Barbeque is a curious thing. It carries with it not just a method of cooking but also some serious cultural trappings. You don’t often see a restaurant spill out of its dining room to encompass patios, music stages, boat docks and play areas for the kids, but you will see this with barbeque joints, which often sprawl like smoky kudzu across rural landscapes. Over the past few years Central City BBQ has moved in this direction, becoming an establishment that is as much about the smoked meats as it is a ground-zero for food-related events and festivals. It is well situated for such a role, with its vast gravel yard offering patio seating and stages backed by a ring of shipping containers. While still a long way from the carnivalesque bric-a-brac riot of a place like The Shed, Central City BBQ has become more than just a restaurant. It has become a destination.
To pull this off successfully, it must balance the careful juggling act of being high volume while maintaining a devotion to artistry that doesn’t compromise quality. To help accomplish this, award-winning pitmaster James Cruse was brought on board last December. Cruse had to pivot from his years on the pro-BBQ circuit to helping run a stand-alone restaurant. He credits his team in successfully adjusting to the changes he made. For Cruse, who is concerned with fundamentals rather than flash, excellent barbeque starts with the meat. The brisket is USDA Prime and the Texas-style rub is basic – salt, pepper, garlic and a smattering of other spices. “We smoke the brisket whole and slice it to order,” he explained. The “Burnt Ends” – intense nuggets with a smoky, salty char and an ephemerally juicy interior – are the most delicious expression of this tricky cut.
For ribs he only uses St. Louis style, a trimmed-down spare rib he sources from an exclusive purveyor, helping him guarantee consistency. “We rub them down, smoke them, wrap them in foil then finish them sliced to order,” he said. His ribs feature a soft bite with a lot of flavor. “They don’t need sauce,” he added. However, this is a New Orleans barbeque restaurant, and people here like their sauce. So Central City obliges with an array of different styles. More esoteric menu offerings include the “Cowboy Candy,” addictive caramelized cubes of pork belly. Consider splurging with a “Pit House Plate” with both the burnt ends and cowboy candy upsells – pricy, but worth it.
Standout sides include the sweet corn spoonbread as well as brisket chili. “Pour a little of that over the spoonbread and you have a meal right there,” Cruse said. Crispy Brussels sprouts come glazed with a sweet Thai chili sauce and the Mac and Cheese is, appropriately enough, spiked with bacon.
Over the past year Central City BBQ has emerged as a festival force, hosting a broadening array of food, music, sport and cultural events such as the Marley Gras Jerk Chicken Fest. Upcoming events include Wing Wars in November. Along with the huge yard, Central City offers the Pit Room, a cavernous event space which overlooks the impressive smoking operation. Weddings, corporate events and holiday parties are all hosted here. Those interested in learning the pitmaster’s delicious arts can also sign up for monthly classes taught by Cruse.
Central City BBQ, 1201 South Rampart St., Central City. L, D Daily; 558-4276; Centralcitybbq.com.
MEET THE CHEF
James Cruse smoked his first rack of ribs on Labor Day weekend in 1997 and has never looked back. A native of Arabi, during his 13 years on the pro circuit he was won accolades including third in the world in Memphis this past May, along with multiple Grand Champion wins at Hogs for the Cause. Along the way he became friends with the owners of Central City BBQ, who convinced him to join the team. “I was a competition guy, so a restaurant was a transition,” Cruse said. “But my plan was always to make this the best BBQ place in the city, hands-down.”
Blue Oak BBQ on Carrollton is another option for those who love it low and slow. Fundamentals aside, Blue Oak sets itself apart with some compelling sandwich choices like the “Pit Viper” (pulled pork with slaw and firey slices of raw jalapeno) and a smoked chicken salad sandwich garnished with fried green tomato.