By Larry Sheingold –
We discovered fire a zillion years ago. Then we invented barbecue. And before the first bones were gnawed and discarded, we had BBQ experts.
No doubt, those prehistoric trendsetters had their traditional cave food favorites. A zillion years later, not much has changed. Even in today’s homogenized, mass marketing world, America’s regional pit masters are still loyal to their own local tastes and customs.
But beef or pork, sauce or rub, grilled or low-and-slow, you can walk into any authentic old barbecue joint, smell the aromas, and in a blink, the boundary between past and present blurs. It may not transport you back to the cave chefs’ cooking fires. But you know you’re in the presence of generational traditions that have survived the pressures of time. You have found the amiable informality of an enduring American classic – a stop along the barbecue pit road. Here are some I like.
First stop, Kansas City and Arthur Bryant’s. Founded in the 1920s. Unpretentious old brick building. Formica topped tables. You can smell the cue blocks away. Stand in line. Order at the counter. Get your food on paper with white bread and fries. The ribs are pork. The wood is hickory and oak. A signature thin tangy sauce.
It’s all good. But what keeps me day dreaming about Bryant’s are the burnt ends – those charred, smoked brisket tips. They’re the flavor of KC barbecue…and my favorite barbecue meal anywhere. Check out my photo at http://www.atLarrys.com That’s the burnt ends and me at Bryant’s.
Next, North Carolina. Not like Kansas City. We’re talking chopped hog. Eastern Style uses the whole thing. Lexington Style is just the pork shoulder, a darker, moister meat. No ribs. No brisket. No thick, sweet sauces. We ate Lexington Barbecue #1. A big barn of a building dating to the 1960’s. Smoke wafting from the smelter-like pits out back.
Your choices are pig sliced, chopped or coarse chopped. Subtle flavors. Red slaw. A vinegar-based sauce on the side. Buns for do-it-yourself sandwiches. Best parts were the hushpuppies and peach cobbler and the been-there-done-that waitresses.
Texas is still another story. They are all about beef. And the best beef ribs imaginable are at Louie Muellers’ in Taylor, about 40 miles outside Austin. Like Bryant’s, you order at the counter then find a seat – in this case, wooden picnic benches in a screened-in, wood-floored, smoke-infused old dining room that has witnessed a lot. Excellent brisket – wet or dry, depending on if it’s sliced from the fatty or lean side of the cut. Dynamite pork ribs.
But those beef ribs. Size of turkey leg. Cooked with a salt and pepper rub that brings the flavor alive. Tender and juicy. One makes a meal. None of Mueller’s’ barbecue is sauced. The quality meat and tasty rub are enough – though you can get sauce from a dispenser.
Final stop: Memphis and Neely’s Interstate. Unlike its more publicized competitor, the Rendezvous Room downtown, this is my idea of Memphis BBQ. We tried both. Neely’s wins. Rendezvous is for rub-lovers and tourists. Interstate is for folks who like the sweet, thick, tomato-based sauces and real barbecue. The combo plate is a little of everything from ribs to chicken to sausage.
So that’s it. The tour. But my motto: there’s always too much to do but never enough cue.
Hey – it’s BARBECUE season. When you roam your personal pit road, where are you headed? If you have a favorite – especially in California – scroll down to the comments below and let us know.
Arthur Bryant’s. 1727 Brooklyn Avenue. Kansas City, MO. www.arthurbryantsbbq.com.
Lexington BBQ #1. 10 IS Highway 29-70 S. Lexington NC.
Louie Meuller Barbecue. 206 W 2nd Street, Taylor, Texas. www.louiemuellerbarbecue.com
Neely’s Interstate. 2265 S. Third Street, Memphis TN. www.interstatebarbecue.com
If you have a favorite – especially in California – let us know by posting on the comments section below. You can read about some of Larry Sheingold’s favorite California restaurants at http://www.atLarrys.com
A PS about Bryant’s brilliant BBQ, and those remarkable charred brisket ends (if Kansas City weren’t an American League city, Bryant’s would be a powerful argument for its urban greatness): what you describe as a “thin, tangy sauce” thickens up quite nicely when one uses his or her bottle at home sparingly, over a couple of years. In fact, after about five years of bottle aging, it goes from “tangy” to powerful, and from “thin” to sludge. If you can exercise that much restraint.
To LSD: Your Bryant’s sauce aging method sounds a lot like the casking process for ripening balsamic vinegar, which turns a syrupy dark black over time — probably about the same color as your bottle-aged BBQ sauce.
As someone who enjoyed many years of Flint’s amazing bbq in North, West and East Oakland (now all closed, I believe), Everett and Jones in Berkeley (San Pablo just north of University) is still open and nearly as good, definitely as funky despite being in gourmet Berkeley. My wife and I recently split a 3-way combo with medium sauce, all melt in your mouth fabulous, what a meal! Apparently there are other branches, including downtown Oakland–one apparently opened and closed in Sacto. I’m not sure of the geographic origins of East Bay barbecue, but the sauce is, to my taste, exactly what bbq should be, tangy and rich, mild, medium or really hot.
Lenny: I tried the E&J in Sacramento. Not surprised it didn’t survive. I am betting the one in Berkeley is better. Ever go to Gorilla Barbecue in Pacifica? That’s next on my Northern California BBQ list.