Rise of a BBQ Town
Here We Come
jeffery johnston PHOTOGRAPH
“No good barbecue” used to be an accusation levelled at New Orleans. These days it no longer rings true. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a plethora of new barbecue joints have arisen in smoky splendor across the Crescent City like pigs in the mist. Hogs for the Cause, the homegrown fundraiser for pediatric brain cancer that just a few years ago was held informally at the Fly, has raced to the top of the Spring Festival Calendar faster than a greased cochon, serving as a lightning rod for all things low and slow. These days, where there is smoke there is love.
New Orleans barbecue is more a melting pot than a bastion of any particular regional style. This works to its advantage, with pit masters less constrained by convention and more willing to experiment with sauces, sandwiches and sides. Both restaurants mentioned below started as pop-ups.
At NOLA Smokehouse, owners Rob and Emily Bechtold jumped around for three years before some media attention helped land them a permanent spot on Jackson Avenue.
Bechtold’s career in kitchens started when he was just 15 and took him as far as an executive sous position at K-Paul’s. It was there that his fellow chefs encouraged him to do his own thing before he got stuck in a career position that would make it harder for him to follow his heart.
“I asked my wife if she was willing to roll the dice with me,” Bechtold says. “She said yes, and NOLA Smokehouse was born.”
It is the backyard barbecue aficionado’s dream writ large. All his cooking is done on a pair of $400 offset smokers he bought at Academy Sports, the cost of which wouldn’t even cover freight charges on a typical piece of commercial restaurant hotline gear.
“I just work those things to death,” he says. “They are starting to shed some parts now that we’ve been open for a year. Hope and love and a lot of barbecue smoke hold it all together.”
Bechtold starts with a bed of hardwood charcoal that he later hits with hickory and cherry. All his meats get the same dry rub, a blend that includes salt, pepper, cane sugar, garlic and onion powder – nothing fancy. “I don’t get crazy with Five Spice,” he says. “This rub gives it everything I need – a nice bark and it lets the meat shine through.”
Bechtold uses racks of full spare ribs, meaty slabs he cooks essentially untrimmed. He aims for competition-style ribs where you can see bite marks. If you like ribs with some tooth, these are right up your alley. His brisket is terrific, with a thick bark and a tenderness that yields to the touch of a plastic fork. Choose fatty and enjoy the band on the backside of the bark to flavor the meat.
Brisket is by far his biggest seller, but he also runs specials like Chappapeela pork belly – cured, smoked, braised and glazed in-house. Specialty sandwiches on Leidenheimer’s bread rotate through, as well as excellent sides such as Sweet Corn Spoonbread and a Savory Bread Pudding made from burnt ends, pulled pork and smoked sausage.
Hours are limited, open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or until they sell out. They have a BYOB policy and also provide catering. Bechtold also holds his by-reservation-only Smokehouse Supper Club on the first Friday of each month, offering a more diverse menu with dishes like smoked shrimp bisque and prime rib.
Further Uptown, McClure’s Barbecue has expanded its menu while staying true to its smoky promise. When it began as a pop-up it operated out of Dante’s Kitchen, where Neil McClure worked as GM before demand outgrew supply and he staked out his brick and mortar claim on Magazine Street.
McClure cooks with a big custom trailer rig and an offset firebox just across the street. “I’m what they call a ‘stick burner’ – I burn whole logs of firewood, almost exclusively pecan,” he says. His style is an amalgam, drawing most heavily from Texas. He doesn’t sauce any of his meat, giving that decision to his customers who choose from an array of six sauces representing the most of the main types of regional barbecue. A Kansas City-style is heavy on molasses and tomato, whereas a vinegar style is representative of North Carolina. McClure’s personal contribution is his New Orleans Sauce, drawing on Vietnamese flavors from the East. If you order his chicken, be sure to reach for the White Sauce, a nod to Alabama’s ‘Big Bob’ Gibson made with mayo, vinegar and horseradish and black pepper. His gets some added kick from Louisiana peppers.
More recently, McClure has expanded his menu to include burgers made from Two-Run Farms ground beef as well as a line of specialty sandwiches. The first was a cheesesteak, born from personal obsession. Soon after came a Cuban, made with his pulled pork and house-made pickles. His Sunday Brunch service features dishes such as Pulled Pork Eggs Benedict and Ribs and Grits.
Sides are also especially good, with a barbecue jambalaya that makes use of all the tasty bits and pieces and molasses-stewed collard greens. Going into April, keep an eye open for a second location to open soon.
Hillbilly Bar-B-Q in Harahan is well worth the drive. Owner Larry Wyatt hails from Paducah, Kentucky, and brings big, bold flavor to his ’cue using only hickory sourced from his home state. Try the German potato salad, the vinegar base of which pairs especially well with barbecue. If you go, keep in mind that he has moved to a new location at 2317 Hickory Ave., next to The Kamp.
Smoke ’Em Then Eat ’Em
739 Jackson Ave.
4800 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sundays