The weather forecast earlier in the week wasn’t particularly encouraging, but fortunately, in this case, at least, the lack of long-term forecasting accuracy worked out splendidly as it proved to be another perfect weekend for the 13th annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party at Madison Square Park in the Flatiron District of New York City. It turned out to be perfect in more ways than just the weather as the lineup of pitmasters and their crews enticed with spectacular tastes both familiar and new. With the return of old favorites as well as new flames, there was plenty for everyone. For my coverage of past BABBQ’s click here.
Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group founded the event as a benefit for the upkeep of Madison Square Park Conservancy. Ownership and responsibility for the event changed this year, but Meyer and his Blue Smoke restaurant, which started the renaissance of barbecue in NYC retained a high profile.
Blue Smoke put out delicious pork spare ribs with pickled peppers. My first bite of the pepper was a near disaster as, not fully expecting its juicy pop of pickling acid, it went straight to the back of my throat, wherein I immediately proceeded to cough it all over the place. No such mistake was made on subsequent delicious bites!
My family and I were fortunate to benefit from Blue Smoke’s great hospitality as well as that from other pitmaster friends, both old and new. A special part of that Blue Smoke hospitality came with Louisiana native, chef/pitmaster Jean-Paul Bourgeois’ crawfish boil. Laced with spices, citrus, potatoes and corn, the mudbugs were a welcome treat amongst the vast sea of grilled and roasted meat spread out all along the park.
Chef Bourgeois even gave a little instruction on how best to eat the little buggers. Unfortunately, I missed getting him sucking the head. The whole thing reminded me of the time I was eating a pile of them in Rayne, Louisiana.
The event was sold last year to a group led by Texas chef and entrepreneur, Tim Love, and this was their first time running this particular event. They did a great job.
Love and his crew from The Woodshed Smokehouse in Fort Worth, Texas, dished up some delicious lamb brisket with boracho beans.
Speaking of brisket and Texas, I got to try the classic from longtime Big Apple Barbecue favorite, Scott Roberts and The Salt Lick. The meat had a great smoke ring and was full of moist flavor, while the sausage had snap and popped with some nice heat. John Stage and Dinosaur Barbecue also offered beef brisket, but I didn’t get to try theirs. Their Troy, NY, restaurant is one of my local go-to’s, so I spent my eating energy and space at places generally less accessible to me.
Texas also brought us Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue and their spectacular Texas beef ribs with pickled Southern vegetables.
When it comes to beef ribs, I have always preferred them roasted to a nice rare to medium rare center – that is until I tried this spectacular piece of meat. Built with a pepper crust, it was delightfully soggy with flavorful juice and, eaten right from the heat, one of the best bites of meat of a weekend with plenty of extraordinary bites of meat. I’m salivating now just writing about it!
Another of my best new (to me) barbecue bites of the weekend came from the stand right next to Louie Mueller – Brooklyn’s own HomeTown Bar-B-Que from Billy Durney and crew.
They smoked out some nice and spicy Jamaican Jerk St. Louis Ribs with Caribbean Slaw.
The jerk sauce for the ribs is the product of Chef Bradford Thompson, who adapted it from a recipe gleaned from his wife’s Jamaican family. The combo was just outstanding!
John Wheeler of Memphis Barbecue Company is a World Grand Champion pitmaster and it’s easy to understand why when tasting his ribs.
Wheeler is also heavily involved in Operation BBQ Relief, a charitable organization put together to help feed those struck by disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and the like. He and his team helped bring attention to the organization and what they do with signs and shirts and supported it with donations gleaned from the event.
Mike Emerson, Skip Steele and Pappy’s Smokehouse brought their version of Memphis style style ribs all the way from St. Louis. They were again delicious, as always!
I love barbecue pork ribs and over the years the ribs from Mike Mills and his crew from 17th Street Barbecue have always been favorites. This year was no exception and while I enjoyed their classic Baby Back Ribs with Baked Beans, I also enjoyed their tent hospitality.
I was fortunate to be able to partake of this beautifully roasted whole hog at the 17th St. Barbecue tent.
Mike Mills and his daughter, Amy, played host to a number of old friends including my good buddy, Gerry Dawes, and the likes of Jeffrey Steingarten, Julian Van Winkle, Lolis Eric Elie, Ole Hickory Pits head honcho David Knight and others throughout the weekend.
Speaking of Julian Van Winkle, his famous product, Pappy Van Winkle, was featured prominently at The Bourbon Bar across the street at Eleven Madison Park. Bartender extraordinaire, Leo Robitschek and his team made some great Bourbon cocktails with the youngest Pappy (1o y/o) as the base. Featuring classic takes on the Mint Julep and a Bourbon Old Fashioned as well as a sour-like Voodoo Down and straight up Pappy pours, it was a spot of particular conviviality.
Making things even more convivial was the music of The Crooners, perennial players at the EMP Bourbon Bar during the Big Apple Block Party. Their brand of Brooklyn Blue Grass is just the right accompaniment to the Van Winkle Bourbon and the smoke wafting in with scents of all the roasting meats.
A particularly mesmerizing moment was the spectacular rendition of Dolly Parton’s classic, “Jolene” sung by the radiant Tess Rex. Those particular few minutes, on top of an already glorious day, with sultry sounds, fine friends, fabulous food and delightful drink are the kind of moments that make it real easy to love life.
The natural high from The Bourbon Bar and the Crooners continued as I moved along with my buddy, Gennaro Pecchia of The Men Who Dine, to pay a visit to The Shed, serving Mississippi style whole hog, led by Pitmaster Brad Orrison. The presentation alone, the cooked hog was in a standing position and stripped of all of its meat as we watched, was worth the visit, but then eating the juicy, meaty roasted pork made it all the more.
Patrick Martin’s Western Tennessee style whole hog pork sandwiches are legendary. They’re also delicious! His Martin’s BBQ Joint in Nashville is a must next time I return to that fine eating city.
Sausages are important products of the barbecue pit and there were several spots specializing in them. One was the previously mentioned Salt Lick, which served their sausage, but didn’t sell them. The other was Jim N’ Nicks from Birmingham, Alabama. Pitmaster Drew Robinson recruited South Carolina superstar and previous BABBQ Pitmaster Rodney Scott to help out on his crew.
To complement the great, flavorful sausages, Robinson and company served his smoked pork hot links with a side of the southern classic, pimento cheese.
One of the best moments of the entire festival was visiting behind the Ubon’s stand with my sons and Gerry Dawes and having legendary pitmaster Garry Roark make us his Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Cole Slaw himself and then washing it down with one of Ubon’s patented Bloody Marys.
North Carolina’s Skylight Inn with pitmaster Sam Jones and his chopped pork became a favorite last year.
They didn’t disappoint this year either and they put on a good show doing it.
My favorite year in and year out, though, continues to be the pulled and chopped pork of Alabama’s Chris Lilly and Big Bob Gibson’s. This pulled and chopped pork had it all – moisture, Maillard reaction, texture and great pork flavor. It was the single best bite I had all festival, which is no faint praise.
One might think that with all this meat – pork, beef and lamb – and all of it relatively similarly prepared, that it might quickly get boring or difficult to distinguish one from another, but that would be far from the truth. While it is possible that each individual restaurant might shine just a little bit better on its home turf, having the variety of styles and personalities in one place on a beautiful weekend, abetted by spectacular weather and some mighty fine accoutrements simply can not be beat. Still, there were people and products from previous years that I missed – most conspicuous by his absence this year, Ed Mitchell, one of the founders of the festival and for the second year, my old friend and BABBQBP supporter, the late Steven Shaw. Still, this event has become, for me, not just about the food, but a chance to connect and reconnect with friends old and new. There’s a lot to be said for the continuity that this event has maintained over the years.
That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any room for mixing it up a little. The new management instituted a variety of changes this year, which were generally for the better. Gone was the old Fast Pass that tended to clog up the sidewalks behind the pits with little gain for those thinking that they were finding an advantage. The extra space was a boon to to the pit crews, who had roomier confines to work within and only one direction to face for sales.
In its stead was a true VIP area, where those patrons who had no desire or inclination to wait on any lines could relax and indulge their Q fantasies to their stomach’s content and interact with the pitmasters on a rotating basis for a fairly pricey $275/day. It sold out on both days and, I believe, people generally got what they paid for – an exclusive, relaxed and delicious experience.
Once again, I look forward to returning next year.
Please click here for the Flick’r Album of all of my photos from this year’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. For Instagram only, search for the hashtag #docsconzbabbq .