Walker's BBQ, located below the levee in eastern New Orleans, looks almost like a temporary stand set up by its neighbor Castnet Seafood, with whom Walker's BBQ shares a parking lot, a dining room and a walk-in refrigerator. Inside the small space, I got an idea of how a submarine crew must operate. Behind the counter, in one corner a man carefully coated racks of ribs with garlic powder, Tony Chachere's, red pepper, black pepper and several spices whose labels I couldn't read. In another corner, a young woman chopped bundles of scallions. Behind me I could feel the heat from the high-tech rotisserie smoker, where for up to 15 hours pork, beef and chicken soak up hickory smoke.
Walker's BBQ tackles all the major barbecue meats: pulled pork, ribs, brisket and chicken. Jazz Fest fans will instantly recognize the pink, tender cochon de lait, or pulled pork, smoked for 13 hours. It's hard to beat the po-boy dripping with the Creole mustard-spiked coleslaw, but Walker's also sells the pulled pork by the plate or the pound. Purists might argue that cochon de lait requires a whole suckling pig and not a Boston butt. You can't accuse Walker's BBQ of trying to hide what kind of pork they use on the cochon de lait po-boy. Everybody behind the counter wears a blue T-shirt that on the back has a pig's rump under the slogan "Best Butt in Town."
The ribs are tender but cling tightly enough to the bone to encourage gnawing. Coated in a mild dry rub, they perk up when sprinkled with Walker's delicious finishing sauce. In the great tomato vs. vinegar barbecue sauce divide, Walker's sauce is firmly in the tomato camp. The mild heat and the chunks of sauteed onions make Walker's barbecue sauce unique.
Walker's barbecue sauce also tastes great on the brisket, although I ate most of my plate of nicely salty slices of beef with no sauce at all. The only disappointing item I tried at Walker was the brisket sandwich. It was dressed with mayo, which seemed to absorb the salt from the meat. Next time, I would order the sandwich undressed or stick with the plate.
The chicken doesn't need a drop of sauce. Almost half a bird is served on the chicken plate, and its skin is coated with a brick-red crust of spices. Cut into the chicken and the juices flood the plate while the meat falls off the bone.
It's often said that New Orleans is the one place in the South where barbecue sauce doesn't flow through the veins of the natives. Walker's barbecued meats may not best the products of a third-generation pit master in Texas or the Carolinas. Yet Walker's side dishes, all made from scratch, would meet the standards of even the most discerning barbecue fanatic. The Creole mustard slaw is the same one used to dress the cochon de lait po-boys; on its own, I could better appreciate how it managed to be creamy without being too sweet. Polka dots of minced garlic give a pungent wallop to the greens. Brown beans have a touch of molasses. In the potato salad, waxy red potatoes were mixed with a generous amount of green onions and just enough mayo to bind everything together.
Walker's BBQ also serves a massive brick of bread pudding that is solid enough to use in the foundation of a house. The dense pudding is filled with nuts and a variety of fruit -- I could only identify raisins and peaches -- and has a dark caramelized top.
It's true that if you head out to Walker's BBQ, you won't find brass bands or Steve Winwood playing around the corner. Then again, there is never a long line at Walker's BBQ. If it rains, you can eat inside. And not once did I stop by in the early afternoon to find a sign announcing that Walker's BBQ had run out of cochon de lait po-boys. Now if I could just find a year-round source for mango freezes.