For about three months this year, Dennis Friedman dove deep into a cooking experiment with a hypothesis that many diners would surely find suspect. For the latest new item at Shouk, the fast-casual D.C. shop that’s built a loyal following for its brand of Middle Eastern street food, Friedman set out to prove he didn’t need meat to make a barbecue sandwich people would pay $12 to eat. Following in the footsteps of Shouk’s oyster mushroom shawarma and rave-worthy veggie burger, the BBQ Jack has exceeded expectations since the company put it on the menu in late May.
“We’re going to ramp up prep quickly, beyond what we initially expected,” Shouk co-founder Ran Nussbacher says. “People really took to it right off the bat.”
Friedman’s barbecue pita starts with brined, shredded jackfruit Shouk brings in from suppliers in Sri Lanka and Thailand. A quick sear on the flattop develops crisp edges and caramelizes an acidic, extra-punchy barbecue sauce that’s been fortified with mesquite smoke. Fried shallots add more crunch and a crucial boost of fat that could easily go missing without any animal protein. Coleslaw that’s reminiscent of the sweet and sour braised cabbage common in Ashkenazi cooking contributes more textures to chomp through. Taken as the sum of its parts, each bite tastes substantial enough to mimic pulled pork.
“This one really tested through the roof,” Friedman says of the sandwich, available at Shouk’s shops in Mt. Vernon Triangle and Union Market. The sandwich represents a departure away from Nussbacher’s Israeli roots and Shouk’s desire to position itself in a broader category of street snacks. An unexpected benefit has been the natural pairing of the barbecue sauce with Friedman’s schnitzel-esque, fried mushroom “Shouk’n” fingers.
To drill down the method for making Shouk’s barbecue sandwich, Friedman and Nussbacher enlisted Money Muscle BBQ pitmaster Ed Reavis, the chef behind the bustling truck and takeout pop-up in Silver Spring that has become a key lifeline for seafood-centric All Set Restaurant and Bar.
“We were able to connect just because I thought their food was so good. They converted me in the moment,” Reavis says. “I was kind of blown away by the meatiness of it.”
The barbecue pro divulged the recipe for his Carolina-style sauce, and Friedman added mustard to it for the BBQ Jack. Reavis says he took inspiration from Shouk, too. He likes the idea of targeting a vegan market, and he’s already fretted over meat shortages during the global health crisis. “It kind of made me think, man, what happens if anything happens to meat again, or we have a type of meat or mad cow [disease] problem?” Reavis says.
Later this summer, Reavis plans to sell a mushroom-based barbecue sandwich of his own that’s served on a bun with slaw and pickles. “For me, you can’t beat the umami of a mushroom,” he says.