampton Roads’ evolving barbecue scene.
Roberts began barbecuing seven years ago for luau parties he was throwing at his house. An avid home brewer and current president of the 7 Cities Brewers, barbecue began as a fun accompaniment to the beer Roberts was brewing for his parties. Soon however, it became a passion as he devoured books and YouTube videos by Aaron Franklin, acclaimed pitmaster and owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. With some hybridization in Roberts case, like Franklin, he makes Central Texas style barbecue which in general can be understood as barbecue made with dry spice rubs, cooked over low and slow indirect heat, and devoid of sauce. Specifically, Roberts’ brisket, rubbed with salt and pepper and smoked with oak and over indirect heat, can be seen as the most soundly categorized authentic Central Texas style option on his menu.
Roberts, a native of Hartford in upstate New York, has worked in and around the food industry most of his life. Growing up, he worked in a hot dog joint, and later, once he moved to Syracuse, barbecue first came to his attention at a local mom and pop owned spot, the Redwood Diner, of which Redwood Smoke Shack’s name would come from. Roberts recalled that the hands on, always present, approach of the owner stuck with him. After working with food for sometime in country clubs in Syracuse, and on the heels of his first marriage dissolving, Roberts would end up in Virginia Beach in 2009.
In Virginia Beach and with a new woman in his life, Lindsey Miller, Roberts would first work as the contract catering manager at Norfolk State University before becoming a food broker at Acosta. Over time, however, Roberts was, as he put it, “bit by the boss bug.” Moving away from barbecuing on his pig cooker for the luaus, and with a fresh tax return, in 2016 Roberts bought a Lang 84 hybrid deluxe and with Lindsey handing out menus around the neighborhood they bought and cooked a lot of meat to test the waters. With the Lang, and the sell outs that ensued, Roberts began setting his sights on a food truck.
Once securing the truck, Roberts, a meticulous planner and guy who upon spending time with him has an observable brain working overtime, set out to create, as he put it, “The best food truck experience around here.” When you speak to Roberts about Redwood, if you let him, he will talk to you about customer service, branding, sides, and atmosphere a’la the look of the truck more than he will about his barbecue. In light of the way Lindsey almost always manages to remember returning customers names as they place orders, to the by hand manufacturing design applied to the box truck that Roberts and crew did by hand, plus the sharp design elements of merchandise Roberts works with designer Brae Hammersley on, it’s understandable. If Roberts barbecue wasn’t arguably the best available today in Hampton Roads however, all of this great style and atmosphere would be lacking substance. Roberts brings the substance, delivering expertly smoked meats born from the care, attention and time he dedicates to making his barbecue.
Whenever Roberts sets up on say a Saturday for service, the night before he doesn’t sleep much. When he might sneak in a thirty minute to hour nap between turning, basting, or putting more wood on, he reeks of smoke. It’s a smell that works it’s way into his hair and pores that Lindsey, lying next to him, is soundly familiar with. Before adorning that smell, Roberts treats trimming brisket like an art form. As he will tell you, “you’re looking to leave just the right amount of fat on. You’re looking to create the most aerodynamic cut so the smoke hits it just right.”
Though Roberts now has a little help in terms of food prep, mostly applied to side dishes and a few more basic rubs, he is quick to tell you, “My hands are in everything. I don’t take any shortcuts. To put out this quality of barbecue you have to know your equipment. You have to be present.” Though Roberts still states that Redwood is about having fun and not his job, he plans to one day merge his barbecue with his love for brewing and open a brew pub; he is obviously dead serious about his brew and ‘cue being his life’s professional focus.
Whether it was the time Chef Nic Hagen of Homegrown jumped on Roberts’ truck after proclaiming his barbecue was some of the best he ever tasted, or be it the passionate coverage of Redwood by food journalist George Culver at I Heart Food blog, or, should once reference Chef Josh Gregory of Supper Southern Morsels thoughts on how Roberts’ pork belly was the best he has ever tasted and his desire to replicate it, Redwood Smoke Shack has enticed the bellies and imagination of some of the best palates in Hampton Roads.
In less than a year, Redwood Smoke Shack’s barbecue has illustrated what is possible from food trucks locally; in doing so, Roberts has added substantially to that scene. And as the People’s Choice Award Winner at July’s BBQ WARS: Hampton Roads, he now stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Newport News pitmaster Forrest Warren, and along with a few select others, elevates the current state of barbecue in Hampton Roads.
For more on Bob Roberts and Redwood Smoke Shack visit www.redwoodsmokeshack.com