Harold's Barbecue staff, from left: Ronald Oten, Harold Harrison, Lem Harris and James Graham.
Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois and Texas. These are just a few of the states that Harold Harrison visited in his search to discover the perfect barbecue recipe. Traveling to cook-offs across the country Harrison learned from the experts: the folks who love to eat authentic, succulent, fall off the bone barbecue.
"I used to work at a barbecue place on Vancouver, the Pig on the Pit," he told The Skanner. "I knew there was something different – a better way to cook this barbecue, so I went east and down south to find out."
Now, after his years of study, he calls himself a consultant ribologist. And he's putting his knowledge into practice at Harold's Barbecue, 902 N. Killingsworth at Mississippi.
Beautifully decorated in colors that bring to mind red peppers and cornbread, Harold's Barbecue is a smart neighborhood eatery, where business clients mix with PCC staff and students at lunchtime and couples or groups come to eat in the evening before heading out for a drink or to see a show.
Harold's is very reasonably priced, offering a lunch box special for $5.50; side dishes such as greens, corn bread or mac and cheese for $2.50, and a half rack of smoked baby backed ribs with two sides and corn bread for just $12.
"The catfish is mouthwatering, it's moist, it's just very good," said one frequent customer, who didn't want his name printed.
Harrison's catfish comes from Mississippi, but he uses locally raised meat and, as much as possible, fresh local ingredients. Then he trims and skins his pork, beef and chicken meat before applying his wife's trademark house rubs. He calls it Southern barbecue with a Northwest flair.
"People ask me if its Texas style or Louisiana style or St. Louis style," Harrison says. "I don't like to pigeonhole it, but if it's anything it's Memphis-style. There's a restaurant called the Rendezvous there and it's similar to that."
Harrison wanted to avoid using charcoal or other live coals, which he said may produce carcinogens. Instead he puts special hardwoods into his electric smoker to infuse the barbecue with the familiar smoky tastes. His warming oven too can be filled with the scent of wines and sauces. His barbecue sauce is a special recipe – and no, he won't disclose his secret formula. You'll have to guess from the taste.
"I love doing this," he said. "This has been my passion for more than 31 years."
Born and raised in Columbia Villa, North Portland, Harrison graduated from Roosevelt High School and Portland State University. For 30 years he worked as an engineer with Union Pacific Railways, but even here he found recipes to try out. The railway work took Harrison out to Celilo, a village east of the Dalles in the Columbia River Gorge. In this ancient fishing community Harrison met Native Americans who explained the traditional methods for smoking fish. Everywhere he went, Harrison gathered recipes and techniques to try out.
For the last 12 years Harrison and his wife Joyce have run a catering business and for five years they operated out of a monthly barbecue stand next to Kienows store in North Portland. His customers begged him to open a restaurant where they could find their favorite comfort food whenever they needed it, he said.
Harrison didn't need too much encouragement. To have his own barbecue restaurant had been his longtime dream. So with assistance from the Portland Development Commission, who helped with finance and technical assistance, and from the Portland State Business School, the restaurant began to take shape. Still, because of changing economic and business climate, it took three years just to write the business plan.
"I didn't realize it would take as much as it did to get to this point," Harrison said. "But now things are getting better every day."