3. Taste the meat first, before adding sauce. It shouldn't be dry and flavorless, and it shouldn't taste solely of smoke. There should be a good balance of smoke and meat flavors. The sauce should only enhance those flavors and enliven the palate. Be suspicious of any place where the meat comes pre-sauced, particularly if the meat is pulled pork or brisket. This does not necessarily stand for rib joints where the ribs should have a nice glaze of sauce if sauced as all. They should not come swimming in sauce, no matter how many bottles of their award-winning sauce they're selling. And ribs should not be fall off the bone tender, that means they're overcooked. Ribs should separate from the bone easily, but still maintain a little 'pull' to them.
4. Barbecue, in my opinion, should be capitalized as a proper noun out of respect. It should be lowercase when used as a verb or an adjective. The only acceptable abbreviation for it is BBQ. Refer to it by the twee hipster shorthand 'cue, and we're going to go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
5. There are three things a Southern Gentleman never does:
I. Never beats his wife, his kids or his dog
II. Never speaks ill of his friends or neighbors
III. Never puts slaw on his Barbecue
I will not hear such heresy as "that's how they do it in Carolina." Slaw, if it belongs anywhere at all on the plate, should be served on the side. I don't care if the owner's great-great-grandmother swam back to the sinking Titanic to recover her world famous secret slaw recipe. No slaw on Barbecue. I feel strongly about this.
6. Pay attention to the cars in the parking lot. If there are more locals than tourists, that's a good sign. If the parking lot is full of out-of-state plates, drive on. Look for where the locals eat, especially if it attracts all kinds. A 2015 Mercedes Benz parked next to a 1989 Ford F-250 is a very good sign. Barbecue knows no race or class. I've been to joints where I was the only white guy within a ten block radius, and I felt as welcome as family; a distant cousin maybe, but still.
7.Don't worry about the sides. Producing good Barbecue is such an exacting and time consuming task, most places don't stray too far from restaurant-grade boxes of macaroni and cheese and canned beans. There is no shame in that. You didn't drive all that way for the potato salad. This doesn't mean you can't get good sides in a good BBQ joint; the hushpuppies at Wilber's are spectacular, the collard greens at Luella's in Asheville
are revelatory, and the red slaw at Lexington Barbecue is not to be missed (on the side, of course). The meat is the star, so grade the side dishes on a curve. But if they have banana pudding, you should have some.
8. Don't expect the place to be too 'restaurant-y.' By that, I mean that some of the best BBQ joints are hole-in-the-wall places where their sole focus is to serve quality meat (I'll give you a few seconds to titter over the phrase "quality meat," and then again at the word "titter"). As with many Southern cuisines, presentation means nothing. Consider yourself lucky if you even get a real plate. So don't post a snotty review on Yelp, complaining about the crust around the top of the Texas Pete bottle, or the fact that the pitmaster is wearing an old, smoke-blackened baseball cap instead of a hairnet. And especially, don't complain loudly about these things while actually in the joint, or we will go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
9. Recognize the art, not just the school. The predominant style of Barbecue in my corner of the Commonwealth (and most of Virginia, in fact) is influenced by the Western, or Lexington school. There is still good Barbecue to be found, though. I had a very nice meal the other day from Three Little Pigs
in Daleville, VA, and I have no trouble driving an hour to either Foothill Momma's
in Lexington (not that one, the other one) or Bootleg BBQ
in the People's Republic of Floyd. I do love the Eastern NC school still, but I appreciate good Barbecue wherever it is found and whatever the school.
10. Even after all my nonsense, please remember that the whole purpose of Barbecue is to feed the body and bring people together. As with any great art, it also invokes passion and begs obsession. As with anything of true consequence, the last and Cardinal rule of Barbecue is,: Never Take It Too Seriously
. Eating Barbecue should be a happy occasion, not one fraught with geek-like fixation on minutiae. As C.S. Lewis said, "One murders to dissect," and it is easy to kill a good plate of BBQ by overanalyzing it. You get so wrapped up in whether or not those were cracked Pondicherry peppercorns and a hint of juniper berry in the sauce that you've missed the magnificent gestalt
of Barbecue. It's the meat, the smoke, the sauce, the canned collard greens, the mediocre mac and cheese, the Styrofoam plate and plastic fork, and the waitress who calls you 'sugar.' And it is wonderful. Don't miss it just because you're intent on figuring out whether the pork came from a Tamworth or a Berkshire hog. There is also no room at the table for the dour, self-serious, perpetually unsatisfied pedagogue. Come down here with the attitude that no one knows BBQ but you and it is incumbent upon you to teach us heathens what real
Barbecue is because you've eaten at all ten of the best Zagat-rated BBQ joints in New York and have seen every episode of Barbecue Pitmasters
, and we're going to go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
Till next time, kids, exit your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.