New Orleans has never had
strong barbecue traditions in the way that, say, North Carolina or Tennessee do. Barbecue culture evolved in other areas out of slave culture, says local historian Rien Fertel – out of farms and plantations; small towns with tobacco and cotton markets. “Louisiana already had these very strong vernacular cultures, Cajun and Creole,” he explains. “And we had other places to put pork. Cracklins, andouille, tasso.”
But the smoke is thickening around here.
New Orleanians are eating more barbecue than ever. I sampled from more than two-dozen smokers in researching this article, and even then I stopped eating before checking every place off my list. I had to quit. Everywhere I looked – dining guides, social media, a corner bar two blocks from my home – someone was firing up another pit. Barbecue has even infiltrated our festival circuit. The eighth annual Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival staged last month, and at the time of this writing the folks at Hickory Prime BBQ were organizing a Crescent City Cook-Off & BBQ Festival for the first weekend in November.
“New Orleans is following a national trend in that regard,” says Lolis Eric Elie, a New Orleans native and author of the poetic book Smokestack Lightening: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country.
“These new places are opened by relatively young people,” he continues. “They’re not doing Grandpa’s barbecue. These are people who have studied it as chefs or on the competition circuit, but they aren’t bringing personal tradition to the pit. I’m not bothered by that. I’m more interested in the quality of the food than the depth of its tradition. Given the complexity and expense of barbecue, it’s good there are young folks treating it like an art form and approaching it like a serious craft.”
Elie didn’t name names, but Neil McClure at McClure’s Barbecue, Benjamin Doolittle at Blue Hickory Blues & Barbecue, Robert Bechtold of the barbecue pop-up NOLA Smokehouse, Chris Shortall at Shortall’s BBQ and the brothers Patrick, Brendan and Eugene Young at Squeal all more or less fit the description of younger restaurant professionals basing their small business plans on smoked meats – and doing so with a craftsman’s zeal.
Fertel, who recently received a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University and is busy on a book about whole hog barbecue, affectionately calls this modern movement of pit-smoked meats “hipster barbecue.” (The Los Angeles Times restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold put it another way: “Could barbecue be the cupcake of 2013?”) I can’t say whether the veteran Marines behind Black Label Barbecue are “hipsters” in the colloquial sense of that word, because I never managed to catch the elusive brothers smoking last summer. I can say, however, that the short film they produced and released over social media as part of a Kickstarter campaign to catapult Black Label from a sidewalk pop-up to a food truck struck me as pretty hipster-y in nature.
Whatever the proper term to describe it, this influx of barbecue is elevating the quality of smoked meats in New Orleans, and it’s doing so without much regard for regionality, extreme regionality being the hallmark of traditional southern barbecue. In other words, you can find Carolina-style pulled pork, Texas-style beef brisket and Kansas City-style ribs on the same combination plate. And, on the same table, you can spot North Carolina vinegar sauce beside Memphis’ tomato-based sauce, with perhaps a few other styles to more thoroughly cover the southern barbecue map.
You can get away with that – as long as you do it well – in a town hungry for a barbecue culture, as New Orleans clearly is. At the very least, it’s hungry for barbecue.
(with an Arguably Unfair Advantage)
As it pertains to food service, the term “pop-up” refers to a fleeting style of restaurant that rather literally pops up in a space customarily used for something else. Sometimes pop-ups pop up unexpectedly, though just as often they continue to pop up with some regularity, if only for an indeterminate span of time. The food service pop-up has become a common business model and an outlet for creativity nationwide. As with the restaurants Pizza Delicious in Bywater and Noodle & Pie in Uptown, a successful pop-up can help chefs and restaurateurs gain capital – and the confidence of a loyal following – before they invest in a more traditional brick-and-mortar enterprise.
The high quality of a pop-up’s offerings can help counterbalance the relative inconvenience and the long-term unreliability of the pop-up’s nature. Imagine a chef-restaurateur freed from the nightly physical grind, from the pressures of a lease, from the reliance on a stable of employees and from the psychological strain of operating an assembly line without a stop button. That is the pop-up operator, and those may well be among the reasons that Robert Bechtold was able to dish me up such a perfect meal when I visited his NOLA Smokehouse pop-up one Sunday evening on the back patio of PJ’s Coffee on Magazine Street.
The meat selection that night included heaps of glistening pulled pork, equally unctuous beef brisket, strongly smoked pork ribs paved with a caramelized layer of rub and coal-black burnt brisket ends threaded with ribbons of melting fat. Bechtold uses an offset smoker fired with hickory mixed with peach, cherry or apple wood. The fruitwoods, he says, cause a chemical reaction that gives the meat a deeper smoke ring and better smoke flavor.
For $10, plate dinners included superiorly creamy macaroni and cheese, the best bites of which came from the bubbled and browned top layer, and a mustardy “remoulade” potato salad for which Bechtold cooks the spuds in crab boil. I enjoyed tasting Bechtold’s selection of thin sauces – one vinegar, one spicy and one apple-sweet – but I didn’t insult his meats with them. Early birds that evening helped themselves to a selection of blueberry, watermelon rind, jalapeño and Vidalia onion quick pickles.
Slices of chocolate, peach and key lime pie from NOLA Pie Guy, a partner pop-up, rounded out what wasn’t only the best overall meal on my barbecue tour but easily one of the best meals I ate in New Orleans this past summer.
Certainly the pop-up operator faces inconveniences that a traditional restaurateur does not. In Bechtold’s case those include a vast distance between kitchen (or pit) and dining room, and a reliance on decent weather. When the forecast on a planned pop-up evening in September promised flash flooding, he switched gears mid-smoke and used social media to offer free delivery until he sold out. Nevertheless, the advantages of small-batch production and low overhead behoove me to offer this first place with a caveat.
Football season derailed NOLA Smokehouse’s Sunday evening pop-up tradition. Check social media for Bechtold’s current events.
Walker’s cochon de lait poor boy
Blue Ribbon: Walker’s Southern Style Barbecue. Vendors of the superior cochon de lait and spicy mustard slaw sandwich at Jazz Fest, the über-experienced folks at Walker’s easily have the firmest handle on smoking Boston butts around town. Out in eastern New Orleans they turn out gorgeous, fat-moistened, multi-textured, moderately smoked portions of pig that do the animal’s sacrifice justice every time. And the coleslaw is just as fresh and fiery out there as it is at the festival. Get there early – when they’re out, they’re out.
2. McClure’s Barbecue. The primarily pecan-smoked meats at McClure’s all taste fresh (in the unlikely way that a pro like Neil McClure can make meat cooked for an eternity taste fresh): fresh from the farm, fresh off the pit and prepared with a fresh take on what cooking method best suits each cut. The “pulled” pork appears to be pulled, tugged and roughly chopped, according to what different sections of the shoulder demand. Each portion contains a few welcome bits of candy-like char.
Best Post-Barbecue Dessert
Blue Ribbon: Shortall’s BBQ.
Dessert isn’t a requirement in barbecue. Pushing away from the table with smoldering coals still detectable on the palate is its own indulgence. That said, these days barbecue is the best arena in which to observe the age-old cake versus pie debate unfolding in New Orleans. Currently cake takes the win, thanks to the refined slices of doberge crafted by the local catering bakery Debbie Does Doberge, served at the Twelve Mile Limit bar. The ridiculously fresh-tasting slice of strawberry cheesecake doberge that a friend and I tried there so motivated her sweet tooth that she ordered a whole cake the following week (and picked it up at the bar).
2. The Joint. Made with locally produced Creole cream cheese, The Joint’s light, dreamy peanut butter cream pie caused a fork fight at my table.
3. Hickory Prime. Hickory Prime’s cobbler is of the cake – versus the biscuit – cobbler school: fresh fruit baked into a moist yellow cake with a stratum of sugary crunch hidden below.
Cochon’s smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickles
FINE DINING BARBECUE
I entered Cochon intent on confirming that the restaurant’s signature cochon de lait – an homage to the southwest Louisiana custom of cooking a whole pig outdoors over a raging wood fire – still reigns supreme in the New Orleans barbecue sweepstakes. But in fact, Cochon’s cochon de lait is braised, not smoked, which obligated me to supplement my order with a house-smoked ham hock lolling in a field of buttery farro, as well as some deeply smoky pork ribs coated in a chewy, vinegar-caramel char and garnished with chopped watermelon pickle.
Nathanial Zimet staked his claim on the New Orleans barbecue circuit when he began vending North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches from a purple food truck shortly after Hurricane Katrina. He didn’t forsake the smoker when he opened his fixed restaurant, Boucherie. It is the kind of place where you can temper the stealth spice of a house-smoked sausage sandwich with a Trappist ale, and where hand-cut french fries pair just as well with the oily, tomato-based brisket sauce as the fork-tender meat does.
McClure’s pork ribs, spicy sweet cole slaw and Creole potato salad
Best Sauce and Sauce Selection
Blue Ribbon Sauce: Walker’s Southern Style Barbecue. The default New Orleans barbecue sauce is a medium-thick condiment colored a familiar shade of rust with a flavor profile that skews sweet but finds balance in acid. Sometimes it harbors a hint of heat. I am guessing that many versions originate from a commercial bottle or jar and then get doctored up to suit the particular tastes of the pitmaster.
The sauce at Walker’s fits the above-mentioned style, though it’s made in-house with the addition of something unnamable that makes it impossible to stop eating. When I asked pitmaster Jonathan Walker what regional style he follows, he answered, “It’s New Orleans-style, baby.”
Blue Ribbon Sauce Selection: McClure’s Barbecue. Many newer barbecue establishments follow a national trend in offering an array of sauces, often presented in recycled six-pack bottle holders. While the meats at McClure’s didn’t need sauce, a few of McClure’s sauces – among them a sharp, mayonnaise-based Alabama-style, and a dark, hoisin-based one called New Orleans East – called out for meat. Who am I not to oblige?
Best Use of Local Products: Sausage
Both at McClure’s and The Joint, links of locally made chaurice – a heavily seasoned pork sausage enflamed with red pepper – hit the smoke pit, to such winning effect that one wonders why chaurice doesn’t enjoy a little smoke more often. Pitmasters at Saucy’s and Hillbilly Bar-B-Q toss boudin on the grate, Acadiana-style, which crisps the casing and infuses the pork-and-rice dressing with a campfire-like dimension of flavor. At Shortall’s, already-smoked sausage receives what seems to be that kitchen’s signature saucy treatment, this time with a sticky glaze of maple syrup and stout beer.
Blue Ribbon: Whole Foods Market, Arabella Station.
When you ask a butcher for a plate of brisket at Uptown’s Whole Foods, he reaches a gloved hand into a heap of oblong lumps enveloped in a dull black bark. By all other measures of gastronomy, these aesthetics don’t indicate something edible, much less desirable. But viewed through the lens of barbecue cooked low and slow (12 hours here), the smoke-blackened beef triggers an exaltation of spirit and salivary glands. “You want the lean?” the butcher asks, rhetorically. What he then slices off the de-fatted roast is the most tender, evenly seasoned and deep-ruby-ringed beef I’ve eaten outside of Central Texas. At first I hesitated to admit that this haven of heart health deserves the blue ribbon treatment. But then I ran it by the local barbecue blogger, musician, Texas native and amateur pitmaster James Westfall. “Whole Foods is based in Austin,” he reminded me. They had to get it right.
2. The Joint. Cooked out back in a pit that could hold a small herd, The Joint’s dry-rubbed brisket varies in quality but generally maintains an unusual tenderness, a wonderfully blackened circumference of fat and a hearty wood-smoked flavor. Whereas lesser briskets beg for a dousing of seasoning – any seasoning – this one is sweet, a fine foil for The Joint’s pineapple-habanero sauce. A sign made from sticks near the front door says it all: “Carnivorous Cuisine.”
3. Shortall’s BBQ. There’s so much to like about the Twelve Mile Limit bar currently – inexpensive craft cocktails, a diverse live-and-let-live clientele, tater tots – that I had to check my barbecue meter several times while swooning over the food. Especially the brisket. This isn’t your Central Texas grandpa’s brisket. This is more like your Illinois grandma’s brisket and gravy, had your Illinois grandma thought to use a pit. Pitmaster Chris Shortall smokes the beef over various woods on a Weber grill and then slides it into the oven for a second cooking –this time in the brisket’s own fat. Did Shortall’s brisket look like barbecue? Not at all. Did it taste like it? Somehow, yes.
Blue Ribbon: Squeal Barbecue.
While the smoke billowing from two worn-in smokers out front indicates the kitchen’s top priority at Squeal, the attention paid there to side dishes with local flair is unparalleled. You could build a satisfying meal out of the cheesy white grits and roasted corn, lithesome pork-seasoned collard greens, Creole-style white beans with ham and refreshing maque choux. In fact, I look forward to doing just that.
2. McClure’s Barbecue. Again, extra points for putting a local spin on sides in a barbecue town that’s still finding itself. At McClure’s, smoked meat and sausage remnants make their way into a terrific brown jambalaya, Creole mustard gives potato salad pizzazz and collard greens are stewed to submission with molasses and vinegar.
3. Hillbilly Bar-B-Q. It has been years since I first tasted Hillbilly’s Hobo Taters. My most recent visit proved that garnishing warm, eggy potato salad as if it were a loaded baked potato – with sour cream, grated cheddar, real bacon bits and green onion tops – is still a genius move.
Special Mention: Most of the sides at Voodoo BBQ and Ugly Dog Saloon & Bar-B-Que are vegetarian.
Bar-B-Q Kings’ pitmaster Oronde Robertson
Best Barbecue for Smoke Extremists
Both beef and pork ribs at Gentilly’s Bar-B-Q Kings (from the same family tree as the late H&P Bar-B-Q Masters) smolder on the palate long after the bones have been licked clean. Bar-B-Q Kings is the only place on the tour where I encountered beef ribs, the mammoth bones of which always elicit Fred Flintstone references. The pitmaster also smokes tilapia fillets.
Hillbilly’s pork ribs, boudin and hobo taters
Blue Ribbon: Ms. Hyster’s Barbecue.
If New Orleans pitmasters smoke one meat consistently well, it’s pork ribs. The rivalry is strong, so competitors must express unusual excellence to stand out. Enter the hickory-smoked spareribs at Ms. Hyster’s, which are tooth-tender, sheathed in a chewy caramel char and smothered in a tomato-based sauce with a latent kick of heat. You never know when the meat might be ready – one day it was past noon – and don’t count on those tender collards or homemade layer cakes that sometimes seem to magically appear, but the ribs are worth some aggravation.
2. Hillbilly Bar-B-Q. I might have more notes on why pitmaster Larry Wyatt’s pork ribs were so good if the rust-colored, smoke-tinged juices running down my forearms as I ate hadn’t incapacitated me.
The meat itself was hammy pink, resistless to the tooth and seriously seasoned – no additional sauce necessary.
3. The pedigree of Blue Hickory Blues & Barbecue’s owner, the culinary school graduate and fine dining alum Benjamin Doolittle (he runs the restaurant with his wife, Kellie), manifests in the elegant simplicity of green beans sautéed to order and in the chefly polish of a banana layer cake. White toques and tablecloths do not a pitmaster make, however. That takes practice, patience and a cultivated touch, all of which are evident in Blue Hickory’s dry-rubbed, St. Louis-style ribs. Basic, Smoke-singed satisfaction.
Best Barbecue I Wasn’t Supposed to Order
For the longest time I wasn’t even tempted by barbecue nachos. How could they possibly do either food justice? But then I invited fellow nacho-lover Rien Fertel to lunch at Squeal.
Fertel has logged countless miles gathering oral histories for the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Southern Barbecue Trail (SouthernBBQTrail.com), particularly drilling down in Tennessee and the Carolinas. He assured me that barbecue nachos, believed to have originated in Memphis, can be legitimate food. Indeed they were at Squeal, where pulled pork, black beans, crisp tortilla chips and slices of fresh jalapeño communed beneath an even melt of cheddar cheese.
A two-block stretch of Telemachus Street in Mid-City is mecca for BAR-becue, a growing genre in New Orleans that involves a pitmaster taking charge of food service within a bar.
(Ugly Dog Saloon was a forerunner in this category, bucking the strong southern paradigm of early-to-close, booze-free barbecue establishments.) On nights when the stars – and smokers – align, you can’t differentiate the smoke smells emanating from Shortall’s at the Twelve Mile Limit Bar from the ones originating at Boo Koo BBQ within Finn McCool’s Bar up the street. It is at the latter where I broke the rules and ordered a boneless barbecue short rib sandwich. Built upon a soft, brioche-like bun and served with crisp, skin-on french fries for a nominal charge, the sandwich validated my insurrection.
At Blue Oak, a BAR-becue kitchen that once operated within Grits Bar, an unexpected lagniappe made a strong argument for including chicken in one’s barbecue tour. As I awaited my order, a cook emerged from the kitchen with a single smoked chicken wing slicked with spicy Thai-style “Rooster” sauce. Blue Oak, whose smoked wings come in six varieties, including “Naked,” was mid-move at the time of this writing, slated to reopen in October inside Chickie Wah Wah’s bar.
Barbecue Spots With Unusual – and Unusually Good – Ambience
You know you’re on track if you bypass Hickory Prime twice and then need to call for directions even once you’ve found the driveway. It operates on the second, open-air level of a structure overlooking the Navigational Canal at Pontchartrain Landing, an RV resort and marina with floating villas in eastern New Orleans. The barbecue restaurant and a cabana-style bar give on to an idyllic swimming pool open for customer use.
If for no other reason than the charisma of trumpet player and songster Kermit Ruffins, “New Orleans” and “barbecue” regularly appear together in the national media. For years prior to opening his own restaurant, Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy, Ruffins appeared at select gigs with barbecue pit in tow. He and his jazz quintet, the Barbecue Swingers, do a giddy song called “Smokin’ With Some Barbecue” that also references a recreational kind of non-wood-fired smoking. Currently, Ruffins plays a standing gig at Bullet’s Sports Bar while street vendors provide opportunity for sustenance outside. On the evening I experienced this 7th Ward happening, a raft of smoke hovered above the corner of A.P. Tureaud Avenue and North Dorgenois Street. Beneath it, Erik Stewart of BBQ n Some hustled between back-to-back pits, serving a growing line of customers his charcoal-and-hickory-smoked chicken, ribs, pork and hamburgers. This was the only time on last summer’s tour that I enjoyed barbecue straight from the grate, which is how, I would argue, it’s meant to be eaten.
Whole Hog Café is relatively devoid of ambience, but its location in the lobby of the Entergy Corporation Building is genius. This isn’t destination barbecue, but the restaurant provides a great service to a neighborhood where restaurants are about as common as green space. Whole Hog delivers directly to offices with advance notice.
Best WHITE BREAD ALTERNATIVES
The jalapeño hushpuppies at Squeal, the toasted French bread at Voodoo, the mini sweet potato muffins at Saucy’s, the deep-fried, salty dinner rolls at Corky’s Ribs & BBQ, the corn muffin at Whole Hog Café, the soft white dinner rolls at Hillbilly and NOLA Smokehouse, the cupcake-sweet cornbread at Ms. Hyster’s and the less-sweet cornbread at Ugly Dog Saloon all provide relief from the squishy, sliced, white bread that burdens so much southern barbecue. What? You prefer that white bread? In that case, Ted’s Smokehouse, Saucy’s, Bar-B-Q Kings, Hickory Prime, The Joint and Sweet Daddy’s BBQ are there for you. Roughly one-third of the places I visited didn’t include bread with barbecue plates at all.
A Word About Methodology
While dictionary definitions of “barbecue” are expansive, I pared it down for this research: wood and/or charcoal-smoked meats. And I limited those meats to pulled or chopped pork, brisket, ribs and sausage. Yes, chicken is a standard on barbecue menus, but I contained my sampling this time to the redder end of the meat continuum.
As long as some wood was involved, I didn’t discriminate between styles of pit or smoker. Hardcore barbecue enthusiasts eschew electric smokers, but in the words of Lolis Eric Elie, I was more interested in the quality of the food than the depth of its tradition.
With few exceptions, I ate from the “plates” side of the menu, in order to taste the smoked meats at their purist. No barbecue sandwiches. No barbecue baked potatoes. No barbecue salads. No nachos (almost). Whenever possible, I tasted the meat without sauce first.
I ate at 26 different barbecue establishments over the course of three summer months, including one pop-up, one street vendor and two fine-dining restaurants that specialize in smoked meats. Anyone who tells you that New Orleans isn’t a barbecue town may ring me up for a reality check.
BBQ On the Menu: Where to Find ItBar-B-Q Kings
2164 Milton St.
(Pop-up and catering)
Blue Hickory Blues & BBQ
70380 Highway 21, Suite 9, Covington
Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St.
Finn McCool’s, 3701 Banks St.
8115 Jeannette St.
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
Corky’s Ribs & BBQ
4243 Veterans Blvd., Metairie
Hickory Prime BBQ
Pontchartrain Landing, 6001 France Road
2317 Hickory Ave., Harahan
701 Mazant St.
4800 Magazine St.
Ms. Hyster’s Barbecue
2000 S. Claiborne Ave.
(Pop-up and catering)
4200 Magazine St.
Twelve Mile Limit, 500 S. Telemachus St.
8400 Oak St.
3809 Williams Blvd., Kenner
Ugly Dog Saloon & BBQ
401 Andrew Higgins Drive
Voodoo BBQ & Grill
1501 St. Charles Ave.
Walker’s Southern Style BBQ
10828 Hayne Blvd.
Whole Foods Market
Arabella Station, 5600 Magazine St.
Whole Hog Café
639 Loyola Ave.