Essay: Comparing Boston and NY BBQ

 

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(11/14/08)

Some Boston and New York BBQ Comparisons

Last night the New York Jets defeated the New England Patriots on their own turf, adding further evidence to my earlier assertion that in both sports and barbecue, New York Is Boston, Boston Is New York.

 

Below are some general comparisons and observations about some of the differences between New York BBQ and Boston BBQ.

 

Spare Ribs (edge: Boston)


If you’re going to feast on ribs in the first place, you might as well be feasting on the juiciest, most bodacious ribs you can find, and those would be spare ribs. They’re meatier than babybacks and have more flavor too. But because of their size and uneven shape (much wider at one end than the other), they take up more space in the smoker and cook somewhat unevenly. This has led many barbecue joints to instead offer the St Louis cut, which uses the same ribs as the spares but trims off the edges in such a way that every bone has the same length.


In the Boston area, spares have become much more elusive in recent years, dropping off the menus at Blue Ribbon, Firefly’s and Lester’s. But you can still find them at East Coast Grill, SoulFire, Tremont 647, ChiliHead, Jake’s Dixie Roadhouse, Redbones, Texas BBQ Company and KC’s Rib Shack in New Hampshire. In New York City, the only proponents of spares with the same girth that I can think of are Wildwood, Virgil's and Blue Smoke.

 

 

The One Bone Option (edge: Boston)


This is a concept that's fairly widespread in greater Boston but practically nonexistent in New York, unless you count the by-the-pound joints like Hill Country and Fette Sau. Rather than a two-meat combo, you can simply add a rib or two to augment a pulled pork sandwich or even a (gasp) non-BBQ entree. The single bone (typically $2 to $3) is an option at East Coast Grill, Blue Ribbon, Redbones, SoulFire, Jake's Dixie Roadhouse, Firefly's and High Street Grill.

 

 

Freshness (edge: New York)


The post-renaissance (2002) batch of New York BBQ joints seem to exemplify the “from the smoker to the plate” ideal more so than their counterparts in Boston, with RUB and Hill Country leading the way. Even those joints that reheat can do so with some level of predictability, as the population that’s about five times the size of Boston creates higher traffic. Sure, metro New York probably has five times as many restaurants as metro Boston, but they don’t have five times as many barbecue joints.

 

 

Beef (edge: New York)


With all due respect to the folks at Uncle Pete’s, Redbones and Texas BBQ Company in the Boston area, the beef offerings in New York City are vastly superior. The humongous beef short rib you can find at Daisy May’s, Hill Country, RUB, Smoke Joint, Southern Hospitality and Wildwood is a true marvel that really ought to be added to some Boston BBQ joint menus. Similarly, there are Boston area joints that offer burnt ends, but the style and execution are nothing like the twice-smoked beauties that are the signature item at RUB. And when it comes to beef brisket, the first joint that pops into your head should be Hill Country. Here’s another free money-making idea to the restaurateurs in the Boston area, barbecue or otherwise: get yourself a burger that compares to the Pat LaFrieda blends available at Blue Smoke, Shake Shack (same owner as Blue Smoke) and Wildwood.

 

 

Vinegar (no edge)


This one’s not really a comparison, simply a non-judgmental observation. In the Boston area, vinegar seems to be much more prevalent in the sauces and in the treatment of pulled pork. The Boston BBQ fan’s palate is much more accepting of vinegar, possibly because many of the barbecue joints in the area have a connection to Chris Schlesinger, a transplanted Virginian with a taste for Carolina style barbecue. His pulled pork sandwich is one of the tartest in the region; his kitchens have spawned many of the pitmasters and chefs who’ve gone on to run their own kitchens elsewhere. In New York, pork gets a much sweeter approach or is left au naturale. As the saying goes, “not that there’s anything wrong with that…”

 

 

Over The Counter (edge: Boston)


Until a few years ago, you couldn't get barbecue in New York City without the commitment of a sit-down meal. Deciding on barbecue for lunch meant not only the extra consumption of calories but also the extra consumption of time to order, wait for the check, add a tip, etc.


The Boston BBQ scene is well represented with over-the-counter trucks (M&M), shacks (Pit Stop BBQ), joints (Blue Ribbon, ChiliHead), Boston Chicken lookalikes (Tennessee's) and McDonald's reworks (Lester's). Even a joint with a bar (SoulFire) has counter service.


In New York, the counters of Daisy May's, Hill Country, Smoke Joint Fette Sau have changed the trend slightly, but it's still predominantly a sit-down town.

 

 

Barbecue Sauces (edge: Boston)


As accomplished as they are with the meats, my Manhattan BBQ starting rotation of RUB, Hill Country, Daisy May's and Wildwood isfar less accomplished in the sauce category. At RUB and Hill Country in particular, the meat is so good it doesn't need sauce, but RUB's table sauces (3) are just okay and Hill Country's one sauce is awful. Wildwood has one that's good and one that's not. Daisy May's doesn't offer any. Blue Smoke has a couple of decent ones; Southern Hospitality has one that tastes store bought. Fette Sau's have been almost universally maligned, with one review suggesting that you smuggle your own sauce in. Dinosaur has a fantastic line-up of hot sauces that render barbecue sauce to second fiddle. I like Smoke Joint's sauces over in Brooklyn. Sadly and surprisingly, Brother Jimmy's probably has the best sauce roster in Manhattan.

 

Greater Boston BBQ joints seem to take more pride in their array of barbecue sauces. Maybe it's because there's more history, dating back to the days when even the most hard core barbecue fans considered the sauce more important than the meat. Among the joints with at least four sauces to choose from are Blue Ribbon, ChiliHead, Firefly's, Lester's, Redbones and SoulFire, plus KC's Rib Shack. Generally speaking, all of their sauces are pretty good to very good, and some joints—SoulFire, Firefly's (Quincy location only) and Memphis Roadhouse—offer them heated.

 

 

BBQ Joint as Sports Bar (edge: New York)


Barbecue and sports are both high testosterone pursuits, so it's only natural that they be enjoyed together, along with some cold beer. New York has the clear edge over Boston in this aspect. Not so surprisingly this time, it's again Brother Jimmy's at the top of my list for best sports watching venue among BBQ joints. Their barbecue? I could take it or leave it (usually I leave it), but the number of TV sets, selection of games and high volume of the play-by-play make it a winner, and the hotties behind the bar don't hurt. For highest combined score of the barbecue element and sports element, go with the downstairs room at Hill Country. Outside the city, Bailey's in Blauvelt NY is another favorite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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