The email message from Ed Levine (of Serious Eats and New York Eats fame) read "Hello barbecue lovers, I look forward to meeting all of you and eating some serious 'cue....Oh, yeah. One more thing. Come hungry. Ed"
We can't say we weren't warned.
And even though on Sunday my beloved G (the actual winner of our household Serious Eats barbecue prize) woke with what they used to call a "crick" in his neck and shoulder, and even though the two things he hates almost more than anything in the world are blazingly hot days and crowds, and even worse, the combination of the two, that man was determined to take his sweetheart to the barbecue. A good thing for me, you see -- since I happen to be the afore-mentioned sweetheart.
Little did we know that the best part of the prize would turn out to be not the barbecue book, not the FastPass, but the tour and chats with Pitmasters, engineered by Ed (an extremely knowledgeable and delightfully personable host and tour guide, of course) and accompanied at every stand by heaping portions of barbecue. I'm not sure I can remember another time when I've actually eaten four lunches, or at least parts thereof, but Sunday would have been the day. We weren't eating locally, not that day; our focus was on the barbecue from far-away places, since who knew when we would have a chance to eat these specialties again. And I suppose there might have been a little bit of that inability to honor prophets from our own country -- after all, does anyone take NYC barbecue seriously?
The tour began with a stop at Ed Mitchell's North Carolina-style barbecue tent, for "whole hog" barbecue, which you see being torn apart in the photo above. The pitmaster was too busy to talk to us on that stop, since it was the beginning of Sunday's gig and everyone was frantically chopping up whole roasted hogs. But we scored fabulously crusty ribs which were actually part of the "leavings," since at The Pit's outpost they were serving just chopped barbecue sandwiches. We had their delicious coleslaw and the sandwiches too, which had a vinegary tang and a nice hot pepper bite. We certainly enjoyed the sandwiches, although they were not my personal favorite barbecue offering of the day. The pork on the sandwiches was so finely chopped that it had almost a mashed consistency, which I and others certainly enjoyed a great deal, but which was not the barbecue texture I tend to crave. Fortunately, my favorites on the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party tour were yet to come.
Next was our stop at Ubon's, where we were treated like royalty by none other than Garry Roark, who turned his family's sauce recipe into a thriving business in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Mr. Roark insisted first on giving us all ice-cold wet towels to put around our necks, so we could "properly enjoy the barbecue." He told us that if we were too hot, we wouldn't have the same level of satisfaction. Then one of his pitmasters came over with a whole roasted shoulder of pork, and proceeded to show us exactly how each part of the shoulder fell into different special pieces of succulence as he pulled it apart and gave us tastes. In the meantime, Mr. Roark and his gracious wife Elaine served us what were indeed my favorite pork barbecue sandwiches of the day, rich chunks and shreds of that same shoulder, accompanied by more great homemade slaw. He also served up what was by far the best sauce we tasted that day -- we later used our FastPass to purchase bottles to take home.
By this time we were getting full, or at least I was, but that did not impede our progress. Ed took us to the Salt Lick BBQ from Driftwood, Texas, where we took a break from pig to have some of my barbecue favorites -- meltingly tender brisket and crisp, spicy sausage. I managed to muster some hidden reserve of appetite as the kind folks at the courtesy tent served it up, and pitmaster Michael Rodriguez came to talk to us. Then it was on to Mike Mills' courtesy tent. Mr. Mills edited the wonderful barbecue book that was part of our prize, Peace, Love and Barbecue. He'd brought with him two of his numerous barbecue outposts: the 17th Street Bar and Grill in Murphysboro, IL, and the Memphis Championship Barbecue in Las Vegas, NV. At their courtesy tent we were served perfectly cooked baby back ribs and sweet, tender baked beans, which inspired me to want to make some of my own. Like a good chili, they used a mix of beans in a rich sauce that was both a great balance of flavors and a perfect accompaniment to the ribs.
By this time, I could only take tastes of the delicacies being served. Ed offered to continue the tour, but we were two hours in, and all of the prize winners were ready to give their stomachs a rest. We parted ways with many thanks to Ed for the fantastic afternoon, which had been like an incredible barbecue-themed road-trip, all within a radius of a few blocks. We'd hit North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Illinois and Nevada. We knew that we were far past both hunger and capacity, and hadn't even started to use our FastPass. We took a meander through the park, bought some dessert for later on our FastPass, got some sauces and peanuts and such, and then gave the rest of the FastPass away.
As we were leaving, I spied Danny Meyer at Blue Smoke's courtesy tent. I wiggled behind the barricade to thank him again for the generous prize he'd donated to Menu For Hope last December, as I hadn't seen him since that time. We also had a good laugh about the little tiny world we live in; I'd discovered only recently that one of my treasured colleagues, whom I've known and worked with at annual meetings for some years, is a member of his family. I was turning to leave him to the many others that wanted a chance to meet and greet him, when he said, "Have you tried our ribs?" He gestured toward the racks and racks of ribs being turned on grills by cooks nearby. I told him how full I was already, but he insisted, "They're the best ribs we've ever done," as he pressed a carton of them on me. So G and I meandered in the hot sun toward home, laden with our sauces and desserts and luscious Blue Smoke ribs for later as well.
And Mr. Meyer was right. The Kansas City-style ribs were so incredibly flavorful, tender and just plain good that despite our full-belly tour of barbecue specialties from so many other places, we could rest in the knowledge that thanks to him and Kenny Callaghan, urban barbecue from NYC is no urban legend -- and it's far more than just a contender.