In Search of Great BBQ
Though largely unheralded outside of their respective neighborhoods, New Orleans has long had a smattering of barbecue restaurants that are respected and sought after for cooking low-and-slow over wood-fueled rigs.
“The purveyors and the customers were mostly black and the restaurants were located in black neighborhoods,” said Pete Breen, a Baltimore native and owner and founder of The Joint, which is recognized by many as New Orleans’ first “real” barbecue restaurant, when it opened in 2002.
“Ms. Hyster’s was my first New Orleans barbecue experience: the half chicken with green beans and baked beans. She also cooked some good pork and brisket. There was another spot, Podner’s BBQ on Felicity in Central City. H&P BBQ Masters at Elysian Fields and North Claiborne, and Adams BBQ on Franklin, between St. Claude and North Claiborne. These spots were take-out only and specialized in untrimmed pork spareribs and chicken. All of these places served the meat basted in a sweet and smoky sauce. H&P and Adams didn’t survive the Katrina flood and Podner’s is gone.
“It’s important to note that there was a reasonably vibrant barbecue scene in New Orleans before we opened,” Breen said.
New Orleans culinary identity remains firmly tied to its own largely seafood-based Creole heritage, not barbecue, a tradition that belongs to Texas, Kansas City, the Carolinas, and Memphis, each of which has its own nuances and traditions. The result is local restaurants that may have offerings ranging across the region under one roof, often presented at the table via a caddy holding a collection of sauces that may include eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce, South Carolina-style mustard sauce, a thin Texas-style sauce made with beef broth and loads of black pepper, a thick tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce, and Alabama-style white sauce among them.
Most area barbecue purveyors credit the Hogs for the Cause cooking competition for growing an interest in barbecue in New Orleans. What began in 2009 as a cookout at the Fly, an Uptown waterfront park, has grown into a major national competition fundraiser serving the families of pediatric brain cancer patients. This year the competition brought in a record $2,000,000.
This list is not in ranking order.
Blue Oak BBQ
Ronnie Evans Jr. and Philip Moseley started Blue Oak as a pop-up at Grits Bar and Chickie Chickie Wah Wah in July 2012. They had worked together at a barbecue joint in Vail, Colorado, where they thought they had learned all they needed to know. The purchase of a reverse flow pit brought them back to the beginning as they undertook the long and arduous task of learning how to cook a proper brisket. They opened their brick-and-mortar location near City Park in the spring of 2016.
Though the barbecue here is serious and cooked over a variety of local oaks, the attitude is playful. St. Louis spare ribs fall off the bone, chicken with crisp, deeply lacquered skin is moist and flavorful on the inside. Thick, sturdy slices of brisket have an assertive smoked flavor and pulled pork arrives in a glistening pile. At the same time the potato salad is anything but ho-hum: It has a whipped consistency and a horseradish kick. Coleslaw is light and refreshing with a hint of fresh ginger. Macaroni and cheese is hit with roasted garlic.
On the restaurant’s Instagram feed, sandwiches, which take a hefty share of the menu, are presented in an irresistible manner. The “Doobin Lubin,” features pulled pork and house smoked sausage, slaw, onions, pickles, and barbecue sauce. The “Pit Viper” features jerk pulled pork, slaw, and fresh jalapeno, and begs you to take a bite.
“We have fun with our specials and incorporate different techniques and flavors to keep things interesting,” Evans said. “I see people focusing more on vegetables and more unique cuts of meat in the future.”
Outstanding Barbecue: Half chicken with deeply lacquered skin; every sandwich on the menu.
Sauces: Carolina-style with mustard, “House” (classic), and jerk.
Outstanding Sides: Ginger coleslaw, cheese grits.
Oddball Specialties: Smoked Kung Pao wings, Sichuan cracklins, BBQ nachos, and banana pudding.
900 N. Carrollton Ave., 822-2583, blueoakbbq.com.
Frey Smoked Meat Company
Chef-owner Ray Gruezke, who hails from a fine dining background, discovered that his culinary talents extended to barbecue when he entered Hogs for Cause as a competitor. It makes sense: Gruezke’s great-great-grandfather, Andreas Frey, was a 19th century French Quarter sausage-maker. His great grandfather, Louis Frey, as the founder of L.A. Frey and Sons meat packing company, which operated for over 120 years.
With a sleek industrial feel and a generous oak bar stocked with an abundance of beers on tap and vast selections of sipping whiskies, this Mid City destination is a fine tribute to the chef-pitmaster’s ancestor.
In addition to the hefty smoked beef ribs for which Frey is known, the burgers and sandwiches on the menu are real standouts. The “Bar-B-Cuban” combines Frey’s pulled pork with ham, house pickles, and Swiss cheese on a hoagie roll with a splash of Frey’s N.O. Gold Sauce. The smoked chicken sandwich is finished with pepper jack cheese, Alabama white sauce, pickles, onions and lettuce. Burgers are offered as both “Fatties” (a half pound of meat cooked over an open flame) and “Flattie”s (2 quarter pound patties cooked over a flat-top griddle).
Outstanding barbecue: Smoked beef ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken.
Sauce: Traditional, Alabama white (vinegar, mustard, horseradish), mustard-based NOLA Gold, the Big Oops (mistaken mash-up between NOLA Gold and Traditional), and a vinegar-based variety.
Best sides: Four varieties of macaroni and cheese, each served in a small individual skillet with a crisp top and creamy interior; potato salad made with red bliss potatoes and a kick of Creole mustard; grilled corn on the cob.
Oddball Specialties: “Pork Belly Poppers”; fried ribs (smoked, crusted with Panko crumbs, fried, and tossed in a sweet chili glaze); and a variety of decadent milkshakes including “Cookie Monster” and “Nutella-Resses.”
4141 Bienville St., 488-7427
Barbecue sides, like macaroni and cheese and coleslaw, are a mainstay on many menus, but for back to basics, classic flavor don’t forget the essentials: a stack of dill pickles, a loaf of the freshest sliced white bread, like Bunny, and a roll of paper towels (we’ll allow Wet Wipes, as well).
Ugly Dog Saloon
Ugly Dog Saloon brought on-site pit smoking to the Warehouse District in 1998 with a signature rub and a solid recipe for coleslaw that remains outstanding today. Today, in addition to pulled pork, ribs, and brisket slow cooked over pecan wood in an urban parking lot and offered as plates and sandwiches, the kitchen uses its barbecue to enhance quesadillas, nachos and more refined dishes like Burnt Ends and Grits, and a Brisket Panini.
Outstanding Barbecue: Burnt ends sandwich; smoked alligator sausage; smoked pulled chicken.
Sauce: Traditional, tomato-based.
Outstanding Sides: Coleslaw, a chopped, rather than shredded version, combining a mixture of cabbages in a light creamy dressing with faint kicks of sesame, celery seed, and Creole seasoning.
Oddball Specialties: Smoked, then fried chicken wings served with Buffalo sauce; “Brisket Panini,” a pressed sandwich combining smoked, chopped brisket with grilled red onions, Swiss cheese and chipotle mayo.
401 Andrew Higgins Blvd., 569-8459, theuglydogsaloon.com.
A narrow, verdant seating patio is the backdrop for a massive, deeply blacked, chain-driven rig burning oak and pecan at The Joint on Mazant Street in the Bywater. In 2004, Pete and Jenny Breen opened the first incarnation of their barbecue restaurant a few blocks away on Poland Avenue. Eight years later the Breens moved to a roomier location, which is constantly packed due to top-notch barbecue at reasonable prices, and a popular bar housed in a space that reminds one of a juke joint.
The signature dishes here are also the most popular: Dry rubbed loin back ribs; a smoked tomato and onion dressing (either creamy or vinaigrette) served with a dinner salad and w a choice of smoked meat; sliced brisket, pulled pork, and macaroni and cheese.
The Breens eschew the competition scene. “Our approach has always been low and slow wood smoking of dry rubbed meats with sauce served on the side,” Pete said. “In recent years, we have worked to improve the quality of meats, utilizing antibiotic free, no hormones ever, vegetarian diet beef and chicken and also adding fresh vegetable options into the rotating side options. Other than that we’re just trying to mind our own business and run a comfortable neighborhood restaurant.”
Outstanding Barbecue: Dry rubbed loin back ribs; Smoked Chicken Salad with tomato and onion vinaigrette); sliced brisket, pulled pork, smoked pork chaurice. sausage
Sauce: Traditional, though light, tomato-based; vinegar-based.
Best sides: Lightly dressed, fresh coleslaw; skin-on red potato salad.
Oddball Specialty Items: Smoked pastrami; smoked tomato and onion vinaigrette; house-made peanut butter, key lime and pecan pies.
701 Mazant St., 949-3232.
Let’s put it out there: To call this traditional barbecue would be a misnomer. Michael Nelson is doing barbecue, sort of, but it is in no way traditional. Everything about this will fall into the “Oddball” category.
Michael Nelson started at GW Fins in 2005 as Chef Tenney Flynn’s sous chef. Flynn tossed the reins to Nelson in 2016, promoting him to executive chef. Like Flynn, Nelson is a nose-to-tail guy, using all parts of the fish and wasting none. “I think we’re finally changing the way people think about fish. And it’s fun! I’m having fun,” he said.
On Nelson’s list of double-take dishes are his swordfish “ribs,” culled from the muscles and bones connected to a swordfish’s huge dorsal fin. Good barbecue benefits from low and slow spells on a rig due to their abundance of connective tissues, sinew and collagen. Somehow, Nelson made the connection with the swordfish’s dorsal fin and a hog’s ribs. ” I consider swordfish the pork of the sea,” he said.
He applies a dry rub, smokes it over hickory, and slathers it with smoked jalapeño butter. The result is a “rack” of bony swordfish that peels apart easily into “ribs” of rich smoky meat. He coats them with a glaze and serves them with Southern sides like smothered greens, maques choux, cornbread, and pickled vegetables. He is also developing a following of diners interested in the large primal cuts from other large fish. Like his “ribs” these cuts are dry rubbed, slow smoked on the bone, and slathered with smoked jalapeno butter.
Looking for a trippy “barbecue” experience? This is it.
Outstanding “Barbecue”: Swordfish “ribs, and other fish steaks.
Sauce: Smoked jalapeño butter.
Outstanding Sides: Smothered greens, maques choux, cornbread, and pickled vegetables.
Oddball Specialty: Everything Nelson “barbecues” is unorthodox but leave room for his coconut sorbet and Salt Malty ice cream pie. ” You cannot stop eating this. It’s the perfect combination of salt, sugar and umami. It hits every note. You will not be able to stop.” He’s right. It’s evil.
808 Bienville St., 581-3467, gwfins.com
LA 23 BBQ
Bobby Monsted III, was a fishing guide before he opened a barbecue joint in a tiny building that hugs the Mississippi River levee across the highway from the entrance to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse. Success came quickly, driven largely by patrons from the base across the road. Brett Palermo, an employee of several years, joined Monsted as a partner earlier this year. “Our items in the highest demand almost every day are smoked brisket and smoked barbecue beans,” he said. “We smoke our briskets all night. Our beans are slow cooked with chopped brisket and our beef sausages then finished off in our smokers.”
The brisket is tender and flavorful; the oh-so-desirable burnt ends tossed in gratis. The smoked chicken has a lacquered skin that is close to black, with a juicy interior. Other standouts are a cold, mustardy coleslaw made from ribbons of colorful cabbage and carrot; and a well-balanced, creamy potato salad.
The macaroni and cheese bears a pleasant, vaguely smoky flavor. It pairs nicely with a beef-based smoked sausage enlivened with jalapeño and cheese.
Outstanding Barbecue: Sliced brisket, smoked chicken, smoked sausage.
Sauces: Vinegar-based, mustard-based, and traditional tomato-based.
Outstanding Sides: Slow cooked barbecue beans loaded with chopped brisket and beef sausages then finished off in the smoker; mustardy coleslaw; mac and cheese; and potato salad.
Oddball Specialty: Though more convenient than odd, LA 23 offers whole smoked turkeys with dark lacquered skin for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
9661 Louisiana 23, Belle Chasse, 657-3693, facebook.com/BBQ23.
Wego Smokin’ BBQ
Wego Smokin’ consists of a small window in a vibrant yellow trailer behind which sits a massive smoke-belching iron barbecue rig that dwarfs the trailer. A most welcome awning over the order-taking window cuts the heat radiating from the crushed stone parking lot, where you will sit in your car awaiting fulfillment of your order. Recently, after such a wait a group of us drove away, our order secured in a series of bags and take-out containers. It was not long before weakness struck and someone grabbed a piece of brisket, took a bite, and passed it around the car. The meat, with a deeply hued char on the outside and a band of the tell-tale ruby hue imparted by a low and slow visit with the smoker, gave way to a tender, flavorful bite that needed no sauce to coax it along.
We attacked the remains of the order as we careened across the GNO bridge. As a link of Wego’s signature smoked sausage—a family recipe combining brisket, pork, pepper-Jack cheese and a kiss of jalapeno—made its way around the car we became a convention of Bobbleheads, all “Oh, yeeeeeah”s and nodding noggins. It was rich, vaguely spicy, gooey with cheese, and a little greasy—as sausage should be. A forkful of fresh, savory coleslaw balanced by a sauce equally combining vinegar and mayonnaise and finished with black pepper cut through it all.
This month marks a year in the barbecue business for the Matherne family: Timothy and Patricia, Timothy’s son Anthony, the company’s de facto spokesperson, and nephew, Austin.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride from day one, ” Anthony said. “More comparable to the rockin’ roller coaster at Disney World with Aerosmith blaring in our ears. My father came up with the idea on a whim.”.
The family spent six months at the kitchen table laboring over rubs and recipes. They tapped Anthony’s cousin Austin, a former short order cook, to work as pitmaster. He cooks over a mixture of pecan and oak.
“We busted our butts and our finished product is Wego Smokin BBQ,” Anthony said. “We haven’t all seen eye to eye, but through compromise we have all grown closer. We take no shortcuts and every single thing is made fresh every day. Barbecue is a funny business. There’s nothing easy about it. It intimidates people. A lot can go wrong at any given moment.”
In recognition of their one year anniversary, the Mathernes plan to add seating, a second stationary smoker will follow within a few months, and a small, mobile unit for use at fairs and festivals will follow in a couple of years.
Outstanding Barbecue: Hand-sliced beef brisket and family-recipe smoked sausage.
Sauce: Traditional tomato-based.
Outstanding Sides: Savory coleslaw.
Oddball Specialty: Smoked U-15 Gulf Shrimp in a New Orleans-style barbecue sauce. “We offer them during Lent alongside our traditional meats. People in Westwego take Lent very seriously.”
WeGo Smokin BBQ, 974 Avenue C (at Westbank Expressway), 346-2609
Neil McClure grew up cooking whole hogs for family gatherings, and developed a passion for the pit immediately after Katrina when he was feeding first responders with a volunteer operation in Gulfport.
A veteran of various New Orleans restaurant kitchens dating back to the early 1990s, he started a barbecue pop-up at the now closed Dante’s Kitchen in the fall of 2011. McClure and his wife Abby Lorenz McClure opened their eponymous barbecue restaurant on Magazine Street in 2013 to an enthusiastic welcome from just about everyone. The exception: a few people from the neighborhood who were distressed to find their upholstery and draperies emitting the aroma of smoked meat rather than, presumably, their preferred soothing aromatherapy products. A tussle ensued and the McClures decamped to a new home inside the Nola Brewing Tap Room on Tchoupitoulas Street, where a wall of taps, a wooden bar and a dark pressed tin ceiling lend a fitting backdrop to McClure’s hearty fare, most of which is cooked low and slow over a mix of pecan, oak, and cherry.
McClure’s house rub leans to the savory side, imparting a deep umami that reacts pleasantly with wood smoke. Here, ribs are hefty, St. Louis style and fall-from-the-bone tender. Pulled pork is smoky and flavorful without devolving into an overly-rich greasy puddle. The pork is an ideal counterpoint to silken, melted collard greens that swim in just the right amount of pot liquor. It should be noted the barbecue was not Neil McClure’s first passion, which is reserved for fried chicken, and you will find that here, too. It is offered in several varieties: Original buttermilk, pepper jelly, with Alabama white sauce, and “Fire Chicken.”
Outstanding Barbecue: Ribs, pulled pork, whole hog, all sandwiches.
Sauce: mayo-based Alabama, South Carolina (rosemary and mustard-based), sweet Kansas City, tomato-based Texas, NOLA East (hoisin and soy sauce); North Carolina (honey and vinegar-based).
Outstanding Sides: Vinegar-based coleslaw; barbeque beans loaded with pulled pork; silken collard greens; white remoulade potato salad; Jambalaya loaded down with barbecued pork.
Oddball Specialty: Fried chicken offered in four styles; smoked, then fried Asian wings, boudin balls.
3001 Tchoupitoulas St., 301-2367.
Walker’s Southern Style BBQ
The Walker family started Love at First Bite in 1992 as a roving catering business servicing food festivals throughout the U.S. In 2001, they introduced their smoked cochon de lait poboy at Jazz Fest and an enduring cult classic was born. The family opened their brick and mortar shop in 2004. The Walker’s son, Jonathan, a classically trained chef, now oversees operation of the kitchen and the hickory and pecan-burning pits.
Walker’s is open, more or less, from Wednesday through Saturday, unless there is a food festival somewhere, in which case you are out of luck. If they are open, you will crowd into a small vestibule with other hungry patrons, place your order at a window, and probably return to your car to wait.
Despite the utilitarian nature of the place there is a decided elegance to Walker’s food. The cochon de lait poor boy lives up to its considerable hype with hefty chunks of meat pulled from whole suckling pigs roasted for 12-hours, a light dress of gravy, and coleslaw spiked with Creole mustard on Leidenheimer bread.
Greens are silken and flavorful, not runny. The potato salad, coleslaw, and smoked chicken are light on dressings, relying instead on vibrant fresh herbs and thinly sliced scallions for bright flavors. The slaw is bound with Wertie sauce, a bracing house concoction that brings Creole mustard into a blend that rides the line between creamy and vinegary. Both the potato and smoked chicken salads are enriched with hard-boiled eggs passed through a fine sieve. The later could easily be morphed into a fine hors d’oeuvres in a tonier setting. Home entertainers should take note.
Outstanding Barbecue: Cochon de lait poboy, smoked chicken salad, massive pork spare ribs, smoked chicken wings.
Sauce: Traditional, sweet tomato-based; and Wertie, a light Creole mustard sauced used on the coleslaw that also slays it on the smoked wings.
Outstanding Sides: Silken greens; potato salad and coleslaw, both with herbs.
Oddball Specialties: Smoked pork belly bites; macaroni and cheese loaded with smoked beef brisket.
10828 Hayne Blvd., 241-8227, cochondelaitpoboys.com.
While cold beer is a natural beverage buddy with barbecue (we love Urban South’s Paradise Park), for a sophisticated take, try serving chilled Cava or Prosecco. Or serve up this year’s most fashionable cocktail, the Aperol Spritz, for a fresh take.
Central City BBQ
Opened in January 2016 as New Orleans’ most comprehensive barbecue operation, the Central City BBQ campus sprawls over a full city block, often pressed into service as a location for community gatherings and festivals in addition to serving as a sensational barbecue destination.
“Central City became a reality as a result of decades of friendship between myself and (chef) Aaron Burgau, of Restaurant Patois,” said managing partner Marc Bonifacic. “I am a third-generation barbecue restaurant owner—my grandfather operated a family-owned barbecue shop in Chicago. I have to give credit to Aaron for really bringing this concept together.”
In addition to Bonifacic, the core team at Central City includes partner and consulting chef Burgau; Donna Tran, general manager and sometimes chef; and Pitmaster James Cruse, who joined the company last December.
The signature dishes here are also their most outstanding: succulent, juicy prime brisket burnt ends served up as either a sandwich or a plate, and meltingly tender ribs, which have garnered a near-cult following since Cruse’s team, the Bluff City Smokers, placed third in the world this year in the “Ribs” category at the BBQ World Championship, this past May in Memphis. Cruse’s star seems hitched to a place of near-permanent ascendancy: He has carried the mantel of Grand Champion of Hogs for the Cause for the past three of five years.
Bonifacic says the Crescent City’s exclusive use of Louisiana oak in its collection of smokers, a willingness to use expensive prime brisket, and Cruse’s ability to translate his hard-won championship barbecue techniques into restaurant cooking are at the crux of Crescent City’s success.
Outstanding Barbecue: Ribs, burnt brisket ends.
Sauce: Vinegar-based; Alabama-style white, and traditional tomato-based.
Outstanding Sides: Sweet, buttery spoonbread; creamy mac and cheese topped with crisp, smoked bacon; crisp Brussels sprouts, and house pickles.
Oddball Specialty: Brisket Bombs-chopped brisket, smoked jalapeños, smoked poblano peppers, and cheese fried up and served with house-made smoked jalapeno ranch.
1201 S. Rampart St., 558-4276, centralcitybbq.com.