In Search of Barbecue

That old chestnut about New Orleans not having any good barbecue is something that needs to be put to rest. While not necessarily a hotbed of hickory smoked goodness, in truth, good barbecue has been available for a long while now, though its spread has been slow and fairly limited. Some establishments are well representative, such as Hillbilly. Another, Squeal, is far more laissez-faire with what the genre has to offer and plays fast and loose with the fundamentals, hybridizing its menu in unusual ways. Finally, The Joint presents the down-home, ramshackle appearance of having been here all along.

The best barbecue, in my opinion, can be found at Hillbilly in River Ridge, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Owner Larry Wyatt came to New Orleans from Kentucky to help a friend set up a warehouse. He was here for three months when the bug bit him. “I fell in love with the New Orleans hospitality and ended up staying,” Wyatt recalls.

Wyatt uses hickory exclusively and has it brought in from Kentucky. The menu is traditional, offering a short list of meats such as pork shoulder, ribs, beef brisket and chicken. The St. Louis-cut spare ribs are seasoned with a complex dry rub before their journey to the smoker. Compared to smaller baby back ribs, these are large, meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender.

“I only put rub on my ribs. I leave all my sauces and stuff on the side,” Wyatt says. “I learned that from my mom and dad. They said most of the seasoning you put on stuff you can just leave on the table for the customer. ’Cause once you put it in, you can’t take it out.”

Wyatt’s personal favorite is his pork shoulder. “It is our No. 1 seller. Most barbecue places in Kentucky will serve it on sliced bread. My pulled pork sandwich on sliced bread is what I like the most.” While the shoulder gets no rub, it picks up a lot of flavor from the cooking process. “The shoulder really soaks up the hickory smoke,” Wyatt says, who typically smokes them for 20 hours.

Wyatt offers a couple of homemade sauces, primarily tomato and vinegar based. He notes a predilection among locals for sauces, especially of the sweet variety. “Down here people love the sauce, and they really love the sweet sauce. I think it might be because of the sugarcane industry. Whatever it is, man they go through it.” Along with his own, he also offers up sauce from Starnes BBQ in Paducah, Ky., the sauce that he grew up on. “I have a lot of customers that are from Tennessee and Kentucky and they all know Starnes BBQ. I was bringing in a bottle every once and a while just for them and it got to where it became really popular and all my customers were asking for it.

Now I just buy their bottles and set them out on the table.”

Good sides include his spicy potato salad, and a cumin and red-wine vinegar infused slaw. Wyatt offers off-site catering as well, and large orders can be accommodated with advanced notice.

If Hillbilly is traditional Kentucky barbecue brought to New Orleans, Squeal on Oak Street is a homegrown creation. Launched in late 2008 by a trio of local brothers, Squeal started out with a fairly typical barbecue menu that has since morphed into something uniquely New Orleans. “We started off with barbecue and expanded from there,” says co-owner Brendan Young. “We are just excited about trying new stuff … to see what will happen. For the last few weeks we’ve been playing around with other proteins like duck and lamb.”

In lieu of crab cakes, Squeal offers Smoked Pork Cakes, basically pucks of pulled pork lightly breaded and finished with a habanero sour cream sauce and fresh salsa. Other unusual variations on barbecue include barbecue Pork Tacos topped with horseradish coleslaw and terrific (and massively portioned) Squeal Nachos, which get some additional pop from fresh jalapeños rather than the more subdued pickled kind. “My favorite thing now is our Black Eyed Pea Egg Rolls,” Brendan adds.

For the baseline cue, the ribs start out with a thick dry rub and get glazed with sauce near the end of the smoking time. “Our sauce is pretty acidic, but has some sugar in it so it caramelizes nicely,” Young says. “Being from New Orleans, all three of us are huge sauce people.”

What sets Squeal apart is enthusiasm and a willingness to experiment, something that’s uncommon in barbecue circles that are typically dominated by a traditionalist mindset. (“We tried a Sunday Barbecue Brunch, but that crashed and burned,” Young says with a shrug.) There is plenty of seating at Squeal, including a shaded outdoor patio, and a good selection of beer as well as a full bar. “It isn’t gourmet yet, but it’s good. We went from absolutely nothing to a whole lot of something and we are having fun.”

No other barbecue place in town gives more of a home-grown impression than The Joint at the foot of Poland Avenue in the Bywater, which boasts tasty barbecue to complement the junkyard chic décor. Order at the counter and grab a seat at a picnic bench in the backyard, where it feels more like being at a friend’s house than a restaurant. The ribs here are dry rub only, with a little more tooth than Hillbilly’s. Owner Pete Breen offers two different sauces, a Texas-style tomato-based version and an unusual apple cider-based vinegar sauce, a regional variation hailing from eastern North Carolina. The latter, used sparingly, is fantastic on the pulled pork. Good sides include the baked macaroni and cheese. Pass some time here, and you feel as though you could be just about anywhere in the Deep South, a fitting tribute to the fact that real barbecue has indeed come to New Orleans to roost.

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