Archives: June 2007
Hill Country Opens for Lunch Next Week
It's been a dinner-only proposition so far, but I learned that the folks at New York's Hill Country will be opening for lunch starting Monday, July 2. Be sure to call first just to be certain.
Thoughts While Judging in NH, part 2
Here are some more of my thoughts while judging the KCBS barbecue contest at
the Anheuser-Busch grounds in Merrimack NH last Sunday.
When I first started judging, I was always the last judge at the table to submit my scorecard. I’m still among the slower judges, because I want to do the best job I can. There’s often a lot of money at stake for the competition teams and there’s always a lot of time and money invested, so I don’t take my responsibility as a judge lightly. The hardest part of judging is having already awarded an 8 and a 9, then tasting something that’s better than the 8 but not as good as the 9. Or tasting something better than that 9. You have to judge each entry in order, without going back and changing scores. Each entry should be judged on its own merit, not in relation to the other entries. I can’t say I don’t consider the scores I’ve already given out when judging the next piece of meat, but you’re not supposed to. To get into the rhythm of assigning scores with speed and confidence, I prepare with 10 minutes of rating the photos on www.hotornot.com. The same scoring dilemmas come up, but with practice, it gets easy.
Can you fry chicken at a BBQ contest?
The most interesting entry in the chicken category looked more like something from General Gau (who’s never been seen in the same room at the same time as General Tso) than something from a barbecue contest. All of the judges silently wondered whether the six thighs were smoked or fried or something in between. They had a light coating of egg wash and flour that enabled them to retain a crisp skin. The rub was unique, with lots of cinnamon, and the faint coating of sauce had a coconut flavor. Highly unusual, but evidently legal. As long as they used wood and smoke and not oil, this was fair game. The flavor was good and the tenderness of the meat was perfect. Usually an entry does well across the board or poorly across the board, with the three scores for appearance, taste and tenderness not necessarily identical but somewhat close. This was a rare example of a 5-7-9 score from me. I don’t think it had a chance to win, but I really enjoyed that chicken and give props to the team for submitting something creative and different.
Should the scores for each entry be similar?
That chicken entry and the unusual way I scored it reminded me of a discussion I overheard the very first time I judged. One of the judges was questioning the credibility of another judge who scored an entry a 9 for tenderness but a 7 for taste, or vice versa. His argument was that if one category deserved a similarly high score, so did the other. I disagree. Take the most perfect ribs (or chicken, or whatever) imaginable. They’d deserve a 9 for taste and a 9 for tenderness. What if those same ribs were pulled from the smoker 90 minutes earlier or 90 minutes later? The tenderness would be shot either way, but the taste would be the same and still deserve a 9. Take those imaginary perfectly cooked ribs, add an extra cup of black pepper and baste them with the fishy water from a can of tuna. The taste would be shot, but the tenderness would be the same and still deserve a 9. I know competition cooks who lament that they’ve cooked two briskets, one with great taste and iffy texture and the other with great texture but a little off on taste. Taste and tenderness are separate categories for a reason.
Times and Temps
For standard KCBS contests, there’s an assigned turn-in time for each meat: chicken is due at 12:00, pork ribs at 12:30, pork shoulder at 1:00 and brisket at 1:30. For each turn-in, the teams have a 10-minute window. Chicken, for example, can be as early as 11:55 or as late as 12:05. Any later and the entry is disqualified. The order that the judges will view and taste the meat is predetermined, so there’s no advantage in trying to turn in the box early to ensure that it will be tasted while the meat is still hot. On the contrary, it’s to the cook’s advantage to turn in the box as late as possible (assuming that it was relatively hot before turn-in) to minimize the time that it sits.
That waiting time between turn-in and judging not only cools the meat but also steams it, taking the bite out of any bark and making chicken skin downright rubbery. My former competition team would always shoot for a turn-in with 1 or 2 minutes to go. It led to some high drama as the clock wound down, but it was worth it. That’s why I found it odd that the first competitor to turn in a chicken entry did so at 11:56, four minutes ahead of schedule and a full 9 minutes earlier than he had to. I then kept track of the times we started tasting each meat (after all 6 entries were judged for appearance and then distributed to the judges’ mats): chicken 12:09; pork ribs 12:38; pork shoulder 1:13; beef brisket 1:41.
Pork shoulder takes the longest to serve, because forks are required to handle the many different pieces. Although we started tasting pork 13 minutes after the turn-in time, the table in front of us started 2 minutes after that. As you might guess, some of the pork was cold; some ribs were too. You’re not supposed to take rubbery chicken skin or cold meat into account when judging. Still, it’s hard not to subconsciously reward a team who manages to keep things warm (as one team’s pork was the last time I judged) and crisp (as one team’s chicken was the time before that).
Thoughts While Judging in NH, part 1
Last Sunday I judged the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) barbecue contest at the Anheuser-Busch grounds in
Merrimack NH. The weather was perfect, the barbecue was good and it was a great
opportunity to make new friends and re-connect with old ones. Here’s just a sample of what was trickling through my mind as I judged.
Each of the meats is judged for appearance, taste and tenderness, on a scale of 2 to 9 (there is no such thing as a perfect 10; a 1 is reserved for disqualifications). Assigning a score is a lot harder than you’d think, because the scores typically wind up being 6s, 7s and 8s, with an occasional 9 or 5. The resulting narrow margin of actual scores makes every point count that much more.
In the sport of boxing, most rounds are scored 10-9, with a knockdown required to get a 10-8 round; 10-7 rounds are practically unheard of. This means that not all 10-9 rounds are alike. Barbecue scoring is often very similar: two ribs can both be scored an 8 for taste even though one is noticeably better, just because there’s such a narrow range used.
KCBS recently changed the way judges approach the numbers to achieve a greater separation in the scores. Instead of starting at a 9 with points taken off for imperfections, every entry now starts as a 6 and can get bumped up or down accordingly. That’s how I was trained, that’s how I judge and that’s how I think it should be. A score of 6 is considered average, so you’ve really got to earn those 8s and 9s from me. I don’t look at it as penalizing the cooks to whom I give a 7 instead of an 8. I look at it as rewarding the cooks who earned my 8s and 9s by not giving them away to everyone else too.
Of the six chicken entries I judged, four boxes had thighs, one had wings and one had slices. This is typical, as most teams submit thighs, since they cook evenly, remain moist and fit easily into the box. I’ve occasionally seen wings, more often seen legs and a few times a combination of legs and thighs (each of the 6 judges can pick any piece in the box while still available). If I were competing, I’d always submit thighs—for the reasons stated above as well as my success rate with them.
Of the six rib entries I judged, three boxes had babybacks, two had St Louis cut and one had a meaty loin back rib. I’ve seen babybacks before, but this was the first time they were in the majority. I like when a team presents the ribs in a way that lets you see not only the sauced tops but also the unsauced sides. Spares are the longest and the meatiest, but they’re risky for competition: they cook unevenly, they have pockets of fat that may wind up in a judge’s only bite and it’s hard to fit six or more into the box. If I were competing, I’d always submit St Louis ribs—but I’d make sure what they lacked in length they made up for in height.
Of the six pork entries I judged, four boxes had a combination of strings and bark, one box had just slices and one box had slices and strings. I like variety, because it makes the presentation look better and gives me more ways to reward you for appearance, taste and texture. One well known competitor from New York once told me that he sometimes presents five different pork options for competition. If I were competing, I probably wouldn’t offer that much variety, but I’d be sure to offer a few different looks and tastes. After all of the scoresheets were turned in, our table had mixed opinion on that box with just slices. One judge thought it was the best entry of the six, another judge or two thought it was okay and a few other judges (myself included) thought the meat was overcooked and oversauced. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but that’s what makes it fun. And neither camp is right or wrong.
Of the six brisket entries I judged, five boxes had slices and one had a combination of pulled brisket and smaller slices. In the past I’ve seen thick slices, thin slices, burnt ends, chunks, chopped brisket and thin brisket strings. Again, the more options you give me, the more chances you have to score well. When two kinds of meat are presented (say, slices and chunks), there’s differing opinion, even among trained judges, as to whether you’re supposed to average the two mental scores or score based on whichever of the two you like best.
For each the first three meats that day, my highest score wound up going to the fourth of the group, but the brisket broke that string. The fourth entry here had falling-apart brisket slices on a just few shreds of lettuce (all entries are garnished) that didn’t come close to covering the bottom of the box. If the meat looked good, the lettuce wouldn’t matter, but a half-assed garnish makes no sense. Either do it right or have the balls to go with no garnish at all (I’d score Hill Country’s sliced brisket a 9 if it came ungarnished). Another interesting entry in the brisket category looked great but was very tough. But the thing that really made it interesting was that it was sliced so thick. Thick slices are usually a ploy to mask overcooked brisket to keep it from falling apart, just as extra thin slices are a way of dealing with tough brisket. This cook did it the other way around and it cost him points.
Boston BBQ: SoulFire Celebrates 1 Year
One year ago yesteday, I was the first customer ever at SoulFire BBQ in Allston on their first day of business, so it was only fitting that I return last night a year later to celebrate.
(Click any of the photos to view a larger image)
pork ribs, lightly sauced
a close-up of a rib
brisket is thicker now
juicier too, though there's fat
chicken with four sauces
simple pulled pork
Sabrina, in party gear, delivers the brisket
assistant manager Sabrina and owner Wyeth Lynch
The St Louis ribs are new cut that SoulFire owner Wyeth Lynch is experimenting with. The rub and saucing (a little less of the former and a little more of the latter) are also different from when SoulFire first opened. The new version isn't as stellar as their original rib on their best night, but they're pretty darn close and have a much higher probability of coming out right every time. Everyone at my table loved them.
The chicken, which I rarely get, and the pork, which I often get, were as good as usual. The chicken has a nice dark skin and faintly smoky meat; the bark-studded pork is served without sauce so you can really taste the natural pork flavor.
The brisket is a thicker cut, with a lot more juices flowing than in the early days. Wyeth says he's now cooking a limited number of briskets each day and only serving what was smoked that day. When they run out, they run out. That's the way it ought to be.
Worcester BBQ: Woodfire BBQ Reviewed
Today I posted my review of Woodfire BBQ in Worcester MA. This review is the 112th so far. See the Reviews page or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Rock'n Ribfest Photos
New Hampshire State BBQ contest organizer Jim McGrath (center), along with KCBS reps Kathy Dakai and Ken Dakai. KCBS rules prohibit photographing the contest entries, so I can't show you what the competition 'cue looked like from the judge's perspective.
Vendors from Australia, Indiana and Florida set up early in the morning.
Some competitor tents. iQue is a perennial contender for any trophy.
A nice looking rig (Black Sheep BBQ).
Doctor Gonzo's Uncommon Condiments is a popular attraction at many of the contests. The good doctor poses with Habanero mash and the trophy it garnered from Chile Pepper magazine.
On Saturday night my wife and I visited East Coast Grill (Cambridge MA), which remains one of our favorite restaurants even though we don't get to it as often as in years past. I was in the mood for seafood, bypassing their barbecue offerings for some perfectly cooked coriander crusted striped bass. I did manage to squeeze in a Hot Crispy Hell Bone, made with their Inner Beauty hot sauce, as an appetizer. As usual, the food, service and overall experience were first rate.
I had an outside chance of going 3-for-3 and had every expectation of going 2-for-3, but in the end I only hit one of the three BBQ events that took place in New England this past weekend. On Sunday I judged the KCBS barbecue competition at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Merrimack NH. The weather was perfect and the food was good. There were no standouts as far as incredibly good or incredibly bad entries, but I observed a few things that I found interesting. I'll do a separate piece on my judging experiences later this week.
A New Link for Hot Wings Fans
The competition at Buderiser provided a great day to see some old friends and meet new ones. At the IQue tent I met Derek, who runs the blog/site Hot 'n' Saucy Wings. It's very similar to this one but dedicated to Buffalo wings and spicy wings of all kinds.
From his most recent review:
When you're wing addict to the point of having a blog reviewing them, you do
some silly things in pursuit of good wingage. You do things like go out of your way to get to a recommended wing restaurant for lunch, even if you have to spend 15 minutes in the car and another 15 minutes walking around a rather small and nondescript downtown area, waiting for the place to open.
Brother, how I can relate.
Big BBQ Weekend in Eastern New England
This is a great weekend for barbecue fans, with three 3-day festivals starting today and running through Sunday in Boston (MA), Merrimack (NH) and East Hartford (CT).
Phantom Gourmet BBQ Beach Party, June 22-24
The pitmaster lineup for the Phantom Gourmet's BBQ Beach Party in Boston's City Hall includes legends John Willingham and Jack McDavid. Local restaurants participating in the event include Firefly's and Redbones. For more details, check the event website.
5th Annual Rock'n Ribfest, June 22-24
One of the best events for spectators takes place this weekend at the Anheuser-Busch facility in Merrimack NH. There's a grilling contest Saturday, a barbecue contest Sunday, hot sauce vendors, activities for kids and plenty of music and beer. For more details, check the event website.
1st Annual Bluesaque, June 22-24
Subtitled Bikes, Bands & BBQ, this event is held at the Gengras Harley-Davidson dealership in E. Hartford. The nice thing about this location is that it's in the same complex as the Cookhouse Cafe, one of Hartford's better barbecue restaurants and a co-sponsor of the event. There's a grilling contest Saturday and a barbecue contest Sunday.
A Sad Day for BBQ
The historic building that houses Holy Smokes BBQ & Whole Hog House (West Hatfield MA) was destroyed by a fire early this morning. From what I can tell, nobody was injured, but it's still a great loss. My best wishes go out to Lou, Leslie and Seth today. I'm hoping they can rebound and come back stronger than ever.
Is Ugnoying a Word?
Just another reason why I hate Dunkin' Donuts nowadays.
It's back to the 'cue tomorrow, when I'll have some info on a few interesting barbecue events happening this weekend.
A Look at RUB in NYC (and Las Vegas)
On Sunday's visit to Hill Country I couldn't not also stop into nearby RUB. They recently published their new full color menu, and the latest item is the Elvis Crusher: a pressed sandwich made with house cured Berkshire bacon with peanut butter and bananas. I almost tried one, but I was saving room for dinner a few hours and a few blocks away. What I did try, for the first time, was RUB's barbecue chicken wing appetizer. The wings are smoked and lightly sauced with a hot concoction that's halfway between Buffalo style and BBQ style.
While at RUB, I had an opportunity to enter their kitchen, where I viewed the meats in the smoker and on the cutting board.
Behind the Scenes at RUB page (more and bigger photos)
As I was taking these photos, the seven new smokers to be used at RUB Las Vegas were being built at the J&R Manufacturing facility in Mesquite TX. That's a capacity for 4200 pounds of meat smoking simultaneously.
Hill Country Joins NYC BBQ Elite
Hill Country Thoughts and Photos page (more and bigger photos)
Where it ultimately settles in the ranking system is a matter of both time and personal preference, but there's no question Hill Country has joined the ranks of the top handful of barbecue joints in Manhattan. The short version of my experience: very, very good.
It's still too early to post a formal review. They were out of beef ribs on my visit and there are a few meats I'd like to try again. But it's not too early for a strong endorsement.
There are so many photos and so many thoughts that I'm going to put them on a separate page similar to a review, but I'm not calling it a review. This page will be updated periodically with new thoughts and information over the next several days.
Today's topic: Tips for Your Visit to Hill Country (click here).
My First Visit to Hill Country
I finally managed to visit Hill Country Barbecue and Market in Manhattan on its tenth day of operation. I'm still recovering from sensory overload, so I'll weigh in tomorrow.
Pitmaster Robbie Richter of Hill Country Barbecue and Market.
Father's Day Thoughts
As some of you know, my father passed away a week and a half ago, so today is a little sad.
When I was growing up, there was a 15-year run where it was a guaranteed lock that we’d be going out for Chinese food on Sunday. There was usually no guesswork involved, because my father liked to stick with the same places. For a few years, it was the Golden Phoenix, almost every week. Then it was a few years of Chin Duey. Then Bamboo Hut, at which he made one of his greatest discoveries: the sizzling steak. Now this wasn’t your typical sizzling Chinese platter, but instead a collection of meaty, tender whole steaks, each about the size of a thick paperback novel and cooked to a perfect medium rare. They tasted like lighter fluid, but at the time they were great. My father took great delight in bringing other friends and relatives there, watching the look in their eyes when they took their first bit of that steak. It’s the same feeling I get when I reveal one of my barbecue discoveries today.
My father wasn’t as enamored with restaurants that weren’t Chinese (mostly because, like me, he hated waiting for a table), but he did like a good barbecue meal every now and then. He really enjoyed cooking on the grill, whether it was burgers, wings, steaks or pork chops. Slow smoking was still years away, but he probably would have found it very relaxing. Even though he often had very elaborate and expensive cooking contraptions, his favorite was always that tiny little hibachi. He mustered the patience to cook dozens of wings, just a few at a time, rotating them over the course of the afternoon while the Red Sox game played on the radio. I can still picture him blowing on the coals to stoke the fire.
Another Good Meal at Blue Ribbon
Last night my wife and I stopped into Blue Ribbon (W. Newton MA) for a quick supper before doing some other errands in the area. Man, I miss that place. When they first opened about 11 years ago, I worked within walking distance, so I was a frequent customer. Then for most of the next decade, I worked close enough to do a weekly getaway. I'm no longer within weekday lunch distance and I just haven't had the time lately to fit them into my weekend plans, so we set aside a rare Friday night visit.
Once again, everything was top notch: nice brown skin on the chicken, plenty of smoke and bark on the succulent pulled pork, and ribs that were as juicy as back in the day. A few months ago, Blue Ribbon switched meat vendors, replacing their spare ribs with a leaner St Louis cut. Combining that change with a new smoker and centralizing their cooking process, Blue Ribbon had a slight adjustment period, but that learning curve is well behind them.
I was lucky to catch Blue Ribbon on a day when they had their hellfire slaw as a side special. I think it's the perfect complement to smoked pork. Although it's intended as a side, they'll put some on your pulled pork sandwich upon request.
What Makes a Good BBQ Joint?
There are certain rules of thumb you can use to tell if a restaurant is going to be good or not. For Chinese restaurants, I've been formulating these rules of thumb for over 20 years. If they have a separate menu printed in Mandarin, it's probably going to be good. If they serve bread when you sit down, it's probably going to be horrible. If the word "Buffet" is included in the restaurant's name, it's definitely going to be horrible. I could list dozens more, but this is a barbecue site.
Over at White Trash BBQ blog on Wednesday, Robert Fernandez summarized the list of "rules" originally created by Vince Staten for What Makes a Good BBQ Joint:
Rule One: The place should bear the name of the owner. The theory is that if the owner has his or her name on the place, he/she has a personal stake in serving good Que.
Rule Two: The parking lot of the joint should be crowded and have both expensive and cheap cars and trucks. A mix of vehicles shows that the food appeals to all income levels.
Rule Three: There should be a woodpile visible. If it's neat and tidy, it's a warning sign that it's simply there for show. If it's messy, you can bet it's a working woodpile which means that the wood is actually being used. No woodpile - don't even bother going in.
Rule Four: Barbecue should be the specialty of the house. If the place claims that another dish is - keep going.
Rule Five: Dust and flies. Contrary to what the NYC DOH preaches, a good barbecue joint needs some dust and flies. If the place is too clean - who's paying attention to the pit. No flies? What do they know that you don't?
In this month's Bull Sheet (the newsletter of the Kansas City Barbeque Society), Remus Powers tested these rules on a tour through North Carolina's barbecue country. Some of them worked, some of them didn't.
I agree with most of the above rules in principle, but you have to take some of them a little loosely. As you might have guessed, I have a few rules of my own, although my rules are more for what indicates a good 'cue joint than what makes a good 'cue joint. What makes a good barbecue joint is a lot easier to describe but a whole lot harder to accomplish.
In the next few weeks, White Trash BBQ will test these rules with some noted New York barbecue joints, while Pigtrip will do the same with some joints in Boston and New England. Then you'll see some new rules.
A Visit to Woodfire BBQ in Worcester
Now working in Worcester, I had the chance to try a small over-the-counter joint not too far off I-290. It's open Wednesday through Sunday only, with no indoor seating. The limited menu has the basic 4 (ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken), plus homemade beef jerky. I'll probably have a review next week.
Down 'n' Dirty Down for the Count?
Down 'n' Dirty Bar-B-Q in Manchester NH is now closed. It's not apparent whether this is a temporary setback or the end of the run. I hadn't visited until after the ownership changeover a year or so ago, but heard that in its day Down 'n' Dirty was one of the greats. I was actually looking forward to a follow-up to see if I just caught them on an off day. Here's hoping they turn it around, because I root for all barbecue joints to do well, whether they're one of my favorites or not. I found out yesterday that Manchester's Santa Fe Smokehouse has also closed. Thanks to Marty for passing along the info.
Some Changes at Holy Smokes
During the Rib Wars event at Jake's Dixie Roadhouse (Waltham MA) Monday night, I got a chance to talk with Lou "PapaLu" Ekus of Holy Smokes BBQ in West Hatfield MA. He and chef Seth Crawford travelled two hours to compete in the event. We talked about some of the recent changes I'd noticed on last week's visit to the restaurant.
Pork ribs, whether alone or on the Turf 'n' Turf combo, now come in 2-pound or 1-pound portions instead of by the rack or half-rack. It just makes sense, because every rack is different. The cut they use has fairly large ribs, so I like the idea of fewer but larger ribs.
The maple fennel sausages are now done very differently: goodbye links, hello sausage triangles (the meat equivalent of brownies). They first cook the meat in a pan to allow it to take shape, then remove it from the pan and transfer it to the smoker, where it really absorbs the smoke.
The cane sugar syrup used in the Holy Smokes sauces are shipped from a supplier in Louisiana.
The latest addition to the regular sauce roster is cherry. Two visits ago, this was a seasonal selection, but it's been popular enough to earn full time status. I liked it.
The latest addition to the menu is smoked rack of lamb for two. It includes two 8-bone racks, drizzled with white truffle oil (or barbecue sauce if you prefer), four sides and a reserved table. It requires 2 days' advance notice, so that means the lamb will be custom cooked just for you. PapaLu likes the way the smoke counters the gaminess of the lamb and the way the earthiness of the truffle oil pairs with the meat. Seeing the gleam in his eyes as he described it got me excited, and I'm not even a lamb fan.
I Smell Smoke Wins Rib Wars at Jake's
For the second year in a row at the Rib Wars event at Jake's Dixie Roadhouse (Waltham MA), a competition team bested the field that included barbecue restaurants and barbecue competition teams. The I Smell Smoke team took both the people's choice and judges' choice awards, edging out Uncle Jed's, the defending judges' choice champions. My scorecard had Uncle Jed's first, I Smell Smoke second and Blue Ribbon third. This was a blind tasting, where the identity of the cooks was not revealed until after the awards were announced.
The I Smell Smoke rig.
The winning ribs.
Uncle Jed's ribs.
This weekend didn't have anything to wrap up. I cancelled my planned trip to the Big Apple Block Party in New York to take care of some more pressing matters locally. I'm glad that I got to see some family members I hadn't seen in a while.
The Aborted Game Plan
This is what I would have done if I had made the trip down to New York this weekend:
Get some background info from Robbie Richter about his new Hill Country BBQ restaurant, which opened Friday. There's a good chance I would have not tried his beef ribs at the event, saving that for a visit to the restaurant later on.
Buy the Bubba Fast Pass. I hate lines almost as much as I love barbecue. Maybe more.
Try the pulled pork from Big Bob Gibson's. Pitmaster Chris Lilly's pork won first place six consecutive years at Memphis in May, so you'd have to consider it the gold standard. I know I'll get down to the real Hill Country someday soon, but Alabama is a bit of a stretch, so this was priority #1.
Say hello to Jake Jacobs (Jake's Boss BBQ), the one Boston representative at the event and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet in the world of barbecue. I haven't seen him in about 7 months, but I still miss his now-closed joint in Jamaica Plain. I don't miss its lack of air conditioning.
Try the brisket and sausage from both The Salt Lick and Southside Market (priorities #2 and #3). These legendary joints from Texas helped define what these meats ought to taste like when they're done right.
Try the pulled pork from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. I know it doesn't make sense to sample the NYC 'cue ahead of some of the out-of-towners, but I didn't taste it on my one visit to Dinosaur earlier this year.
If room and time allowed, try the babybacks from Mike Mills. I've met Mike and tried his 'cue before, so this one would be on the bubble.
See what else looks good. Call an audible and poll the crowd for any dark horses to try.
Get a book signed by Jeffrey Steingarten. The author of The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must've Been Something I Ate was rhapsodizing about barbecue long before any of the current crop of bloggers started typing. I'd thank him for his role, however small, in bringing high caliber barbecue to New York City. But most of all, I'd thank Vogue's food columnist for giving me an excuse to buy the magazine every month.
Avoid all desserts, no matter how crispy the pies looked, no matter how tempting the Shake Shack frozen custards looked. I can (though I know I shouldn't) have desserts any time. The focus is on meat.
Convert any leftover Bubba credit into extra T-shirts: large and extra large, just in case.
Stop into RUB. Air conditioning, a cold Sam Adams and a comfortable seat at the bar would make the perfect respite from the lines and the heat. And maybe, just maybe, a smoked half duck if you twist my arm.
Rib Wars Tonight
It's been a little more than a week since I've had barbecue, but the drought is about to end tonight. I'll be doing a blind judging of ribs from a half dozen barbecue restaurants at the annual Rib Wars event at Jake's Dixie Roadhouse in Waltham MA. The guest teams include some of my favorite New England joints: Blue Ribbon, East Coast Grill, Holy Smokes and SoulFire. Believe me, I know how Archie Manning feels when Peyton and Eli square off. Who do you root for?
Big Weekend for New York City BBQ
This Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party will take place in Manhattan's Madison Square Park. Look for legendary pitmasters like Chris Lilly and Mike Mills, legendary BBQ joints like the Salt Lick (Driftwood TX) and Southside Market (Elgin TX), as well as NYC BBQ icons Blue Smoke, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Brother Jimmy's and the soon-to-be-iconic Hill Country BBQ. For more details, check the event website.
Hill Country BBQ Arrives in NYC
It's finally here. Check out Jason Perlow's Hill Country BBQ preview post from Off the Broiler and start salivating.
BBQ Restaurant Pet Peeves
Having the barbecued meats arrive in a pool of juices.
No, I’m not talking about meat juices. I’m talking about leakage from cole slaw, baked beans or collard greens, which happens a lot at Redbones (Somerville MA). I wish they’d just serve the sides on the side (which is why they’re called “sides”), or use a small bowl to keep everything segregated.
Being charged extra for barbecue sauce.
Charging extra for babyback ribs because your wholesale cost is higher I can understand, but charging extra for extra sauce is a little petty. If you’re worried about people wasting the sauce, invest in some squeeze bottles and customers will only use what they need. And if they’re using that much sauce, maybe the real problem is that your ribs are dry.
Nonexistent or outdated websites.
This is 2007. People want to know when you’re open, where you’re located and what you have, and that includes your specials if you have them. If you can’t keep up on a regular basis, at least put a “last updated” date somewhere so I’ll know not to expect everything listed to be available when I arrive.
Barbecue that’s not barbecued.
BBQ sauce alone does not BBQ make, so if you’re only grilling your ribs and not smoking them, please say so on the menu. In an era where restaurant menus are filled with phrases like “pan seared” and “oven roasted,” you can probably let me know they aren’t smoked but still make it sound somewhat glamorous. I might order them anyway and even like them, but I’d like to know what I’m ordering. Or I may use that knowledge and get the double-cut “fire roasted” pork chop, which I might enjoy more.
Trying to be all things to all people.
Yes, it’s true, those 85 different items on your menu will probably go a long way toward getting a diverse customer base with many repeat and regular visitors. But it’s equally likely that the overwhelming menu will divert attention away from the barbecue and dilute the overall product quality.
Trying to be only BBQ to only BBQ people.
The flipside to the “all things to all people” BBQ restaurant is the “BBQ only” joint. Me? I’m all for it. But if you’re going to do that, you have to deliver kick-ass barbecue all of the time, or at least almost-kick-ass barbecue almost all of the time. There’s no excuse for anything less.
Being lied to on the menu.
In a perfect world, menus tell you what the dishes are called, how much the items cost and what’s in them. If you want to call a dish tarragon rum chicken, but the tarragon and rum are the fourth and fifth ingredients behind mushrooms and peanuts (and hopefully, chicken), we’ve got a problem. Especially if I’m allergic to peanuts, hate mushrooms and see no warning in the description. This kind of deception—which is closer to misleading than outright lying—is more apt to happen at a different kind of restaurant, but I have been lied to at barbecue joints. I’ve had the “pork ribs and beef ribs” combo that had about 8 pork ribs and a single beef rib. I’ve had a dish where the promised “house pickles” turned out to be a ¼ pickle. And at joints that feature both “wet ribs” and “dry ribs,” I’ve ordered the dry and received wet. I’ve also ordered a combination of the two, only to receive wet and really wet.
“Our award winning barbecue.”
This one always amuses me. I often see that phrase on the menu and ask the server what award was actually won, only to get a glazed over look. Sometimes, even the management has trouble explaining what the award is. It might be along the lines of the Best of East Overshoe Digest award, where the award was “won” by virtue of the restaurant being the magazine’s only BBQ advertiser. Then there are the many barbecue joints that have shelf upon shelf of trophies they’re received. First, check to make sure they’re not just bowling trophies, then check the dates. If all of the trophies are from 1997 and 1998, there’s a good chance that whoever was the pitmaster back then has moved on. If the date is fairly current and you see the letters “KCBS” (Kansas City Barbeque Society) on the trophy, that’s a pretty good indicator that the ‘cue was really trophy-worthy. KCBS-sanctioned events pit true barbecue chefs against each other, with strict rules, controlled scoring and trained judges. You won’t have to worry about the award being won by virtue of a stuffed ballot box. What you do have to worry about is the strong likelihood that the ‘cue you’re about to be served in the restaurant will bear little resemblance to the ‘cue that won the award. Still, if a restaurant has won awards at KCBS-sanctioned contests, you know that the restaurant version should at least be pretty good.
A Sad Day
Rest in peace, I.G.
Some More BBQ Joints in the Directory
Today and late last week I added some new barbecue restaurant info to the the Joints directory:
Woodfire BBQ, Worcester MA
Smokin' Hippo, Erving MA
Brannigan's, Southington CT (new phone number)
Pig Out BBQ, Southington CT (moved from Plymouth CT)
Carl's BBQ & Jerk, E. Hartford CT (more Caribbean than BBQ)
Salmon Chase American Bistro, Keene NH (featuring the barbecue of I Smell Smoke's Charlie Pini, Wednesdays only)
Smoke Shack BBQ, Boscawen NH
Spring Creek Bar-B-Que, Monson ME
Thanks to Leslie for the Spring Creek tip and Mike for the Smoke Shack tip. Although I ferret out new places on my own, I'm still highly dependent on reader info for local openings and closings. If you know of any joints that are missing from the directory, please drop me a line.
I have a bunch more to add for the upper Hudson Valley area north of Albany, but I need to verify that the info is still current before posting.
Welcome To The Working Week
Today I start a new job, working out of Worcester MA. Although it's a shorter commute than my last job, Worcester is a whole different world. I'm looking forward to exploring the area for interesting stores and new places to have lunch. I guarantee I'll find a new 'cue joint or two there, probably within the first two weeks. Thanks to those of you who offered assistance and support over the last few months.
Another Good Visit to Bailey's Smokehouse
Last Thursday's trip to Connecticut also included a nice detour over the Tappan Zee Bridge to New York's Rockland County. The first stop was the Palisades Mall in West Nyack. It's one of the largest I've ever been in (Long Island's Roosevelt Field is slightly larger) and has an impressive array of dining options (Legal Seafoods, FOX Sports Grill, chain restaurants of every cuisine and price range). But a superior option is just a short drive down route 303: Bailey's Smokehouse in Blauvelt.
I visited Bailey's on Thursday to sample the legendary BarbeReuben sandwich made with smoked brisket, cole slaw and swiss cheese. The neatly fanned brisket was abundant and pink, with crisp edges. All of the ingredients worked perfectly together, but what made the sandwich was the fact that the bread was grilled instead of merely toasted. The seasoned fries were quite different from my last visit. This time, they were larger, crisper wedges; the spices seemed milder but were applied much more liberally.
Although it's not in my handful of favorite 'cue joints (probably closer to top 15 or 20), I can't think of joint I'd like to have transported to my home town more than Bailey's. It's the kind of place you could visit several times a week and never get sick of: ribs one night, pizza another, pitchers and wings for Sunday afternoon football. And it's that rare place where the menu has incredible breadth, yet the food is home cooked and full of personality.
Coming Soon: Boston BBQ
Last weekend I did some legwork to investigate the soon-to-open Smoken' Joe's BBQ in Brighton MA. It's located on 351 Washington Street, less than a block from Market Street and just a few blocks from St Elizabeth's Medical Center. I couldn't see inside, but my moles tell me it's close.
Coming Soon: New York City BBQ
Manhattan BBQ fans who are in the know are eagerly awaiting the opening of Hill Country BBQ. Located at 30 West 26th (just west of Madison Square Park), this soon-to-open 2-level joint will feature a Texas style barbecue market, bars on both floors and entertainment. The pitmaster is Robbie Richter, whose Hill Country BBQ and Big Island BBQ teams have been successful on the competition circuit.
Eater's coverage of Hill Country BBQ
Connecticut BBQ: Burnt Ends at the Cookhouse
Yesterday I had an assignment in southwest Connecticut, so I dropped into the Cookhouse in Darien to try their burnt ends. This is a relatively new menu item that was introduced a few months ago along with a pull-your-own pork butt. As far as I can tell, these items aren't available at the East Hartford Cookhouse Cafe, which has a more streamlined menu.
You can get the burnt ends as a dinner or, as I did, on the 3-meat Tombo Combo. I really liked the flavor, which had even more smoke and seasonings than the already high-of-oomph Cookhouse meats. I wasn't as sold on the texture though. The cubes had a lot of sauce and seemed a little dry underneath it, with the mouthfeel a cross between a Tootsie Roll and a Bil-Jac dog treat (don't ask).
Overall, I was very pleased with the meats. It's just that the burnt ends ranked a distant third behind the smoky, well-seasoned ribs and barky pulled pork.
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