Well, let’s put it right at the top: I am a barbecue addict!
But I’d never even tasted the real stuff until about 25 years ago. I grew up in New York City, ya see…where my wonderful Dad used to periodically declare “let’s have a barbecue!” Unfortunately, he was using vintage Northeast terminology—the Northeast being one of the many parts of the country where “barbecue” used to mean “let’s throw some hot dogs and hamburgers on the Weber over the Kingsford briquettes jump-started with smelly kerosene!”
Barbecue, then (and still for many now, I fear) meant and means meat placed directly over hot fire.
To me, this would be called “grilling.”
The technique of real barbecue, the stuff you get across the South, and other places like Kansas City/St. Louis/Oklahoma…is just the opposite. Real barbecue is meat cooked slowly, in proximity to, but not over, a low, smoky fire. Those exotic barbecue contraptions that look like railway cabooses…they’re built like that because the meat is placed at one end, while the “smoke box” is placed way the hell at the other end. Ribs take 6 hours to cook in an arrangement like this…and a whole brisket takes 18! But the meat, slowly melted in this fashion, is so devastatingly delicious.
So when I look across the barbecue field, searching for my peak 5 experiences…I don’t mess with aforesaid Texas.
1) Kreuz Market, Smitty’s and Black’s/The Lockhart, Texas Triumvirate
This is the same kind of answer I give when asked my greatest meal—to which I reply, “don’t know, but some meal or other at Robuchon’s Jamin.” Barbecue? Don’t know exactly…but some meat or other in Lockhart, Texas, the meaty mecca of meccas, the pilgrimage spot in central Texas for every would-be BBQ bubba. There are three restaurants there that must all be visited, particularly on the same day for comparison’s sake. They float up and down the chart, in my experience…but I’ll tell you what happened on my last visit, in July 2012:
Kreuz Market kicked butt. On my day this summer, the pork ribs were perhaps the greatest BBQ pork ribs I’ve ever had: just like a layer cake, with striations of brown, pink, fatty, lean, red, moist. Sublime flavor, and they were NOT falling off the bone—your teeth pulled them, as they were meant to do (local Texas religion). But even more thrilling was Texas’ #1 BBQ specialty…brisket. It is not possible to describe the perfection juxtaposition of crispy exterior, on these fat-and-wide slices, with an interior so luxurious, so jiggly with melted collagen that your temptations to apply all kinds of sexual metaphors are marginally appropriate. You MUST hit Kreuz Market on a day like this!
Smitty’s was my favorite two times ago; I declared Smitty’s the winner then, with the array of BBQ items that had the highest average quality (brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, and sausage being among the chief contenders). But on this visit, the ribs, which knocked me out in 2009, did not have the same layering, and had off putting sweetness to them. The brisket was fairly good, but not luxurious.
But Black’s came roaring forth. The least memorable of the three before, Black’s branded its insane brisket on my brain at the last visit. Oh, I had enjoyed its consistency before: this is a place where you get a very dark, almost burned exterior, roaring with smoky flavor—coupled with a deliciously moist interior. It is a style, and it is real, and it is delicious. But right place, right time, right question on this visit: can we get our brisket really “juicy?” (The new euphemism for “fatty.”) And the gates to brisket heaven came crashing down.
2) Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, Memphis, Tennessee
This was another important way station en route to my barbecue enlightenment. I first hit it about 20 years ago, and will, of course, never forget…the dry-rub ribs!!! BBQ sauce is a real point of BBQ controversy; many purists feel you don’t need it. At Rendezvous—definitely not. The spicy rub that goes on these ribs needs to be savored all by its lonesome. And here’s another surprise at Charlie’s (where Charlie rubs no longer, having gone to the pit in the sky in 2010): though the pork spare ribs are great, the lamb ribs are even greater!
3) Arthur Bryant’s, Kansas City, Missouri
My first visit to Kansas City was just a few years ago, but I’d heard about Arthur Bryant’s for decades (Calvin Trillin once called it “the world’s greatest restaurant”). Could this claim be so…even as a rib-poking exaggeration? I didn’t know much about KC BBQ in general, so it was hard to judge from afar. I went. I judged. I’m a believer. I discovered two key things about Kansas City: A) if you are skeptical about the role of BBQ sauce, getchaself here, pardner! The variety and quality is astonishing; a Texas food writer friend once called this town “the Byzantium of barbecue,” and that notion certainly reflects in the opulent, variegated sauces—and B) though there are many cuts of barbecue in Kansas City, the sliced meat sandwich is king. It all comes together at Arthur Bryant’s—where whirring robotic machines today cut the hams, and beefs, and porks perfectly (so the team can keep up with the lines), and where monumental BBQ sauce is on hand (or, more precisely, on your hands). What a funky monument to great eating! Best restaurant in the world? I can’t tell you exactly how far Calvin’s tongue was in his cheek, but I’d vote for at least a few millimeters.
4) The Salt Lick, Driftwood, Texas
5) Pearson’s, Queens, NY
This shouldn’t even be here, because it isn’t even here. It’s gone now. But Pearson’s was a 1990-ish phenomenon, just across the Midtown Tunnel from Manhattan, that made us realize: Yikes! There could be great barbecue in New York City! The thought, up that point, was alien. But an English hair-dresser who’d worked for Vidal Sassoon in Texas, and had fallen in love with Texas barbecue, read the future correctly and set up shop in New York. The style was right-on, the attention to detail was major-league, and the quality was outstanding. My favorite cut was something that’s rarely my favorite today in Texas: huge, meaty, succulent beef ribs. I loved this place so much that the one night I had in New York to entertain Alain Ducasse (in 1994)…I took him out here. He sat there, licking his fingers, exclaiming “Je l’adore! Je l’adore!”
Today, Pearson’s the pioneer has many NYC descendants…such as Blue Smoke, Hill Country, BrisketTown, Mighty Quinn, and Fette Sau. New York has finally become a BBQ town!
Et Alain avait raison. Moi…j’adore le barbecue en generale! It is America’s greatest contribution to world gastronomy.