by Victoria Bourne
Chris Fultz and Alex Graf. Buzz-worthy barbecue is what happens when a Texas boy gets thunderstruck by a roller derby girl. Just ask Chris Fultz and Alex Graf, pitmaster and pitmistress of ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. The couple’s second-chance romance – sparked at a derby bout and forged over a smoked rib – has led to the hottest little barbecue joint in town.
When you met in 2011, did you have any idea your budding relationship would lead to ZZQ?
Alex: Chris had ZZQ on his license plate when that rib happened, so there was an inkling of an idea for him already.
Chris: I was pretty obsessed with smoking meat. I was doing competition barbecue, backyard parties for friends and stuff. I had a dream in the back of my mind about maybe someday having a barbecue joint. But that vision didn’t get any traction until the two of us started dating. We learned a lot about each other in terms of our strengths and weaknesses and how we fit together as a team. We’re extraordinarily complementary. I’m a total introvert. I love being focused on a singular thing like the meat or problem-solving challenges in the restaurant.
Alex: I love the chaos, and the chaos is the people. The rest of it, we kind of got figured out.
You started as a pop-up phenomenon at Ardent Craft Ales in 2013 and evolved into a brick-and-mortar by March 2018. What’s it like to have so much recent attention and praise?
Chris: It was tremendously stressful for me last year when we started getting this press. I felt like it was kind of undeserved because we hadn’t worked out all the kinks. But then, Daniel Vaughn (barbecue editor of Texas Monthly) came, which was the pinnacle of it all. He called our food flawless. That was the proudest moment of my barbecue career thus far. Garden & Gun, the barbecue nation piece, was pretty damn close to as special. To be taken seriously in the South amongst the pitmasters that we were included with in that issue was huge for me. You know, I don’t come from a barbecue background; I was an architect. That was incredibly confirming and validating and meant a lot to me personally.
Are more people making the barbecue pilgrimage to Richmond?
Alex: Yes. And we’re seeing a lot of people who are rattling down (Interstate) 95 going someplace else, but they have made a point to come to see us.
Chris: We had one group come through and they were on a barbecue tour. They made T-shirts. They had all the barbecue joints they were going to and we were the first one on the list.
How has the commonwealth influenced your Texas-style barbecue?
Chris: In Central Texas, one of the most prevalent choices of firewood is post oak, which has a very distinct flavor profile that it imparts on the meat. It’s my favorite and every time I go to Texas, I miss it so much and wish we had that tree growing here, but we don’t. So, we use what the landscape in Central Virginia provides us, which is a lot of white oak. It’s a little milder than post oak. The other aspects of it are our sauces are built off a foundation of vinegar, salt and pepper.
What is the universal language of barbecue?
Chris: Barbecue is just kind of a fundamental common denominator that we can all share. There’s so much of our heart and soul and love that goes into it, and I think that’s what makes this whole enterprise special.
Alex: We’re wanting everyone to feel welcome and to feel at home here. And that starts with the meat.
What’s the secret to ensuring I get that coveted beef brisket?
Alex: I often tell people the sweet spot is Friday between 2 and 4. You know we’ve got food because we’re going to supper and there’s not much of a crowd.
Chris: Friday afternoon is the only day of the week where we have kind of a lull and you can come in and get anything on the menu. On Saturday, we’ll have a line for nine hours straight.