New Orleans, LA –
Put barbecue fanatics from different parts of the South together in the same place, and you're bound to get a fierce argument. Just start with the same basic pork butt or rack of ribs -- apply heat -- and partisans will rage over big and little differences in cooking styles, serving methods, side dishes and, most passionately, sauces. There's a lot of machismo tied up in barbecue, and a lot of regional pride. With these two combustibles at play it's easy to stoke contention.
But most would agree that Louisiana in general -- and New Orleans in particular -- is mysteriously weak in the barbecue department. For a long time, it seemed like barbecue for many New Orleanians was a verb synonymous with grilling anything and dousing it with a sauce labeled "barbecue."
Lately, however, more purveyors have stepped up to fill this strangely under-served food niche, and today there's more local barbecue than ever to appreciate thanks to some relatively new entries.
Of this most recent crop, the oldest is Hillbilly Bar-B-Q, which opened in 2001 in River Ridge. It's only about 10 miles upriver from New Orleans proper, but the sauces and meats here adhere to a vision of barbecue fermented in Kentucky, which is where proprietor Larry Wyatt grew up and where he still maintains a source for the Kentucky hickory he imports to fuel Hillbilly's smoker. One result of this effort is pork shoulder that gets edged in a dark crust, followed by a thin, deep purple smoke ring before the meat blossoms into soft-textured strands of flavor. Hillbilly puts out an assortment of sauces, most following the vinegary Kentucky standard.
The newest addition to the New Orleans barbecue circuit is Squeal Bar-B-Q, on Oak Street in the Riverbend. Brothers Brendan, Patrick and Gene Young opened the place in November as their first restaurant. They don't adhere to any one regional type of barbecue. Instead, they borrow from many. The barbecue sauce, for instance, is a bit of an enigma. It's tomato-based, like a Memphis sauce. But it's also thin and vinegary, like North Carolina's eastern derivation. It's spicy, with flavors of both black pepper and ginger. And, it's smoked.
A great deal of smoky experimentation at backyard barbecues laid the groundwork for the Joint, the restaurant which Peter Breen and Jenny Tice opened together in 2004 after giving up on the city's anemic corporate job market. Since then, they've been smoking meats from a colorful, low cinder block building down at the bottom of the Bywater neighborhood, hard against the Industrial Canal. Now, when food program TV producers and glossy national cooking magazines come to town looking for New Orleans barbecue to feature, they usually turn up at the Joint.
A specialty here are St. Louis cut ribs, which are big, meaty, well-marbled spare ribs neatly trimmed of their rib tips. Coat these -- or the pulled pork, or the brisket -- with one of their two sauces: a distinctive Carolina vinegar variety - thin, tangy and just a little bit sweet -- or the much thicker, piquant tomato-based sauce.
If Hillbilly, Squeal and the Joint don't exactly put New Orleans on the map as a mecca for 'cue fiends, they do at least show how styles of cooking and saucing that would surely clash elsewhere can coexist in this neutral ground city for Southern barbecue.