The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party has grown to be one of the great culinary events of the summer. This year the 7th annual edition will be held on June 13th and June 14th in Madison Square, from 11 am till 7 pm, which is two hours longer than the previous year. As usual, the collection of barbecues presents a mixed bag–some outstanding in their barbecue sub-genres, some totally lackluster. Entire American barbecue styles are missing (Kentucky mutton, as an example), and one wonders just how the participants are selected, since any random aficionado could probably do better. That said, there’s some solid barbecue to be had from far-flung places, and the way the festival is run has been improving over the years.
The roster of barbecues has just been announced. Here are my notes on the participants, with a letter grade awarded based on my interest in trying their ‘cue. Note that I haven’t been to all of the places, and often had to rely on extraneous info, or info based on my own tastings at the festival in previous years. Be forewarned that I’m a barbecue traditionalist, and prefer old-fashioned places using time-honored barbecue styles. I remain unimpressed by barbecue competition champions, who win by slipping some blackberry jam into their marinade, or by relying on gloppy sauces. Texas barbecue is my benchmark.
Blue Smoke, New York, NY (Kansas City ribs and pickles): Owned by Danny Meyer, the organizer of the block party, Blue Smoke tries hard and does a good job, but offers too many styles to be great at them all. A perennial entrant, its line is usually very short for decent ‘cue. B
Hill Country, New York, NY (Beef brisket): This barbecue channels Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, and produces a 90% authentic facsimile, even importing sausages from Kreuz. Which poses the question, why not just include Kreuz (or Smitty’s or Black’s), which was done in previous years? A-
Baker’s Ribs, Dallas, TX (St. Louis style ribs and jalapeno coleslaw): Balderdash! St. Louis ribs don’t come from Dallas, they come from St. Louis. I went to high school in Dallas and never heard of this place, which offers such nontraditional items on its sprawling menu as beef-stuffed baked potatoes and boneless smoked chicken breasts. I prefer the original location of Sonny Bryan’s. C+
BlackJack Barbecue, Charleston, SC (Pulled pork shoulder and coleslaw): Everyone knows the barbecue is much better in North Carolina than South Carolina, and Charleston’s BlackJack was mediocre when I tried it a couple of years ago. I’d stick with Bessinger’s. B-
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, Decatur, AL (Pulled pork shoulder and beans): This perennial participant in the block party just doesn’t deserve the distinction, relying on barbecue sauce for much of its effect. B-
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, Nashville, TN (Western Tennessee Style Hog with sweet pickles): Chowhounds seem to like this place, but it seems more notable for its beef brisket than for its pig. Once again, a modern place trying to please everyone with several different barbecue styles. B+
17th Street Bar & Grill, Murphysboro, IL (Baby back ribs and beans): Jeffrey Steingarten raves about this place, but I won’t hold that against it. Once again, the place offers non-traditional ‘cue in a nontraditional place. B
The Pit, Raleigh, NC (Whole hog & coleslaw): According to a friend of mine who lives in Raleigh and knows her ‘cue: “Mark and I would not put The Pit or Ed Mitchell in our top 15 NC barbecue places. Probably not even in the top 20. It’s just not that good. And the sides are awful.” C+
Ubon’s “Champions Choice,” Yazoo City, MS (Pulled pork shoulder and coleslaw): Another frequent participant that doesn’t deserve to be there. The shoulder is a flavorless steaming mass, and my even my friends in Mississippi agree that there’s no good barbecue there. C-
Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Birmingham, AL (Homemade smoked sausage with pimento cheese and saltines). This place is a chain, which is one strike against it; however, it’s a supporter of the Southern Foodways Alliance and some chowhounds seem to love it. B
The Salt Lick BBQ, Driftwood, TX (Beef brisket, sausage, and coleslaw): I’ve eaten at this Austin area barbecue many times over 20 years, but I can think of a dozen places I’d rather eat barbecue at in the Austin area. Famous for smoking its ribs over an open brick pit, not a particularly good idea. B+
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, New York, NY (Pulled pork shoulder and beans): Way too much pulled pork at the festival! Dinosaur skulked into town a few years ago, a branch of a beloved Syracuse-area roadhouse. While the food there is fine in context, it doesn’t qualify as true ‘cue here. It’s just not smoky enough, and their sauce is laced with liquid smoke. C
Rack & Soul, New York, NY (Babyback ribs and beans): Why so many New York barbecues? Does it demonstrate the power of publicists? I like this Upper West Side place well enough, but it isn’t world class by any means. B-
Wilson’s BBQ, Fairfield, CT (Texas style brisket & coleslaw): Though Michael Stern observes, “Nothing I’ve tasted at Wilson’s eclipses barbecue in its natural habitat,” he goes on to describe it as enjoyable, and I’m giving this fish out of water the benefit of the doubt. B-