Last weekend Shake Shack wasn’t the only one drawing long lines at Madison Square Park. Pitmasters from across the country traveled all the way to NYC, smokers in tow, with pounds of hickory wood chips and charcoal, to kick-off the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. My team and I were there to bask in the smoky goodness.
Now before I go on about the finger-licking, delicious bbq we ate all day, let’s make sure you know what a pitmaster is. Let me quote from the Big Apple BBQ: “A pitmaster is a barbecue authority who cooks up mouthwatering ‘cue.” And boy did we sample ‘cue from the nation’s award-winning pitmasters from bbq capitals of the world (Texas, North Carolina, and Missouri just to name a few). With 17 pitmasters firing up ribs, brisket and pork-galore, we chose our top 7 to try.
Take a look at all the BBQ we ate in our Facebook Album: Big Apple BBQ Block Party
Our first pit stop was Ubon’s Barbeque all the way from Yazoo, Mississippi! Ubon’s barbeque, sauces and bloody mary mixes have been recognized across the country, winning more than a fare share of awards. We were graced with Garry Roark himself, who said Ubon’s BBQ is“an extension of my home.” He’d never invite anyone into his home without offering a drink--which is how we sampled Ubon’s BBQ Bloody Mary (non-alcoholic). All natural, without fat or MSG, the bloody mary had an ever evolving flavor profile with each sip. Of course he’s got the garlic, onion, celery seed and cayenne of a classic bloody mary. But what make it special was their 5th generation, Memphis style (with a nod to Kansas) UBONS Sauce and fresh dill pickles.
The bbq bloody mary was just a start! Garry pulled pork right in front of us (with his hands to show how tender that pork butt was!) and whipped up a pulled pork sandwich, slathered with his famous sauce and coleslaw. I don’t know what it is about eating a pulled pork sandwich that was just pulled 2 minutes before, but I was heartbroken taking the last bite.
Next, we headed to Dallas,Texas this time to sample some St. Louis style ribs from Baker’s Ribs. We spoke to pitmaster Robert Austin, while an ominous cloud of smoke (from those ribs!) welcomed us into a warm, hickory embrace. Trying to keep up with the hungry customers eyeing the fiery racks of ribs, Robert gave us a hint to his secret.The St. Louis cut of ribs is trimmed down, and a little more substantial.They slowly smoked their ribs over hickory wood for 4-5 hours, with a dry rub of brown sugar, cayenne, and spices to develop that sweet, spicy tenderness you’d expect from Texas ribs.
Rounding our way back north, we stopped at Food for the Southern Soul from South Carolina. Jimmy Hagood’s BlackJack Barbecue mustard sauces won him awards at national competitions. But he didn’t just sway us with his sauce this Sunday. The self-proclaimed “BBQ Pope” said, “Its every Southern boy’s dream to make barbecue on Madison Avenue.” And boy did he bless us with a dream bite. Tearing into a pork shoulder which had been cooking for 18 hours at 200 degrees, he didn’t just mix it with sauce and serve us a sandwich---nope. He made us a special “Blackjack BBQ Sundae.” Yes, I said sundae. In a waffle cone, he stuffed it with the succulent pulled pork and slaw, drizzled over some of his tomato-based bbq sauce, and topped it with pork rinds. Can you say pork-tastic or what! The crunch from the rinds, the sweet crisp waffle only elevated the tender pork. What a blessing for that sundae!
Headed up north again, this time to North Carolina with the Skylight Inn Barbeque.Their specialty is roasting a whole hog. Yup a whole pig. Roasted over wood, with just salt and pepper to really let the pork sing (at least in our mouths!) Whipping out a tray fresh from the oven, Sam Jones gave me a piece of crispy, mouth watering skin that really hit the spot. And of course, I had to lend a helping hand and took a whack at chopping pounds of pork at once, with a cleaver in each hand, running through the meat like I was giving the board a massage! Boy did I need all the muscle power I had!
Then we made our way to some of the best barbecue right here in NYC. We joined John Stage from Dinosaur Barbeque (with locations in Harlem and Brooklyn, fyi!). With roots serving bikers a good plate of food, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has been nationally recognized for putting out fresh, homemade traditional, yet distinctive food. John served us up some good ole brisket, which had been cooking for nearly 14 hours with a dry rub, to give it a beautiful dark bark. He graciously tore into the brisket, revealing the tender, pink meat, and sliced me a piece that just melted in my mouth.
How could we go to the Big Apple BBQ and not stop by my favorite rib place: Blue Smoke?! Pretty much my neighbors, on any given Sunday, more often than not, you’ll find me going to town on Blue Smoke’s ribs. And Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois was more than happy to welcome us. This year is also the first time Louisiana is being represented at the Big Apple BBQ. Growing up in Louisiana, Jean-Paul was surrounded by great smokehouses, and wanted to bring that to NYC. At the block party, Blue Smoke served a traditional Louisiana Andouille sausage with pimento cheese. But he also had a little treat he was going to serve later that day- a little “lagniappe,” or a “little extra” given to the customer by the gracious merchant. He gave us a peek at his brisket, with a 7-pepper rub (a recipe that’s been in the works for over 3 months!)
The last bbq spot was not on our original list, but Jean-Paul and a few others named Mike Emerson as a favorite here. So who are we to question these pitmasters? And boy, oh boy, Pappy’s Smokehouse from St. Louis, Missouri did not disappoint. When I say I took a secret bite of Pappy’s baby back ribs behind Mike Emerson’s back, I’m not lying. The ribs were cooked for about 4 hours, at 225 degrees, until just before the meat pulls away from the bone. Only a pro like Mike could tell when ribs are done by touch! The rack of ribs-- kissed with a subtle bbq sauce, yet slightly charred on top--were calling my name. I couldn’t even wait for someone to slice them-- I grabbed the whole rack of 4 ribs and took a bite!
After I hid my bitten ribs from Mike Emerson, I figured it was time to call it a day and just take these ribs to go (so I could shamelessly enjoy them at home, where I can be as messy as I want!). If you didn’t check out the Big Apple BBQ Block Party this year, let me just say from a carnivore to fellow carnivore: make sure you don’t miss it next year! It has everything you could want: smoke, spice, heat, meat, fire, live music, refreshing drinks--a meat-lover’s heaven!