Pat Tkacz, owner of Fires Barbecue and Burgers, calls himself the pitmaster and barbecue dude of his new business, located just off the old Cardiff Circle in Egg Harbor Township. That’s because barbecue is serious business with a touch of spice thrown in for good measure — along with good humor mixed in.
“I was cooking over a fire when I was 11 years old,” Tkacz says.
Years later, intent on running the food operation at his family’s business, King Pin Lanes, Tkacz attended the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing.
“I was always interested in cooking, but I wanted to learn more,” Tkacz says.
He found himself gravitating toward barbecue and becoming more interested in it.
Self-taught when it comes to barbecue, cooking for his friends every Friday for a year, Tkacz quickly learned the trick to applying different techniques to different cuts of meat. He then began going to competitions to see what they were doing and to learn more about the styles of barbecue.
Tkacz says he likes the fact that every time you cook barbecue, it’s different — the meats are different, and you are cooking outside so the weather conditions vary.
“There’s a lot to it, it’s not like cooking shrimp scampi inside,” Tkacz says. “It’s different every time you cook.”
Once he understood how all these variables affect the outcome, his craft has evolved ever since.
Somewhere along his journey, Tkacz started selling pulled pork sandwiches at local events such as the Chatsworth Cranberry Festival and the Feast of Our Lady Mount Carmel in Hammonton.
He would do the smoking of foods at home, and heated food to order over his big charcoal grills — his food was a hit.
Maybe it was his flavorful sauces or maybe it was the different kinds of wood he used for different meats.
The barbecue bug turned into a free-standing business in August.
“My main sauce is called Jersey Jack,” Tkacz says.
Five gallons of sauce includes a half gallon of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. Jersey Jack Cherry and Jersey Jack Lightening — a spicy version — are equally as popular, all developed by trial and error. Tkacz will even sell his sauces for $5 a pint, hoping to bottle them for sale when he gets the time to do it.
“I go through a lot of sauce,” Tkacz says.
Among the most popular menu items are sandwiches such as pulled pork ($7.50), beef brisket ($8.95) and pulled chicken ($7.50).
“Everything is cooked here,” Tkacz says.
Pulled pork is a Boston butt that cooks for 10 to 12 hours on the smoker. Beef brisket cooks longer — 10 to 16 hours — brisket being what Tkacz describes as the toughest piece of meat on the animal.
The ability to make that tough cut tender is the deciding factor for judges at professional competitions.
“If you can master brisket, then you are a BBQ pitmaster,” Tkacz says. It takes a lot of brisket and years to get it right.
When he finally got it right, it was like a lightbulb going off and the reason for him to go public with the whole BBQ thing.
“A lot of people can do the rest of it, but brisket is something special, I think,” Tkacz says. “Once you get it, it’s pretty spectacular.”
All meats are seasoned in one particular fashion or another with rubs of his own making that he developed over the years, blends of about 20 different spices.
Another favorite is the St. Louis-style spare ribs ($13.95 per pound) that serves one to two people and are a country-style rib cut from below the baby back ribs, meatier and more tender.
Sold by the pound may be unusual around these parts, but that’s the more typical way that barbecue is sold in other parts of the country.
Jumbo whole chicken wings ($9.50 for six wings) are large and meaty and definitely not deep fried, instead smoked for three hours or more. Cooked low and slow, the wings are coated with the signature sauce then char-grilled — not breaded, not fried.
Tkcaz says that everything from the section called Burgers and House Stackers have been popular from the “get go.” So many instantly popular items, in fact, that it took him a while to get the menu that he created straight in his head.
If he had to pick a best seller, it would be the Carolina ($9.25) made from a 50/50 blend of pulled pork and ground beef that Tkacz puts through a meat grinder and then serves with cheddar cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce and cole slaw. Other favorites include the Hot as Hell burger ($9.75) dipped in hot sauce and served with sauteed jalapenos; the Sloppy Johnny ($9.25); and the Humpty-Dumpty ($9.25) with a fried egg on top.
“Two weeks in, I made the burgers bigger,” Tkacz says. They now stand at one-half pound each.
Tkacz also takes his hot dogs seriously.
All beef dogs come as the Nor’easter ($6.49), wrapped in bacon, then topped with baked beans and a pile of bacon; or the Fire Dog ($4.49) served with hellish relish. Wanting the perfect Chicago dog ($4.49), Tkacz searched far and wide to find sports peppers, those pickled serrano peppers that along with celery salt give his Chicago dog its authentic taste.
Along with daily specials, Tkacz likes to create special combos to make meals more economical for his customers.