The Search for Good Barbecue in New Orleans
The art of cooking meat slowly, with smoke, is one that is best appreciated in the South. You may find folks in the Midwest who'll argue with you, but as in most things, your best bet is to nod politely and let them think Kansas City has something to brag about.
New Orleans is technically a part of the South, but for many reasons is not really of the South in many respects. One way we differ from the rest of the former Confederacy is that we have never had the tradition of barbecued meat – pork or beef – that our neighbors have. There are many reasons to love New Orleans' food, but at the risk of offending the folks at Tujague's, cooking brisket is not one of them. Nor slow-cooked pork, nor anything else that involves low-temperatures and hardwood smoke.
The boiled brisket at Tujague's is, in fact, one of the things I love about New Orleans cuisine, but I will readily admit that there are folks in Texas doing things with brisket and mesquite that put Tujague's take on the fatty cut of beef to shame. I spent four years in Memphis, and there developed a taste for dry-rubbed ribs and pulled pork sandwiches dressed with slaw. On various trips towards the southern end of the East Coast, I've tried a lot of different styles of barbecue, and enjoyed most of them.
I'd heard that various places in town had good barbecue over the years. Some of them did, too. Mostly, though, it was hit or miss. On one trip the pork was moist and delicious; on the next it was dry. Ribs that fell off the bone on one visit were like leather the next.
I have been to McClure's once, so I can't swear the food I had wasn't a fluke. But I don't think it was, because the kids at McClure's seem to understand something elemental about cooking meat that allows them to render several different versions of authentic-tasting barbecue at once, with a personal touch thrown in from time to time as well.
That's most apparent with the chicken. Earlier this week I ordered a bunch of food to take home for dinner, including a whole barbecued chicken. I'm not sure what I expected, but my plans were to use the chicken (I'd also bought pulled pork and some ribs – they were out of brisket) in some sort of pasta dish.
Things didn't turn out that way. Instead, we ended up eating the chicken, pork and ribs family-style, with the various sauces laid out in front of the meat on a big platter. I made rice. Two hours later I was still picking at the leftover pork and chicken.
McClure's offers sauces from several different geographic regions. The vinegar-heavy sauce from North Carolina contrasts with the mustard-centric sauce from South Carolina, and both are completely different from the thin sauce they serve in Memphis. It's hard to do the various different styles of sauce properly, but even harder to perfect the differing styles of barbecue; McClure's seems to have passed both tests.
The menu is here and it's as simple as it looks. The restaurant is located at 4800 Magazine St., across from Le Bon Temps Roule bar and the new(ish) location of Surrey's. They're open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., but if I were you, I'd call ahead – (504) 301-2367 – to find out whether they're sold out of anything. Nothing worse than having your heart set on ribs only to find out when you arrive that they've run out.
I think the reason that New Orleans doesn't have a tradition of barbecue has to do with the fact that we had other uses for hardwood, and because we had a cuisine that was (and is) more sophisticated than the traditions from which barbecue emerged. That's not a value judgment, it's just an observation, and it may well be wrong. It's about time that New Orleans had a barbecue restaurant as passionate as McClure's.
Now if we could only get a kick-ass Burmese restaurant…
P.S. The Milkfish pop-up at A Mano is genius, and I'll be writing about it in more detail soon. In the interim, check out Cristina Quackenbush's website and the menus posted thereon. If that doesn't get your salivary glands warmed up, then sister, you're reading the wrong column.