I’m often asked where folks can find good barbecue in major American cities throughout the country. When I get the question about New Orleans, a place I lived in for five years, my usual response is, “You don’t go to New Orleans to eat barbecue.” I suggest instead options for enjoying the many cuisines for which the city is famous, the same spots where I choose to eat when traveling to New Orleans. I hadn’t ever bothered with a dedicated barbecue tour of the city until a few weeks ago.
Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson declared New Orleans “barbecue country” in 2017, so my mission didn’t seem pointless. Before my reservations at Brennan’s and Pêche, and a po’ boy at Parkway Tavern, I set out to try what others have called the city’s best barbecue joints. I enlisted local food writer Brett Martin to join me, and he generously drove me around. He had never bothered to explore the city’s barbecue scene either, so we would learn together.
Central City BBQ changed the reputation of the New Orleans barbecue scene. It opened in 2016 with a menu that spanned barbecue genres. They offer brisket burnt ends of Kansas City fame, alongside sliced brisket like you’d find in Texas, and smoked Louisiana boudin. They’ve even got pork belly burnt ends, which they call Cowboy Candy, perfect nuggets of sweet and salty pork with a little smokiness. Maldon sea salt topped the sliced brisket and ribs—a flashy move—but it was the sides that held our attention, like the creamy mac & cheese topped with crumbled bacon, or the sweet corn spoon bread, which was the best barbecue side of the day.
Frey Smoked Meat Co. (pronounced “fry”) near City Park also opened in 2016. There’s full table service here rather than the barbecue line at Central City. Burgers and over-the-top milkshakes get equal billing with the barbecue, but we were there for smoked meat. The brisket was the second best of the day, but nothing else impressed, including too-saucy ribs and slices of pork belly that needed more time to tenderize on the smoker. When the server suggests the lightly dressed slaw, just know that it’s really soggy cabbage drowned in a thick mayo-based dressing.
Just a few blocks away is Blue Oak BBQ. After hosting pop-ups and serving inside bars since 2012, the folks at Blue Oak found a permanent home in 2016. They’re serving the best brisket we tried. A slice from the fatty end was juicy and smoky and had a stout bark that brought real crunch and some heat too. They use freshly ground black pepper in their rub, and the flavor comes forward with every bite. The ribs and wings were also enjoyable, but skip the gumbo, whose dominant flavor was flour. During the meal, the owners brought out something I’d skipped over on the appetizer menu: cracklins. How good could this Cajun country staple be in New Orleans? Well, I’m surprised to say they were some of the best I’ve ever had. These cracklins aren’t the puffy fried pork skins you’ll find in bags at the grocery store. They’re about an inch square and consist of a layer of hog skin, fat, meat, and another layer of fat and meat if you’re lucky. At Blue Oak, they’re par-cooked to get the fat portions soft and to dry out the skin. When an order is placed, the cracklins are dropped in the fryer until crisp then dusted with a choice of seasoning mixes. Go with the Szechuan chile option, which tingles the tongue and brings a bit of heat. Before long, you’ll be staring at the bottom of the paper bag they’re served in.
Piece of Meat wasn’t part of my original agenda, but since it appeared on Food & Wine‘s list of the ten best new restaurants in 2019, it seemed like a worthy detour. A case up front displays raw cuts of meat, sausages, and charcuterie. The charcuterie board with bologna and smoked duck breast was impressive. There’s a decent smoked brisket sandwich on the menu, but I’d return for the hot pastrami sandwiched between two slices of excellent rye bread.
With all these new spots for barbecue in the city, respect must be paid to the place that’s been smoking meat in New Orleans for fifteen years. The Joint has been in its current location since 2012. A custom-made rotisserie smoker in the back handles the barbecue. They serve a respectable sliced brisket, and I enjoyed the mac & cheese and greens. Its baby back ribs are smoked until tender and basted in sauce. The sauce is set in the smoker and isn’t too thick, but it’s more than a glaze. I like the way it picked up a little extra smoke flavor, making these the best ribs of the day. Also, don’t forget a slice of pie. I opted for the heavenly peanut butter pie, as fluffy as a cloud.
Despite these recommendations, I still find it hard to direct any Texan to waste stomach space eating barbecue when dining in New Orleans for a weekend. But for the locals, I understand the cravings, as I’ve been known to seek out gumbo in Dallas. Thankfully for New Orleanians, their barbecue is better than our Cajun fare.