The reputation New Orleans enjoys for great food has long carried the asterisk that this just isn’t a barbecue town. But things may be starting to change.
Five days a week now, Neil McClure turns up in the dead of night at the Riverbend restaurant Dante’s Kitchen to begin stoking a smoker out back. The smoker is the heart and soul of his namesake business, McClure’s Barbecue, which he operates as a pop-up concept inside Dante’s Kitchen during weekday lunch and Tuesday evenings, times when the upscale restaurant is normally closed.
So by 2 a.m. he’s there loading in spice-rubbed pork butts, ribs and briskets. Then he lets the smoke do its thing for the next eight or nine hours as he gets to work in the kitchen on his home-style sides.
McClure grew up cooking whole hogs for nearly every family gathering at his childhood home in Pensacola. During a camping trip last year he had what he calls an epiphany and realized he needed to get back to his roots, back to serious barbecue. His pop-up was the answer, and despite its unorthodox restaurant within-a-restaurant format it has drawn an enthusiastic response.
While McClure’s story has the contours of a personal vision quest, it’s also a prime example of the new boom time for barbecue now billowing across the area, one that’s unaccustomed on the Crescent City food scene.
The reputation New Orleans enjoys for great food has long carried the asterisk that this just isn’t a barbecue town. That has customarily been chalked up to just another of the many ways in which this Creole city differs from the rest of the South. But things may be starting to change.
At least nine new, dedicated barbecue restaurants have opened in New Orleans and its suburbs in a little more than a year, with many of these coming along in just the past few months. They’ve joined a number of others that emerged just before or in the years since Hurricane Katrina, while more still have retooled themselves significantly to join the barbecue trend.
It isn’t just the numbers of barbecue purveyors signaling a change here. Like McClure’s, many of these newcomers adhere to a long, slow, low-heat smoking process, a technique that stands in contrast to the charcoal-grilled barbecue that has long been a New Orleans norm.
There’s evidence of a broader, grassroots interest in the low-and-slow approach to barbecue in New Orleans that isn’t limited to restaurants. For example, organizers of Hogs for the Cause believe a previously untapped passion for slow-cooked pork has helped propel the growth of their annual cook-off, which is a fundraiser for pediatric brain cancer that will be held again on March 24 in City Park.
The event was started casually enough. Initially it was just an excuse for some friends to cook whole hogs while raising money for a worthy cause. Today, it’s a major event, with a slate of live music and some 50 teams of increasingly competitive and creative cooks, with the public invited to sample their offerings.
True, we here in New Orleans aren’t famous for our barbecue. But we sure are known for the zeal we put into our cooking, whatever it might be. As interests in traditional barbecue spreads, and as the outlets vying for bragging rights grows, it looks like the local scene could really get smoking.
736 Dante St. (inside Dante’s Kitchen), New Orleans
March 24, 2012, at City Park