Boston BBQ: Bacon Vodka at Jake's
The ever inventive Don Yovicsin of Jake's Dixie Roadhouse (Waltham MA) is at it again. This time he has "a BBQ epiphany that will shock the culinary world. Creative cocktails using Jake’s Bacon Vodka are now being served nightly."
The bacon cocktail roster includes:
Bacon - My Greasy Lover
Also look for Jake's to be featured later this afternoon on The Dish With Frances Rivera on Boston's Channel 7 news between 5:00 and 6:00PM.
Boston BBQ: Uncle Pete's Video Retrospective
Last night a buddy and I dropped into Uncle Pete's (Revere MA) for an assortment of barbecue goodies (more on that early next week, and yes, it was a good visit). As is my wont, I checked out the website before the visit so I could strategize the ordering during the entire ride over, and I stumbled upon some vintage video.
Here's "Uncle" Pete Cucchiara discussing the finer points of barbecue and being surprisingly candid about some of his barbecue secrets in this 3-part YouTube video. It includes segments from Roker On the Road, TV Diner and Phantom Gourmet. Even if you're not from Boston, you can't help but find these clips interesting and informative.
New York BBQ: Wildwood Barbeque Reviewed
The site's 146th review is now available for Wildwood Barbeque in New York City. There's been a lot of anticipation for this review. Those of you who read my Rebuttal to the Time Out New York review last month may be expecting a cream puff assessment with nothing but praise across the board, but that's not the case. The short story? I like Wildwood a lot, but this restaurant—Iike any, including my favorites—is not without its flaws. I think my comments on Wildwood are balanced, accurate and fair. See for yourself via the Reviews page or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Chris Hart: the Pigtrip Interview, Part 2
The second installment of a three-part interview with Chris Hart of the IQue competition team is now ready for viewing. In this segment of our conversation, there's plenty of competition philosophy and strategy discussed. The conclusion next week is more restaurant talk.
The Chris Hart Interview, Parts 1 and 2
Weekend Wrap Up: SoulFire, Duckfat and the New Buck's Naked
Last Thursday night, my wife and I had another good visit at SoulFire (Boston MA), where the ribs are now my gold standard for the area. A pulled pork sandwich was decent and the fried chicken wings were again plump, crispy vessels of moistness and flavor. I've recently rhapsodized on the ascent of SoulFire, so I needn't repeat myself here.
On Sunday morning we realized that a beach visit to Newport RI wasn't in the cards, so we headed in the other direction—literally. The target was Portland ME, home of Norm's Eastside Grill and Uncle Billy's BBQ. I did some web searching to see if either would be open on a Sunday and I found some conflicting results. One had Norm's open at noon; another had Norm's open at 4:00PM. When we arrived, we learned that Norm's is closed on Sundays and Uncle Billy's is closed altogether.
I had already planned Duckfat, just next door, as an add-on to the Norm's visit, since their fries are legendary. The casual sandwich shop wound up being the lunch bail-out plan, and my Thai chicken panino and Fraoch Heather Ale hit the spot. The beautifully prepared panino was generous with the potently flavorful condiments. The fries, cooked in the namesake duckfat, were dark, crisp and seasoned with large crystals of sea salt that somehow clung effortlessly. An assortment of dipping sauces (we chose horsradish mayo, garlic aioli and Thai mayo) added to the experience. The beer selection is small, but they have some interesting microbrews. We're still planning a visit to Norm's some Saturday, and when we do we'll be sure to make it a 20-foot crawl.
Sunday's early dinner turned out to be even further north than Portland. We checked out the newer, larger Buck's Naked in Freeport, recently relocated about a mile north on Route 1 from its previous spot. The place looks impressive, with a lot of the finer touches you see in corporate run joints but done in a more subdued manner that seems more genuine. There's a larger bar area with stools and tables, many more booths arranged like an ice cube tray in a two-section dining room, a kids' play area, a semi-open kitchen and a downstairs "Juke Joint" that provides entertainment and additional seating during peak weekend hours.
The menu has expanded even more than the space, with the addition of beef ribs, steaks and many appetizers that had previously been specials at the old location. We shared a Smoked Sampler that had wings with choice of sauce, along with beef ribs and pork ribs, served "naked" (thick, savory rub applied before and after cooking). We also tried just a few of their Buffalo sausage nuggets appetizer that may be, bite-for-bite, the most fattening food in the world.
More BBQ Judging Talk
Last week I received a request from the serendipitously avuncular Eric Devlin, who—like the barbecue sauces he critiques—is always sweet but never cloying. On his engaging Home of BBQ blog, he's doing a four-part series on the roles and responsibilities of the various participants in a barbecue contest: the competitors, the judges and the organizer. I was honored to be asked to supply a guest post on the judging aspect. To see what I had to say, check out Eric's blog, and be sure to also give his sauce reviews and barbecue ramblings a good look. www.homeofbbq.com
Some Outside-the-Box Ideas For Improving BBQ Judging
As I was typing up my guest post for Home of BBQ, the following ideas hit me as ways to improve judging.
The NBA, NHL, NFL and major league baseball all have exhibition games that don't count in the standings, so why not an exhibition barbecue contest? Instead of generic entries presented with intentionally illegal garnish or pooled sauce, you'd have actual teams presenting actual contest entries. The exhibition status would allow judging trainers and senior judges to sit at the table along with the new judges, and—unlike at an actual contest—discussion could take place during the judging for training purposes. This forum would also allow new teams to get judging feedback and more experienced teams to try off-the-wall preparations to see how they do without risking a tank job at a real contest.
Balancing the Plane
In small aircraft it's quite common to weigh the passengers and distribute the weight evenly to ensure a smooth flight. No, I'm not talking about weighing the judges (talk about a project), but I am talking about assigned seating to achieve balance with regard to seniority and scoring. The last thing a team wants is to hit a table that has two or three "tough" judges, and they also don't want their arch rival's entry to hit a table with too many "easy" judges. Similarly, too many new judges at the same table could have unwanted impact on a contest's results. Judging sheets are kept and recorded for posterity, so why not use these to balance the judges, so every team gets the same "scale" in every round?
Define "Good Texture"
Every time I hear the line "It should have good texture" on the judging CD played during the judges' meeting, I cringe. What's good texture? I think I have a good idea of what it is, but I'd like to hear a clear definition so we're all on the same page.
Make It A Buyer's Market
I've said previously that judges have a pretty good gig, because we pay no admission and eat some of the best barbecue on the planet. You'd think that arrangement would encourage more judges, but the truth is that most contest organizers have a hard time filling the judging tables with KCBS certified judges. If the supply of judges were higher, it would be more of a "buyer's market" and the contest officials could afford to be choosier when accepting judging applications. Previous track record could weigh heavily in determining these assignments, ensuring that only the best judges were in place. I'm not talking about Big Brother or trying to stack the judges to affect a specific outcome, but if a renegade judge who frequently gives 5s and 6s for tenderness when the rest of his table give 8s and 9s, he shouldn't be their first choice. I'm not sure what it would take to increase the judging pool. Maybe a raffle at each table for a gift certificate to be spent elsewhere at the contest (food and beverage vendors, T-shirts, etc.) or from the sanctioning body (KCBS or NEBS). Maybe a higher initial certification fee but a $5 rebate per contest judged (this might also help address the no-show rate). Maybe a lower certification fee and a paid admission to judge. Whatever it takes, getting more judges out there will indirectly get better judges in there.
We've all seen specialization in every field from sports to medicine, so why not barbecue judging? A chicken specialist could judge only the chicken category, then call it a day. If brisket's your thing, only judge brisket. If brisket's not your thing, and you only judge it because that's the only way you get to judge ribs, maybe you shouldn't be judging brisket.
Now this may sound like it's in complete contradiction to my desire to increase the judging pool, since it would require more judges. But I'm wondering if judging up to three pounds of meat in four categories is so much of a commitment that it's scaring judges away. I'd be happy to just judge chicken and ribs some days, using the rest of my time and stomach room to check out the vendors and hang with the teams. If you only had to judge two categories, would you judge more often?
Joints Directory Madness
Here's the latest batch of Joints directory activity, spanning six states. This time there's a new directory section, five new joints, one expansion, two closings, one still closed for renovations, one new web site and a few assorted corrections.
Little Red Smokehouse (Carver MA), reported as closed for renovations over a month ago, hasn't changed its status. The phone is temporarily disconnected and the website promises they really are reopening ad that they'll post progress updates. www.thelittleredsmokehouse.com
Mojo's BBQ Shack (Portsmouth NH), operating since January in their original location, opened a second unit in North Hampton, and they also have a new web site. www.mojosbbqshack.com
The Way Back Eddy (Westport MA) was mentioned here as closed for the season, but I forgot to gray out the directory listing.
Bank Street Roadhouse (New London CT) changed their menu about a year ago, stripping the barbecue component, and I similarly forgot to gray out the directory listing.
Uncle Billy's BBQ (Portland ME) closed earlier this season, but they're still available for catering and can be contacted via their website. The same ownership converted the space to Granny's Burritos. www.unclebillysbbqmaine.com
Mo Gridder's (Bronx NY) is a combination auto service shop and barbecue joint that's been featured in the New York Times and on Guy Fieri's Diners Drive-Ins and Dives. It's part of my long-overdue Bronx and Queens section. Thanks to Bobby Slather and Sledneck for some advance scouting. www.mogridder.com
Ranger Texas BBQ at Legends (Queens NY) is a Jackson Heights joint that has ties to the great Pearson's BBQ. Thanks to Matt for the early info.
D&L Bar-B-Que (Asbury Park, NJ) offers barbecue with a Caribbean twist, with curried chicken, beef ribs and oxtail the primary entrees. Thanks to Robert for the lead. www.dlbbq.com
Hickory Hog BBQ (Point Pleasant NJ) is a one year old joint that's a great beach option. Thanks again to Robert for the lead. www.thehickoryog.com
Mempis Pig Out (Atlantic Highlands NJ), operating for more than 20 years, has a salad bar in ddition to the steaks and 'cue. www.restaurantpassion.com
New York BBQ: Ray Lampe Hits the Shelves With New Book and Men's Journal Feature
Southern Hospitality's executive pitmaster Ray Lampe—better known as Dr. BBQ—hit the bookstore shelves just in time for the upcoming NFL season. His fourth book, NFL Game Day Cookbook, has the endorsement of the NFL itself. And beyond the typically excellent recipes you'd expect from Lampe, he in turn endorses a barbecue joint for every NFL team. His choices for the Patriots, Jets and Giants, respectively, are Blue Ribbon, Daisy May's and Southern Hospitality.
A spin-off of this effort is a feature in the September issue of Men's Journal, where the good doctor provides recipes for Bloody Mary Wings, Mac and Cheese Soup and Peachy Baby Back Ribs.
You'll have to pick up a copy at the stand for the recipes, but I can tell you they look really good.
A Few Hudson Valley Ribfest Photos
Here are just a few of the photos I took while I was a guest member of Uncle Jed's BBQ Team at the Hudson Valley Ribfest last weekend.
Jed and Jersey Dan
A brush with greatness
Discussing the sauce
Second place pork
Fourth place apple wontons
Chris Hart: the Pigtrip Interview, Part 1
Chris Hart is best known for his success with the IQue competition team that's won countless grand championships throughout the Northeast, three New England Barbecue Society Team of the Year awards and a first place brisket trophy at last year's American Royal in Kansas City. But he's also a restaurateur, having opened Tremont 647 in Boston more than a decade ago with Andy Husbands, and currently contemplating a new barbecue restaurant in Boston's western suburbs. And he's serious about food, home cooking and restaurants in general, so there are plenty of nuggets from the conversation we had in March to interest backyard chefs, barbecue restaurant fans and foodies alike.
The Chris Hart Interview, Part 1
Hudson Valley BBQ: A Visit to the Piggy Bank
On the way to the Hudson Valley Ribfest last weekend, I had lunch at the Piggy Bank (Beacon NY). Located just off I-84 just before the bridge if you're eading west, they're surrounded by antique shops and they have a convenient parking lot. A few years ago, I tried to have lunch on a busy Friday and waited an eternity without being seated, so I left. On Saturday, the service and attention were first rate. How was the food? I'll let you know in my upcoming review.
New York BBQ: What About Wildwod?
Yeah, I can hear that question. I haven't said much since my second visit, so there's been speculation both ways. After my first meal there, I said that I enjoyed everything but wondered if there was still room for greater heights. On my second visit, the wow factor definitely came into play, as some of the items (lamb ribs, pork spare ribs, Big Lou burger, dry rubbed wings) were spectacular. Not everything was perfect, but on the whole, Wildwood still holds their own in any conversation about New York City's top few barbecue joints. I spent considerable time typing up the review yesterday (which explains the lack of an update) and will post it early next week.
Boston BBQ: Firefly's to introduce Fish Fry and Other Weekly Specials Next Week
I stopped into Firefly's (Framingham MA) last week and learned about their new weekly specials that start next week.
Kid's Monday: $1.99 kid's meal with the purchase of an adult meal.
10-Buck Tuesday: Choice of 5 entrees for $10, including buttermilk fried drumsticks, chipotle Jamaican chicken, apple cider pork chops, pasta jambalaya and "Kentucky hot brown."
Fish Fry Wednesday: All you can eat Southern fried flounder filets.
Thirsty Thursdays: Pitchers of weekly beer or Margarita offerings.
They're also introducing "Bug Bites" Monday through Thursday from 4:00PM to 7:00PM. These are $2 appetizers, with a choice of homemade onion straws or potato chips, fried green tomatoes or pickes, pulled pork sliders, cracklin' bread, buttermilk tenders and mini burgers.
Joints Directory Madness
Here's the latest batch of Joints directory activity, spanning two states but mostly focused in New York. This time there are two new joints, five closings, one new website and one menu change.
Barbeque Island (Brooklyn NY) is a new barbecue truck that's been serving Kansas City style 'cue since June 13. They're currently on Stilwell Avenue on Coney Island, conveniently next to Beer Island, but are seeking a winter/permanent home. The pitaster previously worked at Blue Smoke. Thanks to Kate for the info.
Chevy's American Burger and Bar-B-Que (West Babylon NY) is another one of those joints that relegates the 'cue to second billing, but you never know. Thanks to Eric for the lead. www.chevysdelivers.com
Piggy Bank (Beacon NY) is a joint I visited last weekend on my way to the Hudson Valley Ribfest. Their all you can eat ribs special is now Mondays, not Tusdays. www.piggybankrestaurant.com
Bailey's Smokehouse (Blauvelt NY) now has a website: www.baileysny.com
Biggy's BBQ Bistro (New Paltz NY) didn't exactly wow me on my visit on the way to last year's Hudson Valley Ribfest, and this year they're gone. The space is now a restaurant and wine bar called 36 Main.
Red Smoke (Brookhaven NY) is yet another casualty of the Long Island BBQ scene, closed for about two weeks. Thanks to Willie for the info.
Shaky Jake's (Great Barrington MA) had a great concept with a Jamaican / barbecue fusion, but the execution was shaky. According to my moles, they've been closed for a few months. Thanks to Lester for the info.
Pig'n Out (Brooklyn NY) has closed. Thanks to robert for the info.
Bar BQ (Brooklyn NY) closed shortly before my last Joints update; I read about it the day after I posted.
Later This Week : The Chris Hart Interview
As I was preparing the site update this morning, I was running out of time before I had to leave for work, so I had to make it a brief one. I said there'd be a big announcement later on, and I got quite a few inquiries throughout the day. I'm proud to announce that I have a multi-part interview with Chris Hart, of the championship barbecue team IQue, ready to run later this week. Anyone who's ever met Chris knows that he's an incredible cook whose talent is only exceeded by his sportsmanship. But his resume and interests go much further than barbecue.
Starting later in the week, you'll get to hear about Chris Hart's restaurant past (Tremont 647), his competition present and—are you ready for this?—his restaurant future. I hope you enjoy reading this interview half as much as I did hearing it first hand.
Competition BBQ: IQue Wins Grand Championship at Hudson Valley Again
For the second year in a row, IQue took grand championship honors at the Hudson Valley Ribfest in New Paltz NY. Adding to their hardware were first place trophies for both pork and brisket, which is impressive in a contest of any size, but for a 53-team contest, that's a tremendous feat. A sixth place finish in chicken and a 14th place showing in ribs sealed the win.
Repeat winners IQue: Jamie Hart, Kenny Goodman, Chris Hart.
The BBQ Brethren.com team continued their recent success, following up last month's third place finish at Harpoon by taking the Reserve Grand trophy at Hudson Valley. The highlight was a third place pork trophy, and they earned top 10 finishes in ribs and brisket as well. Rounding out the top five were Lakeside Smokers (third overall, second place chicken), Casual Smokers (fourth overall, first place ribs) and Swamp Pit BBQ (second place ribs).
Taking the first place chicken trophy in their second consecutive contest was Sexy Gino's Bare Ass BBQ, duplicating their Merrimack NH effort. Earlier in the weekend, Sexy Gino's received the New England BBQ Society Rookie Team of the Year trophy.
In Saturday's grilling event, Lo' -n- Slo' BBQ were grand champions. Combined with top-5 finishes in Sunday's ribs and pork categories, that made for quite the weekend for this up and coming team. Purple Turtle Catering finished second.
The Wildwood NYC barbecue team finished third in grilling, taking trophies for second place fish and third place beefsteak. The Wildwood tent was a star-studded affair, with corporate pitmaster Big Lou Elrose and pitmaster Matt Fisher joined by Doug Keiles (Grub Hut, Ribs Within), Zak Pelaccio (Fatty Crab) and Robbie Richter (formerly of Hill Country, soon to be opening Fatty 'Cue with Pelaccio in Brooklyn).
Lo' -n- Slo' BBQ
Wildwood's Big Lou Elrose
So where was I this weekend? I was a member of Uncle Jed's BBQ Team, who finished tenth overall in Sunday's barbecue event, claiming a second place trophy in pork. As much as I wish I could say I contributed to the outcome, nothing could be further from the truth. Jed Labonte has a sizeable team that seems to run on autopilot, so I was was mostly a well-fed hanger-on. Thanks to Jed and crew, I learned quite a few things this weekend and had a great time.
Lists: My 12 Favorite 1-Visit BBQ Joints
Last week I talked about how many visits should go into a review and how that number varies depending on who's doing the review (blogger versus major media outlet) and the importance of the joint (Wildwood or Dinosaur* versus Smoking Sloe's). I started thinking about the various joints I've only visited only once and came up with this list of favorites. As you might expect, there are a lot of New York joints here, primarily because of the distance from where I live. If they were closer, I'd have already made a return visit.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:
- Barnstormer BBQ, Fort Montgomery NY
- Bobbique, Patchogue NY
- Bobby Q's, Westport CT
- Buck's Naked, Freeport ME
- Chico's BBQ , Guilderland NY
- Fette Sau, Brooklyn NY
- Little Red Smokehouse, Carver MA
- Smoke Joint, Brooklyn NY
- Smokin' Q, NYC
- Southern Que, Meriden CT
- Southern Hospitality**, NYC
- Swingbelly's, Long Beach NY
*Last week's post left the impression that I still had only been to Dinosaur once. Had I not already made a second visit to Dinosaur this spring (months after my review was posted), it would have easily made this
list. Although I don't share the same enthusiasm for Dinosaur as their most ardent fan base, I still think it's a really good barbecue joint. I'd go back anytime I can find someone who wants to join me.
**I've had three meals at Southern Hospitality, so how could this make the list? My first meal was in the early days, before the arrival of Ray Lampe as executive chef. My second meal was a special event, with Lampe himself overseeing the proceedings. My third meal was a Sunday lunch where the core barbecue items were unavailable. I still feel that I have not yet had a "typical" Southern Hospitality experience that should form the basis of a revised review.
New York BBQ: 4th Annual Hudson Valley Ribfest Starts Tomorrow
The Hudson Valley Ribfest kicks off tomorrow at 5:00PM. The three-day festival is one of the highlights of the season for New York BBQ fans, and rightfully so: it has a good cross section barbecue vendors from New York and neighboring states as well as merchants of hot sauces, barbecue sauces and barbecue aparatus. This festival also puts on some interesting cooking demonstrations by some of the participating competitors and vendors. Musical entertainment will be provided all weekend.
Heading up the roster of barbecue vendors is Jack McDavid (PA), who recently took grand championship honors at the I Love BBQ Festival in Lake Placid NY. Other vendors include Big Moe's M&M Barbecue (MA), Smoken' Dudes (PA), Butch's Smack Your Lips BBQ (NJ) and more.
For the competition crowd, there will be a grilling contest on Saturday, with the categories of fish, sausage, pork chop and steak. Sunday's main event is the KCBS-sanctioned barbecue contest, with the familiar categories of chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. Note that most of the competitors won't be vending barbecue at this event, but there are a few competitors participating in the "tailgate" division: 74 Ranch BBQ team, Muzzlebrake Outfitters and Sexy Gino's Bare Ass BBQ (recently crowned by the New England BBQ Society as Rookie team of the Year).
Vermont BBQ: Another Visit to Curtis BBQ
Earlier in the week I presented my observations as a judge at the New England BBQ Championships at Harpoon in Windsor VT last month. On the way up to the brewery via I-91, I got off at exit 4 in Putney to pay another visit to Curtis BBQ, the seasonal joint that operates out of a converted school bus. The outdoor picnic tables, visible open pit and whimsical signage all add to the experience, so it's impossible to not want to like this slice of Americana.
Ribs and chicken.
Curtis Tuff, pitmaster for 39 years. He'll be played in Pigtrip: the Movie by actor Morgan Freeman.
After my first visit three years ago, I thought the food didn't live up to the visual buildup. This time, the ribs were a little dry but pink (I'm not sure how he gets that smoke ring with that setup), nicely crusted and much more flavorful. Chicken wasn't bad. The barbecue sauce had more nuance than on the first visit. Cole slaw seemed store bought. Beans were a simple affair, al dente and full of natural bean flavor without molasses and ketchup talking over them. Lemonade hit the spot.
Overall, the meal was decent. It wasn't the disappointment of my first visit and it wasn't the kind of 'cue worthy of the raves I've heard and read. Like many places, it was somewhere in between. On a warm summer night on the way to Harpoon, I'll take that.
New York BBQ: Shiner Black Lager at RUB
As you can see by the photo in the Recent Eats column, I made a second visit to Wildwood in New York City over the weekend (more about that later). Before heading over, our small group stopped into RUB for a beer. It turns out that just a few days ago, RUB—the only restaurant in New York that offers Shiner Bock—added a new Shiner Bohemian Black Lager.
According to the Shiner website, "Shiner Bohemian Black Lager remains true to this old-world style by using imported Czech Saaz and Styrians Hops and select roasted malts to make it our darkest beer." But enough of the technical mumbo jumbo. It's smooth with a slightly sweet finish. To borrow a phrase from a friend, "Try this beer!"
RUB owner Andrew Fischel with Shiner Black Lager and Shiner Bock.
Thoughts From the Judging Table
A few Sundays ago I was a judge at the BBQ Championships at the Harpoon Brewery in Windsor VT. I was very eager to judge this contest because it's known for drawing the most accomplished teams from the Northeast as well as some noteworthy teams from outside the area.
Here are some random thoughts and observations:
This was the first contest I judged where a new method was in place: the entry boxes were distributed to the judges' tables not in an entirely pre-assigned scheme but in roughly the same order as they were turned in, one table at a time. The upside was hot food at every table, giving every team the best chance to score well. The teams who like to turn in their entries fairly early don't have to worry about having the food be cold by the time the judges taste it. The same goes for the teams who get assigned to the sixth slot in the judging order. This method may sound easy but requires a lot more effort on the part of the contest organizers to avoid having the same teams' boxes hit the same tables. The officials did an excellent job reacting on the fly and getting the boxes out in a timely, organized fashion. I sat at table 7 of 7 tables, so an obvious suggestion for improvement would be to modify the distribution order for each category: maybe start at table 1 for chicken, table 3 for ribs, table 5 for pork and table 7 for brisket.
The food I tasted that Sunday was almost uniformly good. Even the worst entry for each round wasn't bad. At the other end of the spectrum, there wasn't much that really stood out as exceptional, making it somewhat difficult to judge. Usually I have a fairly wide range of scores, from 4 to 9, with a bell curve distribution. At this contest my lowest score was a 5 and I gave some 9's, but most of my scores were 7's and 8's. For me (and many judges I've spoken with), the hardest decision in judging is the 7 versus the 8. In a contest where most of the scores are 7's and 8's, that decision can be decisive in more ways than one.
Speaking of uniformity, the chicken category is notorious for historically having almost identical boxes from each competitor: six thighs, sauced to a variant of brick red, arranged in two rows of three or three rows of two. At Harpoon I judged a few unique boxes that broke this pattern. One had an interesting assortment of different pieces, with chopped thigh and breast meat, a couple of wing drums and several pieces of stand-alone skin that were crisped like a pork rind. Another box had the usual two rows of thighs, but in between was a long row of sliced, boneless chicken. Variety is good. Although I scored both entries well, some of the more traditional presentations out-executed them in the more heavily weighted taste and tenderness categories.
Next up was ribs, and this round probably exemplified the tight pack more than any other. Flavorwise, there wasn't much difference among the six ribs I tasted. I wonder whether the six teams who submitted them would be able to taste all six and identify which ones were their own. One entry was decent; the other five were very good. I gave three 9's to three different ribs: one received it for appearance, one received it for taste, one for tenderness. None came close to threatening a 9-9-9 perfect score, which I gave out only once.
Pork saw a return to the creativity that was evident in the chicken. One pork entry, if you were to squint and look quickly, resembled a chicken entry, with large, tender chunks of pork that looked like chicken thighs. One row was glazed with a dark sauce and the other row was glazed with a lighter one, making a beautiful presentation. Another entry had all large ruby-hued, triangular-shaped chunks. There was even an entry that had a Carolina style sauce which is becoming rarer and rarer these days. Like the chicken, all of these scored well, but one other entry scored the highest on my sheet.
Brisket is the most difficult of all the entries, as is stated on the judging CD and borne out through tasting, and this contest was no exception. I'm used to oversauced brisket entries that try to cover up the meat, but at Harpoon much of it was presented in surprisingly austere fashion, with little to no sauce. Two entries stood out. One was perfectly glazed with just enough condiment to moisten the meat without overpowering it and served with some flavorful if overly fatty burnt ends. The other standout looked fairly average, but the plain-looking slices were packed with flavor, supplying a savory component without compromising the beef flavor. The rest of the entries were fairly ho-hum. One got my only 5 of the day.
Even though Harpoon is perhaps the most prestigious event to judge in the Northeast, a number of judges were no-shows and that's not good. I think we judges have it fairly easy: take a single course (that includes food), pay no entry fees to judge a contest, eat a week's worth of championship caliber meat at one sitting. The least we can do is honor our commitments and show up.
Our commitment to judging should go beyond merely showing up. We need to truly taste the meat to make a fair and informed scoring decision for each one. There's a lot of money and bragging rights at stake, so for those entries that are a toss-up between a 7 and an 8, I often take three or four bites to make a decision. I agonize over which score I'll choose. I see a lot of judges who take only a single (often tiny) bite and jot down a score. I'm not saying you have to stuff yourself, and I'm not saying you can't bring coolers to take home leftovers (I never do), but please taste the meat.
More Site Talk: Turning the Tables and Making the Grade
I had been mulling for a while how to construct a 2 year anniversary post. Rather than just posting random thoughts on the year that was, I decided to give myself letter grades for various categories. While that may sound very self indulgent, it’s not uncommon: many of the barbecue blogs maintained by cooks on the barbecue competition circuit weigh in after each contest with a self-assessment. Here's mine.
Output of content: A
Sure, give myself an A. Keep reading, you’ll see it’s my only one. With 582 posts in two years and 315 of them in the last twelve months, that’s a lot of output. And hardly any of it is ready-to-post press releases or reposts of articles found on the internet. I’m proud that just about all of what I post is original material. The essays that hit full stride in the winter of 2007 made a comeback in recent months and I have plenty more in various stages of completion. My one regret is not posting any original artwork on the site this year. In my first year I showcased a few sketches (one of Paul Kirk, one of James Beard) and a watercolor of Chris Schlesinger.
It’s often creative and it’s usually coherent, but my writing is a far cry from the swashbucklingly flamboyant prose of a Josh Ozersky (Grub Street) or a Nick Solares (Beef Aficionado). I can’t craft dialogue like the formerly anonymous Steve Dublanica (Waiter Rant). And there are some words Eric Devlin (Home of BBQ) uses that I’ve never even seen, much less understood. Ramping up the writing level while maintaining my own voice will be one of my chief goals this year.
I posted 32 new reviews in my second year. That’s nowhere close to the 115 from my first year, but that first year I had a lot of pre-launch time to accumulate and write reviews, many for restaurants that were a lot easier to get to than the ones remaining. A new review every two weeks or so is still a pretty impressive rate, so why the C+? I didn’t make a single trip to Maine or New Jersey in year two and that’s inexcusable. There are some exceptions, but my heart didn’t seem to be fully into the review writing process in year 2 and I think the results show it. Although there’s good information, the level of passion and the level of detail just aren’t where I want them to be. Maybe it has something to do with the new format I’ve been using. The idea was to have separate headings to make it easier to read the review and skip over the non-essential sections. It also makes the reviews more cookie cutter and limits creativity. But the truth is that I’ve been a little distracted. The desire to post almost daily, a renewed interest in longer essays and time spent at barbecue competitions have all taken some of the energy away from the reviews. Many of the reviews posted in 2006 have a completely different look; they're in drastic need of expanded photographs and up to date commentary.
Joints Directory: B+
This was originally the heart of the site and I think it’s still beating fairly steadily. The “Joints Directory Madness” posts are fairly frequent and not nearly as easy as they look. Maybe it’s just ignorance on my part, but I think the dead joints get identified as such within a much more reasonable timeframe than on other restaurant directory sites, where you see listings for places that have closed years ago. In many cases the new joints get added to the directory within a week of their opening (check the Boston area section over the next month). The directory has remained current in large part due to the many tips I get from Pigtrip readers, and for that I am grateful.
There’s nothing special about my links section other than the format. I hope the groupings and short introductions below each link are more helpful than annoying. Just about every link in there is a personal favorite, not just a repaid debt to someone who agreed to swap links. From a site viability standpoint, I look at the low number of incoming links from other food blogs as a personal failure.
A bigger failure is my bad habit of saying what I’m going to do and then not carrying out those promises. I said I was going to update several long-in-the-tooth reviews. I said I was going to add maps for each review. I said I was going to create barbecue profiles of various regional areas. I said I was going to create a section in the Joints directory for Queens and the Bronx. I said I was going to split the Hudson Valley section into smaller subsections. I said I was going to publish recipes. I said I was going to post interviews with some legendary pitmasters that I conducted months ago but have not finished transcribing. I said a lot of things. Now I need to back them up.
Site Talk: How Many Visits?
Late last week I received an email from a reader who suggested that there was a double standard in play. In my rebuttal last Tuesday to Time Out New York's review of Wildwood, I said shame on the author if he based his review on only one visit. Two days later, when I introduced my review of Long Island’s Smoking Sloe's, I said that I had only visited it once.
Double standard? Maybe. Hypocritical? No.
Time Out New York is a major media outlet, with print editions, an online presence and a full editorial staff as well as additional resources dedicated to raising revenue. As such, they should be held to a higher standard, basing their review on the industry-standard three visits. (I don’t know for sure that’s not the case. I only questioned it because I found it hard to believe that the moist brisket I had would be dry for someone else on three successive visits.)
I’m a one man show. It’s fairly obvious, new sponsor notwithstanding, that I do what I do purely as a labor of love. I have a day job that requires my attention throughout the week and I pay for my meals (and the gas for the trips) out of pocket. I say this not to cue violin music but to reinforce the point that a hobby site shouldn't be held to the same three-visit standard as a corporate behemoth. I do hold myself to a standard for opining responsibly.
Take a look at my reviews and you’ll see that many of them are based on multiple visits. I purposely held off on reviewing Wildwood after one visit because I wanted more data. I wanted to see if the brisket would be as good the second time around and if the pulled pork from my first visit was an aberration. I wanted to try the chicken and sausages and get a better feel for the sides. It would be very easy to just post my review, going with my first impression, sticking Wildwood somewhere in the upper echelon of New York City barbecue and calling it a day. But as one of New York City’s more important barbecue joints, it deserves a more informed and more thorough review. Dinosaur is also in that category, and I tried to get another visit in before posting my initial review for them, but my schedule got the best of me. Dinosaur remains a perennial top candidate for a revisit.
No disrespect to Smoking Sloe’s, but they’re just not as important as Wildwood or Dinosaur. Another visit would have allowed a deeper tour of the menu, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that urgent. I was comfortable with my opinion, so I went with the review.
For me, the decision to post a review after one visit is largely based on how strong of an opinion, positive or negative, I was able to form. If I have a good sense of the place after one visit, it’s a done deal, and I can always go back. If I think it can go either way, I’ll try to make another visit. In Smoking Sloe’s case, I thought the beef ribs I saw on another plate had enough potential to warrant another visit before a review, which explains the gap between the visit date and the review date. Since it was a logistical challenge to return, I eventually went with what I had. Unlike Time Out New York’s Wildwood review, my Smoking Sloe’s review concedes some uncertainty: "This was another hard one to gauge based on only one visit, but I hope to return for another take." Maybe my next visit will be better. Maybe not.
Take another look at any of my reviews and you’ll see the dates of the visits listed in parentheses at the top of the page. You can see how many visits went into each review and you can even check your calendar to determine the day of the week. In recent reviews, I have a section where I tell you the day of the week and explain in more detail the circumstances surrounding the visit. Then it’s up to you to decide not only how much stock to put into my opinion but how much stock to put into the data that formed it. Or you can just go by the photographs. I do all the time.
And now, a word from our sponsor (literally)
You may have noticed that in the last few weeks there's been something besides food photos in the Recent Eats column. A few months ago I was approached by Mari Prentice, president of HungryPotato.com, who asked if I was interested in running an ad on my site. It turns out that Hungry Potato is right up my alley, as it's a site that offers collectibles, wearables, readables and edibles from restaurants all over the country. As someone who has shelves filled with restaurant-related (barbecue andotherwise) knick-knacks, I can relate.
If Hungry Potato sounds familiar, it may be because the California-based operation offers autographed copies of Chris Schlesinger's cookbooks and T-shirts from the East Coast Grill (Cambridge MA). Or because they're profiled in the September 2008 issue of Entrepreneur magazine.
Mari Prentice recalls how Hungry Potato came to be and weighs in with some BBQ joint recommendations:
The idea started on a cross country trip (one of many from New York to L.A. and everywhere in between). My husband and I actually CARE about where we stop and eat along the way—I know there are loads of folks that are comforted by the sight of the golden arches or Applebee's, and we are NOT those folks! We appreciate local flavor, and when we were lucky enough to find a place that bottled their original sauce, or had a great logo and made T-shirts or mugs, we would buy the items and put them in the car. But there's a limit to how much you can take with you.
Flash forward to a visit to Old Navy in 2006, where I saw a couple of shirts with fake restaurants on them: 'Mary's Seafood Shack' and other generically named places with the Old Navy logo underneath it. And at Bed Bath and Beyond I saw 'diner mugs' with fake 'Open All Nite' designs. My thoughts were: 1) who wants FAKE shirts and mugs? I want the real thing!; 2) if I want real stuff, I am not alone; and 3) if I put all this great stuff on the web I can not only help customers like me, but I can help unique, creative, independent restaurants (in a sea of chains) make more money! I also came to realize that restaurants really don't have time to manage web stores, so it really became a full service idea for them.
One of our best sellers is T-shirts from Baby Blues BBQ in Venice CA. They have a great logo, and are in the process of of having their sauce bottled—I can't wait to sell it. They have DELICIOUS BBQ. We also sell a bunch of Chris Schlesinger's Cookbooks and gift cards from the East Coast Grill in Cambridge MA.
As for some other great BBQ joints: In addition to Baby Blues, out here I love Mr. Cecil's Ribs and The Bear Pit in Mission Hills. I loved Dinosaur BBQ in Syracuse; the original locale is GREAT. When we lived in NYC, my husband and I had our engagement party at Cowgirl Hall of Fame (now just "Cowgirl"). We loved the food there ALWAYS, and Shaka Smoke Lodge in Little Rock AR is AMAZING. If I had to pick a favorite joint of all time, Shaka would be IT.
Attention BBQ Joint Owners:
HungryPotato.com wants to extend free membership in their Restaurant Partner Program to you! If you sign up now through August 15 and mention Pigtrip.net, Hungry Potato waive your set-up fee. That’s a free webstore/additional outlet for your T-shirts, hats, gift cards, BBQ sauces and other swag. www.hungrypotato.com
BBQ Recipes: Blue Ribbon's Creole Cabbage
Now that the site is in the first week of its third year, it's a good time to finally get a recipe onto the Recipes page. It's for one of my favorite side dishes from one of my favorite barbecue joints. I've been known to make return visits in the same week to Blue Ribbon (W. Newton MA) whenever they have Creole cabbage as one of their special side dishes. Although it's most effective as a winter warmer, this spicy side is a treat any time of the year.
Thanks to Blue Ribbon owner/pitmaster Geoff Janowski for the recipe. Other restaurateurs are invited to contribute recipes for anything from rubs to desserts.
Massachusetts BBQ: Last Pig Roast of the Summer at Route 7 Grill, August 8
The last pig roast of the season at Route 7 Grill (Great Barrington MA) will be held this Friday, August 8, from 5:00 to 9:00 PM outside under the pavillion. Locally raised Twin Oaks Farm Yorkshire spit roasted pork (fed from the whey of Berkshire blue cheese) will be served with beans, slaw, local green salad and corn on the cob, with local fruit for dessert. The event, which features live music by Joel Blumert and Bob Orsi, is $35 with advance reservation. www.route7grill.com
Rhode Island BBQ: Smokehouse Cafe Introduces Late Night Menu
The Smokehouse Cafe (Newport RI) recently added a new late night menu, available Thursday through Sunday, 10:00PM to midnight. www.smokehousecafe.com [website recently experiencing difficulties]
Massachusetts BBQ: Memphis Roadhouse
The weekend almost passed without a visit to a new barbecue joint. In my mind I was juggling several alternatives, with the final outcome more a result of circumstance than choice. Would we make a day trip to New York City to get another sample of Wildwood? Would we go to the Cape to visit Dr. Frankenswine? Would we head up to Maine and try Norm's or Billy's, with a mercy visit to Beachfire? Would we stay in the greater Boston area and do some legwork on the three new joints that are about to open in the next month?
The weather plays a big role in whether there will be a pig trip as well as the destination. Some of the aforementioned jonts, as well as return visits to Smokehouse Cafe (Newport RI), Becky's (Middletown RI) and Memphis Roadouse (S. Attleboro MA) make the most sense as pitstops on the way back from a day at the beach. Summer is already half over and we've been to the beach only twice. It seems like the only hot days without rain have been on weekdays and on the two Saturdays we happened to have other plans.
Realizing the number of beach days we have left isn't going to allow for all of the corresponding joints, I decided it would be a good idea to just hit Memphis Roadhouse on a rainy Sunday night. The rain was also a good excuse for avoiding the outlet mall in Wrentham on the way down.
Memphis Roadhouse sounds like it's a chain restaurant, but it's not, and it should not be confused with the Texas Roadhouse chain. I've always liked Memphis Roadhouse. I like the sprawling booths, the original meat posters and good use of neon inside. I like that you can see the smoker behind the grills. I like that they keep the sauces in warm squeee bottles. At one time I had Memphis Roadhouse in my mental top 10, but my changing palate, exposure to more joints and some inconsistency on my last few visits have all conspired to bump Memphis Roadhouse down a few notches. It's still good, just not as good as it once was.
This time I ordered a 3-meat combo to get a sampling of Memphis dry ribs, Carolina pork and brisket. The ribs were full of bark outside, pink and flavorful inside, but very dry. I know from previous visits that this is an aberration (they're usually so moist you wonder what's been added), but it wasn't a good sign. The pork was tender as usual, bordering on but avoiding being too tender, with a nice, mildly smoky flavor. I wish it had come unsauced so I could add my own as needed, but with a year since our last visit, I forgot to ask. Brisket was probably the smokiest of the three meats, with a good texture and just enough moistness to get by. It was chopped into smaller sub-slices and a little crumbly, but it was pretty good. My wife's chicken was moist and flavorful. Sides were good. Cornbread was good too, but it wasn't warm like on past visits and I had to ask for it.
All things considered, it was a decent meal. If the ribs were what they had been on previous visits, it would have been a very good meal. I wouldn't hesitate to go back, and I still consider Memphis Roadhouse one of the better joints in the New England area. I'm just not sure if they'll climb back into my top 10.
Logging Long Miles For Virtuosity
Last night my wife and I were at the Reggatabar (Cambridge MA) to enjoy a show by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. A native of Hawaii, the fifth-generation Japanese American mastered the instrument at an early age and soon became known as the "Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele." If you doubt that there can be such a thing as a ukulele virtuoso, check out some of his YouTube videos.
It was interesting to see the assortment of people who showed up. There were several Hawaiians in the audience, many who—just like fans of Springsteen or the Grateful Dead—travel across the country to see as many of their favorite star's shows as they can. Sitting next to us was a Japanese businessman and his beautiful daughter. The father was in Boston on business, but his daughter—a student at the University of Hawaii—flew in for the occasion that same day and is already on another flight back home. Now that's commitment. Driving four hours for a barbecue lunch at RUB or Hill Country doesn't sound so crazy anymore.
I Just Finished Reading Waiter Rant
As a longtime reader and fan of the Waiter Rant web site, I had been looking forward to the Waiter Rant book for a while. I bought my copy last Tuesday, the first day it hit the shelves, and finished reading it just minutes ago. I can't begin to describe the feeling of seriousness that filled me as I closed the book; the closest I can come is comparing it to the feeling you sometimes get when you see a really powerful movie and remain in your seat long after the credits have rolled.
I wasn't expecting this reaction at all. I expected Waiter Rant to be a light beach read, with the same frothy vignettes I'm used to reading on the web site. It is to an extent, but this is much more than a book about grueling shifts, obnoxious customers and bad tippers. Although the wit and insight are still there, the chapters are longer and more introspective as the book proceeds. Ironically, I was somewhat disappointed about a third of the way through that the book wasn't nearly as revealing as promised. Then, as I continued reading I could see the arc of a storyline coming into sharp focus and the writer increasingly revealing his hopes and fears. Perhaps my own hopes and fears are what made me identify with and enjoy Waiter Rant so much.
Even though this is nonfiction, it has dialogue that reads as fiction, characters who change as the book progresses and a clear sense of a beginning, a middle and an end. I wouldn't have expected to say this before opening the book, but I could easily see Waiter Rant becoming a movie.
I'm inspired on many levels.
Site Talk: Pigtrip Is Two Years Old Today
Two years, 145 barbecue joint reviews and 582 posts later, I still haven't run out of joints to hit and things to say. I'll ponder the deep meaning of it all over the weekend and next week I'll offer my thoughts on the past, my outlook for the future and some criticism of my own output.
Boston BBQ: Free Food Today From Blue Ribbon, Chili Head BBQ and Horseshoe Grill at First Annual WROR Barbeque Bash
It all happens at Suffolk Downs in Boston today. I think the headline says it all, but check the WROR website for more details.
July 2008 archive
June 2008 archive