I used to be one of those people who used to scoff at American food. But this was back when the phrase ‘American food’ only conjured up images of bland, unexciting dishes of meat and potatoes. Living in NY where chefs are constantly pushed to reinvent their food I have since reevaluated my stance on the genre of food called New American. But even then when the discussion pointed towards the question of what constitutes the culinary heart and soul of American cooking I was hard pressed for an answer. That all changed last weekend when I spent the day eating finger-licking great barbecue at the 10th Annual Big Apple BBQ Block Party under the guidance of veteran food writer and Serious Eats founder Ed Levine. Yes, it was nothing short of an educational and foodgasmic experience.
The event itself is hosted by Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group and is touted to be the largest tourist event in Manhattan. With close to 125,000 attendees it is quite the spectacle. It’s a weekend when Madison Square Park becomes shrouded in a glorious cloud of smoke and tourists and locals alike brave the long lines for a taste of simply awesome barbecue. As for me, being a long time reader and fan of Serious Eats paid off when I won a tour of the event with Ed. Having never been to the Big Apple BBQ Block Party and having recently gotten more familiar with New York’s own BBQ scene I was ecstatic!
And so on Sunday morning after wisely skipping breakfast and obtaining my media pass I met up with Ed and his crew from Serious Eats. We started the day with some ribs and beans from Pappy's Smokehouse from St. Louis, MO. Mike Emerson’s famous dry rubbed baby back ribs had that perfect balance of tangy taste and subtle heat and their baked beans were my favorite of the day. After that tasty appetizer we headed over to meet Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que from Hemingway, SC. It is Rodney’s first year at Big Apple BBQ but his whole hog comes with a reputation. He makes his own charcoal to fire his smokers and the entire process is quite impressive. It’s a laborious and slow process, one that can only be done with the kind of commitment and dedication the Scott family has. Yes, that’s a lot of love and plenty of soul that goes into that whole hog. The result is some very delicious pulled pork and scrumptious cracklings.
After feeling the heat of Rodney’s smokers we headed over to Ubon’s Barbeque of Yazoo and met Garry Roark and his daughter Leslie. This stop was my absolute favorite of the bunch as both Garry and Leslie were the epitome of Southern hospitality. Chatting with Garry as he pulled out a pork butt fresh from the smoker it was hard not to be charmed by his friendly smile. As he prepared a pulled pork butt sandwich for us he handed us pieces for us to eat with our hands. And this was the kind of meat you didn’t care whether you had utensils or not. The pork butt itself was a beautiful sight. And it was one of the tenderest and tastiest pork I’ve had in my life. In fact, my friend and I initially wanted to share a sandwich since it was still early and we wanted to make sure we had enough space in our stomachs. But Garry said ‘Oh honey, you’re going to want your own.’ And the man was right. It was quite simply one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. So much so, that I’m planning a road trip that will include a stop at Yazoo City, 50 minutes north of Jackson, as I write this. Alas, we had to pry ourselves away from Garry but not before we asked for bottles of Ubon’s award winning sauce to take home with us.
Next stop was Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. On the short walk over Max from Serious Eats grabs us a plate of salt and pepper beef ribs from Blue Smoke for a ‘snack’. It is delicious but we were about to be given a show at Martin’s that will knock our socks off. Pat Martin’s restaurant opened in 2006 just outside of Nashville and here at Big Apple BBQ he is smoking whole hogs. The animal is smoked for at least 22 hours and he gives us a peek of one that’s about to be ready while we sample his pulled pork sandwich. Delicious, yes, but after Ubon’s I was more happy to munch on these delicious pickles from Wickles and drink some beer. But that was before Pat proceeded to break apart the hog right in front of us and handed over pieces of pork belly straight from the smoker. I practically burned my fingers but it was amazing! Thankfully I didn’t have to suffer through burns to enjoy this as he put together pulled pork belly sandwiches for us. It was undoubtedly, the richest, most sinful piece of sandwich I had ever encountered. Again, I was floored.
Have we had enough pig yet? Evidently not as we then headed over to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que from Decatur, AL. Here we met pit master Chris Lilly who has been winning barbecue championships for years. Their pulled pork shoulder is one of the best but I was getting quite full at this point so I took a few bites and listened to more of Ed’s fantastic stories. After a run-in with Danny Meyer and other industry celebrities we headed over to Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill from Murphysboro, IL. Mike is another legend in the world of barbecue and we had a lesson on the anatomy of a pig from him. I now know the differences between different cuts of ribs. Under their hospitality tent we had more BBQ, beer, and plenty of stories.
Our final stop was The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que from Driftwood, TX. I’ve been to The Salt Lick before when I was in Austin some time ago but I was more than happy to be able to meet the owner Scott Roberts. For the Big Apple BBQ he’s smoking brisket and sausages. And his beef and pork sausage is the best of the bunch. With a perfect snap and wonderful flavor that’s heightened by the grill I actually wanted more even though I was stuffed. And with their famous sauce the brisket was delicious. Of the different barbecue sauces that we tasted my favorite was a tie between that of The Salt Lick’s and that of Ubon’s. Ubon’s is more sweet and tangy while Salt Lick’s is spicier. Either way you can’t go wrong.
And so after hours of delicious barbecue and countless stories from Ed and the pit masters I was stuffed to capacity and my clothes smelled like barbecue smoke. We said our goodbyes and thanks and I headed home enlightened with the knowledge that somewhere out there in this huge country of ours there are people, communities, who put their heart and soul into making culinary magic. Ed was right in saying that it’s almost unfair that these wonderful people come to New York once a year to give us a taste of food that we know we simply cannot have for the rest of the year. So, unless you’re planning on a road trip through the states mentioned above you’ll just have to wait another whole year for the next Big Apple BBQ Block Party. Trust me; the wait will be worth it!