Sunday, June 17, 2012

Epicurean Adventures: South Comes North at the Big Apple Barbecue BlockParty

My post about The Salt Lick barbecue in Austin was initially supposed to be about my experience at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in NYC on June 9 and 10.  So I guess it's pretty safe to say that it's a good thing I put up a disclaimer right on this blog header that I reserve the right to go off on tangents and wax rhapsodically about whatever the hell I damn well please. And right now, I am damn well pleased about meat.

I hauled my lazy Long Island ass, and Boy's lazy Long Island ass all the way to Murray Hill the other weekend for the sole purpose of MEAT. I also got a great Groupon for Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, which we'd never been to, so double win for us.

But, I know better than to think that you care about that. What you want to know is: Was the meat any good?

The festival began at 11 am and ran until 6 pm, featuring live music, a pork confessional (!) sponsored by Smithfield, and cool things like seminars and demonstrations. It wouldn't have been too hard to spend a day, but we chose to head out for the tail end (pun maybe intended?) of the festival to minimize the time our little Baxter was home alone, and maximize the eating productivity of our attendance and time in the city. The show was at 8 and just due north of the festival, so hey! Dinner, some time to walk it off, and entertainment. The date night of champions!

We followed the scent of smoke and charcoal to Madison Square Park, on Madison Avenue at 23rd Street. Madison was zoned off to 26th, so we were excited to check it out, and to continue to follow our noses. Mainly, I was excited to finally have Boy try the brisket and sauce I'd raved about when I was in Austin at The Salt Lick. I mean, sure, I bought a bottle home, but I've been "saving" it for a special occasion like the food hoarder I (not-so-secretly) am, and I knew anything I put that sweet nectar on wouldn't do the sauce justice.

 "To the brisket!" was my battle cry as I entered the packed grounds. I passed by hordes on the benches, pavement, and grass digging into cardboard portion containers (very eco-friendly, by the way. Digging that.). I marched beyond the lines for fried pie (?!) from Texas. I was honked at by a forklift carrying a halved whole hog, sliced through the back and belly, trotters sadly drooping over the edge of the pan. But eventually, I fell prey to my hunger and was forced to stop at the shortest line possible. I was desperate for sustenance.

I saw "ribs." I saw "Texas." I conquered both at the Baker's Ribs. Sadly, I was disappointed. Disappointed, I was sad. They were good, but not spectacular. I'd expected fireworks, and got only sparklers. The coleslaw, a vinegar-based blend, was excellent, but the ribs were just ... well, ribs. They didn't fall off the bone. The hickory wood came through, but was not as classily subtle as The Salt Lick's. And although the pork was tender and juicy, it lacked depth and needed the sauce. Desperately. Whomp, whomp.

Nothing daunted, we pressed on. Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q's slogan amused, but an offering of mere sausage failed to attract. Later on, I heard that the bangers were bangin', but it's too late for regrets. I'd came for the good stuff, the pure white stuff ... that cascades out of a suckling pig.

Terrifyingly long lines finally led to The Salt Lick, who was serving their famous brisket and sausage. I was thrilled. Ecstatic. Trembling with excitement. And was promptly given some devastating news by the line-end-flag-holder: They had just run out of brisket.

I composed myself and regrouped with Boy. What do to now? With no cow to be found, it was back from the pasture to head to the pen. Pork was to reign king for the day.

It was a blessing in disguise, for that day, I discovered the unadulterated joys of St. Louis baby back ribs. Real St. Louis baby back ribs, by grillmasters from St. Louis, Missouri: Pappy's Smokehouse. The $8 I spent at that stand provided the greatest value and greatest ecstasy of the day. I'm salivating just thinking about how absolutely effing delicious those ribs were.

Crusted in a charred, herb-and-spice dry rub, with burnt green herbs highly evident, these ribs were then smothered in an absolutely delicious sweet and tangy barbecue sauce, grilled wet to absorb the sauce ... and then RESMOTHERED and bruléed with a blowtorch. Yes, please! As the rain began to fall and the lines began to dissipate at 5 pm, I discovered the joys of double basted ribs, digging in on the sidewalk under drizzly gray skies. It was romantic in the extreme.

My "sample" piece while I was on line was two juicy, hefty ribs, seasoned to the bone, and a solid inch of meat between said bones. The ones I paid for were kind of lousy -- small ends. I joked to the grillers that I'd gotten a better piece as a sample. With a stern face on, the more smartass one of the bunch (he'd been faux gruff while we were all on line, too), said, "We don't like complainers! Take this!" ... and promptly dumped 3 more fat ribs in my paper basket. WHAT?! *Dies.*

The baked beans, cooked in that fabulous sauce, also blew my mind. My tongue exploded in an explosion of sweet, rich, and smoky flavors that shook me to the core. I was in heaven. I no longer cared about the rudeness of the Madison Square Park hospitality workers (one had been yelling, "I want to go home! PAY ATTENTION, PEOPLE; there are FOUR registers!). I didn't give an NYC rat's ass about the long, pushing lines, and my sticky fingers. And I totally ran out of fucks to give about  the fact that I was standing in the rain on a dirty sidewalk next to an overflowing garbage can as seemingly homeless youths played offbeat music. I was in a good, good place with my ribs and beans.

Boy agreed that they were fabulous, and we journeyed on. So we headed out to Ubon's Barbecue of Yazoo, Mississippi for some pulled pork. It looked delicious: white, steaming, and hand-pulled by a fellow who looked serious about his meat. Served on a white Pepperidge Farm hamburger bun with a side of coleslaw, big chunks of pork shoulder stared back at me. It wasn't sauced over, so I went to add a little bit of magic to my plate. But to my great dismay, about half the bottle poured out. Oops.

I asked for another paper plate and tried to salvage what I could, while Boy was indignant that I wasn't offered a new pulled pork sandwich. It was my own screw-up, so I was much less offended, but the soggy mess of the bun was ruined before I oversauced, which was sad. It had been pre-plated, like all of the stands, but a bread doesn't sit well in a wet environment. The coleslaw was another good vinegar-based medley, and my pork was generously portioned, chunky, lean, and delicious. Boy didn't fare as well, with lots of fat chunks in his darker meat.

In all, we spent only $32 on food between the two of us, since all plates ring in at $8 a platter. You get one side (you don't specify) and you're only paying a little more than you would by the pound at the actual barbecue joint. Plus, we got to taste the flavors of pitmasters and grillmasters from around the country just an hour away from home.

Like I said, date night of champions. Cue the 'cue anytime. I'll be there.

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