Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ

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2007/07/01 18:33:27 (permalink)

Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ

quote:
The Best Barbeque
Juicy brisket pulled straight from the pit in Texas. Pulled pork shoulder with crispy browned bits in Tennessee. And versions rivaling both in Boston and New York. Our food critic goes cross-country for the pick of the pits.
By RAYMOND SOKOLOV
June 30, 2007; Page P1

True barbecue is a complex, slow method of cooking meat in an enclosed space with low, indirect heat and smoke. True barbecue emerges from the "pit" still moist and very tender after as many as 18 hours of cooking. Its flavor is a mix of the smoke, the sublimation of fat, the caramelization of meat juices, spices rubbed on it, soaked or injected into it and sauce basted ("mopped") over it while it cooks.

Within all this, there are endless variations: Tennessee takes its pulled pork from the shoulder; eastern North Carolina uses the whole hog, and flavors the smoky, succulent meat with vinegar sauce; and of course Texas serves up beef from ribs to brisket to sausage. But as I learned on an odyssey in search of America's best barbecue, the cuisine is outgrowing its regional origins. Barbecue joints up north can hold their own against the best below the Mason-Dixon.

The steamrolling migration of true Q is obviously a good thing for diners. But it's also a radical change for a cuisine that's always been defined by its regional differences -- two barbecue restaurants 100 miles apart in the South are likely to serve completely different styles, sauces and cuts of meat. The best northern barbecue restaurants take an anthropologist's approach: They scrupulously research the authentic methods for Carolina pulled pork and Texas brisket, but then offer them on the same menu.

The sleeker, sophisticated places up north may lack the romance of a trip to a shack in rural Alabama or Tennessee, but they also don't threaten the originals, a remarkable number of which show few signs of losing spirit or changing their methods. At Carl's Perfect Pig Bar B Que in White Bluff, Tenn., I dined on an artful jumble of shoulder shreds punctuated with browned bits of the outside of the meat. At Kreuz in Lockhart, Texas, I devoured juicy beef brisket, pulled from the smoker and sliced before my eyes.

In every region, the mutual differences may inspire fierce loyalty, but a fundamental essence and fundamental standards link all the multifarious versions of what is at bottom one place's version of the same brilliant idea.

First, a word on what barbecue is not. Barbecue (the noun) is not something that occurs over direct flame in the open air. Grilling steaks or chicken or burgers is basically harmless, but it doesn't produce true barbecue in the strict sense applied on its native ground to this quintessentially American, smokily superb form of meat cookery. So those of us who will be barbecuing (the verb) on our grills on July 4 will not be eating barbecue 20 minutes later.

All barbecue ought to taste of the smoke given off by the fire it has cooked in, and should be juicy despite the long hours of exposure to heat. Pork ribs should not "whitebone": If you pull two ribs apart with your hands, meat should remain on both bones and no bone should show. Otherwise they are overdone.

Maybe the most important sign of seriously smoked barbecue is that curious pink line that the process leaves behind at the edge of the meat. You can easily taste the wood smoke in righteous 'cue. In my first bite of brisket at Smitty's Meat Market, a short drive from Kreuz in Lockhart, Texas, that smokiness was so strong, it changed my idea forever of what barbecue could be. This style of heavily smoked beef may take some getting used to but for me it is the zenith of the Q universe.

That doesn't mean I don't love the pork barbecue that other regions excel in. But Smitty's is a temple of purity, a dark brick cave of making, with its stark black steel-doored smokers and taciturn pitmen who stand in the heat of the post oak logs, pull out a piece of brisket and ask you if you want it sliced from the lean or the fatty end. I go for the fatty end -- more juice -- and don't mind that Smitty's is really just a specialized meat market. For sauce and cutlery, you go through a door from the darkness of the pit area to a bright-lit concession. The transition is something like the shock Plato tells us his cave-dwellers experienced when they emerged into the sun.

Purists in Lockhart eat with their hands and don't mess with sauce. I'm on their side when it comes to sauce, but if you can't do without it, you can't go wrong in a world where top-flight places serve anonymous brews ranging from sweetened ketchup to peppy vinegar, and anything in between.

A book could be written about the cole slaws -- shredded, chopped, hot, mild, vinegar-based or mayoed -- that Q joints offer along with tangy baked beans and a half-dozen other standbys. We particularly loved firecracker corn, a highly spiced corn on the cob. The classic dessert beyond all others is a vanilla pudding full of banana slices and vanilla wafers.

These dishes attached themselves to barbecue late in its history, which began before Columbus landed. Arawak Indians in the Caribbean must have been slow-cooking meat on a wood platform because their word for this grill moved into Spanish as barbacoa.

For them, as for early settlers, smoking meat was a simple and, it turned out, delicious way to preserve it. We owe our country hams and smoked bacon to this principle. And in poor rural communities in the south, white and black men adapted this into a style of preparing humble meats, first in open pits in the ground and later in the enclosed metal "pits" or smokers of today.

The most fervid celebration of this cuisine occurs every year at the barbecue contests held in hundreds of locations. Teams of mostly amateur chefs compete against each other for blue ribbons in categories such as whole hog or rub. So it seemed reasonable to start my quest at the country's premiere competition, a huge festival on the banks of the Mississippi called Memphis in May.

The odd thing about Memphis in May is that you can't eat the barbecue. The overwhelmingly male teams hang about in their colorful booths, minding their techno-pits. The general public just mills around or pays to go into a special tent where they can ingest limited samples of the contestants' output.

This elitist setup mirrors the larger barbecue world, which is starkly divided between the mob and the cognoscenti -- a paradoxically snobbish rift in a subculture built on a myth of rural simplicity and y'all-come populism. Barbecuemania is split between the uninstructed millions (who will eat a sparerib no matter where it's been) and the adepts who love to split bristles over where to find the best "dry" ribs or the tangiest vinegar-based sauce.

At Memphis in May, I cadged enough meat to conclude that there was plenty of bad 'cue and some very fine stuff to be had. But for those of us outside the contest circuit, the real contest is in restaurants, where pitmasters test their skills every day for the benefit of Everydiner.

The most famous barbecue venues tend to be big, souvenir-sauce-selling places coasting on their owners' fame as contest winners or on raves from the small coterie of barbecue critics. I trekked to Decatur. Ala., to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a multiple first-place winner at Memphis in May, and found the pulled pork mushy and the much-touted sauce underwhelming. I had a passable lunch at Mike Mills's 17th Street Bar & Grill in the cheerless southern Illinois burg of Murphysboro. Mr. Mills uses applewood in his smokers, which is too mild for my Lockhartian taste for post oak.

The most famous of all barbecue restaurants is Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Mo. Put on the map by Calvin Trillin who in the 1970s called it "the single best restaurant in the world" in Playboy, Bryant's is now a minichain in Kansas City. I found the barbecue serviceable but unexciting.

Tennessee may qualify as the capital of the most basic kind of barbecue, pork shoulder "pulled" or shredded by hand. Shoulder, like other barbecue cuts, is not a luxury meat -- it's tough -- but benefits from the slow braising of the pit.

At Bozo's BBQ in Mason, east of Memphis, you don't need to sauce up the perfect squills of pork shoulder. Outside this unassuming family operation, a lonely whistling freight train rumbles by. The bright lights of the high-security federal pen next door cast an ominous shadow on the humble former farmhouse. Within, all is good cheer restrained by the confident reserve that comes from knowing you can pull pork so that each strand comes away long and perfect, like hanks of moist beige yarn.

This is the Memphis style at its apogee, 40 miles out from Graceland, and all the other sights and sounds of downtown. Bozo's does not serve ribs. Don't ask for brisket either. In this shrine of the shoulder of the sow, aficionados know that "barbecue" signifies only one cut of meat, from high on the hog.

For a serious challenge to this fare, you'd have to head to the Raleigh-Durham airport and scoot down to Wilber's in Goldsboro, N.C. You are now in whole-hog territory. Vinegar is the basic condiment underlying the pulled pork, which Wilber's variegates with meat fragments from all up and down the succulent swine. You could have this as a sandwich topped with chopped, vinegary cole slaw, but I prefer the unadorned piggy perfection. The southern-fried gizzards are also A-one and offer a crunchy counterpoint to the silken, mildly peppery main event. At Dillard's Bar-B-Que in the city of Durham, they offer a similar, if smokier pork in a dandy coleslaw sandwich.

Texas is another state with a high Q factor. In particular, I mean the woodsy hill country surrounding Austin, the state's capital of politics and intellect. Beef is the main meat here, beef ribs and brisket and piquant sausages that mix local German and Mexican ideas. Lockhart is the Vatican of this persuasion, with its rehabbed turn-of-the 20th-century downtown. This was where we found Smitty's, in a former Shiner's brewery, and Kreuz, pronounced "Krites" and referred to locally as the Church of Kreuz.

From there, we drove north to Oklahoma. Leo's in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma Style Bar-B-Q and Wilson's in Tulsa all offer hickory-smoked sliced brisket of very high quality. They also serve a regional specialty, bar-b-q bologna, segments of lunchmeat sausage smoked as if it were brisket or ribs, and a side dish of pickled mixed vegetables.

Then we headed home, literally and figuratively, to the three cities we have the closest ties to. In each of them, the menu represented, with great fidelity, barbecue styles originating elsewhere. Slows (no apostrophe please) in Detroit, where I was born, is a treasure-house of Q eclecticism. Its ribs were about as good as any we encountered anywhere.

The East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., is rightly famous for its scholarly re-creation of pit barbecue, although we think even the first-rate eastern North Carolina pulled pork relies too much on its excellent vinegary sauce (probably because the kitchen thinks its customers wouldn't appreciate the meat on its own). And in New York City, the Cue millennium came to town last month in the form of Hill Country, a very skillful rendition of Texas barbecue based directly on Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Barbecue expert Elizabeth Karmel consulted on the operation, which imports its sausages directly from Kreuz and burns post oak in its three smokers.

The Q evangelists behind this barn of a place should think about extending their mission to the barbecue wilderness of Los Angeles. We ate in the local standbys Woody's and Phillips, but found their meats overcooked and undersmoked. What Tinseltown most needs these days is authentic Lockhart brisket followed by a rough-and-tumble banana pudding from Carl's Perfect Pig.

While we stuffed ourselves this spring with these splendid viands, and wiped our hands with pieces of paper toweling torn from vertical rolls standing within convenient reach, we kept trying to decide which restaurant would be our pick for champ of the pit-barbecue nation. In the end, because of the dramatic variation of style and content from place to place, we began thinking that any of the places we've mentioned favorably so far was tied for first with the rest.

But if I could only have one meal before being forced to turn vegan, I would charter a plane to Smitty's for a piece of brisket pulled from the pit.

• Where have you found great barbecue? Email me at eatingout@wsj.com6.

URL for this article:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118315470509653519.html


Any opinions on these places?
#1

17 Replies Related Threads

    zataar
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/01 23:23:22 (permalink)
    I do wish Mr. Sokolov would have eaten at more than one place in KC. Arthur Bryant's is not the beginning and end of the BBQ spectrum here. I can think of 4 other places he should have checked out. I guess we here in KC don't rate up there with Boston and Los Angeles for 'que.
    #2
    Hillbilly
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 07:55:21 (permalink)
    I took the author up on his offer to e-mail him to tell him about 3 of my favorite places that he had left out.

    1. Lexington # 1 in Lexington NC
    2. Fiorella's Jack Stack in Kansas City
    3. Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
    #3
    southern_belle
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 08:34:18 (permalink)
    I would've told him to go to Cozy Corner and Interstate bbq in Memphis.
    #4
    kozel
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 11:25:22 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by zataar

    I do wish Mr. Sokolov would have eaten at more than one place in KC. Arthur Bryant's is not the beginning and end of the BBQ spectrum here. I can think of 4 other places he should have checked out. I guess we here in KC don't rate up there with Boston and Los Angeles for 'que.


    I didn't get any sense of Boston or LA superiority according to Mr. Sokolov's article so I don't see the reason for your slam. I took the article as a praise to regional BBQ with personal comments about specific regions, restaurants and foods. As a New Yorker, even I know KC is a Mecca of BBQ but KC is not the Mecca of BBQ. Boston, LA or NYC will never have a 'style' of BBQ of their own; at most they will only may get good examples of other region's BBQ. Where there may have been zero examples of any BBQ in NYC 10 years ago, there are several examples of varying styles and results today.

    You missed the opportunity to list the 4 other places that you'd recommend. I'd think Roadfooders would have found that informative.
    #5
    bbires
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 15:18:16 (permalink)
    Where's Kentucky in this article? Maybe the WSJ food writer doesn't have any more sense than their offensive editorial page.
    #6
    prisonchef
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 15:50:39 (permalink)
    interesting read that was.
    i agree with his idea that taking an anthropologist's approach is sound for bbq joints that operate in non-traditional areas for bbq and i will give a few examples from personal experience since north florida for sure ain't no bastion of classic bbq cuisine.
    pork- i like the pork shoulders from NC but hate the sauce. butts though are to dry for my taste so we use picnics only. the rub is a blend from KC and memphis ideas and tweaked where my customers like it. sauce for sure aint the vinegar of NC nor the sickly sweet garbage loved by judges. but since i like those ingredients in both i tweaked those.
    beef- studied every book i could read on texas and started off doing that but then i read how jewish delis did their brisket and modified my techniques and rubs. while the rub has a tex-mex overtone the cooking technique is a modification of kosher techniques. end result good brisket sales due to word of mouth amoung what i can only assume is the reformed jewish community in this area although i have never asked as i just would feel very uncomfortable doing so.
    sausage- i hand make my franks with an old german recipe given to me and the only change that i have made to that is a much heavier smudge prior to the cold plunge.
    i personally think that as the public becomes more educated about bbq that you will see a change similar to the "pan-pacific" fusion cooking whereby the best of all regions are used to satisfy the customer. and hopefully it will once and for all end the debate over coals,gas and electric units. and that argument will be left to the "comp smokers" where it truly belongs.
    jack
    #7
    zataar
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 16:33:32 (permalink)

    I didn't get any sense of Boston or LA superiority according to Mr. Sokolov's article so I don't see the reason for your slam.

    No slam was intended. Just an observation that the writer ate at a total of 3 places in Boston and LA and only 1 here in KC. He didn't seem to care much for the LA places. I'd like to try East Coast Grill in Cambridge. I've heard it's very good.
    I've posted before about other BBQ places in KC that are really exceptional.
    I'd send anyone to LC's, JackStack's, Smokin' Guns and Woodyard. Not really KC style, but good is Oklahoma Joe's.
    A place that is getting buzz, but I haven't been to yet, is Big T's, a block away from LC's.
    I guess I listed 6, not 4

    I'm not sure I'd tell people in Kansas City that KC isn't THE bbq mecca. Some people here take it far too seriously!
    #8
    BuddyRoadhouse
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/02 17:06:15 (permalink)
    Big T's, eh? Tell me more please...

    Buddy
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    kozel
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 10:21:37 (permalink)
    You're absolutely right; my apologies to all. I am going back on my meds.
    #10
    wanderingjew
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 10:43:21 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by kozel

    Sorry if I over reacted to your comment.
    quote:
    Originally posted by zataar

    I guess we here in KC don't rate up there with Boston and Los Angeles for 'que.

    New York is a great place to eat; but I can't think of an example of anything truly unique to New York except a NY steak house or deli. You can find almost anything here and it can be great but it's 'borrowed' from some other place or people.


    I disagree about the NY Steak House, in my opinion, any half decent Midwestern Steakhouse will blow the best NY Steakhouse out of the water and that's coming directly from a Native New Yorker.
    #11
    cornfed
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 11:53:51 (permalink)
    Sometimes there's a reactionary bent on this site that's so strong, it borders on intolerance and ignorance.
    #12
    Rick F.
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 12:19:44 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by cornfed

    Sometimes there's a reactionary bent on this site that's so strong, it borders on intolerance and ignorance.

    Surely you jest!
    #13
    BT
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 14:49:39 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by cornfed

    Sometimes there's a reactionary bent on this site that's so strong, it borders on intolerance and ignorance.


    = Confused: About what that means and why it's posted in this thread. Let's stick to BBQ.
    #14
    zataar
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 15:29:09 (permalink)
    I meant to post this earlier, but forgot in all the WSJ discussion.
    My nephew had his wedding rehearsal dinner at JackStack's FreightHouse in KC last week. It was very, very good. Food and service were excellent. The service was some of the best I've had at a catered event, and I'm a caterer!

    There were about 70 of us, seated on a covered patio reserved for our party. We had chicken, ribs and brisket to choose from. The meats were great! Just enough smoke and a nice spice from the rub. Chicken was cut in a way that there was some dark meat and light meat on each piece. The rib meat wasn't falling off the bone, which I liked. It had a nice chew. The brisket had just enough fat and was perfectly cooked. Sauces were thankfully on the side The famous beans were fabulous, with lots of burnt end pieces in them. They are soupier than some other beans around town, but weren't overly ketchupy. Some of the beans around KC are too sweet. Even the coleslaw was enjoyable, but I'm not a big coleslaw fan.

    I know I've said before that JackStack's is some of the cleanest bbq around, but I've changed my mind about that being negative. The servers kept the food filled at all times and everyone's places cleared. A fun time was had by all.
    #15
    Davydd
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 15:35:43 (permalink)
    The Wall Street Journal article pulled in BBQ joints in those major cities NY, Boston, LA, etc. because that is where most of the readership is and the only way most of the vast readership is going to understand the article is by going to one of those places. If you stacked all the references in KC, Memphis, North Carolina and Texas then the article would have little meaning for most of those readers. Of course as everyone should know, the closer and more knowledgeable you are to a subject the more errors, misinformation and inaccuracies you are going to see. Regardless of the nit picking I thought the article was good and got down to the differences between BBQ and backyard grilling with sauce I bet most readers thought was BBQ.
    #16
    MilwFoodlovers
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 17:34:32 (permalink)
    While it's fun to argue over the "best" of anything, it's something that will forever be unsettled as everyone's tastes are different. I've never had Texas Q but I've had most styles from KC eastward. I love The Cozy Corner and Interstate, both in Memphis and Milwaukee's Speed Queen. I figure my new favorite is one I haven't yet tasted. I suspect it will be vinegar based from the Carolina's as I favor that "sauce" best but I'm open to most any Q save mutton. I tried it and will never try it again as that taste just isn't my style; this coming from someone who enjoys BBQ lamb and goat. Baaaah
    #17
    CajunKing
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    RE: Wall Street Journal: Best BBQ 2007/07/03 20:27:02 (permalink)
    MFL - You are so right about forever being unsettled.

    Others -

    Que is a personal taste and opinion.

    Yes, Opinions are like arseholes, everyone gots one and some stink.

    That is what makes the pursuit of QUE so much fun.

    If you have a favorite place that is not in the article, email the writer. I sent him an email and suggested several unlisted places for his next adventure.

    I like MFL's attitude "My new favorite is one I haven't yet tasted."


    #18
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