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Big City Barbecue

don't call it craft barbecue

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Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina

A couple years ago, I wrote about how barbecue around the country was starting to look the same. There was a certain aesthetic that permeated the upstart barbecue joints in Texas, the rest of the U.S., and even the international scene. At the time I was a little hung up on the look and not what was on those butcher paper-lined quarter sheet pans, but a new style of barbecue was also emerging. I call it “big city barbecue.”

The foundation of big city barbecue is a focus on premium quality meats, such as prime grade beef from boutique brands like Creekstone and 44 Farms. There’s a reverence toward slices of fatty brisket served without sauce. A big city meat cutter might cringe at the idea of chopping their beautiful briskets, looking down on the staple of Texas barbecue that is the chopped beef sandwich. The ribs and pulled pork (and trust me, there will be pulled pork) will likely be identified by breeds like Duroc or Berkshire. Its hard to make a decent profit, even when charging $20 per pound for that prime—or in some cases Akaushi (also known as Texas Wagyu)—brisket, so the menus are diversified with cheaper items like pork shoulder and turkey breast. You won’t find big city barbecue joint that’s a single meat specialist.

The cost of the meat gets to another point about big city barbecue joints: they’re more expensive. Yes, the rent is higher in Houston and Dallas than in Lockhart, and the labor is probably more expensive too, but that alone doesn’t explain the higher prices. I’d argue that this type of barbecue joint is located within cities because the wealthier customer base can support it. Once customers get to the front of the line at Killen’s in Pearland or Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, I doubt most even look at the price of the beef rib before ordering a one-and-a-half pound chunk of it. But patrons would laugh at you for charging $20 a pound for brisket in Windthorst, and they’d never darken your door again. That’s why Zeke’s BBQ, Windthorst’s local joint, uses select briskets and charges $13.95 a pound.

The meat at a big city barbecue joint it also going to be tender. Pull-apart beef ribs and lusciously tender brisket are musts. But of the meats at a big city barbecue joint, the beef rib is the calling card. Huge beef ribs are a specimen that’s worth boasting about on social media. It might not be great for profits, but it creates a reason to share your experience—which is ultimately good for marketing, and big city barbecue joints know how to market their restaurant. They don’t have the luxury of a old-time rural joints that pride themselves in not having a website let alone a Facebook page or Twitter account. A big city barbecue place will have them all, and maybe an Instagram account to boot. They’ve gotta connect with folks who won’t blink at a $40 beef rib.

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Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas

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Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas

Big city barbecue places are also a bigger time investment for patrons. Potential customers will need some freedom to take long lunch hours or maybe even take the whole morning off. These are places where it’s hard to be a customer if you have a normal nine-to-five job, and even harder to be a regular. That means creating a community among the customers is hard, which is why I think so many traditionalists bristle at the idea of standing in line for hours at Franklin Barbecue rather than sitting across from a friend for an hour over a rack of baby backs at Iron Works down the street.

Tim Mikeska of the famous Mikeska barbecue family does believe that there is some link between these new joints and old traditions. But it’s still undeniably hipster. “This retro-hipster movement in barbecue has caused a totally different epiphany of barbecue in Texas,” Mikeska said. “The reason I call it retro is when I sat down at Aaron’s [of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue] trailer all those years ago and ate that brisket, it was the same brisket we did in the sixties. It was what I call full-term brisket.”

Mikeska is not the first to refer to it as hipster barbecue. Houston-based food writer Robb Walsh got a little more specific. “To be snarky and glib, it’s urban hipster barbecue,” he told me in an interview several months ago. “The question becomes, is the new breed, the stand-in-line places, a new category?”

Some might call it craft barbecue, but I’d say that shows a lack of respect to seasoned rural pitmasters who helped solidify the craft of Texas barbecue. Vencil Mares at Taylor Cafe is no less a craftsman than the next pitmaster or chef to open an urban spot in with an angel investor.

But many food writers outside of Texas refer to this barbecue experience as Central Texas style. Walsh disagrees with that label. “Maybe they’re a sub-category of Central Texas barbecue,” he said, adding, “Let’s face it. Central Texas barbecue doesn’t have any side dishes.” I hinted at this style in my write-up of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, where the desserts are house, the sides are inventive, and there’s a cocktail program. These are all aimed at attracting the wealthier customers, and providing enough variety to keep them coming back often.

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The Pit Room in Houston

The late Josh Ozersky wrote about the “new barbecue” in a 2013 article for the Wall Street Journal. He highlighted fancy barbecue houses like Smoke in Dallas and The Granary in San Antonio. These are spots with servers and menus far outside the barbecue realm, but I think the future of barbecue across the country looks more like The Pit Room in Houston than the Granary. Customers still stand in line at The Pit Room and choose from three house made sausages, elotes, or tacos on house-made brisket fat tortillas. There’s even cold-brew coffee on tap. It’s big city barbecue to the core, but the service is just like you’d find in Central Texas. A man with a knife slices the meat in front of you and places it on butcher paper. Its familiar, but there’s still a freedom to explore for the new joints opening up. They don’t have to be ideologically fortified like their classic counterparts.

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Holy Smoke BBQ in Sweden

Houston Chronicle columnist J. C. Reid describes the conundrum of a legacy barbecue joint owner who might want to copy this new style. “It can’t change,” he says. “It has its customers and it has its traditions, and if it changes, it loses everything.” And those places are a reflection of their region. The old model was that one pitmaster learned from another and opened their own spot in the next town over doing essentially the same style of barbecue. The new region is the internet where ideas are shared internationally without delay. Online videos broadcast Texas barbecue techniques to Australia or Sweden or France, and the resulting barbecue creates a style of barbecue that crosses the traditional boundaries. It permeates big cities all over the world. We’ll always have our regional barbecue in the American barbecue capitals, but this new style is likely the future of barbecue in the places where smoked meats are just now taking hold.

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  • Proud of you for not using the term “neo-traditional”.

  • Tom Loder

    I’m hoping we end up somewhere in the middle, with a more traditional, homegrown atmosphere and the freedom to experiment with different meats and flavors. For example Gatlin’s (on the top 50 list) does a very good smoked deer sausage and Goode Company Barbecue does an interesting take on smoked duck, both while maintaining a very typical and unpretentious atmosphere. What I can’t stand is the hipsterish aspect of barbecue or the idea that you can just adopt some techniques and start a barbecue place anywhere. I’m of the opinion that “true barbecue” (if such a thing can be said to actually exist) is only found in the four key regions (Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and the Carolinas), as well as outliers such as Kentucky mutton and Alabama white sauce chicken, and that those places have unique styles of both meat and sauce that should only be used in those places. Kind of like the terroir system they have for wine, i.e. a Bordeaux uses certain grapes and must be made in Bordeaux, etc. I honestly think one of the bigger issues is the erasure of African Americans in barbecue (a problem that happens in any hipster gentrification movement) and the specific traditions they have brought, many of which don’t jibe with the prime-cut, new-urbanist aesthetic of “craft” barbecue. I can honestly say that the best barbecue I’ve ever had has been at Black barbecue places, many of which have been little more than shacks or roadside smokers, and I particularly enjoy things like hot links, fall-off-the bone extra saucy pork ribs and charcoal chicken. All of these things would be considered gauche, if not outright heretical, by many in both the traditionalist and “haute ‘cue” (hurts to even type that) schools, which are dominated by Whites.

  • Let’s not forget Chicago style barbecue! Hot links, rib tips, turkey legs, sweet tangy sauce and aquarium smokers belching out hickory, cherry, and mulberry smoke. I love regional barbecue traditions, however I think being open to innovation and experimentation can only bring new and exciting experiences to Barbeque lovers around the world.

  • J.Segura

    Good BBQ is good BBQ, no matter where you find it. Flavors will vary as they should due to regional tastes. If people are willing to pay $20/person for lunch/dinner and RETURN to do it again, that tells you it’s good BBQ. Other BBQ joints will simply have to up their game and match the consistent good meat this is being smoked. It takes passion and attention to detail to put out good BBQ, not just anybody looking for a 9-5 job can do it. Hipsters.. “old school” pitmasters.. doesn’t matter, people just want good BBQ. I think the internet and so called “hipsters” like Franklin have raised the bar.. hats off to them.