Reinventing Barbecue

Where there's smoke, there's non-traditional barbecue. Jim Shahin writes about Asian styles in New York City, "pulled squash" in Arizona, and cauliflower, artichokes, and quail in Texas.
Fri May 4, 2012 10:52 pm
Smoke Restaurant

It was hard to know exactly what to call the culinary style of the stuff on my plate during a recent dinner at New York’s  Fatty ’Cue. Buttermilk pappardelle with smoked goat ragu and roasted chilies? The dish was velvety in texture, the flavor a combination of earth and zing. With each bite, I wondered how the incongruity could be so rapturous. The key element wasn’t the pasta or the meat or the mildly piquant red peppers.

It was the smoke.

“Why does barbecue have to be stuck with sugar, salt and pepper?” pitmaster Steve Haritopoulos asks me as he stands at the back of the restaurant. “We are in no way debasing barbecue. It’s more like . . .” He raises his arms in opposite directions as if to demonstrate the width of Fatty ’Cue’s reach.

“Extending a tradition?” I venture.

“Yes, exactly.”

Fancy barbecue restaurants still serve the standards: smoked brisket, ribs, pork shoulder. Rather than getting a garlic powder and cayenne rub, though, the meat might be marinated, then coated, in ground house-dried chilies and lime zest. Instead of a slather of tomato-based sauce, ribs might get a treatment involving fermented pastes, anchovies and fish.

Such experimentation is not relegated to the New York food scene, where reinvention is a way of life. It is occurring across the country: at  Belly Q in Chicago, which is set to open this spring and is overseen by a former executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s; and out in Phoenix where a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef heads  Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue, which, despite its tradition-bound menu, offers a vegetarian “pulled squash” sandwich. Change has come even to tradition-bound Texas, where barbecue is practically a religion.

Fatty ’Cue, which has locations in Brooklyn and in the West Village, is a trailblazer in the new hybrid cuisine that pairs slow-smoked meat—the foundation of barbecue—with unlikely flavors. Its smoked brisket comes with aged Gouda, roasted mushrooms and charred onions and its  pork ribs get tricked out with Indonesian long pepper, fish sauce and palm sugar.

Chef-owner Zakary Pelaccio, 37, who opened his first Fatty ’Cue in spring 2010 and has just published his first cookbook,  “Eat With Your Hands” (Ecco), is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. He proclaims his love for traditional barbecue and says he has eaten it throughout his wife’s native Texas. But at “Kreuz’s or Smitty’s or City Market,” he says, checking off names of some of the Lone Star State temples, in Lockhart and Luling, “it’s incredible  … you order all this stuff. There’s a monotony to it at some point. It’s delicious, but there’s no distinction between the meats. Wouldn’t it be exciting if it went off in this direction and that direction?”

There is a strong Asian influence in Fatty ’Cue’s approach, informed by Pelaccio’s excursions into Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia. A few years ago, he asked himself a question: Wouldn’t it be cool to take barbecue as we know it and throw some Malaysian flavors on it? Fatty ’Cue was born.

Down-home cuisine took a gourmet turn even earlier at  Smoke restaurant in Dallas, which opened in 2009. As one might expect in Texas, chef Tim Byres takes wood-smoking seriously. There are neatly stacked woodpiles everywhere you look at Smoke, and they are not for show.

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