When it comes to barbecue, it seems everyone has a strong opinion and an unflinching knowledge of what is right and what makes their favorite the best. Barbecue seems to be constant contest of who is lowest and slowest and who has the best sauce. Even if they say they don’t do competitions and are just in it for the love of the craft, there is still that constant air of oneupsmanship between every pitmaster or pit-amatuer. And when you get as many different forms of barbecue in one place, in the middle of the most opinionated city in the world, you get the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.
The Big Apple Barbecue, begun in 2002 by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, is a free weekend-long event in and around Madison Square Park. It has raised over $1.3 million dollars for the Madison Square Park Conservancy since then. This year, they are hosting Chefs and Pitmasters from 7 different states, including four from here in New York City. Party-goers can choose to hit up individual vendors and get their ‘cue for $10 a pop or they can opt to purchase the Fast Pass or a VIP ticket.
The barbecue vendors lined the streets on the north and east ends of the park and inside the greens were two beer gardens, games for kids, and live music all day long. The list of performers included Demolition String Band, Bernie Williams and his All Star Band, Josiah and the Bonnevilles, and David Ryan Harris. Watermelon and peaches were available for helping to cure the “meat sweats.”
After a loaded Bloody Mary provided by sponsor Kingsford, I started with Hill Country’s Smoked Beef Brisket and Cucumber Pickles. Hill Country has been a favorite of mine for a few years now, so I thought I would begin my carnivorous journey with something familiar. A benchmark to form my opinions on. The brisket, as usual, did not disappoint. I love this restaurant, have fond memories there, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Charles Grund Jr.’s brisket tastes like home. (Even though I am from PA.)
Smoked low and slow over hickory charcoal, West Tennessee style, the Whole Hog Sandwich at Martin’s Bar-B-Que from Nashville, TN looked pretty simple. I got to see them chopping the pork, like machines, right in front of us. I even got a peek at three men loading a pig into the smoker. When I got my sandwich I inquired about which sauce, if any, was best to eat it with. The lovely woman serving me said she never found the need for sauce, there was plenty of flavor there to begin with. She was right. That sandwich was delectable. The coleslaw was chopped fine and piled on top of the sandwich. Perfect for street eating. I went back to the counter out of curiosity and tasted the vinegar sauce on what was left on my sandwich and found that it just brought out the flavor more. Apparently, you can’t go wrong, no matter what you decide to do.
The best sauce of the day was definitely the Mustard Based Sauce at Salt Lick BBQ, from Driftwood, TX. It felt like you got bonus meat here when they handed you their Beef Brisket and Sausage. The Yonkers couple I struck up a conversation with while waiting in line for this one told me all about their own BBQ adventures in their backyard, and encouraged me to try the sauce. I tried just a little on my beef to start, but then found I was sopping up as much of the tangy sauce as I could. Of all the barbecue sauces I tried that day, this one really stood out as special.
After picking up a bourbon and lemonade and resting a little, I decided to pick the brains of two serious looking meat eaters sitting next to me. Their recommendation was to do whatever, hit up all the vendors, but DON”T miss Hometown Barbecue.
Pitmaster and owner, Billy Durney’s Hometown Barbecue in Red Hook, Brooklyn was on hand in the VIP area serving up his Beef Short Rib, and it was spectacular. This rib had a nice thick rub, all crusty and peppery, and melted in my mouth in a combination of carnage and fat and spices that made me hunt Mr. Durney down just so I could meet him, bump elbows, and get a fan pic. I am definitely going to be making a trip out to Brooklyn for more of this treat. My new friends didn’t steer me wrong.
New York seems to really be able to hold its own as a place to find great barbecue. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was serving up their famous St. Louis Spare Ribs while Blue Smoke offered up Smoked Alabama White Wings. I am very happy to know that NYC has so much to offer in the way of exceptional barbecue.
To learn more about the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, hit up http://www.bigapplebbq.org and begin making plans for the next one! One word of advice… Come hungry. Even on an empty stomach, this was a tough one to work my way through, though I am definitely grateful for the feast.