This section is a storage place for some of my blog entries that are longer essays, thoughts on barbecue and other tangential topics.
BBQ Essays: 40 Truisms, Observations, Mottos and Rules of Thumb
With PigTrip winding down this year, I'm starting to think about legacy. Even the reviews that are up to date now (and I freely admit it's not even close to all of them) will become out of date at some point. So maybe it's the truisms, observations, mottos and rules of thumb listed here that have a greater chance for lasting power. Some have appeared before and some are controversial, but I believe in all of them. I hope some are worth remembering.
1. Cook it properly and serve it fresh. Authenticity is a wonderful bonus but useless without the other two. Ditto creativity.
2. Most pies are better than most cakes, but the best cakes are better than the best pies.
3. There's nothing fudgy about a fudgesicle.
4. If someone asks for a barbecue joint recommendation in a particular city or town, the best response is a question, not an answer. What barbecue joints do you like? What do you look for in barbecue? Are you planning on just ribs, just brisket, or a big variety? Do you like it smoky? Saucy? The answers to these should determine the recommendation, not personal favorites.
5. Scones are for suckers. It's called a scone because it scone be dry.
6. The best ribs and the best steaks and the best hamburgers and the best chocolate chip cookies all have their crunchy exteriors nearly overcooked but not so, and their moist interiors nearly undercooked but not so, with the complete spectrum of doneness and texture in between.
7. Food knowledge is best used as a bridge, not a wall.
8. Name your kid Dylan and he's guaranteed not to be a nerd.
9. Planning a lunch a week away with someone who takes three weeks to reply is planning a lunch that will never happen.
10. Never hit a barbecue joint the day after a national holiday.
11. Unless the "award winning barbecue" you're about to eat uses the same meat supplier, the same cooker, the same rub and the same recipe as the barbecue that won the award, it's not award winning barbecue.
12. The most redeeming quality of an Oreo filling is its role as a spacer, ensuring that small but critical delay between the two crunches of cookie.
13. Phantom Gourmet is watchable and even semi-believable as long as you focus ONLY on the narrated restaurant segments. Fully distrust and dismiss any segment with Dan or Dave on camera, any stand-up or sit-down situation where restaurants are recommended, and especially any Great 8 restaurant superlatives list. But be fair and not just a hater: the produced restaurant segments are at least as well done and informative as the competition's.
14. Sauce can't prevent an otherwise bad rib from being bad, but it can prevent an otherwise great rib from being great.
15. The best barbecue crawls have four people or fewer. If ribs are emphasized, three is best. If not, four is best.
16. Unless geographical reasons dictate otherwise, the expected-best restaurant on a barbecue crawl should be neither first nor last in the order.
17. Oyster crackers in chowder are overrated. Oyster crackers by themselves are underrated.
18. Be wary of barbecue restaurants named "best of" a city with only one barbecue restaurant.
19. Peppering the shit out of it and selling it by the pound doesn't make it Texas barbecue.
20. Making it out of dough, making it circular and putting a hole in it doesn't make it a bagel.
21. If the word "perfection" is on the menu, that's the first and last place you'll encounter it.
22. The biggest burgers and the most outrageous burgers are never the best burgers.
23. If you have to cram macaroni and cheese into or all over your burger, either a) it's not a good burger or b) it was, but you just ruined it.
24. All else being equal, the bigger the barbecue menu, the worse each item will be.
25. The bigger the barbecue order of any one particular meat, the better that barbecue meat will be. (At most restaurants, the ribs served on half racks are better than ribs on combos, and ribs on whole racks are better than half racks. So if you and your dining companion are both ordering the ribs and brisket combo, consider ordering and splitting a ribs plate and a brisket plate instead.)
26. "Media dinner"? Oxymoron.
27. Any Chinese restaurant with "Buffet" in its name has a buffet that sucks.
28. For regional Chinese cuisine, a restaurant with "Sichuan" in the name has an 82% chance of being better than one with "Szechuan" in the name.
29. Even though I'll never eat Crab Rangoon, I don't mind if you do. But if I catch you eating Crab Rangoon with chopsticks, you're a dead man.
30. If a half rack is $16 and a full rack is $30 at a barbecue joint you're visiting for the first time, go for the half rack. If the ribs are good, that second half rack will be well worth the extra $2. If they aren't, you'll save $14 and a lot of stomach room.
31. If three or more meats hit the table, start with the brisket first.
32. If you like all barbecue meats and not just one in particular, ask your server what's fresh at the moment. You may get a bullshit answer, but often enough, you'll get rewarded with something better than what you would have wound up with had you not asked. And if the answer does turn out to be bullshit, think of the fun you'll have recalling the meal for years to come.
33. The only thing more valuable in your trunk than a spare tire is a spare pair of underwear.
34. If you're at a fast food or counter joint with multiple lines, pick the most competent looking employee for ordering hot food; pick the least competent looking employee for ordering ice cream.
35. Guys who are 30 pounds overweight making fun of guys who are 70 pounds overweight: lame. Guys who are 40% bald making fun of guys who are 80% bald: lame. Bloggers who are 50% on the take making fun of bloggers who are 90% on the take: lame.
36. A man who calls another man less of a man because he doesn't drink isn't much of a man.
37. Never microwave barbecue leftovers. It might take a little longer, but toaster oven and foil will get the results you deserve.
38. With $250 to spend on two restaurant dinners for two, the culinary results will be FAR greater by spending $200 one night and $50 the next than $125 both times.
39. There's a big difference between "We cook fresh every day" and "We serve fresh every day." Accomplishing the former doesn't always mean accomplishing the latter.
40. Never split a check with a man named Holloway.
Site Talk: How Many Visits Per Review?
In response to a photo in the PigTrip Facebook Page yesterday, reader Dan asked:
What rules do you have for reviewing new restaurants? Do you try it a certain number of times before posting a review? I've always found that new places have considerable growing pains, so I don't make any decisions based on my first visit. But then again, a new BBQ restaurant could really benefit from a review on here and may not have the time to wait for you to get there 2 or 3 times.
I'm hoping an answer here is of benefit and interest. There aren't any hard and fast rules, but several factors impact the approach.
The simple (and ideal) answer to the question of how many visits to make before doing a review is "however many it takes to form an opinion I can stand behind." And that varies. Some joints I can peg (or at least think I have pegged) in a single visit. Others could go either way in that good/bad coinflip. Some have very different first and second visits, and the third is the tiebreaker. Some are just plain inconsistent. Some aren't so good but the potential is obvious. Others aren't so good and I can't see them ever being any better.
Last summer I reviewed Mainely Meat (Ellsworth ME) and 4 Points BBQ (Winterport ME), visited once apiece on a mini vacation. Sure, more visits would have been great. But I have no idea if I'll ever make it up to that part of Maine within a lifetime, never mind a year, so one visit each it had to be and one visit each it was. Other joints, such as Riverside Barbeque (Nashua NH), Smokestack Urban Barbecue (Worcester MA) and Slowbones (Burlington MA), got 6+ visits apiece because it was geographically easy for me to do so. A few that I hope to hit this summer in the Hudson Valley will be 1-visit reviews out of necessity.
Beyond doing multiple visits to combat the possible "errant" early review, I try wherever possible to look past just the meals I've eaten and imagine what things might be like with more seasoning (the intangible kind, not spices). I do that even for places that have been around a while. With barbecue especially, one visit is not always representative, so I try to point out things might be better with better luck on timing the next visit and better skill in the holding or reheating.
But let's get one thing straight: there are some who say it's unfair to review a barbecue joint in the first few months, and to that I say bullshit. If the doors are open and they're charging for the food, they're also open for criticism. And if they're one of those joints who brag on their website that they are "the best barbecue on the planet" (or such), then they're really open for criticism.
That said, there's still reason not to review a joint too soon. The common perception is that places improve over time, and that's not always the case. Sometimes, a joint is best at or near the beginning of its existence because the staff has been well trained, the owner/chef/pitmaster is onhand every night and the standards are kept high by coaching and constant observation. Then, through a combination of staff attrition, owner/chef/pitmaster distraction (always more projects) and gradual decline of standards (much like my diets over the years), the quality goes down instead of up. Then there are the cases where reality sets in: after the first few weeks, shifting focus on efficiency and the bottom line can cause some recipes to be stripped of key ingredients, some preparations to be compromised and some portions to be cut.
But I digress.
For new restaurants of high importance and curiosity, such as Hometown BBQ (Brooklyn NY), Salvage BBQ (Portland ME) and Sweet Cheeks (Boston MA), there are two conflicting goals in play: I want to have an early review that might get PigTrip some coverage from mainstream and quasi-mainstream media sites, but I also want to be thorough and accurate. Solution: I do a "First Look" review, sometimes calling it "Preview"—not to be confused with the kind of preview restaurants sometimes hold for the usual gang of freebie-grabbing bloggers I'll never join—based on a very early first visit. I then go back and do a more in-depth real review based on more visits over time. This approach I think is a good compromise between early and accurate.
In general, the more important a joint is, the more visits I want going into the review and the more dishes I want covered. When my long awaited review update for Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q (West Newton MA) happens, it's going to be based on several visits.
While this is just a hobby and the restaurant budget comes out of my own pocket, not a publication expense account, I still try to have a sense of fairness and journalistic integrity. Some may be disappointed that I never say "This place blows," but if I do a meat-by-meat rundown and say all of them were dry and none of them had flavor, I've said it blows without saying it blows. That said, unless the place outright lies to me, is rude to me or completely disrespects barbecue (or burgers) in general, I generally don't like to trash a place based on one tasting. If I am going to trash a place, I like to have photographic ammo and base it on multiple items per visit as well as multiple visits. Remember folks, the goal isn't to "get these guys." It's to describe the food well enough that any reader can decide whether to go.
But if it's absolutely horrible, especially if it's dangerously horrible, then sorry—I don't feel compelled to put good money after bad just to have bad food again.
Sometimes I know I'm not going to get to a place for a while and post a review right away rather than wait it out. Other times I mean to visit again right away but it keeps getting pushed off by the four W's (work, wife, weather, who's going with me). And then there are times when I wind up getting more visits than planned because I got so busy that never had time to write the review after the first visit or two.
So there ya have it. No hard and fast rules, but that's my thinking.
And here's my thinking on the same topic six years ago
If They Put Y'all Back in Chains
Joe Biden's not the only one who has a problem with chains. Anyone who knows me well enough to have nominated places to eat together knows that I don't like chains and will avoid them at all costs. It's least common denominator food, usually cooked offsite, frozen, shipped, thawed and reheated without skill and served without pride. It's more about marketing and cost control than about flavor. That said, some are better than others. Here are the ones I find the most bearable, listed in alphabetical order with no implied ranking.
It's quick, it's inexpensive, it's fresh, the meat portions are diet-sensible, the salsas are good and the flavor per calorie is reasonably high. I'm predicting that if it hasn't already, Chipotle and its ilk will make a dent into barbecue sales, especially among the younger demographic.
Part nostalgia, part quality, DQ is surprisingly doable for fast food burgers and the go-to place for non-premium soft serve, keeping things fresh with monthly Blizzard options. I'm a big fan of the perfect curl at the top of the dessert. Not a fan of the soft serve diameter that's narrower than the cone diameter, but if that keeps drippage (and evidence) to a minimum, I can deal.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Whoa, calm down, fellow burger snobs, I'm only talking bearable. When it comes to this ever expanding burger chain, I'm on an island. There are those who love it and those who hate it, and while I can see both sides, I can't really back either position. On the downside, there's no value meal, not much flavor to the beef and a near-guarantee of a torn patty. On the upside, complimentary peanuts are a nice touch, every burger is cooked to order (not in advance) and the staff has energy and enthusiasm rarely seen in retail nowadays. Oh, and the fries are hot and fresh, outshining the burger.
In 'n' Out
This is a regional burger chain that's far ahead of any of the nationals in their freshness and execution. Is it as good as Shake Shack (which I'm excluding from consideration only because there aren't enough of them yet)? No way.
Out of the gate strong with ahead-of-the-curve use of now-commonplace ingredients such as scallions, they've slipped some, but their respectable chicken noodle soup defies logic at a mere 120 calories for an entire bowl. And while their bread may not make you bypass your neighborhood bakery (if you're lucky enough to have one), it's fresher than any other chain I can think of. They hoodwinked me into joining their rewards program, which hooked me with frequent wins in the early going and now pays off only every 20 visits or so with a free drink. A note to the fellas: chicks dig Panera. 'Nuff said.
It was Theo Epstein's misguided spending and ridiculously poor talent evaluation that torpedoed the 2011 and 2012 Red Sox, not Popeye's. Their chicken is arguably better than the colonel's and their sides (especially the dirty rice) are inarguably better.
They're a little like the girl with the glasses on The Brady Bunch, having receved a makeover (ooh, square plates! ooh, lighting that looks like upside-down wine glasses!) and letting it get to its collective head, but Ruby Tuesday is my only choice for a mid-level national chain. Their salad bar is reasonably priced, semi-reasonably stocked and unreasonably chilled to about -10F. Hidden gem: the pumpernickel croutons with a crusty exterior, chewy interior, aggressive salting and an ungodly amount of oil baked in. Not that it's saying much—and it's been a while since I've tried it—but the Triple Prime Burger is probably the best I've had at a national all-purpose chain.
There was a time long ago when I was still on Team Dunkin, laughing at all the Starbucks suckers who were drinking strange coffee that tasted like pencil sharpener shavings doused with hot water. Now I'm one of them. It took a total tank job by Dunkin' Donuts (I still believe they were once good, up until the mid-90s) to get me to switch, and I'm glad I did. Starbucks baked goods might leave something to be desired, but they're no less fresh than the factory-made, truck-shipped cardboard crap Double D is peddling. The coffee is superb, as long as they're serving one of their original flavors (Komodo Dragon, Sumatra, Italian, Sulawesi, Tulowitski or the like) and not one of the recent ones (Pike Place, Christmas Blend, Anniversary Blend).
Does their frequent smile-shaped cutting of the sub roll put a frown-shaped expression on my face? Yes. Does it annoy the hell out of me that I often have to ask for more lettuce three times in the same visit just to get it to reach both edges of the sandwich? Yes. Is the food even that tasty? Not really. But it's doable and healthy as long as you skip cheese, any red meat and any creamy dressing. There's better food and there's healthier food, but no chain strikes the balance between diet and doable better than Subway.
The Pabst Blue Ribbon of burgers, White Castle succeeds not on quality but on affordability, quantity-friendly packaging and pinpoint consistency (if achieving guaranteed mediocrity counts as consistency). The oniony aroma and baby-soft steamed bun make those gray patties not only bearable but quite desireable as long as the visits are well spaced.
Site Talk: That's the FAQ, Jack permalink
Here are the answers to a dozen of the most frequently asked questions about the site.
Q: What makes you an expert on barbecue?
A: I'm not an expert on barbecue, I've never claimed otherwise and have never allowed somebody else's claim otherwise to go uncontested. I'm just a guy who's been to a lot of different Northeast barbecue joints, so that gives me some perspective, but that hardly makes me an expert. On the contrary, I'd say my limited travels to the South (I've had 'cue in the Carolinas and Virginia but not Tennessee, Missouri or Texas) make for an incomplete resume. But even completing that resume wouldn't make me a barbecue expert, because there's no such thing.
Q: How do you get a job where you can just ride around and eat all day?
A: It's not a job; it's something I do on weekends and after work. My boss thinks it's something I do instead of my work, but that's not true. Well, at least not usually.
Q: I expected someone who eats as much as you do to be a lot fatter. Why aren't you?
A: Gee, thanks (I think). My weight fluctuates and I'm not real thrilled with it right now, but generally speaking, I get a lot of cardio in and I don't eat the entire portion of everything you see photographed on the site. While it may seem like I'm eating barbecue 4 times a week, much of that frequency is on barbecue crawls that take me and a few barbecue accomplices to three spots in one day. Think of it as one three course meal, only each course is at a different restaurant. So it may look like three meals, but it's really only one. (That's what I tell my wife and my doctor, and they don't believe me either.)
Q: You travel to New York City a lot. Do you ever take the bus?
A: No, and the number 1 reason why I don't take the bus is the number 2 reason. Anyone who's ever done an extensive crawl with me knows what I mean.
Q: Why haven't you visited [fill in restaurant name here] yet?
A: There are several reasons why this may be the case. Geography and who I'm with are the two biggest factors—the closer ones are a lot easier than the farther ones, and when I go to the farther ones, I'm generally going with or meeting other people, so I wind up going to places that they've requested or are in their wheelhouse. Sometimes a friend's postponement of an intended joint visit has a ripple effect for months. I might skip that joint to keep it in play for the next time around, and then that next time around never comes around. Just as basketball has "tweeners" (a player not tall enough to be a forward and not quick enough to be a guard), so does barbecue: places like Smokey Joe's (Stamford CT) and RW's BBQ (Brookfield CT) had gone unvisited for the longest time because they were almost in New York City. Even though they were on the way back, they were so close that I'd still be full or not yet ready for a pit stop. New Jersey is an area where I foresaw numerous visits at the time I created the site, but the work-related reason for the trips went away. I should point out that there's no necessary correlation between how frequently I go to a joint and how much I like it. I've visited Buck's in Auburn MA a lot more than I've visited Goody Cole's Smokehouse in Brentwood NH even though I like Goody's much more. Buck's happens to be the easiest barbecue restaurant to get to at lunchtime from where I work.
Q: Why were you so easy on [fill in restaurant name here] in your review of them?
A: The goal of the site is not to rip restaurants to shreds; it's to give an unbiased description of what they serve and an opinionated but honest account of how well they do it. Although my personal preferences play a big part in how much I enjoy any joint's 'cue, I've been increasingly attempting to factor out those preferences when assessing quality. I like barbecue sauce as an optional add-on rather than a necessary crutch, and I like ribs a little firmer than fall-off-the-bone tender. But if a joint comes through with a saucy, super tender product that's done really well within their chosen style, I'm not only going to give them credit, I'm probably also going to like it. I want to make the site useful to everyone—not just those whose tastes are very similar to mine. I also am somewhat sympathetic to barbecue's inherent inconsistency and try not to jump all over a place if two of their meats are good and one of their meats is dry. And I also don't judge a barbecue joint by how good the hamsteak is.
Q: Have you tried Famous Dave's yet?
A. Yes, I have. While it's probably the best of the national barbecue chains that have penetrated the northeast, it's not a place I have a hankering to visit all that often, if ever. And this site isn't about chains.
Q. Why are you so hard on Long Island barbecue restaurants?
A. I'm not hard on Long Island barbecue restaurants. Most of them simply aren't that good. I have a few theories on why that's the case, but I'll save them for another post down the road.
Q: Why don't you judge barbecue competitions anymore?
A. Questionable hygiene and questionable ethics equal questionable food. I'm not saying that's the case with all competition 'cue (the best of it is superb), but it's true of enough of it that I'd rather allocate my limited time, travel resources and calories to 'cue that'll serve as fodder for site content.
Q: Why did you visit a restaurant really close to me and never ask if I wanted to go?
A: This one's complicated, because there are many possible reasons, and none of them diabolical. The most frequent of them are: 1) I did already ask you and you didn't get back to me; 1a) I asked you on a previous trip and you didn't get back to me; 2) I was with my wife or family and wanted to keep it to that; 3) I had no idea I'd wind up where I did until I was practically there, and didn't want to complicate things with phone calls (not allowed while driving in Connecticut and New York), waiting or having to cancel last minute. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll offer a few less than innocent (but far from diabolical) reasons: 6) I generally prefer small groups and don't want to have to worry about endless planning that gets more complicated with more people; 7) You haven't expressed an interest in joining a crawl in several years; 8) Someone I'm already with can't stand you; 9) I can't stand you; 10) You have a track record of late arrivals, no shows, stingy ordering and/or stingier tipping.
Q. Why doesn't your site allow comments?
A. It's not that it doesn't allow comments, it's that it's a home grown site (not a full fledged blog powered by Blogger or WordPress or the like). There's a PigTrip Facebook page where I post any time a new review is available and also post news, leads, photos and commentary not available on the main site. Comments are more than welcome there. If you'd like to comment to this post, look for the corresponding Facebook page post with today's date that links to this site post.
Q: Why don't you have rankings or ratings?
A: Good question, and a question I ponder frequently. There should be rankings and ratings, but I've held off for these reasons: 1) For rankings, my depth of coverage varies area to area, so it's tough to rank joints I've been to only once and even tougher to leave out joints I've never been to; 2) Barbecue joints across the board vary so greatly from visit to visit that the rankings would be volatile and the ratings near meaningless; 4) I'm the king of procrastination; 5) In my quest to make the site just as useful for those whose style preferences vary from my own as those who have a similar palate, I'm hesitant to scare them off with ratings that might reflect my own biases. That said, I recognize the need to at least have rankings, so that'll be one of my next projects for procrastination.
Some Free Advice to BBQ Restaurateurs permalink
1. Start slowly. I know you love the 13 appetizers, 27 entrees and 12 sides you conceived as if they're your children, and you don't want to leave any of them off your menu when you open for business. But treat them as children another way by not trying to give birth to them all on the same day. When you've mastered a core menu, maybe you can branch out and add a new item or two every week. It'll ensure higher quality and give even the most positive customers a reason to come back sooner than they would otherwise.
2. Don't just buy the smallest, cheapest smoker you can find, or your barbecue will suck. Okay, so maybe it won't suck, but if you buy a Cookshack, it'll stand a good chance of being a notch below what comes out of a Southern Pride, Ole Hickory or J&R. At least do yourself (and your business) the favor of tasting barbecue at different joints produced by different smokers, and if you believe smaller and cheaper is the way to go, you've done your due dilligence.
3. Use an answering machine and have a recorded message on it. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it should at least state the name of your restaurant, with operating hours a bonus. Believe it or not, potential customers will call you during off hours to make sure you still exist or to see if you are open on Sundays.
4. List your hours on your website. You can reduce those off-hours calls by simply declaring when you're open on your website. For those of you who say you can't update this information because you have a web guru who charges $75 per hour to make the change, I say hogwash. You might not be technically savvy enough to create your website, but you should be able to change "11:30" to "12:00" fairly easily. Rather than lumping "Tuesday through Thursday" and "Friday and Saturday" together with common stated hours, have your web guru list every day separately, so you can make changes without having to worry about adding a new line.
5. Use Facebook. I know many restaurants are on Facebook, but how many use Facebook? Some of the restaurants I've friended or liked haven't posted a thing since the summer of 2009. Others go through long stretches of posting nothing, then on a snowy day dust off the "Come on in, it's warm in here!" chestnut. The masters of Facebook have figured out that by announcing entertainment ("Right here on our stage... The Meatles!"), food specials ("Today's guest chili is serrano elk stew!"), pricing specials ("Mullet Mondays! Mullets eat free!") or other enticements ("Tank Top Tuesdays! Come see Brianna!"), they're doing something much cheaper and easier than drumming up new customers: they're getting more repeat business from their existing customers. Note that exclamation points are not required but seem to be the general practice. And adding "Woot woot!" at the end of your Facebook post seems to somehow add some hipster cred.
6. In your website or Facebook photo gallery, show pics of the food, not the drunks, fatties and hotties who frequent your place. Okay, maybe keep the hotties. But show the food too. You're not ashamed of your own food, are you?
7. Selling T shirts is cool. Selling them for $20 or more is not cool. I guess it all depends on whether you want to treat T shirts as a profit center or as a break-even proposition that ups your cool quotient and effectively gets you free advertising. For a juggernaut like Redbones (Boston) or Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (NYC), the first approach makes sense. If you're struggling to make a name for yourself, stick with the groundswell approach.
8. Rethink your "no substitutions" policy. Yes, I know the organic vegetables cost a lot more than the dirty rice. And yes, I know substituting tater tots for the cous cous compromises your chef's artistic vision. But regardless of facts, logic and artistry, many customers will just think you're an asshole. And many customers will ask if they can substitute anyway (even if you change "no substitutions" to "No substitutions under no circumstances ever ever ever" [which makes you look like even more of an asshole]). The money you save by restricting your customers to the el cheapo sides is lost—and then some—by the wasted energy your servers will have to go through explaining your policy, asking a manager to overrule your policy, explaining why your manager didn't overrule your policy, etc. And by losing customers unhappy with your policy. And even by the customers at the next table, who had no problem with no substitutions and never thought you were an asshole—instead, they'll simply think the service sucked, because their server was too tied up and never got around to their table.
9. Don't badmouth your competition. It makes you look petty. Most towns are big enough to support both you and your top competitor, so there's no need to take the low road.
10. Taste your food and taste it often. Taste your competition's food too. But don't compare the two unless you're tasting under the same conditions. Sure, your brisket right out of the smoker is going to taste a hundred times better than someone else's reheated brisket that sat sealed in a container on a counter ten minutes, in your car another ten minutes and on your own table another five minutes before you finally dug in. Ever wonder how your own stuff fares after it's been reheated and sitting? You ought to.
I often get emails from website management types looking for a link exchange. Usually the text of the message is so generic and the content of the website is so unrelated to barbecue (or even food) that I just dismiss it as SPAM. But recently I received an interesting email from a food blogger who seemed more legitimate.
The sender identified herself and her food blog, complimented me on my site (standard practice among the link swapping set, so I didn''t get too excited) and asked not only about swapping links but an opportunity to do a guest post on my site.
I'm a little wary about allowing guest posts from someone I've never even met in the virtual sense, never mind in person (and there's been mixed reaction to the few guest posts I've featured for remote joints I'm unlikely to get to). But I kept an open mind and sent a follow-up email asking about her where she's from and where on the cook-in/dine-out spectrum she was barbecue-wise. It's been a month now and I've received no reply, even after a few follow-ups. Odd, because her website looked promising and seemed like it's done by someone with a genuine interest in food (though not barbecue), not some realty company or generic food resource site. My guess is that this was someone who sent emails to several hundred similar blogs and websites, figuring a few dozen of them would just be so thrilled to get a new link that they'd add hers. I wasn't. Chances are, her veggies-mimosas-and-cupcakes set probably wouldn't click on a link to this site even if it were there.
This is a pet peeve of mine and a multi-tiered one at that. First off, swapping links shouldn't be tantamount to a ransom-for-hostages exchange, where each side insists the other links first. If you're the one asking for the reciprocal link, you should be the one to link to me first as a sign of good faith. Secondly, links should be based on merit, not reciprocity or friendship. If you like my site, link to me. If I like your site, I'll link to you, whether you link to me or not and whether I like you or not. If I ask for a reciprocal link and you turn me down, that's fine; I won't withdraw my link to you.
(01/05/11) (second post)
Now that Bert Blyleven finally (and in my view, incorrectly) made Baseball's Hall of Fame today, maybe it's time I rethink my stance on New York City's Blue Smoke, the pivotal barbecue joint I called "the Bert Blyleven of Barbecue" in my 2006 review. Or maybe it's not time just yet. I liked Bert Blyleven as a pitcher and I like Blue Smoke as a restaurant, but both simply have too many contemporaries that are superior to be worthy of Hall of Fame status.
Blyleven was good but Seaver was great. Carlton was great. Palmer was great. Marichal was great. Ryan was great, even if his record was only good. Hunter and Jenkins were very good. Maybe I'm being a homer, but I think Tiant was very good and for two brief stints was great. Blyleven was merely good.
So am I bringing all of this up just as a convenient excuse to beat up on Blue Smoke? On the contrary. Even though I can rattle off some easy names (RUB, Hill Country, Wildwood, Fette Sau, Dinosaur, Daisy May's), a few surprising or less familiar names (Rack 'n' Soul, Virgil's, Waterfront Ale House) and one arguably out-of-category name (Fatty Cue) as ranking ahead of Blue Smoke in my New York City BBQ pecking order, I've always considered Blue Smoke to be good. Their beef ribs are among my favorites, their cole slaw topped my favorites list of a few years ago, their burger is solid and their pork belly appetizer is well worth a look.
It wasn't until his 14th time on the ballot that Blyleven made it into the Hall, so obviously there had to be a shift of opinion among the voting body. And likewise, I'll keep an open mind on Blue Smoke, who's still, as I also say in that review, "worthy of a spot in your rotation."
BBQ Elsewhere: Boston is the Worst BBQ City, According to Travel + Leisure
Last week Travel + Leisure released their rankings of the best and worst US cities for a variety of cuisines, including barbecue. It's caused somewhat of a stir within the barbecue community over the results, especially in Boston and New York. Many are wondering how valid a list could be that ranks Boston dead last among the 35 included cities; New York City didn't fare much better at 31st place. Salt Lake City finishes 20 slots higher than Boston? The Carolinas arent even mentioned? How can that be?
I'll tell you how that can be.
OK, so I lied in the first sentence. Travel + Leisure didn't release their rankings of cities for barbecue and other cuisines. They simply released the results of their poll that asked readers to provide ratings for all 35 cities. Each poll participant awarded 1 to 5 points to each of the 35 cities, with no requirement of living in any of them or even having tried the food in any of them. So as you might imagine, what it all comes down to is perception and name recognition. That's tantamount to awarding baseball's Gold Glove award to Derek Jeter based on reputation rather than skill (which also happened last week, on the same day these poll results were announced).
It's no surprise that barbecue bastions such as Memphis (a whopping 4.85 average), Kansas City (4.84) and Austin (4.77) top the list, whether by merit (some) or reputation (one). I'm not even surprised that Boston (3.13) and New York (3.37) ranked so poorly. What does surprise me is nearby Providence (3.66) scoring more than a half point higher than Boston. That more than anything shatters the validity of this poll. I wouldn't be surprised if a large number of New Yorkers gave Boston the lowest score possible just so New York City could trump Boston yet again.
If a single writer or editorial panel concluding these same results, I could understand the outrage. And yes, I know it's only minor outrage here. But every time readers' poll results create outrage, I say the same thing: it's only a poll, and that's what happens with polls. Outrage is better saved for more important matters.
Here's a partial listing, including the top 10 and cities within the PigTrip directory:
18 Providence 3.66
31 New York City 3.37
33 Portland, ME 3.30
35 Boston 3.13
Travel + Leisure poll the complete rankings
Travel + Leisure poll methodology
A Sweet Round Robin
Thoughts while continuing to procrastinate on those promised and as yet undelivered reviews:
A disturbing trend of late is the use of plastic spoons to eat birthday cake. Since when did forks go out of style? Even if there's ice cream involved, a fork is my implement of choice for any cake.
Speaking of ice cream, it seems that everywhere you look, bacon ice cream is popping up: at Jake's Dixie Roadhouse, at Swingbelly's, at a few more New York City non-barbecue joints. A few weekends ago I saw some at Gary's Ice Cream in Chemsford MA. What I'd really like to see is bacon as a topping. Not whole strips but finely chopped, extra crisp bits that can be used as a substitute for jimmies/sprinkles. Adding right before serving would maintain the integrity of the crunch and allow a denser arrangement for full flavor.
Speaking of bacon, around the blogosphere there's a backlash in play against those who rhapsodize ad nauseum about how wonderful bacon is. It's not so much that bacon *isn't* wonderful, but we get it already. It's much like the cupcake backlash: yesterday's darlings are today's old news.
Speaking of cupcakes, they're overrated and usually overpriced, thus deserving their yesterday's news status. (If they hadn't already jumped the shark, Todd English's recent cupcake venture would have been the sure demarcartion point.) Like the slider, the cupcake is cute and all, and makes sense if you're looking for variety or portion control, but it's no substitute for the real thing. It's just not possible to get the right frosting-to-cake ratio in a single bite from a cupcake that you can get in actual cake.
Speaking of cake, a distrurbing trend of late is the use of plastic spoons to eat birthday cake...
Hard to "Handle"
Most of the posters on Chowhound.com have much more clever handles than what I use (GaryLovesFood, created way before PigTrip was even on the radar). If I were to start from scratch, I might pick one of the following handles I dreamed up over the years. It's mostly an assortment of bad puns, blasphemy, obscure references and put downs. Yes, there are probably a few groaners in here, but hopefully there's a nugget or two that will strike your fancy. As with my million dollar business ideas I posted in the past, feel free to use anything you like.
Buffet Worse than Death
Small Plates Big Appetite
Suitcase Full of Pork
Eeep Op Pork Ah Ah
The King of All Meatier
Al A. Cuisine
Menage A Trough
Prince of Peas
Pho / Cue
Cheeses of Nazareth
Ichiro Suzuki (and stay away from mine)
Yellow Matter Custard
Let's Plate Two
It's Schlay Singer
If Yan Can Cook Why Can't Todd
Enough With the Balsamic Already
What Sully Sez
You Can't Say "Chipolte" and Be My Friend
More Thoughts About Buildings and Food
If you're one of the many people whose favorite donut is a chocolate glazed, here's a bit of advice: never eat one again. Instead, switch to chocolate crullers. Chances are, the qualities that drew you to the chocolate glazed donut are even more prominent in the chocolate cruller. The cruller's hard shell finish is a little harder, a little glossier and spread over much more surface area per volume than the donut. And the slightly underdone center is even more giving. Sadly, the artistry of the cruller is yet another part of a bygone era at Dunkin' Donuts, which in recent years eliminated the braided beauties in favor of an easier-to-bake, Twinkie-shaped chocolate stick. Although a steep drop-down from the cruller, it's still a much wiser choice than the donut.
I've always wanted to see a barbecue bread. Imagine something like a pizza, but thicker, with lots of seeds, some herbs, grilled until slightly blackened. It could be eaten as a standalone item with butter or as a sturdy, flavor-packed vessel for slices of brisket.
I'm a fan of Chinese buffets, but bet the house that if you go to one anywhere with "Buffet" as part of the restaurant's name, that buffet will be horrible. There are bound to be exceptions, of course, but I haven't found one yet.
Overrated (but still good): Five Guys burgers. Underrated (and VERY good): Five Guys fries.
The next time you question eating a lesser-known, rarely-eaten body part from an animal and call it "gross" or "disgusting," think of what an egg actually is.
Sliders are hugely overrated. Sure, the size makes them "cute" and easier to eat in your car. And sure, you could argue that tastewise and texturewise, a Martin's mini potato roll is a great vehicle for ground beef, but the toppings never manage to stay in place. More importantly, a patty small enough to stay in place will probably also be thin enough to get dried out very quickly. And in a busy restaurant kitchen, a few seconds of distraction can make the difference between a properly cooked burger and an overcooked one. So the fascination with a quartet of sliders at restaurants seems largely unwarranted. Unless you're getting some variety (like one beef burger, one pork burger, one lamb burger, one kangaroo burger), there's absolutely no reason to choose sliders over the full size burger—which can be more reliably cooked to the desired doneness without drying out, without losing the condiments and without falling apart. Some may say sliders are easier to share among a group (and this is true if different people prefer different condiments), but I'd rather divvy a full sized burger any day.
I never thought I'd be big on the "extending the brand" philosophy that's so rampant in the candy industry, but I'm all for it. A caramel version of Junior mints? Sure, why not? Milky Way with dark chocolate? Bring it on. The latest is a new stable of M&M variants, and as a hard core cherry guy I had to try their Wildly Cherry. They're bigger and rounder than the non-peanut varieties have ever been. The flavor? Intense. And at only 220 calories per pack, it's a justifiable treat if moderation prevails.
Site Talk: A New Year's Resolution
One of the things I wrestled with when I first started this site and continue to reconsider to this day is the choice of whether to post restaurant reviews or restaurant visit reviews. The former consolidates all of the visits into a single review that may not indicate ups, downs and trends. The latter is a report on a single point in time that may not be complete, may not be representative and may not be easy to connect to all the other reports for that restaurant.
If I were starting all over again, I think I would have much shorter restaurant reviews that were more like the Citysearch or New York Magazine model, but with links to all of my individual visit reports.
Since I don't want to revamp the infrastructure entirely, I'll keep the current model, but I'll make one new change for sure, starting in 2010 if not immediately. Rather than merely posting a photo in the Recent Eats column to indicate each new restaurant visit, I'll commit to a brief report.
Sometimes I've deliberately held back commentary because I'm saving it for a forthcoming review (like Firebox in Bedford MA, coming this week, or Flaggstead Smokehouse in Farmington CT, coming soon). Sometimes it's because I want another visit to confirm an initial impression or to offset an off night. Usually it was only because I thought there wasn't much to say. But that's a cop-out, because there's always something to say.
I won't promise next day service, but I promise to describe each visit at least briefly. Some reports will be longer than others and some reports will have an element of a tease, but I also promise not to let any of my favorites off the hook if they have an off night (keeping in mind that one off night does not indicate a downward trend). For new joints, I'll offer my initial impressions, even though they might change, and I'll pose many of the questions that are rolling through my mind. For revisits, and especially for revisits to joints with a long history, I'll try to compare that restaurant not only with its competition but with its own past achievement.
One last promise: if I decide that posting a brief report for each visit doesn't make sense, I won't just stop without addressing the reasons why. Still, I hope I can keep it going, even if it's as simple as "Last night's pulled pork sandwich at SoulFire was better than last week's but not as good as the one from a month ago."
Twelve More Things I'd Like To See
Here's another batch from my Things I'd Like To See series. It's not all barbecue, but it's all what's on my mind:
Speaking of coffee, I'd like to see the Starbucks tip cup moved over to where the barista hands you your high end beverage, rather than at its current position with the cashier. This way I can tip based on performance, not potential.
Mojito wings: lime, simple syrup, heavy on the minced mint, maybe a little spiced sugar finish. Who wants to be the first to put concept to execution?
Another menu item I'd like to see: deep-fried chili. Take some chili, freeze it or at least get it cold enough to hold its shape, batter it, deep fry it, then let the hot chili (and possibly also hot cheese) ooze out after biting into the crunchy shell. I don't have the patience or equipment (or skill) to make this a reality, but I have to believe someone does.
On cooking "reality" shows, I'd like to see chefs who present a rectangular plate with a pile of stuff, a cupful of stuff and an Asian soup spoon full of stuff not act as if they were the first person to ever do this. Ditto any menu item with "deconstructed" in its name. Dude, I get what you're doing. And I really like what you're doing. But dude, it's not exactly revolutionary at this point.
On my iPod, I can play a song and go to other menus and line up the next song I want to hear without affecting the one currently playing. I'd like to see YouTube be more like this, so I can find the next video without stopping the current one.
Yes, I know this one's going to make me sound like Dana Carvey's "Grumpy Old Man" character, but too bad. I've been buying a lot of pants lately (smaller ones, thankyouverymuch), so I've been hyper aware that unlike a decade or two ago, pants are no longer neatly arranged by size. I'd like to see a return to those days of yore when you'd see a stack of 32s all grouped together, with various inseam lengths ideally but not necessarily grouped together. Then another cubby of 34s below that, and so on (and while we're at it, how about changing the order so the large sizes are at the top and the small sizes at the bottom, so the fat guys don't have to struggle to bend down). Yes, there are plenty of sales staff nearby, but their main function seems to be looking cool and acting as greeters, not facilitators.
Bridal registries? Who needs 'em? You're much better off just writing a check. What I'd really like to see is the much more needed divorce registry. My list would include a new set of pots and pans, storage space (several times over), a few hours of legal advice, several trips of moving assistance, some new cologne and assorted toiletries (for dates), a few high end restaurant gift certificates (ditto) and several uses of your washer and drier (not for underwear, I promise).
On Barbecue Competitions
Earlier this week an emailer made the assumption that I'm not interested in competition barbecue because I hadn't yet mentioned IQue's win at the Jack Daniel's. On the contrary.
It's fairly obvious that I have backed off the competition "coverage" this season. As I said in a similar post last November, I use big fat quotation fingers when I say "coverage," because I had essentially only provided results normally available from other sources: the New England BBQ Society site, the BBQ Brethren forum, the KCBS website, specific contest websites and specific competition team blogs. My original goal in mentioning contest results was never to compete with these sources for scoops or to pretend that I was providing regular in-depth reporting and analysis. Since I typically only attended a half dozen or so contests a year, it didn't make sense to post results for only the contests I attended, and I didn't want to wind up posting about Team A winning one week and fail to post about Team B winning the next week.
I'm still a fan of competition barbecue and competition barbecuers, and I'll still attend contests in various capacities, although now that my time and travel are much more limited I am understandably prioritizing barbecue restaurants. I'll still promote events before they happen, with more emphasis on spectator-friendly ones like Harpoon, Hudson Valley, Merrimack and Sayville. And if a contest winner straddles both the restaurant world and the competition world, I'll be sure to make mention. But generally speaking, I'm going to leave the contest results to the bulletin boards, the barbecue organization sites and the competition bloggers. They do a fine job already, so there's no need for me to duplicate what's already there. That'll allow me to focus more on my backlog of joints that need reviewing and reviews that need updating.
A few Sundays ago I found myself at a barbecue restaurant in Connecticut, combining some tastings with some investigation, and an undercover conversation with the owner went something like this.
Him: Are you from the area?
Me: No, I'm from Boston.
Him: So what brings you down here?
Me: Good food. I like to explore new areas, checking out new restaurants. There are a lot of places around here listed on Roadfood.
Him: What's that?
Me: It's a website and series of books by Jane and Michael Stern, who live somewhere in Connecticut. They list plenty of burger joints, clam shacks, diners and barbecue joints and it seems like this area has a bunch of 'em.
Him: We got listed recently on a site called Pork Station.
Me: Pork Station, never heard of that one.
Him: It's done by a guy who travels around the country looking for interesting pork dishes.
Me: Sounds interesting.
Me: (to self: man, I gotta check this site out when I get home)
Me: (to self again: wait a minute, maybe...)
Me: I hear there's a really cool site called PigTrip, is that the one you
Him: Yeah, that it! Some guy told me about it and said he was going to mention this place to PigTrip.
Pork Station, huh? I guess PigTrip's not a household word yet.
Overrated and Underrated
Fig Newtons are not only one of the most underrated items in the cookie aisle (even though they're really "little cakes") but also one of my all time favorite foods. The unique thing about Fig Newtons is that they're spectacular when you first open the box and dig into a super fresh Newton, and equally spectacular after they become stale and both the cake and filling firm up.
The Oreo just might be not only the most overrated cookie of all time but the most overrated food of all time. That said, there's something about the filling that's actually underrated. I'm not talking about flavor—I think it detracts rather than adds to the equation—but about texture, and indirectly at that. The real value of the Oreo filling is in its role as a spacer for the two cookies. The thickness is perfect, separating the cookies just enough to allow the delayed reaction of crunching into the second cookie a split second after the first, like a karate chop splitting boards sequentially. Remember folks, you heard it here first.
The vastly underrated 2-boned chicken wingette has been unfairly relegated to second fiddle status behind the chicken wing drummette, but that's fine by me. The drummettes are superior for dipping, and that's my piece of choice when sampling the bleu cheese or whatever hot sauce is on hand. But for just plain good eats, you can have the drummette; I'll go for the wingette every time. The meat is far more tender, there's a higher skin-to-meat ratio and if you extract the two small bones properly, you're left with a handful of boneless deliciousness that provides the perfect flavor/texture tandem.
Usually overhyped means overrated, but not in the case of Shake Shack (NYC). Their well-chronicled burgers are ridiculously juicy even though cooked well done, and the totality of the fresh ingredients is even greater than each of its finely selected parts. While certainly not overrated, the burgers there could hardly be called underrated. But I'd call the rarely discussed dairy items there underrated. On many a summer's afternoon, the final stop of a barbecue crawl to Shake Shack to cleanse the palate (and clear the smoke) with a frozen custard is the highlight of the trip. The creative daily flavors, silky smooth textures, proper temperatures and reasonable value (we're talking New York City) all combine to make a dessert superior to any highfalutin counterpart you'd get at a sit down restaurant. A "coffee and donuts" custard last month was sublime.
Some restaurants are underrated primarily because they're overlooked, but others are simply overmaligned (a distant cousin of overhyped). Overmaligned is the word I'd assign to Virgil's Barbecue (NYC), which is regularly dismissed by barbecue snobs as less than worthy based on its touristy Midtown neighborhood, its age (it predates the glamourous young joints that have captured the hearts of the New York media and bloggers) and its lack of a "name" pitmaster. But you know what? The 'cue at Virgil's, while nowhere near as good as at my top tier favorites there, is superior to far more New York City barbecue joints than you'd think. At Virgil's you're more likely to find tourists, families and barbecue neophytes than tattood hipsters with designer eyewear. But you'll also find some of the heftiest, fat-moistened spare ribs and one of the best constructed pulled pork sandwiches in the city. Ed Levine's recent "it's-not-as-bad-as-you'd-think" post on Serious Eats about Dallas BBQ should have been about Virgil's. (Barbecue-wise, Dallas is every bit as bad as you'd think.)
Bread and butter is overrated. Bread and olive oil is underrated.
Overrated and underrated sometimes exist under the same roof, and that's the case with the two brisket varieties at Hill Country (NYC). The moist brisket (from the fattier "point" or "deckle"), though often mind-numbingly fantastic, is overrated. I've heard the hosannas constantly since Hill Country opened, but the moist brisket for me lives up to the hype (and does it ever) only about once every three tries. At its worst (when it's still very good and still better than 90% of the brisket at other joints) it can be gelatenous or blubbery. And at $22 per pound there shouldn't be such a high percentage of fat that needs to be discarded. On the other hand, the "lean" brisket (from the brisket "flat") has plenty of moisture, a superior texture, no discard, more flavor thanks to its higher bark ratio and a lower price tag. Since day one, it's been my gold standard for sliced brisket flat and it hasn't let me down yet.
I've said this already, but I think it bears repeating. Oyster crackers by themselves: underrated. Oyster crackers in chowder: overrated.
A Rooting Interest
Now that the Red Sox have been eliminated from the playoffs, I'm not sure which team I'll be rooting for, though I know which one I'll be rooting against: the Yankees. It's not like there's a real reason to hate them these days. A-Rod is certainly a lightning rod for criticism, but the rest of the team consists of mostly good guys you'd love to have on your team, and just for the record I'm including Johnny Damon in that group. Jeter? Absolutely, I'd take a team of nine Jeters any day. But it's just not possible to be a Red Sox fan and root for the Yankees. It just can't be done.
With barbecue—or any restaurants for that matter—I feel completely comfortable having multiple favorites. I can love SoulFire and Blue Ribbon without having to say one's great and the other sucks. And I can like Firefly's and also Redbones, or Jake's and also East Coast Grill. And High Street Grill and Route 7 Grill. In New York I can love RUB and Hill Country at the same time, and I don't have to feel like Greg Brady forced to pick a cheerleading captain among his sister and his girlfriend. And I can like Wildwood and still like Daisy May's, or Dinosaur and also like Fette Sau. And I root for all of them, whether it's to receive some annual "best of' award, a magazine feature, a good review from a valued source or simply enough business to stay in business.
As much as I root for sports teams, I root for restaurants. For more than a decade, whenever the new Zagat Boston came out, I'd race furiously to the listing for East Coast Grill to see how they did. Many people screamed at Grady Little when he failed to remove Pedro Martinez from that fateful 2003 playoff game. Me? I scream at Zagat when a favorite such as an East Coast Grill or any restaurant run by Lydia Shire doesn't score high enough. And I pump my fist when another favorite such as an Olio (Canton MA, RIP 2005) or a Sweet Basil (Needham MA) gets a 27 or higher.
When I go to a new barbecue joint to review it, I'm rooting for it to do well. I'm hoping it's the best barbecue I've ever had and I'm hoping I can write about it to let everyone know. There are plenty of reasons why I'm rooting for greatness, some of them purely selfish. Good barbecue usually translates into good photographs, and good photographs on the site attract more viewers than bad ones do. And there's that feeling of discovery: though I never claim credit or even hint that I deserve credit for "discovering" a great new restaurant (I'll leave that game to the New York bloggers), there is something satisfying about being a leader rather than a follower. But the primary rooting interest is taste: I've had so much bad barbecue by visiting every joint out there that I crave that rare great barbecue meal. I do confess that if I'm not going to have a good-to-great barbecue meal, I actually prefer a horrible meal to a just-okay one. Bad reviews are much more fun to write than a middle-of-the-road, could-be-good, could-be-bad one, plus there's a similar satisfaction in the knowledge that I'm helping readers save money and avoid disaster.
I don't just root for new joints to be good and for my favorites to get good pub. I actually root for joints I've disliked (or have been luke warm about) to turn things around and get better. Some of them have. My most recent visit to Bison County in Waltham wasn't transcendant but it was a pleasant surprise, with some real rub and smoke flavor in the meat. And as I've mentioned before, my three most recent visits to Tennessee's have all been positive. Who knows, maybe Smoken Joe's or Brother Jimmy's can finally get it together.
So go ahead, root for the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Angels or the Phillies. Now you know where my rooting interests are.
Mr. Momo Risin'
It's been a strange ride for Andy Husbands (Tremont 647) on Hell's Kitchen. He performed well this week, yet just barely avoided an elimination that would have been attributed to his cumulative performance rather than any specific deed from this episode. After flying so low under the radar in episode 1 that he got virtually no airtime, the Fearless Chef encountered misfortune more often than all the other Blue team chefs combined in the next five episodes. Red-faced, sweaty and tentative under the pressure, Husbands managed to bungle chicken (underdone, miscut), garlic bread (too slow), lamb (underdone), dessert (not decadent enough) and halibut (underdone, unattractive, overdone). As if the errors of his own doing weren't enough, he even took it on the chin for overcrowding a pan with scallops, even though it was another chef's mistake (more specifically, his "morbidly obese" archnemesis's mistake).
At least Husbands is in good company—earlier this year on Top Chef: Masters, fellow Bostonian Michael Schlow (Radius, Via Matta, Alta Strada) was just as sweaty, just as red and even less successful, but you know what? Like Husbands, Schlow can cook for me anytime.
What's been more surprising than the cooking issues has been the lack of testicular fortitude in the heat of battle and even outside the kitchen. On the chopping block last week and asked by Gordon Ramsay why he should remain, Husbands merely blurted out that Ramsay was making him nervous. He should have said, "Because I'm the best [bleeping] chef here, and if you'd give a [bleep] about trying to find out who can chef rather than creating a bunch of [bleeping bleepbleep] for a [bleeping] TV show, you'd see I can outchef all those [bleeper bleepers]. That's why, chef."
And that's the crux of the matter. Arguably the most accomplished chef of all the contestants, Husbands had been hanging by a thread in the last few episodes, miraculously avoiding exile. In that last sentence I used the word "contestants," which implies the word "contest." The contest in this case is to determine which chef is the most worthy to head the restaurant Araxi (British Columbia) in time for the 2010 Olympic Games. Most of the challenges so far have only demonstrated who the best line cooks are, or perhaps only who the best line cooks are when thrust into an environment with built-in mayhem. Yes, I know I've said as much before, but I'll say it again: the contrived challenges on most of these "cooking reality" shows make about as much sense as having a bunch of would-be CEOs racing against each other to put trash in a dumpster and then awarding a company to the winner.
Last night it was archnemesis Robert Hesse who got the boot, largely (no pun intended) for turning out raw and miscut lamb. Husbands had already done that and more, so Hesse's intangibles (would anybody want to work with or for this guy?) were the more likely reason. And so the Fearless Chef lives to fight another week. I'll be tuning in for "next week's shocking episode," but the only thing shocking to me would be if the challenge had anything to do with being an actual chef.
More Thoughts About Buildings and Food
Well, maybe not so much about the buildings.
I confess to having a sweet tooth, but I'm not a desserts guy. I'll take a well executed chocolate chip cookie any day over confectionary creations that are trying too hard to be fancy or ground breaking. Yet even something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie can be ruined by some overzealous baker who doesn't understand the concept of balance. I like chocolate as much as the next guy, but there is such a thing as too much chocolate in a chocolate chip cookie. The cookie dough itself should be integral to the overall flavor of the cookie, not just a vessel for the chips/chunks of chocolate. The chocolate should enhance, not dominate. And just like a perfect rib or a perfect burger, the cookie's crusty exterior should border on (but not be) overdone while its soft, tender center should border on (but not be) underdone, with the full spectrum of textures in between.
I like the excitement of a food "event," but more often than not, a restaurant-related food event just isn't as good as if you just went to that restaurant on a regular night for their regular menu. New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day? Forget 'em. Longer waits, tighter spaces, higher prices, rushed service and inferior food just don't cut it for me, regardless of whatever lure is in play. Restaurant week? Sure, the tariff is lightened, but so is the menu: fewer choices, smaller portions, less interesting main ingredients, all in the name of offering a deal but breaking even. I much prefer choices, and would rather pay the higher price for the better meal.
Joisy and the PigTrip Borders
I received a few emails last week related to New Jersey BBQ, inarguably the area of this site that receives the least amount of focus. Or as one reader put it, "You seem to neglect the great state of New Jersey."
He's right, though I bristle at the word "neglect." It's not that I have anything against the great state of New Jersey, or even the idea that someone would call that state great or that their barbecue may be great. It's just that it's the state furthest from where I live in suburban Boston.
You'll notice that the tagline of this site is "Your guide to BBQ joints in Boston, New York and everywhere in between." I didn't pick Boston and Trenton, or Boston and Atlantic City, or Boston and Philadelphia. It's Boston and New York. So, yes, I do include some New Jersey joints in the directory, partly because most of the included ones are within a half hour's drive of New York City, and partly because I visited a few New Jersey joints when I was there on business in 2006. I had reason to expect more trips, but they didn't pan out. I still plan to revisit New Jersey, and even revisit the one surviving joint I already reviewed, but those visits are understandably less immediate than a visit to Lowell or Springfield or Manchester or Hartford or Providence. So while I do my best to keep the New Jersey BBQ listings current, I don't expect to have as many New Jersey BBQ reviews as I would for joints in the aforementioned cities, all within an hour's drive of where I live. That said, I'm planning to make that New Jersey pilgrimage within the next few months, with a goal of three new reviews. Remember, this is just a hobby.
This is probably a good time to define PigTrip's borders. Any "barbecue joint" (and I'll get to what that means in a bit) anywhere within the six New England states qualifies for inclusion in the Joints directory. Any barbecue joint in New York City and Long Island (no matter how far east) qualifies. The rest is not an exact science, but anywhere in the rest of New York state that's roughly within a half hour of a New England state qualifies, and anywhere in New Jersey that's within a half hour drive of New York City qualifies.
The more difficult question is what constitutes a barbecue joint. By this I'm not talking about the difference between a barbecue joint and a barbecue restaurant. I'm talking about what it takes to satisfy the barbecue requirement, and this is an even less exact science. If a restaurant has "BBQ" or "Ribs" in its name, it qualifies, unless it's Korean or Brazilian BBQ (both of which I enjoy, but keeping track of all of them would be too much to handle). A restaurant also qualifies if it has at least two of the following: ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken. That means there are some restaurants (East Coast Grill, Scarlet Oak Tavern, Tremont 647) that offer limited barbecue options without it being the main focus, And since the reviews are judgmental but the Joints directory is not, a so-called barbecue restaurant can use nothing but ovens and store-bought sauce and still be included in the directory. The idea is to include any restaurant that considers itself a barbecue restaurant, even if I don't like it and even if I don't think what they're doing is real barbecue.
Now, back to New Jersey. Last week White Trash BBQ linked to an article in Gourmet Magazine that listed Eight Great Barbecue Joints in New Jersey (thanks also to a few different readers who pointed it out to me). Unfortunately, all of them are south of Trenton and therefore outside what I like to call the "PigTrip region." But there's some serious barbecue in that list, including some roadside joints that capture the flavor of points further south. They might not be in the directory, but they're very much of interest and well worth seeking out, especially on an Atlantic City BBQ crawl:
1. Christine’s House of Kingfish BBQ, Shamong NJ
2. Henri’s Hotts Barbeque, Folsom NJ
3. Uncle Dewey’s Outdoor BBQ Pavilion, Mizpah NJ
4. General Barbecue, Richland NJ
5. JB’s Bar-B-Q, Rio Grande NJ
6. Pork’s BBQ, Villas NJ
7. Kingfish, Woodbine NJ
8. Corky’s, Atlantic City NJ
Some Thoughts on Last Night's Hell's Kitchen With Andy Husbands
There's an interesting composition of "chefs" among the Hell's Kitchen contestants this season. If I were looking for a chef to head my multimillion dollar restaurant in Canada, half of these clowns would not even get a second look, whether for lack of experience, lack of talent, lack of interpersonal skills or lack of character. It's amazing how many of the so-called chefs come across as incompetent.
But I think a lot of the incompetence has to do with casting; my theory is that the show's producers deliberately stock the roster with colorful characters and contestants they know will fail because it will make for "good TV." Having failures—whether it be food-related or otherwise—breeds friction among the contestants and provides easy fodder for Gordon Ramsay's bombast.
I also think some contestants (Joseph and Van the most obvious) are being coached to be assholes for that reason. Either that or they're deliberately trying to be assholes on their own just to stand out—sort of like being the William Hung of reality cooking. If you can't win with talent, go out in a memorable blaze of glory.
Then there's Boston's Andy Husbands, who seems to be overlooked by the show's editors in favor of the Young Turks, fascinatingly incompetent wannabes and combustable hotheads. If the tried and true reality show strategy of "stay under the radar" was his modus operandi, Husbands executed it perfectly in last night's first hour, where he was given virtually no face time. All we know is that neither his signature dish nor the counterpart from the female chef he was pitted against received a point. It would have been nice if we were shown what he created and what Ramsay's problem with it was.
In the second hour, things didn't go so well, with a chicken issue that wasn't explained all that clearly. I'm not sure if the problem was that it was improperly cut or that it was undercooked or that time ran out, but whatever the problem, the "donkey" label was applied. Kudos to Chef Husbands for keeping his cool and not engaging in verbal battle (prefering instead to win the war).
The central idea behind most reality cooking shows seems to be thrusting chefs into ridiculous situations where there's inadequate time, inadequate ingredients, inadequate equipment and inadequate instructions, just to watch them fail. Mayhem makes good TV but it doesn't identify which chefs can really cook. Maybe that will change as the series chugs along.
It's In The Way That You Choose It
Ever go to a joint and ask, "What's good here?" Instead of the usual reply ("Everything!"), I wish they'd rattle off a list like this one.
As a quick exercise, I ran down a list of barbecue joints and ranked their proficiency among what I call "the basic four" of pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and smoked chicken. The first meat listed is the one they do best, and so on. Yes, you could add beef ribs, beef shortribs and sausage, but for the sake of this list, I'm just sticking with the original four. In some cases, those other meats really matter, so I added some comments after the list.
Bailey's Smokehouse: ribs, pork, brisket
Big Bubba's: brisket, pork, chicken, ribs
Big W's: ribs, chicken, pork, brisket
Blue Ribbon: pork, ribs, brisket, chicken
Blue Smoke: ribs, pork
Bobbique: ribs, chicken, brisket, pork
Bobby Q's: pork, ribs, brisket, chicken
BT's Smokehouse: brisket, pork, chicken, ribs
Chili Head: chicken, ribs, brisket, pork
City Flame: ribs, pork, brisket, chicken
Daisy May's: ribs, chicken, brisket, pork
Dinosaur: chicken, pork, brisket, ribs
East Coast Grill: ribs, pork, brisket
Firefly's: ribs, chicken, brisket, pork
Goody Cole's Smokehouse: chicken, brisket, ribs, pork
Hill Country: brisket, chicken, ribs (no pulled pork)
Jake's Dixie Roadhouse: chicken, ribs, pork, brisket
KC's Rib Shack: ribs, pork, chicken, brisket
Lester's: brisket, pork, ribs, chicken
Redbones: brisket, ribs, chicken, pork
Roadhouse: pork, brisket, ribs, chicken
RUB: ribs, brisket, pork, chicken
SoulFire: ribs, pork, brisket, chicken
Southern Hospitality: ribs, brisket, chicken, pork
Southern Q: pork, brisket, ribs
Swingbelly's: chicken, brisket, ribs, pork
Tennessee's: chicken, ribs, pork, brisket
Texas BBQ Company: brisket, ribs, pork, chicken
Uncle Pete's (now closed): ribs, brisket, pork
United BBQ: ribs, brisket, pork
Wildwood: ribs, brisket, chicken, pork
Wilson's: pork, ribs, chicken, brisket
I haven't had the chicken at Bailey's, Blue Smoke, Southern Q, Uncle Pete's or United, and there's not a smoked version at East Coast Grill. I also haven't had the brisket at Blue Smoke (the versatility of their rib combo and the quality of their burger have steered me elsewhere).
At most places, the sausage is an also-ran, but at Hill Country it's a must. They don't do pulled pork.
Ditto chili, which is a must at Daisy May's.
Lester's was probably the hardest to distinguish, as all four of the meats are good to very good with nothing close to a sure-fire standout, but nothing close to a sure-fire clunker.
I don't include beef ribs, but they'd wind up as the #1 item at Blue Smoke and Southern Hospitality, and the #2 item at Daisy May's, Hill Country and BT's.
Turkey is decent at Goody Cole's, good at RUB and one of the best things on the menu at Bobby Q's.
Go ahead and disagree with my order. Arguing over who's the best and what they do best is half the fun of barbecue.
Things I'd Like To See: the Big Screen, Small Screen Edition
Here's another batch from my Things I'd Like To See series. It's not all barbecue, but it's all food related and mostly TV:
It's too bad Dana Carvey's run on Saturday Night Live predated the popularity of Chef Rick Bayless, because I'd really love to see a Carvey impression of the almost-too-easy-to-imitate Bayless. He's got the right physique and the voice is basically a cross between Church Lady and the character Eugene Levy played in A Mighty Wind.
The next time Bobby Flay does a ribs throwdown, I'd like to see a few changes in the "rules." Instead of having his usual time to size up the competition and formulate a game plan, Flay will learn of the challenge mere hours before he has to get his ribs ready. Oh, and he'll have to slaughter his own pig and build his own cooker (I almost said smoker, but that's not how he rolls) while the clock is ticking down. Would this departure from his usual comfort zone provide any indication of Flay's cheffing skills? No, but it would wipe that smirk off his face—the same smirk he exhibited in episode 1 of the Next Food Network Star while criticizing would-be hosts struggling with contrived "makes for good TV" situations neither Flay nor any of his network contemporaries had to endure.
I'd like to see Kevin James as the spokesman for the Famous Dave's barbecue chain, performing in a series of commercials that revive his Doug Heffernan character from The King of Queens. It might be just the vehicle to revive the barbecue chain's sagging sales numbers and James's sagging movie career (though it wouldn't help his sagging waistline). Who wouldn't want to chow down where Heffernan eats? Especially on Long Island, where Famous Dave's is surprisingly a much more viable barbecue option than many of the mediocre mom and pop joints.
Although I take most of their reviews and recommendations with a boulder-sized grain of salt, I do enjoy the Phantom Gourmet for its leads and entertainment value. But just once, I'd like to see one of their barbecue reviews tout the merits of the barbecue itself, rather than resort as usual to fountains of dripping sauce (know what I'm sayin'?). And for their next BBQ Beach Party preview show, I'd like to see the Andelmans talk about the 'cue instead of trying to turn all the pitmasters into wrestling characters and Yosemite Sam wannabes with stupid nicknames and stupider props.
Howie Mandel, if I had my way, would host a second game show in which contestants had to choose a suitcase filled with barbecue that might be from the likes of Blue Ribbon or RUB, but might also be from (gasp) Dallas BBQ or (ugh) Wes's Rib House. It would basically be the same show each and every episode, which is why it would be called Dull or Not Dull.
Getting back to Bobby Flay: I've written this already, but I'd really like to see a reunion—whether for one show or an entire series—with his Grillin' and Chillin' co-host Jack McDavid. McDavid's a little bit country, Flay's a little bit rock and roll, and that show was a pleasure to watch.
Fans of the long-running Columbo series from the 1970s know that it takes a certain type of personality to play what's known as the "Columbo villain." Although it was briefly revived in the 1990s, another Columbo run is about as likely as a smoker sighting at the aforementioned Dallas BBQ, but if the unlikely does happen, I'd like to see chef Todd English play a Columbo villain. He's got "the right demeanor," he likes hanging around other actors, he's already wearing the makeup and it's not as if his schedule is booked doing actual cooking at his restaurants.
New York City BBQ: For The First Time Ever, My NYC Barbecue Rankings (sort of)
Although I don't keep exact rankings, I do maintain a mental "pecking order" of the barbecue restaurants in Boston, New York and everywhere else. Since barbecue quality varies so much from visit to visit even at the best joints, rankings change rather quickly. But the order of the various classes, if you will, usually remains stable. Here, for the first time ever, is my New York City BBQ "Rankings":
RUB, Hill Country
The straight-up barbecue is a wash (hard to decide between RUB's burnt ends and Hill Country's brisket, or RUB's pork rib and Hill Country's beef rib). But I give the nod to RUB on the strength of its sandwiches, wings and pastrami. Both joints are great and both joints have taken turns as #1 and #2, depending on who's having the better day. Neither drops below #2, and it's a steep drop to the next group.
#3, #4, #5, #6, #7:
Daisy May's, Wildwood, Fette Sau, Dinosaur, Rack & Soul
No particular order here; these are all interchangeable with rank depending on the visit. Daisy May's pork ribs and chili rock, but they don't do enough things well to make the first group (or distance themselves from the others in this group), and their brisket and pulled pork are Achilles heels. Wildwood's lamb ribs are among my top handful of barbecue meats anywhere. Fette Sau's ribs remind me of RUB's. Rack & Soul is vastly underrated and might just serve the best pulled pork in the city. Dinosaur is better than I originally thought and much better than its commercial style would suggest. None of these joints ever climbs higher than #3 or drops lower than #7. It's not quite as steep a drop to the next group, but there's a noticeable gap.
#8, #9, #10, #11:
Blue Smoke, Smoke Joint, Virgil's, Southern Hospitality
Same deal. Southern Hospitality is neither as good as its most ardent fans claim nor as bad as their most ardent detractors claim. Virgil's is a lot better than most barbecue snobs will admit. Smoke Joint is a sleeper who's the most likely of any joint to climb up a level.
Bone Lick Park, Georgia's Eastside
Flawed for sure, but enough going on and enough atmosphere to be worth a visit and possibly even a return.
The worst of the real barbecue joints. Fortunately, I really like their sauces. Unfortunately, the 'cue really needs 'em.
God awful no matter how low the price.
Restaurant Service: You Make the Call
Here's the first of what I'd like to see as a recurring if not regular feature. I'll describe an actual restaurant experience, then toss out some questions for discussion. Unfortunately I don't have a built-in comments section but I welcome all comments via email at GARYatPIGTRIPdotNET. Later in the week I'll post my own answers to the questions as well as any comments I've received. Just one thing: I've decided not to name the restaurant, so don't ask.
Is Barbecue A Sport?
It's been said that competition barbecue is the next great American sport, and many who are involved think it already is. So is it a sport, and if not now, can it ever be?
If it is, it’s the only sport that doesn’t burn calories. The final answer, of course, is a matter of opinion. After all, we can’t get a room full of random people to agree on whether bowling, golf and figure skating are sports (or who has the best barbecue restaurant in any given city). But just for fun, I’ll explore the topic.
Smoking and Drinking
According to a popular school of thought, any activity that can be performed while smoking and drinking can’t possibly be a sport. This argument is usually used to exclude “social” sports like softball and bowling, and by smoking we’re talking about nicotine, not wood. Based on the collection of barbecue personalities I’ve encountered, it would certainly exclude barbecue as well. But I’m not sure if I buy that argument. Basically, it’s a matter of whether there are lulls in the “action” that allow smoking and drinking. If Keith Hernandez can smoke a butt between innings of a baseball game, Mike Davis can smoke a butt while smoking butts. If Vlade Divac (chain smoker) and David Wells (smoker, drinker, fat guy, you name it) don’t disqualify their respective sports from full-fledged sport-hood, then barbecue can’t not be considered a sport on this basis.
David Wells: athlete?
The Figure Skating Comparison
One sport that routinely gets trashed for not being a “real sport” is figure skating. Though it’s considered a “feminine” sport (be the skaters male or female), you probably can’t find a sport that compares closer to the more macho sport of competition barbecue. In skating, you have the required lutzes and salchows; in barbecue you have the required chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. In both, the success of the participants comes down to their ability to wow the judges with a combination of competence and flair. In figure skating, little things like the ruffles of the costume may have that subliminal effect on the scoring. In barbecue, the ruffles of the lettuce in the garnish may just be the thing that pushes the winner over the top. Neither really has anything to do with what’s truly being judged, but skaters and pitmasters will swear by their importance. Unlike basketball (where it’s obvious whether the ball went through the hoop) and football (where it’s fairly obvious whether the ball crossed the goal line), skating and barbecue are subject to the whims and opinions of the judges.
Auto Racing and Fat Guys
Another sport that has its detractors is auto racing. Here you have the fat guy argument: if a fat guy like AJ Foyt could do it (and do it well), how could it be a sport? You also have the equipment argument: who wins has less to do with driving skills than who simply happens to have the fastest car. Anyone who’s been to a barbecue competition knows that I need not address the fat guy argument, so I’ll move on to equipment. I’ve seen contests won using $5000 smokers and huge trailers. I’ve also seen contests won using $200 smokers and a couple of lawn chairs. There should be no argument whatsoever that the skill of the BBQ chef is more important than the equipment.
With auto racing, the camp that considers it a sport argues that world class drivers have years of training (ditto world class barbecue chefs). And that the drivers withstand intense heat for long periods of time (so do barbecue chefs, for longer periods of time). And that they possess lightning fast reflexes (anyone who’s seen me dodge tumbling lit chimneys and falling knives knows that’s also true in barbecue). And that it takes guts (just watch the competitors as they gamble with an untested sauce or go for a risky box presentation).
The Golf Comparison
Then there’s golf. Tiger notwithstanding, there’s plenty of skill but not a lot of excitement in this sport. Or athleticism. Watch any barbecue team load a smoker onto their trailer after a long, grueling competition and you’ll see more athleticism in ten minutes than any golfer ever exhibited on a full 18 holes. John Daly might be a decent golfer, but comes across more like a barbecue guy than an athlete. The way I see it, if golf is a sport, then barbecue has to be a sport.
The Baseball Comparison
Baseball has its share of fat guys (the aforementioned Wells), and even the skinny guys don’t have to exert themselves that much. The thing this sport has most in common with barbecue is the stealing of signs. When a runner is on second base, the catcher’s top secret signals must be changed to prevent the opposition from knowing what pitch is coming. In competition barbecue, recipes must be hidden, rubs must be shrouded and sauces must never be discussed. But that doesn’t stop the peeking that goes on.
The Wrestling Comparison
How about wrestling? You’ve got the gaudy championship belts that are displayed before each bout, just like the gaudy trophies that each competitor displays in the team tent. In wrestling, bragging is as much of the sport as the wrestling itself. Trust me, it’s the same with barbecue competitors—they like to brag. Does that make it a sport? Probably not, but it makes it fun.
Refs and Judges
In basketball and hockey, certain referees are known for their tendency to call a tight game, while others have a reputation for “letting the boys play.” Knowing the refs affects game strategy. In barbecue, even though the teams don’t know the judges’ identities, there is some occasional jockeying based on perceived preferences. If the judges like sweet and you present hot, you might not do so well.
In baseball, certain umpires are known for their stingy or generous strike zones, and pitchers pitch accordingly. In barbecue, there are some stingy judges and generous judges. In theory, it all evens out in the end, but getting the right judges for the right categories can mean the difference between going home with trophies and going home with nothing. Say your strengths are chicken and ribs, and those are your best chances for trophies. If you get a few generous judges for those categories while your chief competition gets stingy ones, assuming you both did well, that difference could put you over the top. If your Achilles heel is brisket and you get generous judges for that category, the extra boost is wasted.
Suppose we just agree to overlook the two main obstacles—that the athletic requirements are minimal and that the outcome is determined by judges’ opinion—and just call barbecue a sport. Can it ever go mainstream, the way NASCAR has in the last decade? I say no, and a look at some other sports backs me up. Soccer for decades has tried to penetrate the consciousness of American sport with no success. After Pelé, Kyle Rote and David Beckham, how many soccer players can you name? Professional surfer Kelly Slater can dominate his sport, he can win 9 world titles and he can date Pamela Anderson and Gisele Bundchen, but he’s never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Ice hockey has been relegated to the Versus network, which ironically also airs barbecue competitions.
There will always be spectators for baseball, football, basketball, boxing and all of the unquestioned real sports. I can’t see the attraction, but there seems to be a fair supply of spectators for marginal sports like bowling, too. Are there spectators in barbecue? Take away the family members and the people looking for a free snack, and you’re not left with many. I think this will change though, thanks to the Food Network. There’s something very exciting about watching a chef—whether it’s Mario Batali on Iron Chef or Adam Perry Lang on that same show or live at the Hudson Valley Rib Fest—battle the final ticks of the clock and submit a kick-ass dish under pressure. But that excitement can only go so far given the logistics of the event: you can’t watch every competitor simultaneously, and you can’t watch the entire event.
From a spectator standpoint, you could argue that American Idol is as much of a sport as competition barbecue. Only Paula, Randy, Kara and Simon get to judge, but everyone gets to watch. And everyone gets to deliver an armchair opinion based on what they just heard. With barbecue, only the judges get to see and taste what’s presented, and they only get to taste 6 entries for each category. In-person spectators might get lucky enough to try some samples, but (just like the judges) they’re not going to taste everything that’s submitted. Television spectators not only suffer from seeing only a small subset of the entries, but they also will never taste them, making it hard to form a real opinion. With Iron Chef, you can declare a preference for Mario’s lamb with fennel over Bobby’s lamb with chipotle vinaigrette, based strictly on appearance. With barbecue, the contestants are cooking the same things with only slight twists, so creativity takes somewhat of a back seat to craftsmanship. Here, not being able to see and taste the entries is a deal-breaker for me.
So, is barbecue a sport? I say no. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a helluva lot of fun.
Event Review: Boston's Cochon 555 Elevates Piggery to New Heights
On April 5 my wife and I attended the Boston stop of Cochon 555, a culinary roadshow saluting the pig. Held in Boston's Liberty Hotel, the event was also a fundraiser for Farms for City Kids, a unique educational program combining classroom study with firsthand farming experience to give urban kids an understanding of how vital academics are to everyday life.
The original concept was noble: five chefs, five pigs, five wineries. But beyond the number 5, there were a few other numbers bandied about on the amusecochon.com website: 250 guests, 70 pounds per pig, 400 bottles of wine and 100 pounds of cheese. A little simple math tells me that’s 350 pounds of pig, but that's only if you assume zero shrinkage during cooking and zero waste after cooking. A more realistic (and still conservative) estimate would be about 250 pounds of pig for 250 guests. But according to the Boston Globe review, there were 300 guests and 20 judges. So dividing 250 pounds of pig by 320 people, that leaves 0.78 pounds of pig per person. Divide that by the 5 chefs and that yields about 0.15 pounds of pig per table per person (a little more than a McDonald’s small hamburger patty). Considering that the judges received up to six different presentations per chef and that many of the early arriving guests got piggy with the pig, that leaves little room for error, leaving many squeezed out.
For me, the squeezing of pig (even at $125) wasn't as outrageous as the squeezing of humanity—the congestion, pushing and shoving were unbearable. It was a bad setup to begin with: the room was too small for the number of people attending, and the layout made things even worse. The five chefs’ tables were spread around the perimeter, theoretically allowing a good distribution of guests. But the flow of traffic from every direction and lack of any clear entry or exit point for each table turned the proceedings into a free-for-all, closer to a mosh pit than a sophisticated dining event. That squeezing of humanity also squeezed out much of the facetime guests such as myself hoped to enjoy with the chefs, who were struggling to keep up with the demand.
Some numbers that weren’t bandied about on the event website: 0 chairs, 3 tables. The tiny tables had enough room for about six standing guests. My wife and I thought we could camp out at one of them and take turns shuttling food back to the home base. But this strategy proved fruitless: the crowd-to-chef ratio ratcheted the shuttle times to well over 15 minutes; the crowd-to-table ratio ensured that there would be several people occupying the previously-claimed spot. Those who chose to simply eat standing without a table had no place to do so without being engulfed by the traffic. I’m sure there were larger rooms available, and I’d advise the organizers to spring for the upgrade next year.
I witnessed many wine-related accidents, as glasses slipped from the hands of overzealous guests trying to hold a plate with one hand, hold a glass with the other hand and eat with the other hand. It was like watching Wile E. Coyote realizing he stepped off a cliff and only then plummeting. Here, it was the wine plummeting, over expensive dress shirts.
What little we were able to try was all good and often brilliant. The most accessible of the offerings was the pork carnitas presented by eventual competition winner Matthew Jennings, the self proclaimed “cheese and food geek” at Farmstand Inc. (Providence RI). These were attractive soft tacos filled with meat from Red Wattle pig, cabbage, cilantro, red onion and a white, creamy cheese.
Jaime Bissonnette of Toro (Boston MA) used the legs and loins of a Yorkshire pig to stuff Vietnamese-style banh-mi sandwiches on French bread, dressed with jalapeno, cabbage, cilantro and soy sauce. Tony Maws of Craigie On Main (Cambridge MA) had the most variety: garlic sausages, mini pork belly sandwiches and crispy pork confit, all using a Yorkshire-Duroc pig.
Jason Bond of Beacon Hill Bistro (Boston MA) served a few different creations from a Berkshire pig, each overshadowed by his jiggly pig brain gelatin. For me, the most interesting item was pig lard on baguette slices available at an unnamed kiosk near the center of the room. With the consistency of whipped cream cheese, it was a piggy version of butter.
The fifth chef, Joseph Margate of Clink (Boston MA), managed to elude me. I'm sure he was there, but I couldn't locate him (or most of the promised 100 pounds of cheese), and I was too worn down fetching the first four nibbles to persist any further. But I had the perfect antidote in mind for the chaos, and I'll share that in a rare Saturday post tomorrow. (If you know who my favorite chefs are and the geography of the situation, that antidote should be pretty easy to deduce.)
I’ve enjoyed meals at Maws’s Craigie On Main and Bissonnette’s Toro, and I plan to enjoy many more. At both, the food is just as decadent, just as chef-crafted and just as exciting. The difference is I can rest my wine glass on a table, rest myself on a comfortable chair and actually converse with my wife and enjoy the chef’s creations without the pushing and shoving. I can’t say how much of it had to do with the manners of the attendees and how much was simply poor (or stingy) planning by the organizers. But as expected, Cochon 555 was truly a showcase for pigs—just not the pigs that were promised.
Chasing a Pizza Legend at Frank Pepe's
This post is as much about barbecue as it is about pizza. Hear me out.
It may sound like blasphemy to readers in Brooklyn or East Boston, but for many neutral observers, the best pizza in the country is believed to reside in New Haven CT. For years I've been hearing about Frank Pepe's brick oven pies, and on Monday I tried one for the first time. I was driving back home to the Boston area from Long Island, where I judged the Williepalooza barbecue contest on Sunday, and I needed to stop somewhere for lunch. But it took a while to get there.
While sitting at the counter of Super Duper Weenie in Fairfield, I took several photos of a hotdog, which inevitably led to some conversation with the locals.
"You know, it tastes a lot better if you actually eat it."
"Very true," I say. "But I'm waiting for my fries and my other dog."
"What are you, a food critic?"
"Not really, I just like food. But I do have a barbecue review site. I'm so used to taking photos of barbecue for the site that it's become second nature at other meals too. I try to take photos whenever I'm somewhere good."
Overhearing the implied compliment, griddle honcho Super Duper Gary joined in: "Have you been to Wilson's BBQ? It's just a few exits from here."
"Yeah, I've been there and it's good. I'd be there now, but they're not open on Mondays."
The local, unfazed by the now-completed order of two dogs and boat of hand-cut, aggressively peppered fries in front of me, kept the suggestions coming. "Frank Pepe's Pizza is also nearby."
"But they're not open for lunch, are they?"
"They didn't used to be, but they are now."
My hotdog drops to the counter. "Really? How close are they from here?"
"Go up one block, take a left, and they're two traffic lights down the street."
As much as I was diggin' those dogs and fries, I slam the brakes on this meal so I can make that 3-block drive. Within minutes I'm at Frank Pepe's Fairfield outpost, trying to figure out the best way to get as much variety as I can into a small pie. I wanted to get a 2-way, but I also wanted to try their signature white clam. Since you can't mix white and red on the same pie, I took some suggestions from the staff and went with all red: sausage and mushroom on one half, bacon and onion on the other.
A few minutes later my pie was delivered by Beautiful Dawn, who made it a point to tell me a few different times during the meal how many compliments she was receiving for her beautiful face and beautiful skin from a large party of older ladies she was waiting on in the next room. A pretty girl for sure, but the pie was prettier: a nice thin crust, a little blackening on the underside, balanced cheese-to-tomato ratio and toppings more artfully done than in most Massachusetts pizzerias (then again, Sbarro is more artful than most Massachusetts pizzerias).
In the end, I'm not really sure how much I liked the pie, as it can be difficult to judge a legend (be it pizza, barbecue, steak, you name it). Expectations are sky high, so anything less than perfection is certain to disappoint. Was it good? Absolutely. Excellent? Absolutely. Perfection? Not quite. The best ever? Absolutely not. Was it good enough to go back? Absolutely.
A quick digression:
There's a lot of similarity between pizza and barbecue, and one of the reasons the subject of who makes the best pizza is as hotly debated as who makes the best barbecue is the myriad of styles. With barbecue, some like it smoky, some like it spicy. Some like it saucy, some like it dry. Some just like it smoked, some like it grilled after smoking, some don't even care if it's smoked. With pizza, some like a thick crust, some like a thin crust. Some like it crispy, some like it droopy. Some like deep dish. Some like a lot of cheese and very little tomato, some like it the other way around. In the end, people's favorites tend to be more of an endorsement of a favorite style than a favorite joint. If you ask me where to go for pizza or ribs, I'll never tell you the name of a joint. Instead, I'll ask a question. "That depends, how do you like your pizza?" Or "How do you like your ribs?"
Back to the story:
Fairfield must be a friendly town, because I struck up a conversation with one of the locals at Pepe's as well. Over in the next booth, a gentleman in his 60s told me that he'd been coming to Pepe's for more than four decades.
"I have to ask you, and please answer honestly," I say in the most respectful tone I can summon. "Is Pepe's as good now that they've expanded as they were a few years ago?"
"Not even close," he said, quickly shaking his head. "They're still the best, but they're nothing like they were before. If you want to keep a tradition going for years, you can't have kids who don't give a shit making the pies. To them, it's just a job—they don't care how the pies come out. When I first started coming they had men who had been there for years, who treated it as a craft, who put LOVE into it. Today there's no love. I have family who come in from other parts of the country once a year just to have the pizza they love so much, and when they try it now, they ask, 'What happened?'"
Like I said, there's a lot of similarity between pizza and barbecue.
Never Trust A Skinny Chef
"Never trust a skinny chef" is the motto of Hawaiian chef/restaurateur Sam Choy, whose shadow looms large not just over the Hawaiian food scene but looms large, period. At first take it's easy to dismiss the seemingly throwaway line as just a self-deprecating comment on his rather large frame. Over the years since I first heard it, "Never trust a skinny chef" has become my motto as well, for all that it implies. It's surprisingly applicable to the barbecue world, and not just because that demographic tends toward large shadows.
Disclaimer: the idea here isn't to make generalizations about body types, just to look past the throwaway line and think about what "Never trust a skinny chef" is trying to convey.
1. The not-so-skinny chef has eaten more than the skinny chef, so he knows more about food than his slimmer colleague. Sure, there are exceptions. But more often than not, the premise is true. Who would you rather have preparing your barbecue platter? Someone who's only tasted his own cooking, or someone who's tasted his share and then some of all that barbecue has to offer? Give me the chef—okay, pitmaster—who's traveled the country, comparing the differences between pork sandwiches made with only shoulder versus all parts of the hog. Give me the pitmaster who's tried every possible permutation of burnt ends. Give me the pitmaster who's tried ribs wet, ribs dry, ribs dry with extra dry rub applied after cooking, ribs glazed, ribs smoked then braised, ribs braised then smoked, ribs smoked then grilled, ribs every which way but loose.
2. The not-so-skinny chef likes food more than his slimmer colleague. There are some people in the food industry who do what they do because that’s what they do. And there are others who do it because they truly love food. I’m talking about the types who hear about a certain strawberry being at the peak of season at a new farmer’s market and rush out the door, Sonny Corleone style, because they have to have some now. I’m talking about chefs who scour the Internet and rare book shops for inspiration for new dishes. I’m talking about chefs who dine at other restaurants on their days off because they want to expose themselves to new flavors and new approaches that may just improve their own cooking. Sitting on a desk chair or a barstool after hours isn’t going to do much for that chef’s physique as on the tiny bicycle seat at spinning class, but it may do much for the meal he prepares for me.
3. The not-so-skinny chef tastes his own food with a critical eye. Check out any high-end celebrity chef who's actually working in his own restaurant (okay, that rules out Todd English) and you'll see that chef checking plates for neatness, consistency, preparation, doneness and flavor. No, he's probably not eating off what will soon become your plate, but you will see the good ones—such as another Hawaiian chef, the great Alan Wong—tasting here and there to make sure everything's just right. The chefs who just let every plate go out as is may be skinnier or more confident, but I'll take the plate from the chef who's on his toes, correcting mistakes before they ever see the table. But more importantly, I want to taste the food from the chef who’s tasted it first to make sure it tastes good. Recipes have a way of gradually morphing away from the master plan if you don’t stay on top of them. Even if the recipe is right the flavor could be off (a particular batch off peppers may be hotter or milder than usual, or a change in another ingredient’s sourcing may affect its flavor). I want the chef to know what his vision tastes like months or years after that recipe is created and be on hand, tasting to make sure everything’s perfect. That can’t be done without consuming some calories along the way.
In the barbecue world, tasting is even more important because the product changes throughout its lifetime. Barbecue isn't cooked to order, so the brisket that came out of the smoker in the morning may have quite a different consistency at lunchtime than at dinnertime. The pitmaster can poke at it all he wants, but tasting should be mandatory. The spices, bark and crust on a rack of ribs may have been perfect when the pitmaster tasted a few bones as the ribs came out of the smoker, but that’s a completely different product from what the customer will taste. How’s that exterior a few hours later: still as crisp? If the ribs are refrigerated, then reheated, are they warm enough? Are they moist enough? Does that abundant layer of rub taste as good after reheating, or is it an ashen, slushy mess?
I've heard many a pitmaster say, "Nobody else's barbecue comes close to mine!" But if he's only tasting what comes out of the smoker and not what sits around and gets reheated for the customer, he's not only making an unfair comparison, he's also very likely to be completely wrong.
How’s the chicken? Can you taste the flavor only at the skin, or does it penetrate all the way into the inner meat? Is the skin crisp? Is there too much vinegar in the pork? Not enough vinegar in the pork? Is the pork getting soggy? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to taste early and taste often.
I want my pitmaster on top of these things, tasting and adjusting along the way. If he can do that and still be skinny, good for him. But if tasting along the way means he’s not skinny, that’s still good for me.
Read My Lips: No New (Meal) Taxes
I’m hearing rumblings of proposed emergency legislation being championed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to close a $1.1 billion midyear budget gap. The plan is to increase the state meals tax to 6%, with local cities and towns optionally able to add an additional 1%. Ouch.
From a practical standpoint, an extra 1% or 2% isn't going to affect me. I'm not going to go to restaurants any less frequently, and I'm not going to tip any less. But that 1% or 2% can be the final straw for some less passionate folks who might not be able to eat out as often. More importantly, it would be yet another blow for restaurant employees, who comprise nearly 10% of the state's workforce. Servers who depend on tips for their livelihood have already felt the sagging economy hit them three ways: fewer customers, lower check totals and lower tip percentages on those totals. The extra tax will probably enrage all three heads of that monster. And the restaurant owners? They’ve got enough problems already.
Why single out restaurants and the people who like to go to them? One obvious response—and one that I can understand, if not agree with—is that dining at restaurants is a luxury, so if you can afford that luxury, you can afford the extra tax. That sounds good, but different people have different passions, different vices and different “luxuries” in this case. My thing is going out to restaurants. I'm often asked, "How can you afford to eat out so much?" The answer is simple. I drive an inexpensive car, wear generally inexpensive clothes, rarely see movies in the theater (nearly as expensive as restaurants), and rarely attend concerts or watch sporting events in person (way more expensive than restaurants). I don't own a boat or a second home. My television is a 19" dinosaur from the 1990s. If your luxury is a Mercedes or a closet full of Armani suits or a boat or a second home or a high-def entertainment system with a 60" flat panel screen, more power to you. Just don't expect me to pay more taxes than you because I choose high tops over high-def.
Ideally, taxes shouldn't be raised at all. But if they are, why not introduce a 0.25% or a 0.50% sales tax increase across the board rather than focusing on one luxury and one industry? Let’s let the well-dressed and the well-fed feed the system equally.
Vacation Tips for Next Week's Lucky Ones
With President's Day next Monday and school vacation all next week, many will be taking real vacations in warmer climes than the Pigtrip region can offer right now. Here are some travel tips that might help you get the most out of your vacation:
Plan, plan, plan. Not to the point where your vacation has to be so regimented that the fun is gone, but why miss anything?
A trip that overlaps a major holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas may cost you a little more, but you may make that up with the savings from not burning a couple of your precious vacation days. And if that avoids a weekend at the in-laws, even better!
For dinners, I like a good mix of fine dining and simple local fare. It's always best to save the latter for "beach days" when you don't have to worry about getting back to the hotel, changing and getting to a reservation on time.
For casual lunches (stands, street vendors, over-the-counter joints), plan for two per day. My wife thinks eating two lunches is crazy, but who said you have to eat two lunches? Order the plate lunch or hot dog or pulled pork sammy or chicken enchilada at two different joints, eat half of each and call it a day. You'll eat better, eat less and spend less than going to the local Applebee's. And you might strike gold, making a discovery you can return to later in the week that you might not have known about if you lunched just once.
Dinners seem to stick to the schedule much more easily than lunches, which can get derailed if you pass through a specific location a few hours earlier or later than originally planned. That's why it's good—even if you don't believe in the doubling-up tip—to have about twice as many lunch candidates as you think you need.
Never trust one source. Use Zagat for leads, then follow up with Chowhound. Or take advantage of blogs like Pigtrip that supply not only opinion but also photos that allow you to form your own opinion even before you walk in the door.
Avoid chains, as you should even when you're at home, but there are a few exceptions. If you have a chance to try a regional chain, such as a Krystal's or a Sonic or a Carl's Jr., go for it (but as a snack, not as a waste of a full fledged meal). And sometimes even a McDonald's is worth a look to see what local spin is available, like tropical shakes in the Bahamas or taro fruit pies in Honolulu.
Equally important as restaurants are the supermarkets. I always check them out to see what regional candies, snacks, sodas, beers, hot sauces and condiments are available. Those leftover bottles and wrappers sometimes make some of the best souvenirs of the trip, especially if the graphics are done well.
For Hawaiian vacations, never pick up your rental car at the airport. After 12 to 13 hours of flying, you want to get your vacation started as soon as possible and have it be as relaxing as possible, so avoid schlepping your suitcases to the car rental office and standing for hours in the heat. Instead, take a taxi to the hotel, enjoy a quick cocktail or a dip in the water and rent your car from the local agency the next morning. You'll still be on East Coast time anyway, so it'll give you something to do. Return your car on the second to last day of your vacation and take a taxi back to the airport, relaxing to the very end.
I like to return home armed with a suitcase full of T-shirts as well as the aforementioned hot sauces and bottles, but I never have to worry about overcrowded suitcases or having to ship my swag from the post office. That's because I throw out clothing before I leave the hotel to make room. Those grungy T-shirts I wore to the pool? Gone. My 1986 Patriots-Bears "Jambalaya" Super Bowl T-shirt that I wore to the hotel's fitness center? Gone. A dozen pair of underwear that were due to be replaced anyway? Gone. Buying new underwear back home is a lot easier and a lot cheaper than taking a break from your vacation to ship a package to yourself.
NYC BBQ: Enough With the Timberlake Already
It's uncanny. New York Magazine ran an item last week about the possible expansion of Justin Timberlake's New York City barbecue restaurant Southern Hospitality to a second location some 50 blocks south. If it happens, it happens, but let's not get too crazy.
Today People Magazine is reporting a denial from Timberlake—not about the validity of the expansion rumor, but about Timberlake's very involvement (or non-involvement, according to his statement) in the restaurant. The statement from Timberlake's people claims that buddy Eytan Sugarman is the owner, with friends Timberlake and Trace Ayala "actively involved in all elements of design, menu offerings, and musical format" but "they are not investors, owners or partners."
Interesting. If that's the case, why does the About Southern Hospitality page on the restaurant's website include Timberlake and Ayala? Not only that, but it says, "And it's all the vision of one gentleman dedicated to bringing sexy back - Justin Timberlake, along with partners Eytan Sugarman and Trace Ayala."
I could give this story the Mike Wallace treatment, but in the end does it really matter? As I've been saying for more than a year now, who gives a rat's ass who owns the place? The more important question: is the food any good? At one point it wasn't, but lately it has been. Maybe someday it'll be very good on a regular basis, or possibly even great. Isn't that why you go to a restaurant?
With that said, Southern Hospitality can't have it both ways. If Timberlake is the owner, say so. If he's not the owner, don't trick people into believing that he is. Either way, focus on the restaurant, not who the owner is or what celebrities visit. Although there's still room for improvement, the 'cue's gotten at least good enough that the other stuff should be irrelevant. Now that Timberlake has distanced himself from Southern Hospitality, maybe it's time for Southern Hospitality to distance itself from Timberlake.
Some New Year’s Resolutions In Reverse
The clock is running out on January, so I only have limited time to make some New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve already said that I’m not one to do that. Half the promises you make to yourself can’t be met and there’s really no way to say whether lack of ability, lack of desire, lack of opportunity or lack of self discipline was the reason. However, not doing something you’re not supposed to do can only have one explanation: willful defiance. That’s why I’m making my New Year’s resolutions in reverse, outlining the things I absolutely will not do. Any resemblance to actual people or events may not be coincidental.
If I were compiling a more traditional set of New Year’s resolutions, I’d have something about competing in at least x number of barbecue competitions by such and such a date. I’m not going to do that, because I really don’t know what the future holds. But I do know this: if I do compete, and if by chance—whether due to my own clumsiness, drunkenness, weather conditions or what have you—my smoker tips over, and my briskets and butts hit the ground, I will not wash them off, continue cooking them and serve them to the judges. And if I do compete and I see someone else attempt to serve food that hit dirt to the judges, I will not let it go unchallenged.
I will not steal recipes. I will not post any recipe on this site without the permission of the author. I will not copy and paste articles from magazines that are available on the stand and meant to be sold, not used as free blog fodder (I'd link to them if online though). I will not use the often-seen, often-misused phrase "courtesy of" below a photo I borrowed unless I was actually granted said courtesy, which is defined by the giver, not the taker.
Almost every food blogger out there wants to hit the big time, whether as a cook, food writer, author, panelist, celebrity judge, consultant, columnist, you name it. Although I do what I do for the love of barbecue and to share my thoughts and experiences so that others can enjoy barbecue, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there’s a part of me that wants that big time too. But I don’t set goals or resolutions toward whatever that big time is. However, I resolve that I will not clutter this site with self-serving accounts of awards, radio gigs, newspaper mentions, appearances on Oprah, book deals, Playboy mansion hangs, free meals, free trips, free equipment and any other benefits I can’t think of that those who hit the big time get.
If I didn’t cook the brisket, I will not grab a knife and pose with it for a newspaper photo as if I did cook the brisket. And I will not wear a red chef’s jacket.
I like to leave comments on food blogs if I have something to add about a particular restaurant. But I will not post a comment declaring or reminding everyone that it was I who “discovered” the place. The heroes are the chefs, the pitmasters and the food itself, not the bloggers who herald them.
Long Island BBQ: Some Dissenting Opinion on the Long Island Press Readers' Poll Results
Earlier this week, I posted the barbecue and ribs results of the Long Island Press's 2009 edition of its "Best of L.I." readers' poll. Smokin' Al's (Bay Shore and Massapequa Park) took top honors in both categories, with Zorn's (Bethpage and East Meadow) making the top three in both categoies. Adam's Rib (West Babylon) and The Spare Rib (Commack and Hicksville) rounded out each group.
Shocker of all shockers, there's some dissenting opinion. Within the last few days, Eric Devlin (Home Of BBQ) posted a less than glowing review of Smokin Al's on the BBQ-Brethren forum and Robert Fernandez expressed outrage over the poll results on his White Trash BBQ blog.
Hey, I'm just the messenger. I neither endorse nor agree with the results. My vote would have gone to Swingbelly's (Long Beach). Like Devlin and Fernandez, I was also a fan of the erstwhile Willie B's (Bay Shore).
But the results don't suprise me. Let me reiterate how I ended the Monday's piece: "Remember, this is a readers' poll."
That's all it is, a readers' poll and nothing more. In polls like this, someone who eats ribs twice a week has the same vote as someone who eats ribs twice a decade. In polls like this, restaurants encourage staff members and regular customers to vote on their behalf. In polls like this, restaurants with multiple locations (which all the winners have) seem to do better than restaurants with just one location. In polls like this, restaurants with sit-down service, wide-ranging menus and appeal to the whole family seem to do better than barbecue-only, takeout-only joints.
In polls like this, restaurants with longevity (which most of the winners have) do better than restaurants that are just making a name for themselves. It only makes sense. I bet most of the people who voted never heard of Bobbique (Patchogue) or Smoking Sloe's (Northport) or Seconds BBQ (Amityville) or the just-opened Ruby's Famous BBQ Joint (East Meadow). But everybody knows the Spare Rib, like it or not. So they vote for the Spare Rib, where they ate three years ago.
But back to Smokin' Al's. While Al's brand of 'cue is a more sauce-happy and for-mass-appeal version than I generally prefer, I always thought it was good for what it was trying to accomplish, and at the very least smoked. There's just enough smoke to distance his 'cue from the legions of frauds (other winners included) who boil and broil, but the mild/sauced style appeals to the legions of customers who help pay the rent. Sure, I'd like the pulled pork to have a little more bite, a little more smoke and a lot less sauce. But for every barbecue purist like me, there are a dozen who'd rather have it mild and soaked. If it were the other way around, I'm sure the pork would be the other way around too.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Long Island, despite its population of nearly 8 million, is the weakest area for restaurant barbecue in the region I cover. When most of those 8 million have never tasted anything but faux 'cue, you can hardly blame them for their vote.
Earlier: Why Are So Many Long Island Joints Closing?
In my house the source of nearly constant conversation lately has been Stephenie Meyer's vampire romance novel Twilight, its sequels and the movie it spawned that's in theaters now. All of this conversation, not so surprisingly, is initiated by my wife, who's reading the fourth installment of the series. Every few minutes I'll hear a sigh, followed by some gush of excitement about the latest plot development or how beautiful the story is and how romantic the lead character Edward is (or is it about how romantic the story is and how beautiful Edward is?). I'll grunt in encouragement or throw out a "That's great, honey!" and return to my writing or my football game. One of the few mentioned tidbits from the series that I've actually retained is that some of the vampires get their nutrition not from human blood but from animals, and these vampires call themselves "vegetarians."
This Twilight business is starting to take over. At dinner Friday night, we were sitting with a restaurateur and his two teenage daughters and the conversation swung to a thorough analysis of the books, the movie, even the soundtrack. On the way to dinner last night we stopped at a bakery and that same soundtrack was playing. Sure enough, my wife used that as a springboard to analyze and dissect the subtleties and nuances of Twilight with all of the female bakery workers while I retreated to the free samples.
But the Twilight obsession has its perks. When my wife is home, I can now actually watch a football game in relative peace. Instead of the constant babytalk to our two dogs (one of which is deaf and can't even hear the babytalk) during crunchtime, the only disturbance I get from her side of the bed is the ruffling of the 700+ pages. If only there were a thousand. When she's not home, it's total peace. Today my wife and an equally obsessed friend are headed to the movies to see Twilight for their second and fourth times, respectively. Me? I'm deciding whether to take in the Giants-Eagles game or head somewhere for a guilt-free (aside from the calories) "vegetarian" pigtrip.
At first it was mildly annoying, but I'm really starting to embrace this whole Twilight thing. Bring on the sequels!
Walking, Watching, Wondering
This morning I walked the dogs a little earlier than usual, so while I was letting them do what they do I heard the rare sound of a car rumbling down my ordinarily silent street. The cadence of the engine, with its intermittent stops and starts, meant it could only be one thing: a newspaper deliverer. I'm fairly certain it wasn't the Globe, because they don't deliver that early, at least in my neighborhood.
I studied the car as it made its rounds to a few of my neighbors. One paper was hurled out of the car as it barely even slowed down. Another paper was gently dropped from the car after it pulled slowly into a driveway. Another paper was carefully placed on the front steps after the driver speeded from the still-running car all the way up the walk. Same paper, same deliverer, three papers, three very different deliveries. I couldn't help thinking that it was a lot like a restaurant, where different customers receive very different service experiences, often from the same server. I wondered whether the distinctions were a result of negotiations, complaints or tipping. I wondered if I should get in on this. No matter where the paper drops, I'd love to be able to read it this early.
Earlier: False Promises and Poor Service (why I no longer subscribe to the Boston Globe)
Some Boston and New York BBQ Comparisons see permalink
Jason Varitek, Pitmaster
Here in Red Sox Nation, there's much speculation and debate over what the Red Sox will do and should do with veteran catcher Jason Varitek, who is now a free agent.
Cold blooded pragmatists say let him go. He batted only .220 with limited power this year, so at age 37 when next season rolls around, he's more likely to be trending downward than ripe for a rebound year.
Sentimentalists say keep him around. He was part of two championship teams and despite declining offensive skills is still instrumental to the success of the young pitching staff. The difference between .220 and .270 is one hit instead of an out every 20 at bats (roughly once a week). Isn't his game calling worth at least one out per week?
Then there's the group I'm in, who see the logic in both camps and say keep him if you can, but only for a short contract (2 years). Pay him a premium—partly out of loyalty, partly to buy time to develop a bridge plan for the future, but mostly for the luxury of not being tied down to a longer contract.
What does this have to do with barbecue? Hear me out.
Let's get back to the game calling. Only a buffoon would disagree with the premise that Varitek's knowledge of American League hitters and handling of the Sox pitching staff are two big reasons the Red Sox have won the World Series twice in the last five years. But here's my question: where does all that knowledge lie? Is it in Jason Varitek's head? Or has some of that knowledge and strategic mindset rubbed off on the pitchers? Or the coaches? Has it been documented in Varitek’s notebooks? If so, does the team own said notebooks? They should. If they do, maybe the Red Sox can get by with those notebooks and the skills of an up-and-comer.
In the high tech world I work in, contracts are signed that concede patents, inventions and intellectual property to the company paying the checks. Why not baseball? Why not restaurants? Every pitmaster wants to own his own place, but in today’s economy it’s often necessary to toil for “the man” whose deep pockets make up for his lack of deep barbecue knowledge.
If the pitmaster gets hit by a bus or hit with an offer to work somewhere else for more money (just as Varitek may), it’s nice to know that the show can still go on. Sure, you might be able to get a two-week period where the new guy gets trained, but wouldn’t you want to already have everything documented, with timetables, temperatures, foiling details, holding methods, reheating programs and every recipe from collard greens to cole slaw known and tested? I certainly would.
Then again, if I were the pitmaster, I’d want to keep my secrets secret. Just like with Jason Variek’s future, it all comes down to negotiation.
Thoughts On Last Thursday's Kitchen Nightmares, Featuring J Willy's BBQ
OK, it wasn't really about a barbecue restaurant. My bad.
I probably should have realized that while Gordon Ramsey knows how to facilitate efficient and profitable kitchens, he's hardly a barbecue savant. Whether it's because he's an Englishman or because he operates on an arguably higher plane than barbecue, I can't say. But I can say that I was a little disappointed to see a show about a restaurant Ramsey himself renamed as a "Barbecue House" offer no footage or mention of smokers, rubs, woods, low temperatures or long cooking times. No talk of Cambros or steam tables or Salamanders or Alto Shams. No talk of how to hold the pork butts or whether to chop or pull the meat. No talk of brisket flat versus brisket point, or whether to inject, or whether to slice or chop. I'm guessing that the barbecue sauce Ramsey concocted was used not on actual barbecue but on oven-baked or quick-grilled ribs. The fact that Ramsey identified a glob of fat on a rib and said it was poorly trimmed is a tip-off: if they were smoked low and slow, the fat would have been rendered away.
As with most Kitchen Nightmares episodes, the familiar mantra of using only fresh ingredients was repeated throughout the episode. You'd think creating homemade dishes instead of using slop out of a can would be a no-brainer. Why would you need Gordon Ramsey to tell you the obvious? Well, what's obvious to you or me may not be so obvious to the clientele of a place like J Willy's (South Bend IN). Despite the popularity of the Food Network, more cooking magazines on the shelf than ever before and the rise of food blogs, I'm guessing the average mid-range restaurant customer doesn't know or care whether the fries are fresh or frozen, or whether the ribs are smoked or boiled. The typical restaurant owner would rather lose you or me as a potential customer if it means adding or keeping 10 others who are less discriminating but more watchful of menu prices.
Then there's the related issue of slipping standards. Whether it's the groove in the carpet or the acceptability of poorly prepared or plated foods, the slippage is usually gradual. In a way, it's just like a messy room or a diet gone awry; there's no clear demarcation between right and wrong, but one day it's so wrong you wonder how you got there. That's where management comes in. If you're not going to get behind the grill yourself, you should at least be able to identify when something's not right, so it doesn't continue or gradually get worse (if a cook can cut corners, he will). If the ribs don't have a lot of meat, make sure there are a few extra to compensate. If the lettuce is brown, replace it. If the pork looks dry, don't serve it (it can be reworked or re-allocated later). The role of management/ownership needs to be more than that of a cheerleader: "Come on guys, it's getting busy!" isn't exactly contributing anything to the equation. Anyone can hang around the front of the house, lead parties to their tables and ask how everything was, but if you really want a successful restaurant, you have to be able to recognize, anticipate and solve problems before they happen.
Which brings us to partners John, Rick and Tricia. It's not so surprising to hear one owner/manager throw another owner/manager under the bus. Not only does this happen in hundreds of restaurants every day, it happens in every industry: everything wrong is because of you, everything right is because of me. If the restaurant's in trouble, simply blaming the man at the helm (John) may be accurate, but it's not going to solve the problem. If you recognize a probem and let it continue, you are just as culpable, if not more. Rick and Tricia (husband and wife) couldn't be at J Willy's, they said, because they live three and a half hours away and had another restaurant to run. How well the other restaurant was faring wasn't mentioned in the show, but if it's faring well, you have to suck it up and make that commute and get the job done. Tricia, you hold down the fort at your other restaurant. Rick, you spend two days a week minimum in South Bend and stay over in a cheap motel if you have to. If I can drive three and a half hours from Boston to New York to have lunch at RUB, you can drive three and a half hours to save your entire life's investment.
40 Tips On How To Be A Good Waiter permalink
(The Flipside to Waiter Rant's 40 Tips on How To Be A Good Customer)
It seems like Steve Dublanica, the Waiter who penned Waiter Rant, is everywhere these days: The Today Show, Oprah, you name it. As is the case with any hot subject, the various interviewers seem to ask mostly the same questions, in this case focusing mainly on tipping and customer behavior. That might be because one of the easiest sections of Waiter Rant to read is Appendix A: 40 Tips On How To Be A Good Customer. Most of it boils down to simple respect and consideration, but it's a great list and I agree with every single one of his tips. However, disrespect and inconsideration are not monopolized by the customer; waiters are often just as guilty. Here, then, is my list of 40 tips on how to be a good waiter. See how many of these hit home with you.
GREETING and RAPPORT (7)
Pay attention to your area to see when new customers arrive. If you're busy with other customers, I don't need to be greeted immediately, but a quick "I'll be right with you" helps. If I'm staring at your butt cheeks for five minutes not because I'm admiring them but because your back is turned the whole time while gabbing with the kitchen crew, that's not so cool.
Tell me your name, so I can use it to catch your attention respectfully (without screaming, snapping fingers or waving) or ask another waiter for you specifically if I need something.
Be friendly. Be very friendly. But don't try to be my friend, at least on the first visit. Don't touch me. Don't eavesdrop on my conversation and try to join in.
For restaurants near a theatre, concert hall or sports stadium, ask me if I have an engagement that requires departing by a certain time and then plan the pacing accordingly.
I'm pretty open minded about Mohawk hairdos, tattoos, jewelry (in conventional and unconventional locations) and shaving habits, but there are a few grooming non-negotiables. You should not smell like booze or like you just fertilized your lawn on a hot summer day. You should not have filthy fingernails. You should not have facial scabs or eye problems that require you to insert your finger in your eye every few seconds. You should brush your teeth before your shift, not only for breath control but also so I don't have to watch you pick tuna from your teeth with the same fingers that might touch my food. You should wear pants that make you look like a waiter, not a plumber.
If you have another table of customers who are regulars, VIPs or friends, I fully expect you to give that table more attention than mine, and that’s okay. Giving them all your attention and having that affect my table's service is where we might have a problem.
Speaking of gabbing with the kitchen crew, or other waiters, or other customers: keep in mind that we can hear you. I don't want to hear about whom you slept with last night, what your proctologist said to you yesterday or your bitching about the tipping styles of certain ethnic groups. Save that for your after-hours drinking binge, when I'm asleep and out of earshot.
Don't sit with me to take my order. If I purposely sit at the edge of the booth in anticipation of your trying to sit with me, don't ask me to move over so you can sit with me.
If you've just handed me a 60-page wine list and I haven't selected a bottle within seconds, don't assume I'm a complete nincompoop. I'd like a little time to see what you have.
If I don't know what confit is and ask you to explain it to me, please do so without eye rolls or other displays of attitude. Just as you'd like me to not think of myself as superior to you because you're a waiter and I'm not, please don’t think of yourself as superior to me because you know a few cooking terms I may not.
When answering questions about the menu, don't lie. If you’re not sure about the answer, it's perfectly acceptable to ask the chef and get back to me.
When asked for a menu recommendation, choose something you honestly think is a good dish and tell me what makes it good. I really do want to know what you like about it. If you recommend a specific dish unsolicited and I ask a question about it, you should be somewhat prepared. Otherwise, I can only assume that you're either trying to upsell or push an undersold mistake the restaurant is trying to move before it goes bad.
When reciting the specials, include prices. It's not a big deal if the specials are roughly in line with their equivalents on the regular menu, but if the asparagus with imported French truffle oil is $79, that information should be disclosed before I order it.
For that matter, if there are specials, make sure you recite them at all. If you forget and I later learn that there's a hossenfeffer flambée I could have had instead of the turkey fricassee, I'm not going to be happy.
If you're going to correct my pronunciation of a menu item, you'd better be sure you're right, chipolty-breath.
Help me out if I order redundantly or missed out on a deal. If I order an appetizer and entree that just happen to be on your prix fixe menu, mention that to me and charge accordingly, noting that the dessert is included later. If I order an appetizer and entree that both happen to have the same sauce or same key secondary item, point that out to me so I can opt out of the duplication. And if I order a side that happens to already come with my entree, point that out to me so I don't over-order. It may lower the bill, but it will raise your tip.
Don't "trick" me into a camouflaged upsell. If you ask whether I want soup or salad, the same words can be uttered with a cadence that implies it's included with the entree, while another cadence implies it's extra. (I usually prefer ethnic/BBQ joints with no salads or upscale restaurants with $16 salads, so for me it's a non-issue. But it's still a pet peeve.)
Use a pen if you can't remember the order.
If we've only ordered appetizers and defer the remainder of the ordering (whether by your suggestion or ours), take the rest of the order either before the appetizers arrive or after we've finished them, not the moment they arrive. I'd rather eat my crispy ham hock surprise while it's still crispy than watch it sog up out of the corner of my eye while giving you my order.
PROCESSING THE ORDER (2)
After taking our order, enter it into the system before taking another table's order. This helps ensure a much smoother flow of orders into and out of the kitchen. It also helps turn the tables faster for you (more tips), and if there's an issue with what we ordered (kitchen ran out of something or can't accommodate a special request), the menu and specials are still fresh in our minds. And if you ignored the tip about using the pen, our order is still fresh in your mind.
Enter the orders into the system to ensure that the entrees do not arrive while we are still "working on" (to use your term) our appetizers.
Keep me informed. Lame: "Your entrees will be right up." You know you have no idea if they're 1 minute away or 45 minutes away. Better: "There's a large party ahead of you whose orders just got fired, so it may be another 15 minutes for your entrees, can I get you some more bread?" It's not that I need an explanation, but sometimes the information is helpful for someone who might want to make a quick phone call to a babysitter or have a smoke outside in the meantime.
Make sure I have the proper cutlery before my dish arrives (and for that matter, a dish before a shared dish arrives). That means a steak knife for steak or chicken or anything that a butter knife won't penetrate. That means a fork for my entree if you've cleared a single fork used for my appetizer.
For a burger or similar dish with expected condiments, make sure that I have them before my food arrives or that you have them when delivering the food.
Before bringing the food to the table, examine it to make sure that all of the items that belong are present, all of the requested omissions are omitted and any other special modifications have been executed. A mistake may be the kitchen's fault (or you may have forgotten to enter a key detail into the system), but if you bring it to the table, it's clearly your fault too now for not paying attention.
If the above examination uncovers a mistake that requires minimal correction, get that corrected before bringing all of the dishes to the table. If it requires re-cooking, do not under any circumstances bring the other dishes to the table so that the victim who ordered the botched dish has to wait while everyone else eats. This is probably outside your control, but if re-cooking is necessary to correct a mistake, the other diners' dishes should not have to sit under heat lamps, compromising their quality during the re-cook, making them the victims too. In a restaurant that takes itself seriously, those should be cooked over as well.
When delivering a plate whose contents need explanation, give me a verbal roadmap. For my "assiette of seasonal sausage," navigate me to the beef, the pork, the ostrich. If there are six dipping sauces with my deconstructed pheasant wing, tell me which one is which.
FOLLOW UP (6)
Check back with us about 90 seconds after serving. I empathize with you on this one, because there's a fine line between too soon and not soon enough. Too soon and we haven't really had enough time to assess everything. Not soon enough and you're potentially compounding an error by making us wait longer for a correction.
When checking back, ask if there's anything else you can bring and if the food was prepared as ordered: medium rare versus medium, correct choice of vegetable or sauce. The "How is everything?" question is too open-ended. If you use it and get the unexpected "Why, I've had better steak at Attica" response, you need to follow up, not walk away stupefied.
Check our drinks throughout the meal. They shouldn't get any lower than 1/3 full before you ask for another. Conversely, conversing is difficult when you’re trying to replace my water after every sip.
Look for clues that there may be a problem, even if nobody speaks up: a scowl, a mostly uneaten pile of food left defiantly on the plate, a hushed comment to a dining companion while pointing at the food. Ask if there's something wrong with the dish or if there’s something you can do.
On the flipside, if you notice we're really enjoying a particular dish, feel free to fish for compliments. If I rave about something, by all means pass this feedback along to the chef, who deserves to hear the positive comments along with the complaints. Or if we're really enjoying a particular wine, be sure to tell us about an upcoming wine dinner with similar wines from the region that you're having later that month.
Be alert non-food issues as well. If you see my wife wearing her winter coat in August, maybe the air conditioner is turned up too high and you should look into adjusting it. If there's a loud table nearby or an out-of-control toddler AWOL from his table and sticking his fingers into my pasta, I’m not saying it's your job to police them. But a quick heads-up to a manager may lead to a suggestion that the loud party be more comfortable in the unused function room around the corner. An expression of concern for the child's safety to the parents may be just the hint to get their heads out of their Mojitos and their hands on their annoying tyke.
Plates for each course should be cleared only when everyone at the table has finished that course. If you or your management has a different philosophy—and there's certainly an argument for clearing as soon as possible—always ask before clearing.
Never clear a plate or even ask to clear a plate if the diner is in mid bite or has fork in hand. I can appreciate that you may have customers waiting for a table, but as long as we're not hogging the table by lingering unreasonably, they can wait until we're done.
If everyone's plate has a fork placed across it and nobody has taken a bite within the last five minutes (remember, you're supposed to be noticing these things), you can safely assume that we're done and can clear the plates. If they're appetizer plates, make sure these are cleared before the entrees arrive.
When placing my second beer or glass of wine on the table, never ever remove the first one if there's still a sip or more left.
THE CHECK (3)
At some point shortly after the entree plates have been cleared, ask if there's anything else you can get, whether that be additional drinks, a second whole suckling pig, coffee or a dessert menu (or a second cup of coffee if we’re having dessert). That's my opening to ask for the check. Incidentally, if you don't ask about dessert and I see the most fantastic-looking cheesecake pass by on its way to another table, it'll be reflected in your tip, even though I hate cheesecake.
If I pay with cash, don't ask if I want change. Just tell me you'll bring me the change and leave it to me to tell you to keep the whole thing. If you do bring change, bring it promptly. If the bill is $44 and I give you three $20 bills, don't assume your delay tactics will win a war of attrition, earning you a 36% tip if I’d rather walk away than keep waiting.
When you do bring change, bring bills that allow me to leave you a tip that's both fair and generous. The change from that $44 tab should be two $5 bills and six $1 bills. Leaving a $10, a $5 and a $1 forces me to leave at least $15 (unlikely), leave no more than $6 (not so good for you) or leave $10/$11 (likely for me, but you shouldn't assume).
Oh, and one more thing: a sincere thank you goes a long way.
More Things I'd, You Know, Like To See
I had a few cocktails while watching the Red Sox lose in 12 to the Angels, so forgive me if this latest batch of Things I'd Like To See is even wackier than usual:
Ribs Through a Window. You know those baseballs, or should I say half baseballs, that stick onto your car's rear window, with a fake broken glass sticker, making it look like a baseball broke the window? I've seen it done with soccer balls too, but the scale is all off. I'd like to see a plastic spare rib, with not only fake broken glass but a fake sauce splatter. I'd buy three of 'em.
BBQ Booty Phrases. You know those sweatpants all the teenage girls are wearing lately, with the word "Pink" or "Juicy" strategically placed on the posterior? I'd like to see a barbecue (or burger) joint where the servers wear pants that say "Pink and Juicy."
Sully: the Action Figure. If you know Lunchmeat's Mike Sullivan and if you knew a Sully action figure existed, you'd run right out and buy one, if not for the figure itself then for the accessories (tin mug, cast iron pan, Damn Dip insert). And you know there'd be a pull string to make him talk, and you know exactly what it would sound like.
Ronco BBQ Smoker. I've never purchased a Ronco product—I don't fish, I don't eat jerky, I have no desire to drink vegetables and I have no bald spot to spray paint. But I'd like to see Ron Popeil and company market an affordable and interestimg product to tap into barbecue's growing popularity. You know you'd never buy one, but you know that as soon as the infomercial came on, you'd be watching the whole half hour.
The Scent of A Brisket. You know those movies Al Pacino's been doing lately, where for broad demographic appeal the producers cast him as the sage master mentoring a young protégé, played by Hollywood's hunk of the month? I'd like to see a barbecue movie, where Pacino is the brilliant but aging pitmaster who agrees to pass his secrets on to an eager and hungry apprentice. Conflict would ensue when the protégé makes a play for Pacino's hottie daughter, leading to argument and a hasty end to the mentorship. In the exciting climax, Pacino and the ex-protégé, now bitter rivals, wind up competing against each other, with a skillfully-edited, plenty-of-quick-cuts montage of the two going down to the wire in crunch time. You know if it ever got made (and Pacino's certainly done worse), this flick would last in theaters two weeks, tops.
New York Is Boston, Boston is New York
Major league baseball's playoffs are underway, and for the first time in Derek Jeter's career, the Yankees are mere spectators. The Red Sox, despite a litany of injuries that have plagued them all season, are in for the fifth time in six years and have already taken home field advantage away from the overrated Angels.
The Yankees have yet to win it all this century. The Red Sox are the reigning champions and have won it all two of the last four years. Probably three out of the last five years were it not for two steroid-fueled blasts by Jason Giambi in the heartbreaking game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. But those heartbreaks are behind us. It hardly matters that the Yankees swept the Red Sox in this season's final series; the Red Sox are finally the Yankees' daddy. The Red Sox are the Yankees. The Yankees are the Red Sox.
In barbecue, there's been a similar reversal of fortune. It wasn't that long ago that you could take any of about ten metro Boston BBQ joints, plop it down in Manhattan, and it would probably be one of the city's top three. Those days are gone.
In the two years and two months since I launched this site, New York has upgraded its roster of barbecue joints much more effectively than George Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman have upgraded the Yankees. Comparing the additions to the New York BBQ scene with their counterparts in Boston is as lopsided as comparing Jon Lester to Phil Hughes. In that time, Manhattan added Hill Country, Southern Hospitality, Georgia's Eastside, Smokin' Q and Wildwood, plus another outpost of Brother Jimmy's. Brooklyn added Smoke Joint and Fette Sau, among others. Outside the city, notable additions include Big W's (Wingdale) and Swingbelly's (Long Beach, LI).
Who did Boston add? Smoken Joe's in Brighton, in the shadows of St Elizabeth's. That hospital served as the inspiration for the 1980s NBC series St Elsewhere, which is why I call Smoken Joe's "Eat Elsewhere." More recently, there's Roadhouse in Brookline, which is still finding its way. If I were to rank all 12 aforementioned joints, Boston's two entries would both be somewhere in the bottom four. A little further outside I-495, Texas BBQ Company (Northboro MA) is the only newcomer I'd rank above the 50th percentile, but they're no match for superior newcomers Hill Country or Wildwood. SoulFire (Allston) certainly is, but their opening predated the 26-month window I'm examining here. Rick's Roadhouse (Providence RI) is basically Brother Jimmy's.
Both New York and Boston lost some pretty good joints just before my site's launch: for Boston, it was Rouge and Jake's Boss BBQ; for New York, it was Pearson's. I never made it to Pearson's, but I have to think Boston suffered the greater loss.
Both cities are struggling with consistency at even the tried and true joints. I've had really good meals and some disappointing ones at even my favorites (all of my favorites, actually) in both New York and Boston. There are no sure things in either area, but right now, there are more good chances for a great barbecue meal in New York than Boston. New York is Boston. Boston is New York.
In the competition world, unless your name was Robbie Richter or Adam Perry Lang, a New Yorker didn't enter a barbecue contest with any expectation of winning, but that's changed too. The eastern New England teams (I Smell Smoke, IQue, Transformer BBQ, Lakeside Smokers, Dirty Dick, Lunchmeat) are still dominant, but the New York teams are no longer the pushovers they once were. Smoke In Da Eye took this year's Grillin' on the Bay and is no stranger to the podium in barbecue contests these days. The BBQ Brethren are the only team to finish in the top three at both Harpoon and Hudson Valley, and are on their way to the American Royal now. R2BQ took the grand championship last month at Westport and will be headed to the Jack next year. Swamp Pit BBQ is a team on the rise, with two recent top-5 finishes against tough fields.
As a Bostonian, how do I look at this? I think it's great.
A Company BBQ Lunch Today
Last week the posters hit the walls at my office, announcing that there would be a "Bike and BBQ Rally" company function today.
Instead of the usual anticipation, I was filled with a lost feeling. I've been with my new company for a little over a year now and am still adjusting to what high-priced consultants refer to as the "corporate culture." People arrive in the morning without saying hello and leave in the afternoon without saying goodbye. Getting a "Bless you" when you sneeze is a major achievement. Even the birthday cakes are strange here: they're left in the lunch room for people to randomly stumble upon, take a slice and eat silently at their desks. I don't necessarily need singing, but it would be nice to gather everyone in the same room at the same time, wish the birthday boy or girl good luck, have a little cake and get back to work in five minutes. Not here.
There was no chatter about the Red Sox the morning after they won the World Series or about the Celtics after they won the NBA championship. Not a word after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl in heartbreaking fashion. On Monday morning, there was some brief discussion about Tom Brady's season-ending injury, so maybe there's hope.
At my last company, there was much more (probably too much) of a social aspect. I was known as the barbecue guy, so whenever they needed advice on catering or ordering, I was in the loop. I don't expect to have that status now, especially since I'm also in a different building from the people who plan those things. And the company I work for now is much more stable and profitable, with better and more frequent bonuses, so in the grand scheme of things, I have no complaints. But it still feels weird. I'll find out who's catering the barbecue lunch later today along with everyone else, and it will probably be someone I know. After I take my plate, I'll write something up as I eat silently at my desk.
Why Are So Many Long Island BBQ Joints Closing?
Last week Willie B’s Award Wining BBQ (Bay Shore NY) was the latest barbecue casualty to hit Long Island. It wasn’t that long ago that the Long Island BBQ scene was booming, but now it seems like barbecue joints are dying out faster than they’re popping up. Here are some of my theories on why that’s the case.
I’m not going to ignore the elephant in the room, so I’ll state the obvious right up front: as a general rule, the caliber of restaurant barbecue on Long Island leaves a lot to be desired, and that’s putting it mildly. That said, I think Willie B’s was one of the best barbecue joints in the area, and Willie B himself is one of the more colorful characters in the trade. There are obviously other factors at play with Willie B's, but for the most part, Long Island BBQ has been the survival of the fittest with not too many that would be fit to serve 'cue in Boston, New York and New Hampshire.
Where Willie B’s fell short was in the bells and whistles department: no seating, no atmosphere, no service, no booze, no entertainment. The ‘cue was more than satisfactory, but that wasn’t enough to make it what I call “Saturdayworthy.” And during the week, barbecue might not have the lure it once had. Because barbecue isn’t cheap, I think today’s tougher economic climate is especially tough for the local barbecue joints like Willie B’s, whose business is primarily take-out. People are still going to enjoy their Saturday night splurges, but they’re rethinking the occasional Tuesday or Wednesday night barbecue take-out order that’s a significantly more costly commitment than a whole pizza.
Barbecue isn’t cheap from the restaurateur’s perspective either. There’s very little profit margin in ribs, whose cost keeps rising thanks to the popularity of the chains.
The pizza on Long Island, incidentally, is generally better than what you'd find in greater Boston. Italian delis and sandwich shops are far more numerous. Diners and Jewish delis, practically non-existent throughout most of New England, are a big deal on Long Island. All of these present major competition to the barbecue entrepreneur.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was only one barbecue restaurant—if that—for every two to five million people. When people got a hankering for barbecue, they’d go to that familiar place and that place only, which kept that niche business afloat (I'm not so sure how well many of them would float if they were to start today). Now that barbecue’s popularity has grown, there’s much more competition, with dozens of barbecue restaurants jockeying for that same niche. So instead of that one go-to barbecue joint, the barbecue consumer is dividing his patronage among a rotation of three or four favorite joints. With chain restaurants jumping on the barbecue bandwagon, even more business is being pulled away from the local guy, making it harder to be profitable.
From the steady stream of emails I receive, it’s apparent that there are literally hundreds if not thousands of hardcore barbecue fans in the Northeast who, like myself, think nothing of driving for two hours to visit a new barbecue joint. We’re sick. We need to try them all. That makes for a great little hobby, but it might not be helping the barbecue businesses, which depend on steady regular customers. For Long Island specifically, the lure of Manhattan’s barbecue explosion may be pulling would-be customers away. Some of the best barbecue in the area is being produced at restaurants like Hill Country, RUB, Daisy May’s, Dinosaur, Blue Smoke and Wildwood. It’s so easy to find good barbecue in the city now that Long Island commuters may be getting their ‘cue fix there rather than in their own back yard.
Speaking of back yard, the growing popularity of barbecue has not only brought more restaurants to the area but more backyard barbecue hobbyists as well. People are now cooking ribs and pork butts themselves on their own smokers. The internet has a wealth of resources for smokers, woods and smoking techniques, making surprisingly easy to produce restaurant quality (or better) barbecue at home. If you’re really serious about barbecue, you’ll smoke your own, and that has to affect the restaurant business somewhat.
Whether it’s from sampling different kinds of ‘cue at different restaurants or making it at home, today’s barbecue consumer is a lot more savvy than his counterpart from a generation ago. Once you’ve had good barbecue, you aren’t going to settle for the ‘boiled-and-broiled’ approach that may have succeeded in the past. As I said earlier, some of the Long Island barbecue joints that have closed simply weren’t producing a caliber of barbecue that’s worthy of repeat business. And although Long Island has had some good barbecue restaurants (I count Willie B's in that group and Swingbelly’s in Long Beach is another good one), as a whole they don’t stack up to what’s available in the city.
People are eating healthier now, and barbecue has never been associated with healthy eating. A few years back, the popularity of the Atkins diet was a boon to barbecue restaurants, but that diet’s popularity has faded: one man’s low carb diet is another man’s high cholesterol diet, so people are re-thinking whether eating all that meat is a good thing. This shouldn't affect Long Island more than anywhere else, but it's possible that the generally higher quality elsewhere makes barbecue more of a temptation to the dieter than Long Island's Freedom BBQ or Hog House or Smokey's Rib Pit.
Barbecue is a tough business to run. The long cooking times (6 to 12 hours, depending on the meat) require long operating hours. As discussed here previously, there is as much—if not more—of a challenge in holding and reheating barbecue as there is in smoking it. Different customers have different philosophies on what ‘authentic’ barbecue is, making it difficult to please everyone. It’s a lot of work, so you have to have a passion for it. Those who truly have that passion usually succeed. Those who are just jumping on the barbecue bandwagon are often finding themselves being pushed off.
Some Outside-the-Box Ideas For Improving BBQ Judging
As I was typing up my guest post for Home of BBQ, the following ideas hit me as ways to improve judging.
The NBA, NHL, NFL and major league baseball all have exhibition games that don't count in the standings, so why not an exhibition barbecue contest? Instead of generic entries presented with intentionally illegal garnish or pooled sauce, you'd have actual teams presenting actual contest entries. The exhibition status would allow judging trainers and senior judges to sit at the table along with the new judges, and—unlike at an actual contest—discussion could take place during the judging for training purposes. This forum would also allow new teams to get judging feedback and more experienced teams to try off-the-wall preparations to see how they do without risking a tank job at a real contest.
Balancing the Plane
In small aircraft it's quite common to weigh the passengers and distribute the weight evenly to ensure a smooth flight. No, I'm not talking about weighing the judges (talk about a project), but I am talking about assigned seating to achieve balance with regard to seniority and scoring. The last thing a team wants is to hit a table that has two or three "tough" judges, and they also don't want their arch rival's entry to hit a table with too many "easy" judges. Similarly, too many new judges at the same table could have unwanted impact on a contest's results. Judging sheets are kept and recorded for posterity, so why not use these to balance the judges, so every team gets the same "scale" in every round?
Define "Good Texture"
Every time I hear the line "It should have good texture" on the judging CD played during the judges' meeting, I cringe. What's good texture? I think I have a good idea of what it is, but I'd like to hear a clear definition so we're all on the same page.
Make It A Buyer's Market
I've said previously that judges have a pretty good gig, because we pay no admission and eat some of the best barbecue on the planet. You'd think that arrangement would encourage more judges, but the truth is that most contest organizers have a hard time filling the judging tables with KCBS certified judges. If the supply of judges were higher, it would be more of a "buyer's market" and the contest officials could afford to be choosier when accepting judging applications. Previous track record could weigh heavily in determining these assignments, ensuring that only the best judges were in place. I'm not talking about Big Brother or trying to stack the judges to affect a specific outcome, but if a renegade judge who frequently gives 5s and 6s for tenderness when the rest of his table give 8s and 9s, he shouldn't be their first choice. I'm not sure what it would take to increase the judging pool. Maybe a raffle at each table for a gift certificate to be spent elsewhere at the contest (food and beverage vendors, T-shirts, etc.) or from the sanctioning body (KCBS or NEBS). Maybe a higher initial certification fee but a $5 rebate per contest judged (this might also help address the no-show rate). Maybe a lower certification fee and a paid admission to judge. Whatever it takes, getting more judges out there will indirectly get better judges in there.
We've all seen specialization in every field from sports to medicine, so why not barbecue judging? A chicken specialist could judge only the chicken category, then call it a day. If brisket's your thing, only judge brisket. If brisket's not your thing, and you only judge it because that's the only way you get to judge ribs, maybe you shouldn't be judging brisket.
Now this may sound like it's in complete contradiction to my desire to increase the judging pool, since it would require more judges. But I'm wondering if judging up to three pounds of meat in four categories is so much of a commitment that it's scaring judges away. I'd be happy to just judge chicken and ribs some days, using the rest of my time and stomach room to check out the vendors and hang with the teams. If you only had to judge two categories, would you judge more often?
Site Talk: How Many Visits?
Late last week I received an email from a reader who suggested that there was a double standard in play. In my rebuttal last Tuesday to Time Out New York's review of Wildwood, I said shame on the author if he based his review on only one visit. Two days later, when I introduced my review of Long Island’s Smoking Sloe's, I said that I had only visited it once.
Double standard? Maybe. Hypocritical? No.
Time Out New York is a major media outlet, with print editions, an online presence and a full editorial staff as well as additional resources dedicated to raising revenue. As such, they should be held to a higher standard, basing their review on the industry-standard three visits. (I don’t know for sure that’s not the case. I only questioned it because I found it hard to believe that the moist brisket I had would be dry for someone else on three successive visits.)
I’m a one man show. It’s fairly obvious, new sponsor notwithstanding, that I do what I do purely as a labor of love. I have a day job that requires my attention throughout the week and I pay for my meals (and the gas for the trips) out of pocket. I say this not to cue violin music but to reinforce the point that a hobby site shouldn't be held to the same three-visit standard as a corporate behemoth. I do hold myself to a standard for opining responsibly.
Take a look at my reviews and you’ll see that many of them are based on multiple visits. I purposely held off on reviewing Wildwood after one visit because I wanted more data. I wanted to see if the brisket would be as good the second time around and if the pulled pork from my first visit was an aberration. I wanted to try the chicken and sausages and get a better feel for the sides. It would be very easy to just post my review, going with my first impression, sticking Wildwood somewhere in the upper echelon of New York City barbecue and calling it a day. But as one of New York City’s more important barbecue joints, it deserves a more informed and more thorough review. Dinosaur is also in that category, and I tried to get another visit in before posting my initial review for them, but my schedule got the best of me. Dinosaur remains a perennial top candidate for a revisit.
No disrespect to Smoking Sloe’s, but they’re just not as important as Wildwood or Dinosaur. Another visit would have allowed a deeper tour of the menu, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that urgent. I was comfortable with my opinion, so I went with the review.
For me, the decision to post a review after one visit is largely based on how strong of an opinion, positive or negative, I was able to form. If I have a good sense of the place after one visit, it’s a done deal, and I can always go back. If I think it can go either way, I’ll try to make another visit. In Smoking Sloe’s case, I thought the beef ribs I saw on another plate had enough potential to warrant another visit before a review, which explains the gap between the visit date and the review date. Since it was a logistical challenge to return, I eventually went with what I had. Unlike Time Out New York’s Wildwood review, my Smoking Sloe’s review concedes some uncertainty: "This was another hard one to gauge based on only one visit, but I hope to return for another take." Maybe my next visit will be better. Maybe not.
Take another look at any of my reviews and you’ll see the dates of the visits listed in parentheses at the top of the page. You can see how many visits went into each review and you can even check your calendar to determine the day of the week. In recent reviews, I have a section where I tell you the day of the week and explain in more detail the circumstances surrounding the visit. Then it’s up to you to decide not only how much stock to put into my opinion but how much stock to put into the data that formed it. Or you can just go by the photographs. I do all the time.
New York BBQ: My Rebuttal to Time Out New York's Hatchet Job on Wildwood permalink
As I mentioned yesterday, there are some reviews you agree with, some you don't. And then there are some that are so extremely positive, you're certain they're shilling, and some that are so negative that you can tell the writer had an axe to grind. Randall Lane's Time Out New York review of Wildwood falls into this last category.
see my rebuttal to the Wildwood review here
Some Service Glitches, Part 2
Our second burger of the week was at a restaurant that's not quite a chain, but with a few locations in the area would be loosely classified as a local chain. We go there mostly on Fridays and mostly because it's close. Over the years we've probably had every server at least once, and most of the core servers several times each.
The three servers we get most often have widely varying attributes (I'm leaving looks out of this one). Server A: good personality, very good server. Server B: no personality, pretty good server. Server C: great personality, questionable server. My wife and I usually hope to get server A, but we really like server C too, not realizing for a while that her bubbly personality made you overlook a multitude of service sins. Server B is like a robot: machine-like service skills and a machine-like personality to boot. Until recently we hoped to avoid her, but we slowly developed an appreciation for her consistent, error free approach.
This time we had server C, the one with the personality. The one who's everybody's friend and for good reason: she's a terrific person and a lot of laughs. But terrific server? I'm not so sure. It's great when the server interacts with you and makes the meal (and you) feel special. But when extended conversation at every table in her station (and the bar, and the kitchen) causes delays in every service step, it can get annoying after a while.
We ordered two bottles of beer. After a short wait we were told the beers we chose weren't available in bottles, would we like them as drafts? Yes. My wife ordered the 16-ounce, I ordered the 20-ounce. I went with the larger size because I knew from experience that it might be a while before I got a chance to order another. Well, it took 15 minutes to get these drafts. Do you remember that Sunday comic strip The Family Circus, when they'd show Billy's convoluted path? That's server C.
After the drinks were placed, we were ready to order, but our server was ready to greet another party (who just arrived) and take their order. Then she took our order. And then she took another table's order. And then she entered all three orders into the system. Although it's not exactly slap-you-in-the-face rude, it's one of my biggest service pet peeves. You should take an order, enter an order. Take another, enter another. Doing it her way just caused unnecessary delays while creating a logjam down the road by having all of the orders come out at once. Doing it my way spreads things out, allows a staggered delivery of fresh, hot food and avoids having three tables to bus at the same time as everyone leaves. But the biggest reason to do it my way? You turn the tables faster and you get more drink orders per table. That means more tips.
I forgot to mention that when I ordered, I asked for ketchup. This is one of those places that doesn't keep ketchup on the tables and doesn't bring it automatically with burgers. So I asked if I could get the ketchup ahead of time rather than asking once the burger arrived (a potential ten minute wait). It never arrived. A runner brought the burgers and I asked for ketchup; a minute later it arrived. Ten minutes later our server arrived with the ketchup.
Was it an awful experience? No, far from it. We still like server C. We left $40 for a $32 check. But we were there for well over an hour when we just wanted a quick burger before doing some Friday night errands. If a few things had gone differently, we could have ordered a second round, left a bigger tip and left a half hour earlier, clearing the table for another table and another tip. I guess it didn't matter.
Some Service Glitches, Part 1
I said the weekend was uneventful on the barbecue front, but earlier in the week my wife and I ate out twice, both times opting for burgers. Nothing special, just your typical chain restaurant both times. To say that I'm not a fan of chain restaurants would be an understatement, but sometimes you go because they're close, not expecting much. And each time I leave with even lower expectations for the next time.
The first visit of the week was to one of those chains that's been pushing their revised burger menu but is more famous for its salad bar. My mother joined us and we all ordered the salad bar and a different burger: a bison burger for my wife, a rare burger for my mother and a deluxe burger medium rare, hold the mayo for me. Ordering was a breeze and we made our way to the salad bar. I was thinking of asking our waitress to make sure to wait a few minutes before entering the burgers to allow time to navigate the salad bar, but I figured she already knew that. And the fact that my mother uses a walker might be an indication that it might take a while, but I figured again that our waitress would be on top of it.
We return from the salad bar and after two bites of salad our burgers arrive. A little annoying but not a big deal. "Who had the bison burger?" the runners ask before dispatching it to my wife. With enough certainty not to have to ask, they distribute the other two burgers to my mother and me.
After a few bites, I realize there's mayo in my burger. "Did you forget to hold the mayo?" I ask our waitress.
"That's our signature mayo, all our burgers come with that," she said, not aware that in a chain restaurant like this one a signature was more of a rubber stamp. "It's our signature garlic mayo," she reinforced.
"That's great, but I ordered it with no mayo."
"Why, is it too spicy for you?"
"It's not too spicy, I just prefer it without mayo."
"Well if you want, we can cook you another one," she says, in a tone that suggests I had a problem with the mayo after the fact, when in fact I ordered it without mayo just minutes earlier, when she had no problem with it.
"No, it's no big deal, I'll just finish this," I say.
A few minutes later our server returns. "Did you have the deluxe burger?" she asks. I nod. "That's not the deluxe burger, this is," she says, pointing at my mother's burger, which is far rarer than mine.
There was a burger mix-up. No big deal. "That's okay, don't worry about it," I say.
A minute later a manager arrives. "I understand you got the wrong burgers?"
"Yes, but we're okay. It happens."
"Is there anything you'd like me to do?" he asks. I hate that. I was happy just letting things ride. Well not happy, but I didn't feel a need to negotiate any settlement. If he wanted to offer us coupons or deduct one of the meals, fine, but either do it or don't do it. Don't put me on the spot. I just wanted to finish our dinner, not conduct a court hearing in booth #3.
"No, we're okay," I say. He remains in place for several long seconds without saying a word, the way interviewers do, hoping to get more of a statement.
"We're okay," I insist.
When the bill arrives, my burger, salad and drink are comped. Not necessary, but it took a little of the sting out. Not the sting of getting the wrong burger, but the sting of having to explain and defend myself while my burger got cold. Next time I'll keep my mouth shut. The funny thing is that the burger wasn't all that bad.
The Art of the BBQ Crawl
Sometimes barbecue is best enjoyed in one spot, relaxing over a few beers and just hanging out and not really worrying about the greater meaning of life or barbecue. Other times much of the fun comes from surveying two, three or even more barbecue joints in the same day or night, comparing and contrasting your impressions with those of your friends. As a veteran of many barbecue crawls, both for site research and for the pure social aspect, I've developed many strategies and tips that will help you get the most out of a barbecue crawl:
The Personnel. Many believe "the more the merrier," but I think the best number for a crawl is four, the second best three and the third best two. Small numbers keeps the planning manageable and require at most one car. Since ribs are certain to be involved, a rack divides easily by four people (three apiece), three (four each) or two (six each). A half rack divides easily by three (two each) or two (three each). Six ribs per person is far too many for a serious crawl, and lugging leftovers complicates things. Three ribs apiece for four people is ideal. Four is also perfect for splitting sandwiches, one of my favorite appetizer techniques. Besides the right number of people, it's also important to have people you can count on to show up, people who have the stamina to last the entire crawl and people who are like minded on the philosophies of ordering, sharing, bill-splitting and tipping.
The Mission. A name ("Pulled Pork Palooza", "Operation Dessert Storm" or the like) isn't required, but the crawl should have a clearly defined purpose. Maybe it's a rib-focused crawl, where six rib fans split a whole rack at six different joints, or any similar crawl where one single meat is the subject of comparison and discussion. Or you could pick different meats at different joints, going with the specialty of the house. Hell, you could even do the masochist's crawl and visit seven different Dallas BBQ locations (NYC) in a single day. I'm not saying you have to have a theme or need to overthink things, but just ordering a bunch of dishes at each joint has a way of filling you up long before you've made it halfway through the intended restaurant roster.
The Planning. Do your homework. Check the menus ahead of time. Is there a must-order dish that demands juggling the order of the joints or a preparation method that requires special attention? Check the Pigtrip reviews. Not because my opinion is right (it isn't; it's just an opinion). It's because the photos may help you decide which joints are the keepers and which joints won't make the cut.
The Order. Give some forethought to the order of the joints. It's often assumed that the best route is the one with the shortest distance between joints, but spacing out the joints allows better digestion. If there are two joints close together, that's a good thing if they're #1 and #2 on your crawl, with an intermission before joint #3. If they're #2 and #3, it might be too much too fast. Since there's a natural tendency to not properly pace the eating at the beginning, it's a good idea to pick what you know or think will be the best joint for the leadoff slot. If your crawl takes a circular path to drop off and reclaim vehicles, the added benefit of this is a potential reprise at the end. If you just save the best joint for last, there's a chance you may be too full to enjoy it.
The Pacing. Pacing is the single biggest key to successfully navigating a crawl. If you eat three ribs at every joint while also sampling other meats and sides, you'll crash and burn too soon. Although I generally try to order two or three ribs per person, my rule of thumb is to eat one no matter what, two if they're good and three only if they're exceptional.
More Pacing. One rookie mistake I see time and time again is ordering too much food at once. It's not so much the quantity of food as much as the timing. Spreading the items out ensures you eat them while they're hot, prevents you from getting too full too fast, minimizes table clutter and allows good banter as you discuss each round.
The Pace Setter. For those themeless crawls where we just order whatever strikes our fancy at each joint, I still like to have a de facto item to order at the outset. For a two- or four-person crawl, a pulled pork sandwich is ideal and much easier to share than you'd think. For an uneven crew, wings are a good choice, but I only recommend these if they're smoked. The de facto first item method gets the ball rolling, spaces out the food and buys time to peruse the menu at your leisure. If that first item is a disaster, this method is also a fail-safe against ordering more bad food.
The Quantity. There's nothing wrong with ordering a lot of food at any one place, as long as: you're reasonably confident it will be good, you're not dead set on finishing it just because it's in front of you, and your crawlmates share your philosophy on spending and wasting. I'd rather over-order and leave much of it on the table. It costs more but I can try more things that way.
The Leftovers. I have no beef with anyone who wants to take home all the extra slices of beef brisket, ribs or whatever’s left over. I generally shun leftovers so that I can eat light, ethnic or upscale on my "off" days. Just make sure you bring a cooler if we're crawling in the summer heat.
The Timing. Brisket in particular should be eaten as soon as the plate hits the table. If you become engaged in the other offerings and make your way to the brisket last, you're not really eating the same meat as someone who struck first.
The Esoterica. Although most crawls involve the mainstream choices on the menu, a large size gathering is the ideal chance to try that obscure dish you might not order otherwise, so go for it. Just don't overlook those second tier items like chicken and sausage that often take a backseat to ribs, pulled pork and brisket. And don't lose sight of the big picture.
The Sides. Crawls are a great way to survey most if not all of the side dishes. It's best not to receive them all at once, so I like to order them in waves, trying to have each wave balance hot and cold, starch and vegetable, fried and not. You can always hold off on some of your choices and then double up on the sides you liked best. One thing, though: go easy on the baked beans, especially if you're riding in my car.
The Mis En Plate. If you're sharing, be sure to ask for extra knives for cutting and extra utensils and plates for serving, and make sure there's a bone plate. Whenever possible, I like to let the side dishes make their way around the table while I focus on the meat. Then, when there's only a little of each side remaining, I'll eat right out of the serving bowls. It keeps my plate cleaner and it keeps cole slaw juice and other debris away from my meat.
The Reveal. Don't be afraid to let your server or a curious manager overhear that you're on a BBQ crawl and will be comparing their 'cue to other stops on your trip. Knowing that you're into barbecue might lead them to put better stuff on your plate than they would ordinarily, and their natural desire to trump the competition may also bump the level up a little. The downside of this gambit is having to offer feedback at the end of the meal. If the 'cue is good, that can be a pleasure. If it's not, you either have to lie or give your diplomatic skills a workout as you awkwardly explain that their food is an insult to barbecue.
The BBQ Samaritan. I've been on solo crawls where I wanted to try a certain appetizer or two but knew full well I'd barely make a dent in them. My solution? Sit at the bar, order a beer and the fried green tomatoes. Before taking any for myself I offer some to the other bar patrons, insisting they take at least two each. I do this not for free drinks in reciprocation but rather for free information. I get a lot of good BBQ joint opinions and tips this way.
The Head. Restroom planning (also known in some circles as "waste management") is a critical component of an organized BBQ crawl. For reasons I won't get into, I don't like to take care of this at the restaurant. In certain parts of Boston, Cambridge and New York City, public rest rooms are hard to come by, so it helps to plan in advance. My gym membership, good at any Boston Sports Club and New York Sports Club location, has served me well in this regard.
Laying Down the Law (BBQ Style)
As the presidential candidates start to accelerate their campaign rhetoric, the time-tested “tough on crime” chestnut is certain to make an appearance. I’m not running for anything, but if I were, my platform would be sure to include a demand for immediate legislation to fight these crimes, barbecue and otherwise:
If it ain't smoked, don't call it BBQ. There are too many so-called BBQ joints out there peddling oven-cooked, grill-heated fare as BBQ just because it's covered with BBQ sauce, but I'd never allow that under my watch. Their food might still be good (not usually), but it's going to be illegal to call it BBQ unless it is BBQ. In this era of pan-seared this and fire-roasted that in every upscale menu description, you can incorporate this approach to creatively describe how your chicken's really cooked, but you can't call it "BBQ chicken." One other offshoot of this law: an immediate cease and desist order if you bitch about how others confuse grilling and BBQ but constantly refer to your grilling contest as a barbecue contest.
“Award Winning.” I’ve covered this ground before, but now I’m seeking to pass legislation. If you’re going to describe your ribs, sauce or barbecue in general as “award winning,” it’ll be a felony if you don't specifically say what award you won. It’ll also be a felony if you brag about your barbecue that won awards on the circuit but try to pass off ersatz ribs (cooked with different woods in different equipment, using different rubs and sauces) at your restaurant. One more thing: if you try to just hire an existing barbecue team to cook under your name (cooking totally different food) to bring trophies into your restaurant—and I know this is being done in some circles—you’ll be doing hard time for life.
Chicken wings. There are two different wing crimes committed on an everyday basis at barbecue joints across the country. First, you can’t call them BBQ wings unless the wings are smoked (see above). When I’m in charge, all menus must declare whether the wings are deep fried, oven-baked or smoked. And then there’s the bigger crime: I’ll make sure you can no longer say “8 wings” on your menu if you only supply 4 drumettes and 4 wingettes, because that's only 4 wings! Eight wings means 8 whole wings, or 16 total pieces. It's time to end the deception.
Reviews. I see many restaurant websites with a separate page listing reviews, press or “What people are saying about us.” That’s great, but if you’re going to have one of those pages, you have to include all reviews, both the good and the bad. I recently started adding “Other Opinion” at the bottom of my reviews. If you have a link to a contrarian review, pass it along and I’ll add it to my review.
Table of Contents. OK, this one has little if anything to do with barbecue, but as a reader of food and other types of magazines, I’m constantly annoyed by the hide-and-seek approach to the table of contents. It shouldn’t take longer to find Jeffrey Steingarten’s Vogue column than it does to read it. My law: the table of contents has to start and finish within the first 10 pages or the magazine is off the stands.
"Ribs" means more than one. If you provide a big ass beef rib that stands lonely but proud, that’s great. Call it the best beef rib on the planet. But if you call the dish “beef ribs” and there’s only one, the customer gets another one, on the house, or I'm shutting you down.
I Hate To Label All Chains As Bad, But....
They are. Some are better than others, some are tolerable in a pinch and some make you wonder why they're still in business. I'll tell you why: it's because they people who support them have less imagination than the "chefs" who create their cookie cutter menus.
When Panera first arrived in my hometown about ten years ago, it was totally new to the area. They had comfortable seats that put Starbucks to shame, took great effort to offer attentive service and used higher quality ingredients than you'd normally see at a chain. They even spoke English and served good coffee back then. Not any more. Whether it's due to growth or complacency or the difficulty finding good help, Panera has slid steadily downhill since those promising beginnings. I'll still take their "You Pick Two" over a fast food meal any day of the week, but it's not what it once was.
Above you see the apples that my wife and I received with our sandwiches a few days ago: labels still on and filthy. No, that's not the exception, that's how they come every time. You'd think somebody would care. Do you know any barbecue joints like that?
Things I'd Like To See, Part 2
Here are a few more ideas that have been running through my head lately.
Sausage Fatties at Barbecue Restaurants. Check out the barbecue bulletin boards and you’ll see nothing but hosannas for the gigantic sausage treat known as the fatty. But despite all the enthusiasm from the backyard barbecue crowd, I’ve yet to see fatties on a barbecue restaurant menu. Traditionally, a fatty is simply sausage meat (like Jimmy Dean) without any casing, rolled into a fat (hence the name) log, rubbed and smoked. They can also be stuffed with cheese, peppers and other assorted complementary flavors. Because of the relatively short cooking time, they make a great snack or appetizer for guests while you’re waiting for the rest of the meats to smoke. In a restaurant setting, I could see a fatty appetizer served sliced on the bias, fanned atop sliced lettuce, with some interesting dipping sauces. It would be a winner if some restaurateur had the foresight to offer it.
A “Repeat” Category at a Barbecue Contest. In competition, there are usually four categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket, typically submitted starting at 12:00 noon and at 30-minute intervals to allow preparation time. Often there’s a fifth category for something unique, like smoked fish, vegetable or fruit. I’d like to see a second ribs or chicken category, but with a twist: you can’t use traditional barbecue flavors. There’s a debate among competition cooks over whether non-traditional flavors (such as Asian, Caribbean, etc.) can win in competition. Even those who think it’s possible are unwilling to gamble a potential trophy by cooking outside their normal comfort zone. That’s why a separate category (with no impact on grand championship) would give them the creative freedom to let it all hang out and see what they can come up with. I’m sure the results would be interesting and delicious, but this is the only way I see it happening.
Make Your Own Ribs. Here’s a free idea for any barbecue restaurant that’s closed on Sunday and needs a way to improve business on Monday. There are brew-your-own-beer businesses that have workshops where you come in, prepare the hops and other brewing ingredients onsite, leave them with the establishment to ferment, then pick your beer up weeks later. Similarly, a barbecue restaurant could offer a Sunday afternoon workshop. You’d prepare your rub, apply it to the meat, create a sauce and leave everything with the pitmaster, who’d smoke it Monday to have it waiting for you Monday night. You could take the ribs home or (even better for the restaurant) eat them there while ordering drinks and desserts.
PigTrip: the Novel. I can see it now: mystery, romance, intrigue and violence, all in the world of barbecue. I’m thinking of sportswriter and death-as-cottage-industry author Mitch Albom to ghost write it, and when I approach him to pitch it, I’m hoping he’ll say, “I’m all ears!”
Rib Flights. Some upscale restaurants have “wine flights,” where you receive three small glasses of similar wines to compare and contrast. Why not rib flights? There could be three different rubs or sauces applied to the same cut of meat. Or different cuts of pork rib (one spare, one babyback, one St Louis and a small pile of rib tips). Or there could be different ribs entirely, with lamb or bison ribs as the wildcards.
read Things I'd Like To See, Part 1
Dining With Other Couples
I'm going to concede up front that this is only loosely connected with barbecue, but lately my wife and I have been joining other couples at barbecue joints as well as more upscale restaurants. Eating out with another couple can be a lot of fun, but more often it can lead to a lot of anxiety. Here’s a baker’s dozen of my reasons why.
Picking the Place. Sometimes picking out a restaurant that’ll make everyone happy can be tougher than bringing peace to the Middle East. Different people place different values on quality and have different thresholds of how much they’re willing to spend for that quality. Some won’t spend more than $20 per person (my wife feels deprived if we spend less than $20 per entrée). Some friends are vegetarian. Some can’t have dairy. Some can’t have carbs. Some don't do ethnic. Some don't do spicy. Some don’t do barbecue. I don’t do chains. The focus of the evening out is simply enjoying the other couple’s company, but if we’re at the Olive Garden, I’m too distracted planning the next night’s meal in my head to join in the conversation.
Home Court. In sports, the “home court advantage” is critical, and so it is with couples dining. If the other couple live far away, it’s much more convenient dining somewhere near you than near them: it saves time and gas and makes it easier to imbibe, knowing that you won’t be driving too far. But sometimes you’d rather give up the home court, especially if you know one couple will be inviting the other couple over after dinner. Why clean the house when you can just visit someone else’s house instead? This may not be the best tactic if the other couple has a cat or no concept of how high to turn up the heat. But it does give you more control over when to end the evening (it’s much easier to leave someone else’s house than to ask someone to leave your house). Of course, there are times when you’d rather just have both couples head their separate ways after dinner, and this calls for a “neutral court” location just inconvenient enough to both homes to ensure no invites either way.
The Recommendation. Raving to friends about a restaurant and then having them finally join us there is a joy, but with that joy comes a lot of pressure. It’s not only the restaurant’s reputation that’s on the line, but mine as well, because I recommended it. If the restaurant is less than stellar that one time, my judgment will be suspect.
Favorite Places. If we’re dining with a couple for the first time, I’m always hesitant to bring them to a restaurant where we’re regulars. If they ask to switch tables, make countless substitutions and other high maintenance requests, hate the food, send something back or tip poorly, my reputation is also on the line with the restaurant. It’s a lot of pressure. Similarly, it’s tough to muster a gung-ho response when the other couple has home court and asks, “Isn’t this one of the best steaks you’ve ever had?”
Kiss kiss. I’m never quite sure how this came to be, but there are some couples you kiss, some couples you hug and some couples you just stand back and wave to, and it’s important to keep track of who’s who. Especially important when dining with multiple couples is never mixing couples from different groups. That could get awkward.
Who’s Driving? I don’t mind driving, but I’d rather not drive, because there’s no upside, only potential disaster. I could miss an exit while the other couple wonder what I’m doing. I could take 15 iterations to complete a parallel parking job, while a crowd looks on. Or I could get into an accident (it hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve had nightmares about getting into an accident with $100 of takeout Chinese in the passenger’s seat and having the guests at home wondering whether I’ve made off with their food). Also, as in the home court, why clean your car if you can just ride in someone else’s car? Driving separately and having a designated meeting place is ideal.
Appetizers. This can make or break a night out with another couple. There are different philosophies on how to approach appetizers when you have a table of four. Someone might shyly suggest, “Do you want to split an appetizer?” And to that I say, “Sure!” But I’m thinking to myself, “Only one appetizer? One appetizer for four people? Are you freakin’ nuts? Are you freakin’ cheap? Are you freakin’ anorexic?” Like I said, different couples have different philosophies. Some want one appetizer for the table. Some want one appetizer for each couple, with intra-couple sharing but no inter-couple sharing. I’m with the camp that insists on four appetizers for four people, with sharing all around. As long as you order items everyone likes and make sure serving utensils are used, this is the way to go.
Oh, I almost forgot: there are some couples who don’t even want to go near the appetizers, preferring to go with only an entrée. Again, I say, but this time out loud: “Are you freakin’ nuts?” When we find ourselves with one of these couples, it’s a lose-lose situation, where we have to decide: do we order appetizers and eat them while the other couple twiddles their thumbs (talk about awkward) or skip the appetizers altogether just to keep the peace?
Double dipping. At some restaurants, one of the highlights of the meal is the bread basket, and for me those cases usually involve some sort dip (pesto, aioli, oil) as opposed to butter. Luckily, I haven’t had an instance where double dipping was involved, and I wouldn’t want there to be. But the no double dipping rule sort of takes the bread out of the equation for me, and that’s a tremendous sacrifice. Sitting at a four-top and having the pesto bowl way over at the far reaches of the table doesn’t help either.
Desserts. See appetizers.
Drinks. This category is also pretty similar to the appetizer philosophies, and note that I’m not talking about the financial implications here or with the appetizers—I’ll get to that later. Some couples drink, some don’t. Some drink a lot, some drink a little. Some drink beer, some drink wine. Some drink red wine, some drink white wine. OK, you get the idea. I say drink what you like and like what you drink, but if the two couples are in harmony drink-wise, it makes for a much smoother, relaxed evening. Sharing a bottle of wine or turning each other onto little known microbrews is as much a part of the meal as the food and conversation. If my wife and I are drinking and the other couple aren’t, I feel guilty, and will usually only have one beer.
Splitting the Check. Read Chowhound.com’s Not About Food board and you’ll often see posts debating how to divide the bill. One easy answer is to just divide everything right down the middle. If my wife and I had chicken and fish, and the other couple had more expensive steak and lobster, no big deal. If my wife and I had two drinks apiece and the other couple had three drinks apiece, again no big deal. If they had six each, I’d like to think someone would speak up. If my wife and I had appetizers and the other couple didn’t, or we had beer and the other couple had refillable Cokes, there’s no way I’d divide the check evenly: we’d pay more and we’d do so willingly. But I’d still obsess over whether the other couple was thinking as we’re ordering that I’d to try to split it evenly. With some couples, there’s a comfort zone and you don’t have to obsess, but too often the mental tabulating and calculating can drive you nuts. This reinforces the idea that if you get another couple who shares your appetizers and drinks philosophies, you’re in luck.
Tipping. For every Chowhound post on dividing the bill, there are probably three on tipping, and everyone has different thresholds for what constitutes bad service and how well to reward good service. I like to give a generous tip and I don’t expect the other couple to do the same, but fair is fair. There have been times when the other couple was so stingy with the tip that I went back afterward and gave our server an extra $10. One time we dined with another couple and there were a few service issues, but more due to kitchen errors and poor training than on the server’s ill intent. We left a decent tip, they left no tip, and now I always wonder if the server thinks it’s me who stiffed her whenever we go back.
Method of Payment. Yes, this is yet another source of neurotic obsessing. Ideally, both couples pay in cash. I almost always pay in cash, because it’s better for the server. But I also don’t want the other couple to think that I’m using plastic because I can’t afford the meal, or to pad my airline miles, or to get a cash advance or use their contribution to subsidize a portion of our meal. Similarly, I confess that I’m sometimes wary of couples that seem to always take my cash and pay by credit card. And then there’s the dilemma of whether to peek at the credit card slip to see if they really left the tip we agreed on.
Well, there you have it. A little long winded, but I think I covered all the bases. Don’t get me wrong, dining with other couples can be a lot of fun—but if they don’t eat like you, drink like you and tip like you, the anxiety just might outweigh the fun. Either way, the car ride home talking about the other couple with your spouse is guaranteed to be fun.
What Would Matt Do?
One of the highlights of last weekend's Snowshoe Grilling Challenge was finally meeting Matt Fisher, the BBQ blogger ("Hampton Smoker") who recently became the pitmaster of the soon-to-open Wildwood BBQ in Manhattan. Matt and I had exchanged many emails over the past few years, but for whatever reason, we managed to travel in the same circles without coming face to face until Saturday.
His blog posts aren't that frequent now that he's immersed in the restaurant world, but they're often filled with poignant writing and some of the tastiest looking food porn (home cooked) you'll ever see. Some of my favorite Matt Fisher writing is found not on his blog, but on Chowhound, where he posts as BackyardChef.
In this era of my-joint-is-best, your-joint-sucks closedmindedness, it's refreshing to see someone posting with a level head. When a Chowhound poster asks advice on a barbecue joint, Matt doesn't get into the partisan fray. Instead, he'll extol the virtues of a few different joints, letting readers make up their own minds. It's not so much to avoid negativity, but to allow for the fact that Matt's favorite joint might not be your favorite, and vice versa.
Inspired by this approach, I now ask myself, "What would Matt do?" whenever I sit down to write a review. It doesn't mean I have to like everything (believe me, I don't), and it doesn't mean I have to hold back when I think something's awful. It just means I can get my point across without taking cheap shots. We'll see how this plays out in the review I'm posting tomorrow.
Channeling Mario Batali, BBQ Style
One of the epic shames in modern television is that the great Mario Batali has been exiled to a once-a-week 10AM Monday time slot. He’s a favorite not only because his food is fantastic, but also because he’s such a great educator. The sheer number of words per minute on his shows has to exceed any other, and his words are well chosen. While some of his colleagues (I’d seriously hesitate to use the word “peers”) at the Food Network are satisfied with catchphrases like “Bam!” and “Yummo,” most of Batali’s mantras are actually complete sentences, and—you were probably wondering where all this was headed—they actually apply quite well to barbecue.
Dress it like a salad. I must have heard Batali say that a hundred times while talking about how much sauce should coat the pasta. If your sauce-to-pasta ratio is similar to how you’d dress a salad, you’ll have a chance to taste both the sauce and the pasta. Just as there are some who believe that the pasta is merely a vessel for the sauce, there’s the barbecue camp who believe that the meat takes second fiddle to the barbecue sauce. Go ahead and use sauce, but if you let the sauce complement the meat without obliterating it, you’ll be having ribs Mario style.
Buy what’s fresh. Batali’s recipes are demonstrated using a specific fish or a specific vegetable, but he always reminds us that the quintessential Italian cook heads to the market not with that specific fish or vegetable in mind. So if the asparagus look particularly fresh that day, that’s what goes into the dish even if the recipe calls for broccoli. If the mussels look off and the clams look great, go with the clams. The backyard chef should use the same approach: if the spare ribs don’t look so great but the babybacks look fantastic, I’ll take the babybacks even though that’s not what I came in for.
Develop relationships with your fishmonger. Batali is always trumpeting the importance of establishing good relationships with all of your key purveyors, whether it be your fishmonger, your butcher or your cheese man. Sure, going to specialty shops is going to cost you more than a trip to Wal-Mart or BJs, but you’re going to get a better product. If you have a regular butcher that you’re loyal to, that loyalty will probably be returned—whether it’s tastings of new products, special ordering of hard-to-get items or better cuts of meat set aside specifically for you. Finding that perfect rack of spares won’t be a problem, because it’ll already be wrapped with your name on the butcher paper.
The spectrum of flavor. There might be parsley cooked into a dish as one of its base flavors, but you’ll see Batali add fresh parsley at the end, to give you both ends of the spectrum. The same herb cooked and raw offers two related but quite different flavors. Or that extra splash of extra virgin olive oil to finish the dish, even though there’s plenty of olive oil already there. It adds richness but also a complexity, with two different takes on the same flavor. Barbecue offers many opportunities to apply this same technique. How about serrano powder in the dry rub and more serrano in the barbecue sauce? How about cherries in the sauce to coat ribs cooked over cherry wood? How about a mustard slather topped with a dry rub that includes mustard seeds? How about toasting half of the mustard seeds in a fry pan and using the other half untoasted? The possibilities are endless.
The bitter component. If you haven’t developed a taste for it, you might think it odd when Batali talks about the “bitter component” to round out a dish or a meal. But as Italians know, sometimes bitter greens offer a welcome counterbalance to heavy dishes like braised pork shank or the overly sweet flavors of an agro dolce sauce. And so it is with barbecue, where I’ll go for the collard greens over the potatoes every time.
NYC BBQ: Dr. BBQ Joins Southern Hospitality
This has been in the works for a while. Ray Lampe, most famous for his success on the competition circuit and his popular Dr. BBQ cookbooks, is now the executive chef at Justin Timberlake's Manhattan BBQ eatery Southern Hospitality.
The curious thing about this major personnel change is that it was announced—if that's what you want to call it—so quietly. I'd heard rumblings as early as December, but I hadn't seen anything in writing until a grilling article by Lampe in the February 4 issue of People Magazine credited the author as Southern Hospitality's execitive chef.
Maybe getting scooped by People is the reason there's been nary a mention of Lampe's joining Southern Hospitality on restaurant sites like Grub Street and Eater. Back in June, a Grub Street reporter didn't get her way at the Southern Hospitality's opening night party, while reporters from People got first class treatment and access. There was some grumbling (read: whining) soon after, so maybe the only Southern Hospitality news you'll hear from those camps is bad news. Just yesterday Eater ran a piece on the imminent fall of another Timberlake restaurant.
It wasn't until a few days ago that the Southern Hospitality website itself mentioned Lampe. The understated redesign no longer features "Sexy Back" as background music. Maybe it's a sign that they're ready to focus on the food and are now trying to succeed on the merit of the restaurant rather than the celebrity of the owner. That's a good thing. But if Southern Hospitality was a chick magnet before Ray Lampe came aboard, I can only imagine what it'll be like now.
O Say Can You See?
Some time around 6:00PM tonight, before the Super Bowl kicks off, more Americans will hear those words collectively than ever before. Today I'm wondering how many restaurant owners and managers take that phrase to heart in their everyday running of the business.
One of the great things about going to RUB in New York City, besides the food, is watching owner Andrew Fischel in action. I usually sit at the bar and chew the fat with him while I eat. Although I'd like to think he's fully absorbed in our sparking conversation, I know better, and I wouldn't have it any other way. That's because his eyes are on every plate in the dining room in front of him, verifying that there are no problems and looking to anticipate problems before they happen. Pacing behind the bar like a caged tiger, Fischel pounces on the servers as they emerge from the kitchen, checking every plate for proper meat doneness and proper presentation before they can be brought to the table. In this era when restaurant managers and owners are all too quick to ask how everything was at the end of the meal, it's refreshing to see someone who takes a proactive approach during the meal.
Ask yourself how often your restaurant manager is seeing and acting on the following:
Whether the meat is cooked properly. I've had ribs that were over-charred, I've had ribs that were frightfully pale and I've had brisket that was embarrasingly dry and looked it, all plainly visible to management. I've even had a manager himself run a plate of woefully undercooked chicken wings to the table. How could he have not noticed that they weren't cooked?
Whether the portions are consistent. Ray and Robert Barone aren't the only ones who are envious if the other gets a bigger portion. It's human nature. I've been at restaurants where a person at the table next to me ordered the exact same ribs I did, but his were literally twice as thick. I recognize that dealing with the meat supplier is a challenge unto itself, but making sure everyone gets the same portion avoids discontent. I know one restaurant that switched from racks and half racks to ribs by the pound because customers complained about bigger portions at the next table. But getting the sides portions right should be a slam dunk. Do you really want to risk losing a customer over 10 cents worth of mashed potatoes?
When the lettuce on the salad is brown. Or for that matter, when the peppers are slimy and moldy. Or when the tomatoes aren't ripe. Or when there are tomato or cucumber stems in the miscut pieces. I've received too many salads that were guilty of all of the above. You'd think someone in the kitchen would do a spot check before bad vegetables even made it to the plate.
When a customer sends food back. This can be a simple mixup of the wrong sides being put on the plate, or it can be that the food was awful. I've been in too many restaurants where food has been sent back while the management is oblivious, watching TV at the bar or yukking it up with the help at the hostess stand. If I owned a restaurant and I saw something being sent back, I'd want to know why and I'd make sure whoever sent it back got taken care of.
When a customer isn't eating his food. Sometimes customers who aren't happy with the food don't send it back. Sometimes it's out of fear that they'll get more than just a new plate of food. Or they just don't want to make a fuss. A little recognition and reaction can convert a one-time dissatisfied customer into a regular customer, but too often it just goes unnoticed.
When a customer is waiting for something. Eating out isn't cheap, so when you do, you want to enjoy the experience as well as the food. If my hot chicken appetizer arrives before my wife's salad, I can't really enjoy it, knowing she's waiting. And by the time the salad finally arrives, it may be too late to enjoy it. Maybe we both received our appetizers, but I have no spoon to eat my chili and our server is out back grabbing a smoke. Or maybe we're waiting 15 minutes just to place our order, while watching our server help another server sing Happy Birthday to another table (this happened just the other night). Good restaurant managers know how to recognize when somebody needs something. Great managers have that ability and put it into action throughout the shift.
Super Bowl Thoughts
Just a few days to go until the big game. Here's what's on my mind:
I'm rooting for the Patriots and expect them to win, but would be surprised if it were a blowout. I'd be very happy with a Patriots blowout, however.
The Giants are on a roll now, more so than the Patriots. Yes, the Patriots have a "perfect" 18-0 record so far, but they've made too many mistakes lately to be called perfect. It's a lot like some of my favorite BBQ joints: they're my favorites, and they're the best, but perfect? No.
Tom Brady is already one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played the game, but a win on Sunday would place him in that best-of-the-best category. There are quarterbacks who are known for gaudy stats (Marino, Manning) and there are quarterbacks who are known for winning (Bradshaw, Montana), but Brady has the potential to establish himself as that rare QB with both attributes in spades.
If you could be Tom Brady for one day, either on or off the field, but not both, which would you pick?
Ordinarily, I'd be going through my Super Bowl snack menu for the sixth or seventh time by now, looking for holes to plug in the line-up, but I'm just not into it this year. I might smoke some chicken thighs, but other than that, I'm going to just take it easy on the barbecue this weekend.
Andy Husbands, Steve Uliss Trading Cards
Here are some collector cards from a series issued in 2004 to raise money for charity. Card #1 in the series is Andy Husbands, then of Rouge (Boston MA; he also owned and still owns Tremont 647 in Boston). Card #21 is Steve Uliss of Firefly's (Marlborough, Framingham and Quincy MA).
Being the nut that I am, I decided to get them autographed. I started with Steve, since I bought the card set at Firefly's. Steve told me to tell Andy when I saw him that he taught Andy everything he knows about barbecue.
As you may recall from the Pigtrip Chris Schlesinger interview, Chris claims to have taught Andy everything he knows about barbecue. If you've read the Mike Mills book Peace, Love and Barbecue, you may have seen the quotation from Kenton "Jake" Jacobs that he taught Andy everything he knows about barbecue.
When I handed his card to Andy at the kitchen at Rouge, I passed along Steve's message. Andy told me to tell Steve that he taught Steve everything he knows about barbecue.
For One More Day: The Ten Dead BBQ Joints I Most Wish I Could Visit, Part 2
Here's the second half of my list of barbecue joints I wish were alive for one more day. This list includes a few that I heard great things about but was never able to confirm in person.
Armadillo Depot, Worcester MA (closed 2007)
This joint on Park Avenue had been hailed by Chowhound.com founder Jim Leff as one of the best examples of Texas barbecue in the Northeast. I liked the way they smoked their meats but not how they reheated them, receiving cold food too many times. Now that I'm working in Worcester, I'd love to get those flavorful ribs just once, even if it meant investing in a toaster oven to finish the job back at the office.
Jake and Earl's, Cambridge MA (closed 1996)
I visited the original Jake and Earl's only once or twice in the early 1990s, but that was before I discovered East Coast Grill, the more upscale restaurant next door that shared the same kitchen (and owner, Chris Schlesinger). ECG eventually expanded into the area that was Jake's. I'd love to go back to see some of the talent who once manned that joint before branching out on their own: Andy Husbands (Tremont 647 and Rouge), Jake Jacobs (Jake's Boss BBQ), Chris Janowski (Blue Ribbon), Don Yovicsin (Jake's Dixie Roadhouse).
Pearson's, NYC (closed 2005)
From all I've heard and read about this place (as well as the pitmaster's earlier joints in Long Island City and Stratford CT), "English" Bob Pearson was ahead of his time. This former hairdresser from England had the audacity to serve a super smoky brand of barbecue without barbecue sauce, and it developed a cult following. One reader reminisced not just about the excellent barbecue but also how well it paired with the fresh Portuguese rolls Pearson obtained from a bakery in Bridgeport.
Poppa Rick's, Woodbury NYC (closed 2006?)
I'd heard good things about Poppa Rick's, including this from barbecue maven Josh Ozersky in a 2005 Newsday piece: "Crude, simple and magnificent, these monsters fairly burst with pork-fat flavor." I once spoke to pitmaster Rick Anselmi over the phone in 2005, to find out if they were open. But I never found the time to make the visit on that trip to the in-laws, and I lost my chance.
Slade's, Boston MA
Supposedly it's still operating as a jazz club, but in the 1960s, when it was owned by Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, it was the place for ribs and sports celebrities.
For One More Day: The Ten Dead BBQ Joints I Most Wish I Could Visit, Part 1
Sportswriter turned author Mitch Albom has created a cottage industry out of his series of books revolving around love and death. His most recent is called For One More Day, and it's been adapted into a TV movie that will air this Sunday night on ABC. It explores the question: What would you do if you could spend one more day with a lost loved one?
Here are the ten barbecue joints that I'd most like to be alive again, if only for one more day:
Holy Smokes, W. Hatfield MA (closed 2007)
This converted church was a fun place, with stained glass windows, pews turned into picnic benches, and hanging painted sculptures of flying pigs. But what made this place really fun were the pig and other meats that flew out of the smoker. Their beef shortrib topped my list in that category, and their pork ribs and chicken were both excellent. Add artisanal made-from-scratch sauces and some of the best sides I’ve ever had in a barbecue restaurant, and you’ve got a winner who’s run was cut too short when the place burned down last summer.
Rouge, Boston MA (closed 2006)
This upscale New Orleans style eatery with a bordello vibe gradually morphed into a barbecue joint for the hipster set, with memorable cocktails and special event dinners. I liked this Andy Husbands restaurant in all its incarnations, whether I was there for the chiles rellenos, the New Orleans BBQ shrimp, the Wedge salad, the Rhode Island style calamari, the sage rubbed skirt steak or (usually) the barbecue “Samplah” plate. Their cherry glazed pork rib prompted an awed 2005 dining companion to blurt, “So this is what a good rib tastes like!”
Jake’s Boss BBQ, Jamaica Plain MA (closed 2005)
Located across the street from Doyle’s, the oldest bar in Boston, Jake’s was the most recent joint run by Kenton "Jake" Jacobs, the man Chris Schlesinger calls the “living legend of barbecue.” For a long time, their pulled pork shoulder was the best you could possibly find in any Massachusetts city not named Newton or Arlington. The ribs were about as reliable as their HVAC system, but every third visit, they were on a par with the best I’d tasted, with an assertively spiced thick crust that yielded to a tender, smoky interior. I’d heard good things about their brisket, so I’d love to try that.
Porterhouse Café, Cambridge MA (closed 1999?)
At one time Jim Fahey (now at the Forest Café, a Mexican joint a little further south on Massachusetts Ave) was one of the Boston area’s leading practitioners of ribs. This dimly lit dive in Cambridge’s Porter Square served a rack of “monster babybacks” that hung off the edges of a sizeable plate. It’s the first place that ever served me fried pickles, and it's the first joint I fell in love with. I’d love to go back to see if I’d hold Porterhouse Café in the same high regard now as I did more than a decade ago.
Spitfires, Canton MA (closed 2007)
Located just a few miles from where I used to work, Spitfires started out as a poor man’s Blue Ribbon and ended as more of a homeless man’s Blue Ribbon. They usually had serviceable ‘cue, but the thing I’d go back for is their elusive Tex-Mex potato salad, created by their first pitmaster who's now back at Blue Ribbon. It's still the best potato salad I ever had and the only one I've ever craved.
Famous Dave's in Saugus Closes: A Win?
Yesterday I read on the Boston Chowhound board that the Saugus outpost of the Famous Dave's chain had closed. I wonder whether it's a reflection of the highly competetive restaurant ennvironment on Route 1, a backlash against an outside chain (a la Krispy Kreme), or simply a backlash against bad barbecue.
Within the thread, there was a mini-debate over whether one of the first responders was right for "cheering" this closing, claiming it as a "win." There was a heaping helping of guilt, with the moral highground poster citing that people were out of jobs, taxes were being lost, etc.
I'm sorry, but I'm on the side that's cheering. It's not a win simply because a corporate giant failed. It's a win for all the little guys who save up their own money, buy a little shop and smoke the meats on site, with no vacuum sealed, pre-smoked assistance. Restaurants are the most competetive of all businesses, with more than half failing in the first year. A new restaurant opens, another closes. If it were up to me, none of them would close. But with only so many diners and dining dollars to go around, there'll be closings all the time, it's just a matter of who. So when Goliath closes and David is left standing, I call that a win.
the Chowhound thread on Famous Dave's
My 12 Favorite Bowls of Chili
Since October is National Chili Month and we're past the halfway point for the month, I'd say it's time for a list of my favorite bowls of chili at New York and New England barbecue joints. As with all of my lists, note that I say "favorite", not "best," because I haven't tried them all and because your mileage may vary. One other thing: slots #1 and #2 are rock solid, but rankings #3 through #12 are prone to flip-flopping, depending on my mood or my most recent experience.
#1 All Star Sandwich Bar, Cambridge MA
This isn't a full-fledged barbecue joint, but on a part time basis they offer pulled pork and brisket sandwiches made with the meats smoked a few doors down at East Coast Grill. This "no beans, no cryin'" chili, available full-time and containing the brisket from these same pits, is the best combination of meat, heat and spice I've ever tasted. You might say "heat and spice" is redundant, but it's not. There's plenty of heat from the chiles and there's plenty of savory flavors going on thanks to the liberal use of cumin and other ingredients that hit you from a different angle entirely. The cornbread that accompanies it is pretty good too.
#2 Big W's, Wingdale NY
There are two chilis available here, and both are excellent. Whether you choose beef or chicken, you'll get a tremendous amount of meat and a mildly spiced broth that enhances the meat without overshadowing it. The nice thing about the brisket chili is that the fat has already been trimmed from the slices. The nice thing about the chicken chili is that it's healthy enough—and good enough—to eat every day. The nice thing about both chilis is you can include as a side on your combo platter.
#3 Jake's Dixie Roadhouse, Waltham MA
This is one of the few chilis out there that's pure, unadulterated pork, with a very spicy broth.
#4 Hill Country BBQ, New York City
The other flavors kick in too, but what you notice most about this chili is that it's made with beer, and lots of it. There are no beans and though there's an adequate portion of beef, there's plenty of that beer and chile pepper-studded broth. If they used larger chunks of the same brisket available in the meat line, I'd rank this a slot or two higher.
#5 Daisy May's, New York City
This chili is widely regarded as the best in the city, and not just among barbecue joints. It's pure beef, served in big, tender chunks, with just enough broth to serve as a lubricant. The spice level is fairly mild, but the flavor is very pleasant.
#6 RUB BBQ, New York City
This is my highest-ranking chili that has beans, and it's because they blend nicely with the more abundant similar-sized chunks of very smoky brisket. The heat level is medium.
#7 Waterfront Ale House, New York City
Here's another joint that's not quite a barbecue joint, but still has barbecue on the menu. It's also a joint that has two varieties of chili. I haven't tried the venison and black bean version, but I'm looking forward to it. The beef and pork version, with medium-high heat, is a basic straightforward chili, but one of the best basic straightforward chilis out there.
#8 Little Danny's Taste of Texas, South Windsor CT
This bowl of chili is also basic and straightforward, but it's made with buffalo meat. Different texture, different flavor, and it's good. If buffalo isn't your thing, they have beef chili too.
#9 Buck's Naked, Freeport ME
It seems as though they take an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach here, because this chili has beef, pork, chicken and a couple of different beans. I've only had it once, so I wonder if it changes from day to day.
#10 Chili Head BBQ, W. Bridgewater MA
For a Texas style barbecue joint, the beans in the chili are a little out of place, but rather than being unwelcome intruders for texture only, they actually supply much of the flavor. The meat is a combination of ground beef and large brisket cubes. But the really unique thing about this chili is that you can customize the heat level when you order it, on a scale of 1 to 15. Anything over a 10 requires a signed waiver. You can also use El Yucateo hot sauce at the table to add even more heat if necessary.
#11 Redbones, Somerville MA
There are so many appetizers on the Redbones menu, it's easy to forget about the chili, but theirs is pretty memorable. It's made with large cubes of beef and the broth is very thin, like beef stock. A little unorthodox, but it gets the job done.
#12 Firefly's, 3 MA locations
The chili here—a mix of brisket, sirloin and pork—is like a microcosm of the restaurant as a whole. Sometimes there's beans, sometimes there's not. Sometimes it's thick, sometimes it's thin. Sometimes it's mostly beef, sometimes it's mostly pork. More often than not, it's good, and when it's on, it's very good.
Loud, Louder, Loudest
There comes a time when you realize you're getting old, and for me that time is now. Packs of high scool girls, dressed scantily for their weekly Friday night mall appearance, no longer make me turn my head. Some of their tattoos and piercings, and the places they put them on, actually make me shake my head. Much like the generation before me, I can't understand the appeal of some of the music they listen to, but I can at least understand that it was bound to happen. What I really can't understand is how, when or why loud became equated with cool. Have you been in an Abercrombie and Fitch lately? It's not a store, it's a loud disco that just happens to sell clothing (and obnoxious cologne). And the kids love it. And they love it so much they'll go there and call their friends on their cellphones, making sure they're in the loudest part of the store (disco) before placing the call. I wouldn't be able to hear anyone on the other end if I tried that, but hey, different strokes for different folks.
I say different strokes, but the fact that this whole "loud is cool" phenomenon is affecting restaurants is really annoying me. Walk down any "restaurant row" (Moody Street in Waltham MA, Hanover Street in Boston's North End, dozens of equivalents in NYC) and you'll notice that there'll be a few restaurants that seem to be where the party is. The music is loud, the conversation is louder to overcome the music, and everything is magnified by the acoustics specifically designed to enhance the "loud is cool" mystique. It draws people in like the Pied Piper, as if they're going to miss something by going to the quiet little restaurant a few doors down that actually serves good food.
These "loud is cool" establishments are the food version of Lindsey Lohan: unable to catch your attention through culinary talent, they'll make you notice them through cheaper, lazier means. Sadly, this strategy seems to be working. I hate these places and I hate Lindsey Lohan.
Can you tell I didn't have barbecue this weekend?
Rule #1: Say When You're Open
I have the day off from work today, so I was toying with the idea of a small-scale pigtrip later to parts unknown (not likely, but it's fun to toy). Just as Sy Sperling is not only the president of Hair Club for Men but also a client, I not only maintain the Pigtrip Joints directory, I'm a client as well. As I was using it to view about a dozen candidate joints' websites, I was amazed at how many restaurants don't bother to list one of the most important pieces of information they can provide: when they''re open.
Attention restaurant owners: I like your cool Flash videos, I like your explanation of what a smoke ring is and why I should choose your joint over the next guy's (I really do). But aside from the menu, what I really want to know is what days you're open and what hours. A lot of people travel on Sundays and on half-assed holidays like today (Columbus Day) and would be more than eager to give you a try if they know you're open.
Things I'd Like To See, Part 1
I'm always thinking of barbecue ideas, so here's what I'm thinking there oughtta be:
BBQ at Gas Stations?
It sounds odd, but it makes sense. It’s expensive opening a restaurant nowadays, so unless you have a sugar daddy, making the leap from barbecue competitor to barbecue restaurateur isn’t as easy as you’d want it to be. In 1930, Harlan Sanders (before he was known as the Colonel) got his Kentucky Fried Chicken empire off the ground by selling his soon-to-be-legendary poultry at his gas station. Maybe that’s the route some future legend in the barbecue world will take to get started. “Twenty dollars of high test and two racks of ribs, please.”
I can still remember those commercials of my youth, where (even before Florence Henderson), they’d take an unsliced loaf of bread, square it off to remove the crust, then deep fry it in Wesson oil. It always looked great. I bet some enterprising restaurant owner could showcase this as an “amuse” before the meal, as an appetizer (maybe with a spicy dipping sauce) or as a housing for an even fattier rendition of a chopped brisket sandwich.
Two Kinds of Pulled Pork
Why not? If KFC offers regular and extra crispy chicken, why can’t a barbecue restaurant offer both a traditional pork shoulder as well as a Jamaican jerk-rubbed one? Or an out-there coriander-caraway-rubbed one? Or Sichuan peppercorn and basil? The oddball offshoots don’t have to be available regularly, but could rotate as second choice specials.
You can get Sunday brunch at joints like Duke’s (NYC) and LJ’s BBQ (Pawtucket RI), and Redbones (Somerville MA) is probably the best of the bunch, but this is a largely untapped market. Sausages are easy to smoke, and briskets coming right out of the smoker after an all-night smoke would go perfectly with eggs. I’ve seen some creative things done with potatoes and sweet potatoes at grilling contests, many of which would be ideal as a breakfast side.
At some Starbucks locations, I’ve seen Ghostbusters-like backpack contraptions that mobile baristas wear to dispense hot coffee outdoors. Why not chili?
A Flay-McDavid Reunion
If Eddie Van Halen can come to his senses and tour with David Lee Roth again, it’s high time Bobby Flay came to his senses and reunite with his Grillin' and Chillin' television partner, Jack McDavid. Flay has since done other Food Network shows with other co-hosts and solo, but the best television he ever did was with McDavid, the yin to Flay’s yang. City slicker Flay liked gas, high heat and cutting edge vinaigrettes, while bumpkin McDavid was strictly old school. We need more Jack McDavid nowadays.
BBQ Joint Pet Peeves II: the All Quotes Edition
Here’s another assortment of pet peeves, this time a collection of things people say that cause me to bristle. Sometimes they’re said by servers, sometimes customers, sometimes owners and sometimes even me. Most of these are service-related and most are just as likely to happen at any restaurant in America. I’ve arranged these in chronological order, from the time you’re greeted to the time you leave.
“I'll be taking care of you.”
The full version of this one is something like, “Hi, my name is Jen and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Can I start you off with a drink?” Unless it comes out hyper-rehearsed, it doesn’t become a peeve until Jen lets 20 minutes go by without taking our food order. Or lets my beer glass reach the empty mark. And remain so for 20 minutes while she compares nail polish styles with another server. Or forgets to check back to see if everything was ok after our entrees were served by a runner instead of her. If that’s taking care of me, I’d hate to see what not taking care of me is like.
“Is this your first visit?”
This often gets squeezed in between “I’ll be taking care of you” and “Can I start you off with a drink?” It’s also not a peeve as long as they have something informative to offer other than “Welcome back!” if I say no or “Well, you’re in for a treat!” if I say yes. I’m looking for helpful nuggets like whether salads are included or whether you can make substitutions or what the house specialty is.
“We’ve got the best pulled pork on the Island!”
This is an actual quote from a restaurateur on Long Island, responding to my question on which sandwich to order. Sometimes statements like this are the result of an inquiry like mine, and sometimes they flow naturally as a follow-up to the “Is this your first visit?” question. Either way, it’s a peeve on too many fronts to count, but I’ll offer a few. 1) It’s too self-serving to be taken seriously even if you honestly believe it’s true. 2) Unless you’ve tried every pulled pork on the Island (and you probably haven’t), you have no basis to believe it’s true. 3) Not only did it not turn out to be the best pulled pork on Long Island, it was one of the worst I’ve ever tasted. I know, I know, I was the one who asked, but he could have simply said, “I’d go with the pulled pork, it’s our house specialty!” (Although he should have said, “I’d go with the pulled pork, it doesn’t suck as much as our brisket!”)
“How was everything?”
I’ve often found myself in a sit-down joint where the owner makes the rounds, marching down the aisle, asking customers how everything was. In most cases, it’s apparent that this is merely an exercise, because he’s going so fast, there’s only time for a 1- or 2-syllable response before he asks the next table. “How was everything?” “Great!” “How was everything?” “Awesome!” “How was everything?” “Incredible!”
If you’re going to ask how everything was, be prepared to respond with something meaningful when a customer who’s not going along with the routine says, “The ribs were miniscule and cold, the pulled pork was the driest I’ve ever had and this brisket I wouldn’t even feed to my dog!”
“We’re going to be opening up several of these.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a restaurant owner say this, I’d have enough money to buy a 64-ounce Porterhouse steak at Peter Luger. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a restaurant owner say this before he had his first house in order, I’d have enough money to buy two 64-ounce Porterhouse steaks at Peter Luger.
“I’m going to open up a barbecue restaurant that’ll put all the others to shame.”
This is one that I hear a lot, and from different camps. From competition cooks during an all-nighter at a contest. From smoker-owning friends as we leave the parking lot after yet another disappointing barbecue restaurant meal. And I’ve even said it a few times myself. The reason it’s a pet peeve is that in most cases the claim isn’t based on reality. Sure, the barbecue you cook in your back yard is great. So is mine. But that doesn’t mean you know how to run a restaurant, where you have to worry about missed deliveries and employee theft and turnover and food waste and customer complaints and equipment failures. It’s not easy.
How To Tell If A BBQ Joint is Going To Be Good
A few months ago, barbecue personality Remus Powers (Ardie Davis) wrote an article in the Bullsheet (the Kansas City Barbeque Society's monthy newsletter) talking about the five rules that determine whether a barbecue joint is worth a visit. In June, White Trash BBQ summarized these rules for What Makes a Good BBQ Joint.
I mostly agree with them, as long as you apply them loosely. After visiting more than 100 barbecue joints, I've developed a few of my own:
1. Can you smell any smoke?
If you can smell the smoke, it’s a good sign. For years I lived about a block from a Burger King and the fragrance each night was amazing, but that’s not what you want to smell. I’m talking about the sweet aroma of burning fruitwoods. When Blue Ribbon (W. Newton MA) still did their smoking onsite (it’s now done at an offsite commissary under owner Geoff Janowski’s supervision), I could smell it all the way from the treadmill at the gym next door and it would cut my workout time in half. Ideally, you shouldn’t smell the smoke as far as a block away, but notice it just before you walk in the restaurant’s front door. At Goody Cole’s (Brentwood NH) and Holy Smokes (W. Hatfield MA), I don’t always notice it that much while I’m there but can pick it up on my shirt after I get home. Burning wood means smoked meat. The joint might still not get it totally right, but at least you know they’re not cooking your ribs in an oven.
2. Do the other diner’s plates look good?
If it’s a sit down place where the hostess leads you to your table, do some advance scouting along the way by checking out the plates at other diner’s tables. Does the brisket look dry or juicy? Are the ribs meaty or thin? Is the pulled pork served in big chunk and long strings, or overmashed? Is the ‘cue too dependent on the sauce? I’m not saying you should leave based on your observations, but they might steer you into ordering the meat they do best, or possibly a fail-safe burger. I also like to look at other diner’s plates during and after the meal, as a sanity check. There’s always the chance that I just happened to wind up with a more-meaty, less-meaty, drier or wetter rack of ribs than is the norm.
3. Do they only serve babybacks?
If the restaurant’s menu says they only have babyback ribs, that’s cause for concern. Babybacks are great when they’re done right, but too often they’re just a shortcut. They’re already tender, so you could get away with just grilling them, which I’ve seen too often at barbecue restaurants. The greater risk is that they’re going to be the soggy, overcooked dreck that’s commonly served at all the chain restaurants. There are exceptions, of course. Buck’s Naked (Freeport ME) only serves babybacks and Willie B’s (Bay Shore NY) started out with just babybacks, but both joints completely defied the babyback stereotype, serving smoky, well-seasoned ‘cue that’s real and good.
4. Does the menu emphasize breadth over depth?
Barbecue joints that are heavy on breadth and light on depth scare me. By breadth, I mean a wider than wide-ranging menu full of non-barbecue items like pastas, salads, steaks, fish and the like. I understand the need to diversify the menu—it’s almost a necessity to attract the diverse customer base that can sustain the restaurant’s profitability. But straying too far from the barbecue basics can have two effects: less attention paid to the barbecue items and slower barbecue turnover. The first effect is self-explanatory, but the slower turnover could be even more devastating. Fresh ‘cue requires a large and steady volume. Adding all those other items may be good for business, but you may be hijacking your own customers and hurting your barbecue.
By depth, I mean barbecue options. Are there different cuts of pork ribs? Do they only serve beef ribs? Rib tips? Can you get sliced brisket and chopped brisket? Do they have burnt ends? Do they go beyond the basics and offer smoked pastrami, lamb or duck? Depth is a good sign, especially if they offer something out of the ordinary. What if there’s a glaring omission, like the lack of pulled pork at Hill Country (NYC) or the missing brisket at KC’s Rib Shack (Manchester NH)? If it means they’re focusing more attention on other meats instead, that’s okay. As long as it doesn’t mean more pasta.
5. Is there an open kitchen?
If there’s an open kitchen or anything close to it, that’s a good sign. I’m not saying that those who don’t have one always have something to hide, but some do. If you can follow the path your meat takes, from the time it leaves the smoker (ideally) or a holding bin (the next best thing) to the cutting board to the plate, you’ve got a high probability of getting good ‘cue. Sometimes you only get to see the last few steps, like at Lester’s (Burlington MA), Big W (Wingdale NY). Other times you have to peek through a window specifically designed for the voyeur, like at Q (Port Chester NY) or RUB (NYC). I’m a big fan of the grillside table at East Coast Grill (Cambridge MA), where you can sit within arm’s reach of the warming racks of ribs and spit-cooked chickens, observing the entire operation from the fry cooks to the grill team.
6. Is the joint near the ocean or in a tourist area?
I haven’t had good luck with barbecue joints near the ocean or near vacation spots in general, and it’s probably not just a coincidence. Restaurants in tourist areas typically don’t depend on repeat business. They know you’re probably not coming back anyway, so why jump through hoops to impress?
7. Are there more than four TVs?
Some joints have a television set or two because they know there are some customers who want to check a score during a sporting event. It also gives the lone diners something to do besides stare at the other diners. Sports bars can be a lot of fun, but if there are more than four TVs, they become less of an amenity and more of the main attraction. At a good ‘cue joint, the barbecue is supposed to be the main attraction. The most notable exception is Bailey’s Smokehouse (Blauvelt NY), which would also be an exception to a “Do they serve pizza?” rule.
Names and Concepts for BBQ Joints
I long ago stopped thinking up names for bands and now just focus on names for restaurants. Here are several million dollars worth of ideas, free for the taking:
Pulled Pork Sammy’s
The name comes from the urban slang for “sandwich,” but the concept is a pork shoulder-driven menu. It’s the cheapest and most profitable of all the barbecue meats, the easiest one to hold and reheat, and the healthiest option after chicken. There would be Carolina style sandwiches with slaw and super tart vinegar (my choice) and more Yankee-friendly versions with sweet sauce. There’d be cold pork salads with vegetables and herbs. There’d be different shoulders on display with different flavor profiles: mustard slathered, Mayo slathered, Jamaican jerk, Italian fennel seed, Sichuan peppercorns, you name it. And there’d be a nod to ice cream legend Steve Herrell: pork with mix-ins ranging from crispy smoked bacon cubes to dried apples. There would be enough choices that ribs wouldn’t even be necessary.
I don’t know why, but this is a name that requires dim lighting, white tablecloths, linen napkins and a serious wine list. The kind of a place where you’d expect to see roasted quail and smoked rack of lamb. The emphasis would be barbecue, but there would be steaks rivaling those at the major steakhouses.
I just like the name because it’s not only a cut from the pig, but also the event at which you eat it. It’s one of those one-word-singular names you’d find in Manhattan.
Mosi Tatupu’s Big Island Luau
Here’s a combination that can’t fail: all-you-can-drink tropical cocktails, all-you-can-eat barbecue with Pacific Rim influences, tiki kitsch décor, live hula dancers and a Patriots-themed sports bar (old logo only) with a focus on Tatupu, the Samoan running back for the New England Patriots in the late 1970s and 1980s.
This pork haven is basically a Hooters rip-off, where the waitresses (sorry, no waiters here) would wear revealing pink shirts and their hair in pigtails. Completing the ensemble would be a pink pig tail, Playboy bunny style, at the appropriate location. The food? I haven’t gotten around to that part yet.
Kosher pork on pumpernickel or rye. No milkshakes here.
This is an almost-rip-off, basically a more barbecue-centric version of the Bugaboo Creek chain. Amid Canadian wilderness décor, you can feast on barbecued venison, spit-roasted elk and (of course) Canadian bacon. The sauces would all include maple. And the name of the restaurant would be pronounced with both F’s, just as in the 1966 episode of F Troop that featured Paul Lynde as the Burglar of Banff. I can see it now: “Welcome to Banff, is this your ffirst visit?”
I thought of this one at least 20 years ago, long before I got hooked on barbecue, but it makes more sense with barbecue than with anything else. Imagine small, college-dorm-sized refrigerators, each filled with a different assortment of smoked meats, cheeses, creative condiments, fruits and vegetables. I’m talking smoked turkey legs wrapped in foil, chunks of smoked ham (or SPAM), smoked gouda, a slew of macaroni and potato salads, seasonal fruit, etc. You’d order the fridge of choice based on size, sight unseen, then your waiter would wheel it to the table and plug it in. You’d get carving knives and bread to make sandwiches, but the rest is up to you.
Everything’s fried. Fish, chicken, even burgers. Bacon, smoked then fried. Sausages, smoked then fried. You want sides? Fried green tomatoes, onion rings, shoestring fries, fried cauliflower, fried fennel or fried artichoke hearts. This wouldn’t be like the Just Shirts store that also has pants. Everything’s fried, period. At the end of the meal you don’t just get a wetnap, but Clearasil and Lipitor too.
This watering hole’s name is borrowed from Underdog’s #1 nemesis, but other than that, there wouldn’t be any tie-in. I just like the name.
- Asian Pan (pan Asian)
- Pork Avenue
- Dip (what they call sauce in North Carolina)
- Low Calcutta (Indian food for the dieting crowd)
- Cheesesteak Factory (you'd get sued but think of it as advertising)
- Belmont Steaks
"Award Winning" Barbecue at Restaurants
In a recent Pet Peeves post, I talked about “award winning” barbecue, effectively saying that you’ve got to take these awards with a grain of salt. Now don’t get me wrong (or as Roger Clemens likes to say, “make no mistake about it”), I have the utmost respect for both restaurateurs and competition BBQ chefs. Winning first place in a BBQ competition is a huge accomplishment and a testament to the skill and dedication of the entire team. I’m just saying that the ‘cue served in the restaurant at a restaurant that touts its awards will usually bear little resemblance to the ‘cue that won those awards.
But how can it?
In competition, the pitmasters know the turn-in times (one for each different meat) and structure their entire cooking and serving process around the notion that the barbecue will be at its absolute peak at its one designated time. That won’t happen in a restaurant, even by sheer coincidence.
In competition, the meats are served right out of the smoker, never having seen a refrigerator after cooking. With very few exceptions, that doesn’t happen even at the best barbecue restaurants. Unlike a steak that’s cooked to order, barbecued meats have to be cooked long before the customer even thinks of dining in the restaurant. In order to handle the anticipated volume, the restaurant needs to cook just enough product. Cooking less than that could mean turning business away (i.e., for customers who only come for the burnt ends and have no interest in the brisket). Cooking more than that results in two difficult choices at the end of the day: throw the leftover meat away (which is tantamount to throwing money away) or refrigerate it and reheat it the next day. Some joints do a really good job reheating, but it’s just not the same as meat right from the smoker.
Restaurant pitmasters usually use different equipment at their restaurants from what they use in competition, whether due to the high volume or their smoke ventilation requirements. In competition, they may be using different woods and a stronger level of smoke than is commercially viable at the restaurant. Barbecue judges like more smoke than soccer moms do, but it’s the soccer moms who may be keeping the restaurant in business.
There’s something about a competition that gets the creative juices flowing. The restaurant pitmaster may be experimenting with new rubs and sauces that are completely different from what’s used in the restaurant. If these get good responses from the judges and the friends who taste samples, they might make their way into the restaurant.
Most importantly, there’s that extra level of care and attention paid to serving that one container of ‘cue. Everything has to be perfect and everything is checked and double-checked for doneness, flavor and appearance. There will be more time spent getting the lettuce to look pretty at the bottom of the competition container than will be spent making sure everything’s right on your plate in the restaurant.
So does all this mean that you should dismiss the rows of trophies and claims of awards? Absolutely not. At a joint with trophies, chances are you’re going to get a good meal (and there's one I know where you'll get a great meal). Just don’t expect the same barbecue that won the trophy.
(06/28/07 and 6/29/07)
Thoughts While Judging in NH
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.
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).
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.
BBQ Restaurant Ordering Strategies
By the Pound
I like joints that sell barbecued meats by the pound. In the Northeast, you’ll see this at RUB (NYC), Fette Sau (Brooklyn), Wilson’s (Fairfield CT) and Bendle-Bean’s (Pembroke MA). This method gives you the ultimate flexibility to create any combo you want and eat as much or as little as you want, in the ratios you want. An added bonus, of course, is getting it when you want, ensuring that everything’s as fresh as possible: "We’ll start with a pound of the burnt ends and a half pound each of the pulled pork and pastrami. Then, in a half-hour or so, could you please bring us a pound of sausage and a half pound of brisket? Oh yeah, and Diet Cokes all around!"
Usually, barbecue sold by the pound gets served in a pan, basket or cardboard boat lined with butcher paper. It’s great for sharing, because you can just pass the boats around the way you would Chinese entrées at a family style restaurant. And nobody’s cole slaw is worse for wear.
I’d like to see different prices for different quantities, though. A half pound of pulled pork? That’ll be $7. A full pound? Make it $12. A pound of meat that’s a quarter pound each of four different meats? That would have to be $14.
By the Piece
For meats with bones, it makes more sense to go by the piece. I like BBQ joints that sell ribs not only by the rack and half rack, but also as individual bones. This seems to be more prevalent at Massachusetts BBQ joints, like Blue Ribbon (W. Newton and Arlington), East Coast Grill (Cambridge), Jake’s Dixie Roadhouse (Waltham), Redbones (Somerville) and Firefly’s (Marlboro, Framingham, Quincy). Some places, like Uncle Willie’s (Waterbury CT and New Haven CT) and Hen House (Southington CT), have separate prices for nearly a dozen different permutations of ribs and/or chicken. It makes things a lot easier for groups to order and be able to share, without anyone getting left out.
The single bone is also great as an add-on when you feel like ordering something else (sometimes not even barbecue, as I often do at East Coast Grill in Cambridge), but still want a little taste of rib. Single bones nowadays run as much as $3 per bone, which makes sense for an add-on, but I’d like to see something like whole racks for $22, half racks for $12, additional bones $2 and single bones $3. That way if you’ve got a group of 3 and you want 3 bones apiece, you order a half rack plus 3 bones.
In that vein, I’d also like to see sausages sold by the link. Five guys? Five links. No guesswork.
You could even apply the "by the piece" concept to sides, as is often done for cornbread. If you want cornbread, add it on for 75 cents or so. If not, why waste it?
I’m a big believer in the theory that it’s best to order the largest size of any one meat that makes sense. If you order a 4-meat combo with ribs, pulled pork, brisket and chicken, you’ll probably wind up with a piece of chicken that’s nowhere near as good as the whole chicken over at the next table. And your two or three ribs probably won’t be as good as the ribs on that full rack at another table. Racks always taste better than half racks, which always taste better than individual bones. Whole chickens are better than half chickens (which aren’t noticeably better, other than for peace of mind, than quarter chickens). If you and I both feel like ribs and pulled pork, we’re probably better off splitting a rack or half rack along with a pulled pork sandwich. The "Go Large" concept isn’t about getting more food—it’s about getting better food. If you go to the same joint every week and always get that same 4-meat combo, try getting a 2-meat combo instead, alternating the meats from visit to visit. You’ll get better quality.
The obvious drawback of the "Go Large" method is the sharing aspect, which has two components. First, you can only share food with people who share your philosophy on manners. You don’t want Saliva Sam sticking his fork into the tub of potato salad if he just licked the barbecue sauce off it. Or double-dipping his rib into the shared container of barbecue sauce. Always ask for communal serving utensils and make sure you only use them to handle the shared food. Or eat with people who don’t mind swapping spit. The second sharing drawback is making sure there’s not one guy at the center of the table hogging all the ribs. I’m lucky to have a good group of people that I go with, so neither of these pitfalls has ever been a problem.
The Sandwich Route
Sandwiches aren’t just for lunch anymore. They’re a great way to get maximal meats with minimal commitment. If the accompanying sides can be changed up with each sandwich, even better. When alone, I’ll often get a sandwich and two ribs. The sacrifice here is the cornbread (if the two-meat platter includes it), but it’s a small price to pay. With groups (especially even-numbered groups), it’s a lot easier to split a sandwich into two halves or four quarters than it is to divvy up a plate of pork. This strategy lets you sample all the barbecue meats while still leaving room for ribs or other specialties not available as sandwiches. It’s also a great way to enjoy sandwiches that are creations unto themselves, such as the BLFGT (bacon, lettuce and fried green tomato) and the Reuben Crusher at RUB (NYC).
Joltin' Joe and BBQ
On this day 71 years ago, Joe DiMaggio played his first major league game for the New York Yankees. One of the all-time great Yankees and arguably the greatest center fielder to ever play the game, DiMaggio will always be remembered for his grace on the field and his quiet dignity off the field.
DiMaggio was an intense perfectionist who led by example and always hustled, regardless of the score or the standings. "Because there is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time, I owe him my best."
There have been many times when I've been to even some of the better barbecue joints and asked myself, had this been my first visit, was it good enough to return? Too often the answer is no, but they get a pass based on previous performance.
I know, barbecue is one of those things that can't be perfect every time. Even the great DiMaggio had some 0-for-4 afternoons. But he never coasted on reputation, and wasn't satisfied with just one championship. The effort and dedication were always there, and the standards were set high. There are some barbecue joints that can also make that claim, but there are a lot more that can't.
Getting Way Too Dippy
On Sunday night I was enjoying some sushi (no, I don't always eat barbecue). Or at least I think I was enjoying the sushi. You see, I'm a big fan of wasabi, which I like to mix liberally into my bowl of soy sauce for serious dipping. I'm also a big fan of pickled ginger, which I like to use—equally liberally—as a topping. There's nothing technically wrong with doing either of these things, but it's not how a serious sushi eater would do it.
If you order five different kinds of sushi, they should all taste great but but not identical. Mine all tasted like soy, wasabi and ginger, just how I like it. Eventually, I'll ease up on the flavor enhancements and learn to appreciate the nuances of the different sushi varieties as well as the art of creating great sushi.
1. I like to overwhelm my sushi with soy, wasabi and ginger.
2. I know it's wrong.
3. I'll try to learn to taste the flavors of the sushi.
4. I might actually like my sushi better with fewer intrusive flavors.
5. If I continue to eat sushi the way I have, that's OK too.
You probably saw the barbecue analogy coming way back in the first paragraph. It may seem that on this site I'm always putting sauce down. I'm not. I like barbecue sauce, and I some of the better ones I've tasted really enhance the flavor of the meat.
What I'm against isn't the sauce itself but a few things related to it:
sauce being used as a crutch to rescue old/tough meat
simply adding barbecue sauce to boiled or oven baked meat and calling that barbecue
oversaucing perfectly good barbecue to the point where you can't taste the meat
But just like with my sushi, I'm not telling you not to use sauce. Eat what you like and like what you eat. My hope for this site is not to have everyone agree with me, just to help people find the barbecue joints that they're likely to like.
My Spring 2007 Most Wanted List
There are still many New England and New York BBQ joints I've yet to hit. Here's the 2007 follow-up to my 2006 Most Wanted List of the ten places I most want to try in the coming weeks:
#1 Big W's, Wingdale NY
Yes, I visited it two weeks ago, but when I first compiled this list I still hadn't made the trip. This is the former roadside operation in Pawling that moved on up (Route 22, that is) to a new indoor location in Wingdale last December. Food critic and Serious Eats honcho Ed Levine calls Big W's ribs the best he's had within a 90-mile radius of New York City. This joint was also prominently featured in the March 7 New York Times BBQ special.
#2 Fette Sau, Brooklyn NY
This month-old joint in Brooklyn has the right look (a converted auto body shop), the right menu (Berkshire pork, limited offerings) and the endorsement of a competitor-turned-restaurant-pitmaster whose opinion I trust.
New York magazine listing
#3 Chico's, Guilderland NY
This Albany area joint comes with a strong recommendation from a fellow NEBS barbecue competitor and judge. The menu looks good and it's a much shorter drive than Manhattan.
#4 Route 7 Grill, Great Barrington MA
This new joint in the boonies of Western Massachusetts comes with two recommendations from people I trust within the competition community. One said the beef ribs were the best she'd ever had.
#5 Hill Country BBQ, New York City
This joint isn't even open yet (it may be in May), but I know it will be good. The pitmaster, Rob Richter, is a rising star on the competition circuit. I'm looking forward to sampling some Texas style clod and some other beefy bites, and I've already mapped out the barbecue crawl routes from nearby Blue Smoke and RUB.
#6 Smoke 'n' Bones, Oak Bluffs MA
I've heard good things about this joint on Martha's Vineyard. As said once before, going here would be that rare day trip that's fun for both me and my wife.
#7 Norm's, Portland ME
I like Maine and I like barbecue, so this should be a no-brainer. If it doesn't work out, there's always the fries next door at Duck Fat.
#8 Front Street Smokehouse, Elizabeth NJ
Plenty of reasons: last year's Front Street Smokehouse report in Off the Broiler looked pretty tasty; these guys also compete in BBQ contests; and who would turn down a chance to visit New Jersey in the spring?
#9 Parker's Maple Barn, Mason NH
Did you say ribs and eggs for breakfast? I'm there.
#10 Dallas Jones, New York City
On bulletin boards and forums, this place hardly gets a mention among New York BBQ fans, but when it does, the comments are usually favorable. Besides, I see four reasons to go here: B.Y.O.B.
Regular Advice from Mario, Norm and the Fat Guy
It’s already April and I’m still making my way through last month’s magazines. The March Men’s Health had a nice little feature with advice from some of Food Network personalities, and I was glad to see Mario Batali represented. Two of Mario’s recommendations were familiar mantras from the Molto Mario shows: establish good relationships with your fishmonger and your butcher to ensure getting the best available product.
By sticking with one purveyor, and not trying to simply find the lowest price at different stores, you create a rapport that translates into the freshest items and best cuts being saved for you. Maybe the purveyor will also prepare the meat or fish in a way that isn’t possible for the majority of his customers. Maybe he’ll place a special order for you or let you in on some new product before it’s available to the general public. If you’re a competition cook, having a butcher or meat supplier you can count on is a must. It’s really quite simple: if you’re loyal to him, he’ll be loyal to you.
The concept also translates to barbecue restaurants. Remember on Cheers, how every time Norm Peterson entered the bar, they not only knew his name but cheered it? You can bet Norm got faster service, better bar snacks and a better all around experience than the extras in the background. If you’re a regular, you might not only get cheered like Norm but also get treated better than the norm. You might get served ribs from the batch that just came out of the smoker even though there are still a few racks left from the night before. You might get noticeably bigger portions of the side dishes. Or you might be the first to weigh in on a new creation for an upcoming menu change, free of charge.
Yes, it’s good to be a regular. In the dining out manifesto Turning the Tables, food critic and eGullet founder Steven A. Shaw (a.k.a. “the Fat Guy”) explores the topic for several pages, starting with this:
The best restaurant isn’t the one with the highest Zagat rating, the most stars from the local paper, or the cute celebrity chef. It's the one where you’re a regular.
Even if you’re not a regular, you can still get treated well just through sheer effort:
- If a combo comes with a quarter chicken, ask for the part that you prefer (white meat or dark meat). Some places charge more for white meat; some don't care. It can't hurt to ask. I’m a reformed white meat guy who now swears by the thigh quarter.
- If you’re ordering a combo with a few ribs, ask that the ribs come from the end you prefer (the short end or the long end). Manhattan’s RUB is the only joint I know that actually lists the long end and short end separately on their menu. The long end’s ribs are bigger, but I like that extra meaty last rib from the short end.
- Ask what’s fresh. You may get the “everything’s fresh” answer born from either ignorance or salesmanship, but many of the smaller BBQ joint owners will tell you. One way of doing this is to order “a combo of the ribs and whatever you think is the fresher today between the brisket and the pork.” Say it something like that and you’ll probably get better ribs too.
Play Ball! And the Elusive Triple Crown
Today major league baseball starts its season, and today every team is in first place. It's a day for optimism. With the Red Sox opening in Kansas City, I would have loved to see the game live and the celebrate a victory with a brisket sandwich at Arthur Bryant's. Maybe next year.
It was 40 years ago that the Red Sox had their "Impossible Dream" season, taking them from last place the year before to the 1967 World Series. That year, Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI. For whatever reason, it's something that no player in either league has been able to do in the 40 years since. It's hard enough to combine power and average; it's nearly impossible to do both better than all your competition.
Much in the same way, it's hard to achieve what I call the barbecue version of the triple crown—excellence in ribs, pulled pork and brisket. There are the joints that excel at ribs, and there are those that dazzle with pulled pork, and there are the rare few who know how to produce fine brisket. But doing all three better than anyone else is probably too much to ask.
OK, so how about doing all three, to the best of the restaurant's ability, all in one meal? That is, to get a 3-meat combo where all three meats are as good as they ever made them, with no comparison to another BBQ restaurant. Even that's tough. Some days the ribs are perfect and the pork is just a shade dry. Sometimes the brisket is mind blowing and the ribs are just a shade dry. Sometimes all three are really good but you can remember when it was better.
It's hard. At some of my favorite joints, it's actually harder, because the bar has been set so high from previous visits that even great isn't as great as their greatest. But someday, it will happen. It's a day for optimism.
March Madness: Brackets and Seeds
With March Madness upon us, photocopiers in offices across America are being used to record NCAA basketball picks—for entertainment purposes only, of course. Around the water cooler (I prefer a bubbler, but that's another story) there's lots of talk about brackets and seeds. With the weather in suburban Boston warming up, I’m looking at a different kind of March madness, also with brackets and seeds.
My kitchen's barbecue spice shelf only has two brackets, but there are plenty of seeds. You'll never find any ground cumin or coriander on my barbecue spice shelf. But I do have jars of whole cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, celery seeds, fennel seeds and mustard seeds. Don't bother trying to find any ground black pepper either, because it's not there. But you will find plenty of black peppercorns, pink peppercorns and Sichuan peppercorns. I've got whole allspice berries too. Never ground.
Why whole seeds? Just like coffee beans, seeds retain their flavor much longer on the shelf in their whole form. And just like coffee beans, they supply more flavor intensity if ground right before using, even if fresh. Although it's become over-dramatized at some restaurants, there's a reason why waiters wield huge pepper mills and ask if you want freshly ground pepper on your salad or meat. Freshly ground is a quantum leap in flavor from pepper that may have been ground a year ago and lost its mojo months ago.
Sure, it's very tempting to go to your local CVS and buy several of their 99-cent jars of ground spices, but if there's no flavor in that jar, where's the value? If you’re going to invest as much as 18 hours buying, preparing and smoking your meat, why not invest another dollar or so in a spice upgrade? After investigating specialty spice shops, you might find—as I did—that there are some real bargains there. Shops like Christina’s (Cambridge MA) and Kalustyan’s (NYC) also let you add some excitement to your rubs with several varieties of fennel and dozens of different peppercorns, plus the various paprika permutations among sweet, hot, smoked, Spanish and Hungarian. Even for the most exotic items, you’ll find that whole is less expensive than ground.
Whole seeds pack more flavor than ground, but toasted whole seeds have yet another dimension of flavor. Throw some whole seeds into a dry frying pan over medium heat for a just a few minutes. Allow them to smoke, then stir and remove after they get some color but before they have a chance to burn. You’ll wind up with some serious flavor. The toasting process awakens and releases the oils within the seeds, adding a pleasingly burnt, nutty aspect and intensifying the essence of the seed. It’s a lot like roasting peanuts or coffee beans.
I like to grind the seeds for my rubs in an inexpensive coffee grinder. Unless you enjoy really unusual coffee or heated arguments with your loved one, it’s a good idea to use a different grinder from the one you use for your morning brew. Try experimenting with different textures, varying between fine powders and bumpy mixes. Sometimes after grinding, I’ll throw some whole seeds into my rub.
Using quality ingredients in a rub can take a little extra time and money, but I think the small investment has a huge payback in flavor. How many times have you heard Emeril tell you to throw away those months-old jars of spices in your cabinet? He's right.
The Sundance Head Phenomenon
Some fans of American Idol are bemoaning the loss of Sundance Head, who was eliminated from the competition last Thursday. Despite a very good first audition, he failed to sing on key in every performance since then.
Some barbecue joints are like this, which (beside varying personal tastes) explains why people argue over which joints are great and which joints shouldn't even be in business. They might be very impressive on the first visit, then fail to even come close to duplicating that level on subsequent visits.
There could be a joint you think is really good and that I think is awful. If we ate there together, our disagreement is simply one of personal preference. If we ate there on separate occasions, we might both be right. They might have produced the best plate of barbecue they ever served on your visit, and they might have been their usual sorry-ass selves on my visit. Or vice versa.
I wish there were more barbecue joints that were great every time.
The Little Things
Whether or not you like a barbecue joint mostly comes down to the quality of the meats and sides. But sometimes there are little things that just make you feel good. I’m not talking about an unusual dish, or an unexpected flair with one of the usual ones, or even the complimentary food items you sometimes get when seated (that’s another subject for another day). I’m talking about things almost unrelated to the food itself.
It’s like when you pull into a gas station and you get one of the few pumps left in America with a latch that lets you fill up hands-free. It doesn’t make the gas any better, but you get that tiny little feel-good lift.
Here’s my feel-good list for today, in no particular order:
SoulFire, Boston MA:
Speaking of pumps, the little thing I like most here is the barbecue sauce dispensers. A throwback to the soda fountain days, these pumps near the food receiving area are heated from below, ensuring warm sauce every time.
Daisy May’s, NYC:
They’re a rarity in Manhattan: high quality barbecue served from behind a counter or one of their remote carts. In Massachusetts, this approach is common, but in New York, it’s a treat to be able to get served quickly and take it into the next room and eat in peace. Another little thing I like here is the set of three communal tables. Even though we northerners sometimes bristle at the idea of sitting with complete strangers, the communal table concept is a Southern thing that adds a little authenticity. And what better way to make new friends than over a plate of barbecue?
Memphis Roadhouse, S. Attleboro MA:
The toothpicks here are plastic and have a curve to them, making them the perfect dental tool after a barbecue meal. Now if they could get these individually wrapped in plastic, it would be even better. They also serve the barbecue sauces in heated squeeze bottles.
Wilson’s, Fairfield CT:
Pickles are treated seriously here. They’re house-made, they’re thick and they have a bite to them. Okay, so I broke my own rule about not including food items. But the obligatory pickles at most places are such an afterthought, it’s worth a mention.
Incidentally, the best pickles I ever had at a barbecue joint were on my first visit to the aforementioned SoulFire (I was their first customer on day 1). Their pickles have since become more ordinary, but they’re still very good. I’ve also had very good pickles at East Coast Grill in Cambridge, whose owner, Chris Schlesinger, wrote a book on pickles a few years ago.
Tennessee’s, multiple Boston suburb locations:
You get three sides with every meat platter. If you want cornbread, you have to use one of your sides (like using a lifeline) to get it, but if you don’t want cornbread, you’ve got yourself a bonus side.
American BBQ, Rowley MA:
The paper towel dispensers are built into the sides of the tables, keeping the table clutter-free.
If you look at the wide-ranging meat menu closely, you’ll notice that there aren’t any references to “Memphis ribs” or “North Carolina pulled pork” or any regional affiliations. It’s just good ol’ barbecue. You’ll also notice that there aren’t any dishes called “Cousin Elmo’s potato salad” or the like. They’re not trying to be cute, they’re not trying to be a roadhouse, a frat house or have cool fake graffiti in the outhouse. It’s all about the food, and I like that.
KC's Rib Shack, Manchester NH:
They have one of the funniest, most well written menus I've ever seen.
Lester’s Roadside BBQ, Burlington MA:
After you order at the counter, you get to watch your meat being cut right up front. It’s so close, you could stick your hand in and grab a piece (no, I haven’t done that yet). Other joints that offer a thrill for the voyeur, in varying degrees, include RUB in NYC (a sidewalk window into the kitchen), Q in Port Chester NY (a view from the dining area) and East Coast Grill in Cambridge MA (two grillside tables).
Uncle Pete’s Hickory Ribs, Revere MA:
The old time booths here are big and comfortable and are so high that you can’t see the people in the next booth. That’s a treat, because when the serious ribs here are being devoured, some things (and people) are just better off unseen.
Bank Street Roadhouse, New London CT:
No, I’m not going to mention the array of attractive young ladies this joint promotes on their website and on posters outside the place. It’s their skee-ball. To my knowledge, this is the region’s only barbecue joint (if you can call it that) where you can play skee-ball while gnawing on ribs. And no, please don’t bring the kids. Trust me on this one.
Linwood Grill, Boston MA :
They have a free parking lot. For a joint only 2 blocks from Fenway Park, it's almost too good to be true. The now-departed Rouge in Boston had valet parking, a true rarity among barbecue joints.
Blue Smoke, NYC:
There are a few little things I like here. First and foremost, it’s a classy, well-run restaurant that’s ideal for a date, and you can't say that about most barbecue joints. I also like the communal sink outside the ladies’ and men’s rooms. Their Magic Dust (a secret blend of herbs and spices) supplied in a shaker on the table is a nice touch that I’d like to see used more widely. Other joints that offer spice mixes as an add-on are Willie B's BBQ (Bay Shore NY), SoulFire (Boston) and East Coast Grill (Cambridge).
East Coast Grill, Cambridge MA:
In addition to what's already been mentioned, ECG has the best neighbors a restaurant can have, making for the perfect crawl. Start at Christina's Spice Shop (1 door East of ECG), where you can load up on smoked paprikas, unusual peppercorns and exotic salts for home cooking. Then head to Bukowksi Tavern (1 door West) for a pre-dinner beer from the largest selection in the city. Then grab a table at All Star Sandwich Bar (4 doors East, same ownership as ECG) for a bowl of spicy Texas chili made with smoked brisket. Then head to East Coast Grill for the main attraction. Finish the meal with the area's best ice cream at Christina's Ice Cream (2 doors East, same ownership as Christina's Spice Shop). Then enjoy an evening of comedy at the Improv Asylum (3 doors East). I've never visited all 6 places in the same night, but I've hit 4 of them many times.
Chipotle Chiles Go Mainstream?
As February draws to an end, I realized I forgot to mention one of the top trends in the Saveur 100, the cover story in the February issue of Saveur magazine. In the #5 slot was Chipotle Chiles Go Mainstream.
Remember when smoky-tasting, superhot Mexican chipotle chiles were as hard to find as hen's teeth? We do, and we couldn't be happier to bid those days of dearth good-bye. It's a joy to see this versatile chile become part of the American vernacular.
Like most fans of smoky flavors, I love chipotle, but I do have a few issues:
1. I wouldn't exactly call chipotle "superhot." According the Scoville scale, chipotle is about half as hot as serrano and 5% (at best) as hot as habanero.
2. Though not incorrect, I'd also hesitate to use the term "chipotle chiles," since chipotles are simply smoked jalapeños. Similarly, ancho is a dried version of poblano.
3. If chipotles are part of the American vernacular, why can't most Americans prounounce the word correctly? Many of the planet's most educated people and most accomplished chefs (and yes, there's overlap) routinely mispronounce the term. It's prounounced chee-POTE-lay. I cringe every time Emeril Lagasse butchers the pronounciation.
Chipotle doesn't rhyme with Nick Nolte.
4. Okay, so maybe pronouncing "chipotle" as "chipolte" is an involuntary act, something that can't be helped. But you'd be amazed at how often it's misspelled.
Chipotle isn't Chipolte.
New York State of Mind
Some New York BBQ thoughts while walking the streets of Manhattan a few times over the last week:
The BBQ Darlings. It seems like the fab four of New York City barbecue are the four that invaded the city between 2002-2005: Blue Smoke, Daisy May's, Dinosaur and RUB. These are the restaurants that dominate the press, and for good reason. All started with legends in the kitchen or behind the scenes before they opened the door. All serve varying degrees of "authentic" barbecue, if there is such a thing. All provide good customer service. If you talk to different people, check the various publications or surf the foodie websites, you'll see the different camps: some swear by Dinosaur and hate RUB, some swear by Daisy May's and hate Blue Smoke, some swear by RUB and hate everyone else, and so on. For most people it boils down to a choice of style more than a judgment of competence. But it always seems to boil down to these four. Personally, I think two of the four are world class and the other two are just OK. But I think Virgil's might be unfairly shut out. It's an old-school restaurant that's been around forever in a very touristy area, and it's not as sexy as the other four. I'm not suggesting it's the best in the city, or even close, but I'll say this: Virgil's is in my NYC barbecue top four.
iPod, schmiPod. Last week there was a big brouhaha about pedestrians in Manhattan with iPods, along with a movement to enact legislation to make it illegal to cross the street while listening to an iPod. Every time I drive through an intersection in Manhattan, there are pedestrians crossing despite the orange "Do Not Walk" sign, whether they have an iPod or not. Similarly, when I'm a pedestrian and have the white "Walk" sign in my favor, cars (many with drivers illegally using cellphones) still try to mow me down. Let's try enforcing the existing laws before worrying about iPods.
Most Popular. Dallas BBQ makes me laugh. The signs in the windows and on their Times Square advertising proclaim it "New York's most popular BBQ restaurant." Not New York's "Best BBQ" or New York's "Best Ribs." Just the most popular. As in having the most customers. With at least 7 locations, I should hope they have the most customers. You'd think they'd have some balls and boast about something related to culinary excellence, but that would probably just make me laugh even more.
Bacon, a close friend of barbecue, got special treatment in the January 25 Time Out New York. One of the 9 restaurants mentioned in the feature was RUB, who got the nod for their BLFGT sandwich made with triple-smoked bacon chunks and fried green tomatoes. Time Out New York's Makin' Bacon feature
There's something about cold weather that makes me crave bacon for breakfast the same way I crave chili at night. But bacon is unique in that it's great for any meal, great as a side dish, great by itself and great with other foods (burgers, pizza, pasta, you name it). When it's cut thick and smoked, it's even better.
You've probably heard of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, where any actor connects to Kevin Bacon in six steps or fewer. How about Humphrey Bogart? He was in Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman, who was in Notorious with Cary Grant, who was in His Girl Friday with Ralph Bellamy, who was in Trading Places with Dan Aykroyd, who was in The Blues Brothers with John Belushi, who was in Animal House with Kevin Bacon.
I was trying to think up a Six Degrees of BACON game, where all foods connect to bacon in six steps or fewer. I couldn't do it, because there's no challenge. Bacon goes with everything except breakfast cereal.
All About All-You-Can-Eat
This piece is now posted on the All You Can Eat page.
Take My Money. Please.
Most takeout joints are set up so that you order, pay, and the system that prints your receipt also notifies the prep area of your order. But there are still a few holdouts that are less high-tech. This isn’t a problem as long as you take my money when I order, not after the food is done.
The possibility of the food not being at optimal temperature when it crosses the counter and the probability that it will get colder during the ride are tough enough. But when you add the extra delay of settling the bill while my food sits in its styrofoam sauna longer than necessary, it’s a pet peeve. Sure, it only takes a few seconds to handle this transaction—under ideal conditions. But if you’re on the phone, or bogged down in the kitchen, or taking a new customer’s order—with my luck a large order for 12 combo plates, all with different sides—I’d rather be able to take the bag silently and be driving away, knowing I’m about to eat a good, warm meal, not a cold one.
Christmas Wish Lists
- Tickets to the Red Sox 2007 opening game. No, not the home opener against Seattle on April 11. I'm talking about the season opener in Kansas City on April 2. Arthur Bryant's, anyone?
- Some good meals. I often get gift certificates of $25 or more to one of my favorite BBQ joints, but I'd much rather be taken out for a $12 meal than get a gift certificate for $25. The BBQ is great, but the camaraderie is just as important.
- Another Weber Smokey Mountain cooker. This smoker has served me well over the last two years. Its only real drawbacks are lack of surface area and a lower rack that can't be accessed without having to lift the top rack. The results I've achieved on it have been good, so I'd like another of the same smoker to be able to pump out a little more volume and use different woods at the same time. I wouldn't mind a J&R or a Backwoods or a Big Green Egg either, but I'm being realistic.
- Links. If only half the people who talked about linking to this site actually did so, I'd be ecstatic.
- Chicken fried bacon. A few days back I had a link to a YouTube video on chicken fried bacon, and I'm dying to have some of my favorite BBQ restaurateurs consider doing this as an appetizer special.
For some BBQ restaurants:
- A real web site for RUB. Yeah, they have a URL and a basic info page, but I'm looking for more, like menus, specials and events.
- A bigger men's room for Brother Jimmy's. It's so narrow I'm a few good meals away from getting stuck.
- Real napkins for Tennessee's. That coarse, brown, industrial-strength roll of paper towels doesn't cut it.
- A liquor license for Blue Ribbon. It would be nice to have a beer with my barbecue, but I know it's not in the cards. Geoff has a good thing going already without beer, so he's not interested in adding that element. OK, so make that a liquor license for SoulFire. But guess what? After weeks of saying it's only two weeks away, they've got one.
- Continuous improvement. I want all the iffy joints to get decent, all the decent ones to get good, all the good ones to get great and all the great ones to keep it going.
Those of you who've heard this story before, please indulge me.
A few years ago, back when I was doing consulting work, I joined Boston Sports Clubs, because it allowed me to work out near my home or near the multiple places I had jobs. One of the Boston Sports Clubs is located two doors down from Blue Ribbon in West Newton. At that time, my wife was really against my eating barbecue, and could always tell when I'd been there from the barbecue scent on my clothes. That's when I masterminded an ingenious plan: I'd work out, not shower, change into a new set of sweats, have my duo combo at Blue Ribbon, go back to the gym, then shower and change. All of the evidence was washed away.
That was then, this is now. My wife has grown to like Blue Ribbon and actually asks to tag along or have me bring some pulled pork or cabbage home for her. Ironically, I was in great shape then and not-so-great shape now. Yes, I know I said I'd be under 200 lbs by January 1. With 10 days to go, I can tell you it ain't happening this year (but it will by springtime). I guess the evidence is there afterall.
Thoughts on Tipping
A few days ago, we received a nice Christmas card from our paper delivery man, tucked inside the paper. He conveniently put his name and address on the envelope and even had the courtesy to not lick the envelope. A nice gesture, but this was obviously a hint for a holiday tip. Now, I'm a generous guy, and not only do I not mind tipping, I thoroughly enjoy tipping when it's warranted. For our thoughtful newspaper delivery man (whatever happened to paperboys? don't kids want to work anymore?), it's not warranted. My newspaper rarely arrives before 6:15 and I leave for work at 6:00, observing the (competitor) newspapers in my neighbors' driveways as I speed away. When my paper does arrive on time, it's often buried under a shrub or under my car. If it's raining, my paper is sure to be in a puddle. Sorry, dude, no tip.
My mailman, on the other hand, does deserve and receive a generous tip each year. This guy actually gets out of the vehicle to make his deliveries, and does it in all sorts of weather. If there's an important looking package or envelope, he takes it to the door, rings the bell and hands it to me. This isn't just right before the holidays, in a Sugar Ray Leonard-like attempt to come on strong and sway opinion. This is year 'round. Good guy, good service, good tip. I've asked around the office and I'm amazed that most people don't tip their mailman. The way I see it, if you can tip the coffee girl a handful of change every day, that's at least a dollar a week or $50 per year. The mailman works harder, has less creature comforts on the job, does much more for you and can be trusted with credit card statements and other sensitive items. Tip your mailman and tip him big.
OK, now to the part about barbecue (actually, any restaurant):
- For a full-service restaurant, if your server keeps your glass full the whole night, tip well.
- If you need to install a LoJack on your server to ensure seeing him or her again, don't tip so well.
- If you show up with a bunch of friends and split a bunch of dishes, asking for extra plates, extra serving spoons and the like, tip better than well. It's extra work, so show some love.
- If it's a buffet, let common sense prevail. Some say tip the usual amount (15-20%). Others say 10%. Try to judge how much effort's involved (clearing plates, refilling drinks, bringing out special hot sauces, etc.) and tip accordingly.
- Some people never tip for counter service, figuring that the order taker just punches your order in, hands you a ticket and that's all. Sometimes they show something extra, like the nice girl at Daisy May's who offered me a sample of the bourbon peaches. Or the pros at Blue Ribbon who keep the line moving without losing that personal touch. When you have a crew that knows what they're doing, don't screw up a good thing and allow turnover to happen. Show the love.
- If the food's not good, it's the kitchen's fault, not your server's. If the food's not what you ordered, it is your server's fault for not checking. If it takes several minutes after being seated to have a server greet you, it may or may not be your server's fault. If your burger arrives without ketchup and it takes several minutes to get ketchup while your burger gets cold, it's your server's fault. Tip accordingly.
- Sometimes you wind up with a really hot waitress, and that can be a good thing. If she has a nice personality, responds favorably to flirting and happens to be a great server, go ahead and tip big. If all she is is hot, then please don't encourage her.
- If you're a regular at your favorite place and you get a free dish or some free drinks, factor those in when determining the tip. Your server is still working to bring and clear those items, even if they're free. And if you get your whole meal comped, don't just tip your server; tip generously.
- Nothing can kill the morale of a server like a slow night. When you're getting about $2 an hour to restock the salt shakers and ketchup for most of your shift on a rainy Monday night, you really appreciate that unexpected great tip during the hour or so that you're actually serving. Make somebody's night some night.
What a Difference a (Time of) Day Makes
Or the day of the week. Or the passing of days.
Some joints (RUB in New York, Blue Ribbon in the Boston area, and Goody Cole's in New Hampshire all come to mind) are just as good at lunch as they are at dinner. Some joints are noticeably different at different times of the day. It's not that they're mailing it in at lunchtime (although some do). It's a simple barbecue fact that at most places, given the cooking times required, some meats crossing the counter today will have been smoked yesterday, possibly visiting the refrigerator before you eat them. Brisket may be your best bet at lunchtime: if loaded into the smoker in the early evening, it will be ready to eat just before lunch the next day.
A few joints, like East Coast Grill in Cambridge MA, don't even bother opening at lunch, allowing more focus on the evening meal.
I wish it wasn't always the case, but timing really matters. I try to visit joints at night and at busy times for that reason. I admit that some of my New York reviews suffer a bit from having lunches rather than dinners there. In my reviews, I try to always mention whether the meals were eaten at lunch or at dinner, and even whether it was a weekday or over the weekend. You can decide whether to factor in that info or not.
Many joints simply change over time. Some start out strong, with an enthusiastic pitmaster who's always in the joint, only to lose a little focus with exansion or changes in personnel. Others start out slowly and eventually find their groove.
My 2006 Most Wanted List
There are still many New England and New York BBQ joints I've yet to hit. Although I don't already maintain a formal list as such, I thought it would be fun to compile my "most wanted" list. Here are my top ten New England and New York BBQ joints I need to check out in the coming weeks:
#1 Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, NYC
A few readers reminded me that this is a gaping hole on my site. The original is in Syracuse, another branch is in Rochester and the most recently built outpost is in Harlem. With a recipe book, legendary wings, and ribs many New Yorkers swear by, Dinosaur is easily the single most "important" joint that I need to visit. www.dinosaurbarbque.com
#2 Buck's Naked, Freeport ME
I've heard wonderful things about this joint on Chowhound. It's possible that this joint is praised solely because there's nothing better to compare it to in the area, but I strongly suspect the praise is warranted.
#3 Big Bubba's BBQ, Uncasville CT
The slot machines and spectacle of Mohegan Sun shopping are enough of a lure to justify a roadtrip, and possibly enough to even offset a disappointing meal. But with BBQ legend Paul Kirk instrumental in getting it off the ground and a strong recommendation from BBQ competitor Ted Lorson (of QHaven), Big Bubba probably will do just fine. www.bigbubbasbbq.com
#4 Tremont 647, Boston MA
Chef/owner Andy Husbands is a member of the IQue competition team, one of the most formidable on the circuit today. I admit it, I've been to Tremont 647 many times, enjoying the signature momos, fish wrapped in a banana leaf and one of the best bread baskets in Boston. But I haven't been there since Andy closed his BBQ restaurant Rouge, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the "180" ribs are all about. I also would not be disappointed to see a reappearance of those amazing lamb ribs Rouge featured as passed appetizers at a few of their special Monday night dinners. www.tremont647.com
#5 Sausage Heaven, Manchester NH
According to a friend whose opinion I trust, this store in downtown Manchester has been offering phenomenal sausages for years. Now they serve weekday lunch barbecue that he's less enamored with, but I'm willing to take a chance, knowing I'll probably bat .500. If not, there's always KC's Rib Shack nearby. www.sausageheaven.com
#6 Waterfront Alehouse, NYC
This one was recommended by Hill Country BBQ's Robby Richter, one of the rising stars of competition barbecue. This is more of a joint that serves barbecue than a barbecue joint, and that's fine by me. The fact that they serve two kinds of chili is a huge plus. I'm there. www.waterfrontalehouse.com
#7 Willie B's, Bay Shore NY
This new take-out only joint has received raves from more than a few Chowhound readers, plus an endorsement from White Trash BBQ. With Smokin' Al's and Tennessee Jack's right around the corner, this could be the leadoff batter in a holiday BBQ crawl. www.williebsbbq.com
#8 Finkerman's BBQ, Montpelier VT
This is a long drive and might just be another one of those "it's good because there's nothing else better around it" places, but if it's good enough to be featured in a rib book that includes just 10 joints in New England and New York, it's worth a try. www.finkermans.com
#9 Hog House, Huntington Station NY
There are just too many positive comments on the Roadfood and Chowhound boards to ignore.
#10 Bank Street Roadhouse, New London CT
I know nothing about the food, but a quick perusal of their website convinces me I might like the service. www.bankstreetroadhouse.com
Four of the servers at Bank Street Roadhouse
I had a busy weekend dealing with a bunch of family matters, so I didn't travel all that far or vist any new joints. My wife and I had a Friday night dinner at Firefly's in Framingham MA and on Saturday I lunched at Blue Ribbon in West Newton MA.
On a rainy Sunday, after doing a lot of errands, I wasn't in a mood to expend a lot of effort on dinner, so we checked out the new Carolina and Memphis babybacks at the Chili's right down the street. Evidently, they weren't in a mood to expend a lot of effort on dinner either, because the ribs were horrible, even by their standards.
Let me say once again, just to be clear: I only went to Chili's because it was close and convenient. Chili's isn't barbecue.
Chain of Fools
Speaking of Chili's, you may have noticed that there are no chains listed in the Joints directory. It's not that there are too many to list, it's that I simply don't believe in them. I hate chains. In most cases, the food isn't smoked, and in all cases, there just isn't any care or passion put into the product. Every year or so, I'll go out of curiosity, and every time I'm disappointed, even though I go in with low expectations.
There is a slight distinction between chains that serve ribs (Applebee's, Chili's, and the like) and "barbecue" chains like Texas Roadhouse, Smokey Bones and Famous Dave's. The second group puts out a much better product than the first, and I think Famous Dave's is the best of that bunch, but they're still rib factories that pump out food without love. Being small and authentic doesn't always guarantee a better meal, and I've got some war stories that prove it, but I'll visit the mom and pop joint over a chain every time.
'Bucking the Trend: the Starbucks Rant
I was getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks the other day and was amused by their posters for the "Pairs with" campaign. It used to be that they'd feature a specialty coffee and announce that it "pairs with" their cappuccino fudge brownie or whatever, just like a certain wine pairs with a certain meat or fish. Now it's out of control, with posters of a maple mochiatto that "pairs with" soccer kicks??? They should either stick with pairing it with food or at least make it accurate enough to say "Pairs with cellphone clutching, Volvo SUV-driving soccer moms" or maybe "Pairs with highfallutin, designer eyewear clad, hipper-than-thou barristas".
In spite of their annoying corporate feel, I think Starbucks has the best coffee available. It's always hot, always fresh, always intensely flavored, always good and always served by people who, despite the attitude, come across as knowledgable, intelligent and passionate about the product. Being a Bostonian, I was a loyal Dunkin' Donuts fan for decades. I tried Starbucks a few times years ago and thought the coffee tasted like the shavings from a pencil sharpener, steeped in boiling water. Eventually, I noticed DD's rapid decline in quality and service, so I began to look elsewhere out of necessity. I chose Starbucks grudgingly, but you know what? I liked it the second time around, soon growing to love it.
So what does Starbucks have to do with barbecue? Plenty. First, Starbucks coffee is great in a dry rub. One of my favorite homemade rubs is 20% fresh ground Starbucks coffee beans, and it always draws raves from my guests. Second, my experience serves as a perfect example of re-examining a place you originally didn't like, and realizing it might be really very good. There are some barbecue joints that may appear really hokey or overly commercial that deliver surprisingly good food. So go ahead and hate the atmosphere, but you might just love the 'cue. And there are places whose barbecue might seem alien at first, whether for its style or smoke intensity. Try it again someday and you might just love it. And if your taste buds haven't changed, maybe the joint has; there are many that improve over time.
If Red Auerbach Did Barbecue
The great Red Auerbach, architect of the Celtics dynasty, died last Saturday. In the Boston area, memories of Red have dominated the media over the last few days. As most Celtics fans know, Red hated the whole idea of cheerleaders and music and any other "entertainment" being necessary at a basketball game. According to Red, if the product was good, you didn't need any of that other stuff.
I know that if, instead of coaching, Red ran a barbecue joint, he wouldn't be bothering with hokey cowboy decorations. Or a pile of wood by the door for show. Or the obligatory blues music. Or cutesie names for the menu items. No, he'd just have damn good barbecue, because he'd find a way to hire the best people and have the best system. I like joints that are run that way: not a lot of bells and whistles, just a great product. Rest in peace, Red.
Junior mints are one of the most underrated candies. The outer coating was the darkest of chocolate way before dark chocolate was "in" and the inside has the perfect, melt-in-your-mouth consistency. Great ratio of outside to inside, too, and much better than a York peppermint pattie. The other day I saw an offshoot called Junior Caramels.
I used to love Butterfinger, but with each passing year, it looks and tastes more and more like chemicals.
At my house, I'm in charge of handing out the candy while my wife makes sure the dogs don't get loose and attack anyone. That works out perfectly, allowing me to a) give out the crap candy first, holding back the good stuff for tomorrow's breakfast and b) check out some of the better-looking mothers in the crowd, possibly in catsuits.
Chocolate is a great secret ingredient in a barbecue sauce, especially if used sparingly so that it affects the flavor without being too obvious.
Kids today aren't into chocolate the way my generation was (I'm in my 40s). If it's blue or sticky or wiggly, they'll take that over a Snickers any day.
Tootsie rolls have not only gotten smaller over the years, but lighter in color too. But Tootsie Pops are still great. Getting a Tootsie Pop at Halloween was a major score. Getting a Dum Dum was like getting ripped off. On the other hand, Charms are the Rolls Royce of lollipops.
Another underrated candy is the Planters peanut bar, sort of a salty version of peanut brittle.
Someone ought to do a full fledged investigation on why there isn't fresh water taffy.
I used to like M&Ms, but the endless permutations to extend the "brand" are getting a little overbearing.
Most overrated candy: Charleston Chew. I always found them boring, whether at room temperature or frozen.
Somewhat overrated: Three Musketeers. If you're going to have that, why not just go all out and have a Milky Way?
I love meat and I love candy, but I like meat to taste like meat, not candy.
A Couple of Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Yesterday I wanted to do a comparison of the pulled pork sandwich at East Coast Grill in Cambridge to its sister restaurant All Star Sandwich Bar a few doors down the street. So it was All Star Sandwich Bar for lunch and ECG for dinner. I've had the pulled pork at East Coast Grill many times, but never the sandwich, so I thought it was time.
The pork is essentially the same, coming from the same smoker. The bun is the same, your basic cheap sesame seed model. It's grilled at ECG, served right out of the package at ASSB. The sauce is simple vinegar at ECG, pepper-infused vinegar (Tabasco or similar) at ASSB. The cole slaw is served on the side at ECG, inside the sandwich at ASSB.
The winner? Me. I had two pulled pork sandwiches yesterday.
Weekend Recap / Two More Reviews
I hit several good places, including a few of my favorites, over the last four days. On Friday I sampled a bunch of menu items from Daisy May's and Blue Smoke in New York City. It was my first time trying the chili I've heard so much about at the former and the burger I've heard so much about at the latter, and both were very good.
Lunch at Daisy May's: $28.
Dinner at Blue Smoke one hour later: $32.
Monthly membership at Boston Sports Clubs: $92.
Strategic use of the rest rooms at NY Sports Clubs: priceless.
How About Lunch in New York?
How about three? I hit the city Friday just to walk around in near-100-degree heat and try some pulled pork sandwiches at Brother Jimmy's Express and Live Bait before tackling more serious fare (burnt ends, pulled pork, bacon) at RUB.
Advocating Words, Not Numbers
When I was a kid, my friends and I used to spend hours thinking up cool names for rock bands. Now it's more fun trying to think of cool names for restaurants and barbecue teams. I had a bunch of different names I considered for this site before I settled on pigtrip.net. Among them were Swine Spectator and Swine Advocate, spoofs on the popular magazines Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.
Although I'm more of a beer guy, I love a good glass of wine, especially with European and fusion cuisines. The descriptions of the various wines in Wine Advocate make me want to hunt some of them down and drink them. Hopefully, the descriptions of the BBQ joints here (along with the photos) will make you want to try some of them.
The thing I don't like about Wine Spectator is the ratings. A wine that's a 90 for them might be an 85 for me and vice versa. Just give me the descriptions and I'm ready to sample and form my own opinion. A bunch of people have asked about whether I'll have ratings like a 4-star or 5-star (or 5-bone) system. I suppose that would make it easy to immediately see my favorites, but my opinion is just one man's opinion, nothing more. Later on, I may have lists of some of my favorite joints for different things, like "best baked beans" or such. But for now, I'd rather tell you what I think in words and pictures, not numbers.
The opening of Chris Schlesinger's All Star Sandwich, just a few doors down from his East Coast Grill in Cambridge MA, may be open NEXT MONDAY, August 28.
This is a great development for several reasons:
ECG caliber pulled pork and brisket sandwiches at lunchtime
Faster turnover of pork and brisket at ECG, ratcheting the quality level even higher
There's some pretty damn good looking other sandwiches on the menu
It rekindles the flicker of hope for Inner Beauty hot sauce being bottled again
Today Is Day 1 of This Site
I like barbecue. I eat a lot of barbecue.
It seems like a lot of other people are starting to like barbecue and getting serious about it. People who know I love barbecue always ask me to recommend good BBQ joints somewhere along their travel path. A few years ago I started sending quick email reviews to a small circle of BBQ fans, and then somewhere along the line I got a little more serious, adding photos and trying to actually use complete sentences. It evolved into what you see here.
I have 70+ reviews written but am starting the site with 18 reviews. You'll definitely see updates and progress on a regular basis.
This site will provide reviews, a directory of joints that includes even those I haven't reviewed, and thoughts on barbecue, whether it be restaurants, the competition circuit or home cooking. There are a lot of great sites and blogs that cover the competition scene and home smoking, so there's really no need for me to dwell on what's already being done well. The main thrust will be where to find barbecue restaurants. more about the site
Thanks to everyone who offered me BBQ restaurant leads, dining companionship, feedback on my writing, ideas for the site and general encouragement: Ling, Erik, Scott, Bob, Jay, Kathy, Marc, Marc, Mark, Wallie, Rich, Danny, Larry, Tim, Carol, Andrea, Mary, Charlie, Eb, Adam, James, Todd, Dennis and, of course, Chris.