As the first two plates of chopped and sliced pork were placed on the table in front of us, accompanied by sides of Ore-Ida-looking French fries and an entire basket of hush puppies, my first thought was, “I hope I can handle a whole week of Carolina barbecue.”
My son Nick and I were at Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, the first stop on one of our somewhat annual barbecue tours. Our first trip, the Barrage of Brisket Tour back in 2013, took us to the Austin area, where we made five stops. The next tour was 2015’s Madness in Memphis , where we hit six barbecue places (and one fried chicken joint). In 2016, it was Kicking It in Kansas, for seven stops.
That last name is pretty damn awful, and I admit I’m retroactively naming some of these because I dubbed this year’s trip The Meat Sweats Tour.
The article was headlined “Why Is Brooklyn Barbecue Taking Over the World?” I’m not even going to link to it. But it was a perfect example of a certain sort of food writing: provocative clickbait written by someone seemingly ignorant about barbecue and journalism.
It also gave Brooklyn way too much credit while trying to champion something that didn’t need his damn help—which seems to be a particularly Brooklyn thing to do (and by that, I mean a particularly Williamsburg thing to do).
As a certified barbecue judge who’s eaten his way through Austin, Lockhart, Memphis, and Kansas City, with a couple of stops in the Carolinas, I can tell you this: Brooklyn barbecue isn’t taking over the world, but it is good and doesn’t need this trend-setting bullshit.
The piece featured a handful of places, including one Brooklyn barbecue restaurant that’s been closed for over a year. The only thing remotely supporting a claim that Brooklyn barbecue was taking over the world was that people in other locations are using the same sort of decor (which, to be honest, is generic Brooklyn hipster and not remotely unique to Brooklyn barbecue joints).
And there was the photo. On an oversized metal tray lined with butcher paper, five slices of gray brisket, two pickles, what appear to be two Kings Hawaiian rolls, and beer served in a Mason jar (of course). There had to be two inches of real estate between each item.
It was one of the more Texas things I’ve seen. The big guy walked into the place and took off his jacket, exposing the holstered pistol on his hip. He joined his two friends, each of whom were working on an $80 prime-rib steak. The big guy sat down to a rib that looked like it had come off of a T-Rex rather than a cow.
I’ve seen plenty of guns before. I’ve used guns before. I have family members who walk around their own houses with guns in their pockets. I’m okay with guns. But I kept stealing glances at this one.
Because I wasn’t in Texas. And the guy wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat. The big guy and his friends were all wearing yarmulkes.
After over a decade of attending and planning and participating in panel discussions, I’d become pretty convinced that a) panel discussions suck and b) there’s no reason for them to ever go longer than 25 minutes. But last night I sat through a panel that ran a little over two hours and I didn’t want it to end.
The topic was brisket. Yes. That’s right. Two hours about brisket.
This isn’t exactly a fair comparison to my panels of the past. Most of the panels I’ve dealt with over the years have been marketing, advertising and media related. And something happens to even interesting people when they get on a stage with talking points from a PR team and some message to sell.
Behold, the brisket. A beefy beauty, but not the easiest cut of meat to tame. That one there is moist, succulent. It is sporting a sexy little smoke ring and a glossy black bark. But appearances can be deceiving. I’m not going to complain (too much). The brisket was perhaps the juiciest one I’ve ever done. But it wasn’t smoky enough. Neither was it seasoned enough for my liking.
The amount of smoke — or lack thereof — wasn’t a surprise. I was experimenting. I use charcoal plus wood chunks. Even if I wanted to use logs, the practicalities of New York living would make it prohibitively expensive (though I did order some sticks from Smoak). I used a lot less wood this time around to see what would happen — and what happened was perfectly fine barbecue that I wish had gotten a little more wood smoke on it. I also expected it might be on the milder side since the turkey and chops I’d pulled off earlier didn’t get very much smoke on them.
The Short Version Before I get into the details, some of you might just want to know the answer to the following question: If I only have time to hit one place in Kansas City, what should it be? That’s an easy answer. Joe’s Kansas City. Some people might say it’s touristy or mainstream, but these are the sort of people who start hating a band simply because it becomes popular. Joe’s is popular for a reason. It’s got perhaps the best ribs I’ve ever eaten, the pulled pork was delicious and the beans weren’t sickly sweet like they were at a lot of places.