My cousin invested in fast passes, which was a smart move for a hot, crowded event.
I could smell smoke from almost a block away. It was the good kind of burn, unmistakable. Barbecue. The fourth annual Big Apple BBQ Block Party took place in Madison Square Park, a three-by-one block swath of green near the Flatiron Building. 14 pitmasters converged on the park from across the nation to showcase their wares. Unfortunately, it was absolutely sweltering – 95 degrees and humid – and the park was crammed with ‘cue lovers, but that didn’t deter us.
Pitmen sold plates of barbecue for $8, sides and desserts for $4. Our strategy was to eat at places we’d heard of before, including established restaurants and pitmasters who compete on the barbecue circuit. We decided to skip the spot from Los Angeles, since I can get it anytime, and Connecticut, because Connecticut barbecue is an oxymoron. Streetside, people formed long lines to get barbecue. My cousin Jimmy planned ahead, buying $100 Fast Passes – plastic pig-lined punch cards – which entitled us to access to shorter lines along the sidewalk, behind the tents.
Big tents with adjacent smokers ringed the park, with seating on the grass, benches and walls. Musicians performed on a stage.
17th Street Bar & Grill pitmaster Mike Mills served baby back ribs & beans.
Carlos Silva, Mike’s “director of affairs in Vegas, and he has a lot of affairs,” said they went with ribs because it’s a “3-time champ of Memphis in May.” Their ribs are labor intensive, requiring them to “load it on the pit five or six times.” Silva said, “We love fruitwood, but applewood’s the best. We cook the ribs for six hours, or until they’re done.” The ribs were certainly tender, rubbed with spices then brushed with a tangy vinegar-based burnt-orange sauce. The beans were probably a little too sweet, but were more interesting than standard beans because they included kidney beans.
City Grocery served crawfish & okra hush puppies. These puppies were incredible, right out of the fryer, nice and supple with extra flavor from diced shrimp and okra, and a real jolt from the tangy barbecue sauce.
I asked Currence about his decision to serve smoked crawfish & okra hush puppies. He said, “Kenny [Callahan, the event’s organizer] wanted us to do shrimp and grits, but it would have been less manageable. This is something from our repertoire, a Southern classic updated for the 21st Century. The sauce straddles the line between North Carolina and South Carolina barbecue, using bourbon, apple cider vinegar and pepper.”
New York has developed a burgeoning barbecue scene in the past few years. I’m not convinced of its viability, but we hit the place that Jimmy said was the best in the city: Hill Country. Pete Daversa’s plate featured a single beef rib, half a link of taught jalapeño sausage from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, and BBQ beans.
Pitman Richie said he uses Texas post oak to smoke his ribs for 4 hours, seasoning the meat with just pepper and cayenne. He said they went with beef ribs because, “Chris Lilly and Ed Mitchell are on either end of the block. I’d get laughed out of here if I served pulled pork.” Richie said that they’ve become known for using post oak, and that, “Someone offered to sell me a forest in southern Illinois, but not at those prices.” The rib had decent flavor, but was ridged with a little too much fat. Then again, beef ribs are normally fattier than pork ribs, even in Lockhart. The link had decent spice from the jalapeños, but was too fatty, and the variety of beans was smoky.
Two years ago, I drove through North Carolina on a barbecue bender. Mitchell’s in Wilson was my top destination. Sadly, Ed Mitchell had shut down at that point. Little did I know he was reopening nearby in Raleigh, a higher end restaurant called The Pit. Smart business move. In the city, he can sell the same ‘cue for higher prices, and rake in cash from alcohol sales.
We knew we were in for some serious ‘cue when we spotted Ed Mitchell smoking whole hogs. Mitchell was really personable, wearing overalls in the heat and a perpetual smile. He’s become a national barbecue presence, and given his positive attitude, that’s good for the genre.
Ed Mitchell and son Ryan served pulled pork, cole slaw, and rib meat upon request.
Ed’s son Ryan Mitchell said they cook pork for 12 hours using oak. I asked if it’s as good as in Raleigh, and Ryan said, “Definitely, only there, our smokers are built into the walls.” I noticed a big plastic tub of rib meat next to the cutting boards, where the assistant pitmen were cleaving pulled pork into tiny shreds. The chopped pork was moist and had an incredible tang from the vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but could have used some textural contrast. Ryan was nice enough to add chewy, bronzed rib meat to our cardboard boats, which added another dimension of texture and flavor. Creamy cole slaw offered relief on such a hot day.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q pitmaster Chris Lilly was up on stage, cleaving pulled pork on a red roofed stage. He’s a total showman, no doubt from his experience at Memphis in May. Chris’ lieutenant was stationed at the serving table. I asked how Memphis in May went, and he said, “We didn’t win.” The crew from Bib Bob Gibson’s has an all or nothing approach. No wonder they’ve won six times in Memphis. If it’s any consolation, their barbecue was the festival’s best.
Big Bob Gibson’s pork had a nice crusty smoke ring on the outside and luscious interior dark meat. Tomato-based sauce was tangy, with a little kick. Cole slaw was also probably the afternoon’s best, with julienned carrots and a yellow hue.
I spoke with a young Ubon’s “The Champion’s Choice” pitman, who was excited to be around “barbecue royalty” like Ed Mitchell and Chris Lilly. He said they arrived from Yazoo, Mississippi, at 2 AM last night and cooked pork for 14 hours using oak, apple and peach, since they’re in Garry Roark’s backyard. Roark and crew cooked 4,500 pounds just for today. The ‘cue was pretty good, but didn’t contain any of the crust that made Big Bob’s meat so special.
Virginia and Georgia vie for a claim to Brunswick stew. John Clary and the Proclamation Stew Crew from Lawrenceville, Virginia, cooks their version for 6-7 hours in a massive pot, stirring all the ingredients with an oar big enough to paddle you downriver.
Proclamation Stew Crew does a good job of educating people about their product, including a map of Virginia, with a stew pot indicating Brunswick County in the southeastern part of the state. They list all the ingredients for their orange stew, minus their “secret ingredient” – chicken, fatback, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, butterbeans, corn, margarine, salt, sugar, black pepper and red pepper.
It’s strange that Joe Duncan and his fellow Texans would resort to cooking St. Louis-style ribs. There isn’t much barbecue tradition in St. Louis, especially when compared to places like Memphis, Kansas City, Texas or North Carolina. Thankfully, that has more to do with the cut of meat.
Baker’s Ribs were certainly pretty to look at, buffeted with hickory smoke for five hours until a deep burgundy.
Baker’s Ribs featured respectable smoke rings and lacquered sauce, but weren’t chewy enough. The flavor was pretty good thanks to the sauce’s inclusion of tomato, Worcestershire, vinegar, sugar, onion, salt and garlic. Cole slaw was fairly complex due to the jalapeño celery seeds.
On the way out, I stopped by the merchandise tables for T-shirts. Off to the right, they sold sauce from just about every vendor. Unfortunately, each bottle contained well over three ounces of liquid, and I never would have made it through the TSA checkpoint at Newark International Airport.
In all, we tried eight stands. The Big Apple BBQ Block Party was certainly an interesting cultural experience, and some of the food was very good, but it was miserable to be there. It might be my last trip to Manhattan in the summer.