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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Guttin' It Out

If you missed this year's Big Apple BBQ Block Party and need some consolation, click this:
It's a pic of part of one line. To get some hush puppies. (In the “FastPass” lane.)

But what did you expect? Logistical hassles are a tradition at NYC's annual Barbecue festival; what you take from the experience depends sorely on your “personal patience” to “love of smoked meat” quotient.
$8 = “the new $2”?? Underwhelming fare from New York City's own Blue Smoke

Alas, both patience and love were tested from go with the “Kansas City Ribs & Pickles” from co-founder Kenny Callaghan's Blue Smoke. We wanted to like this hometown entry but it just wasn't very good: two lean ribs on a slice of potato bread, with a few pieces of pickled okra and carrots... for $8. (As another pitmaster put it: “Two ribs... two ribs?!”)

You know how folks say white people are light in the buttockular region? This was the smoked meat equivalent of Olson Twin ass: underwhelming, and a bit annoying. Unless boney, slightly tough, unmemorable ribs gussied up with a few schnazzy pickles puts “blood in your sausage.” Maybe the restaurant is better, but nothing about this dish left us curious.
Despite quintuple fryer action...
...these puppies were slowwwww

Fortunately, City Grocery's Smoked Crawfish & Okra Hush Puppies were more satisfying: a bit heavy on the cornmeal, but intermittent bites of plump crawfish and gooey okra spruced up the party. They also had a nice spice and great price ($4). But they did not – I repeat, not – justify that brutal line. Which isn't to say these puppies sucked; it's rather to question the organizational forethought of serving “fry to order” food at such a ridiculously crowded event.
And yet... it didn't really matter. We were here for the smoked meat, and found two terrific entries to write home about. First up? Our favorite pulled pork of the festival: Yazoo City, Mississippi's finest Ubon's “Champion's Choice.

Ubon's is a fifth generation-and-counting Roark family operation, and current pitmaster Garry has been with his team for over 25 years. Their experience shows. This is one fat mean bbq machine, a fine-tuned ode to time-tested flavor traditions. They told me their style is more Southwestern Missouri than Mississippi (a nod to the family's origins), but we didn't know what they meant care. Good meat is good eats, no matter the origins.

So why was Ubon's superlative? Their intensely flavorful pork shoulder was supremely well-cooked (10-15 hours of hickory smoking) and terrifically textured. Pulled pork sometimes tastes steamed, especially when chopped to a soggy, shredded mess and drowned in sauce. But Ubon's delivered the real deal: nice big chunks pulled straight from a plump shoulder. I was fortunate enough to get a hand-plucked piece hot from the smoker and almost passed out from the excitement. But there was more to be had. Such as...
Mess with TexasNo Nonsense
A slab for the Slab: Joe Duncan of Baker's Ribs

Our favorite of the day: Baker’s Ribs from Dallas, TX. Baker's served three of the best ribs I've eaten in recent memory, and singlehandedly made me rethink the “St. Louis” cut as a preferred alternative to baby back. This was delicious stuff: plump, succulent meat enhanced by a great rub, and brought to life with terrific smoking/grilling technique. Add a thin, slightly spicy sauce that elevated the whole experience, and we were – for once – left with absolutely no complaints. Even their spartan peppery slaw satisfied in a no-nonsense sort of way. These guys are no joke, and it was a pleasure to enjoy the ribs of their labor.

Afterwards I spent some time talking with pitmaster Joe Duncan and got a few pointers. For one, BBQ isn't brain surgery – but it is difficult to execute. There are three main variables (quality of meat, spicing, cooking) and Baker's nails every one. This was inspirational to behold and taste, especially after our Blue Smoke mishap. Baker's has been hickory-smoking in Dallas since 1978, and their Texas roots were on full display: dry cooking technique, strong pride in quality meats, and a complementary (yet unnecessary) sauce.

Duncan started with a love of cooking outdoors and discovered he could make a living at it. And while he was clearly a man of staid temperament and steady focus, his BBQ is all about the love. As he confided, “no one makes a dime up here. It's all charity, and all to promote good barbecue.” Make that great barbecue; stuff that's good enough to get you through a few bumps in the NYC pavement, en route to smoked meat bliss.

The 6th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party
Madison Square Park, NYC
June 7-8, 2008

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Blogger M. Kay's Jowels said...

J. Slab,

Been reading the blog for awhile. Love the writing.

As I native New Yorker i'm sad i didn't get a chance to get attend this festival.

However, being the pork lover that you are, have you ever been to Big W's in Wingdale, NY? It's an 1hr 15 drive from the city on route 22. Great smoked ribs/meat.

Worth the drive, you must try.

1:02 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

thanks for the support MK, & tks for the Big W tip too... sounds too far for subway/bike tho, i'll have to recruit a friend-with-car....

& actually, been doing the nyc bbq rounds for awhile now - taking notes & pics & such. will start posting stuff as soon as i settle on a decent rating system....

12:08 AM  

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