Neil McClure (above) worked as general manager at Dante's Kitchen for 10 years before leaving to start his own business. Still, on most days he's the first person to arrive at the Riverbend restaurant.
That's because his venture, McClure's Barbecue, is based inside Dante's Kitchen, and five times a week he arrives in the dead of night to stoke a smoker behind the restaurant. By 2 a.m. or so, he's loading in spice-rubbed pork butts, ribs and briskets, which will smoke for the next eight or nine hours as he gets to work in the kitchen on sides like pork-strewn beans, four-cheese macaroni and an old family recipe for potato salad.
"I grew up cooking whole hogs," says McClure, a native of Pensacola, Fla. "We had a spit set-up outside the house using an old washing machine motor and the rear axle off a '73 Karmann Ghia, so for every family get-together we cooked a pig. The first job I ever had was watching the fire."
While on a camping trip last year he had what he calls an epiphany and realized he needed to get back to his roots. "I wanted to watch the fire for a living instead of worrying if your water glass was full," McClure says.
He introduced McClure's in November as a pop-up restaurant inside Dante's Kitchen on Tuesday nights, when the restaurant is normally closed. The customer response was so encouraging that within two months he expanded the hours to add lunch each weekday (also a time when Dante's Kitchen is closed) and resigned from the restaurant so he could tend his smoker full time.
While McClure's story may seem a personal vision quest, it's also a prime example of a new barbecue trend billowing across town. The reputation New Orleans enjoys for great food has long carried the asterisk that this just isn't a barbecue town. While that has been customarily chalked up to just another of the many ways in which this Creole city differs from the rest of the South, things may be starting to change.
At least 10 new, dedicated barbecue purveyors have opened in New Orleans and its suburbs in a little more than a year, with many of these coming along in just the past few months (see "Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em,"). They've joined a number of others that opened in the years just before Hurricane Katrina. More are on the way.
Later this spring, Three of a Kind Restaurant Group, which operates the local Byblos chain of restaurants, among other properties, plans to open a new barbecue concept inside its tapas-style restaurant Salu. Michael Rouss, executive chef for the restaurant group, says the new project is called Back Door BBQ, and that it will function essentially as a daily pop-up serving take-out orders from a huge new smoker the company will operate behind Salu.
It isn't just the numbers of barbecue purveyors signaling a change here. Like McClure's, many of these newcomers adhere to a long, low-heat smoking process, a technique common to the many divergent, regional Southern barbecue traditions — yet one that stands in contrast to the charcoal-grilled barbecue that has long been a New Orleans norm.
"The concept in New Orleans was turn on the grill, cook some hot dogs and hamburgers and maybe some venison, and you had yourself a barbecue," says Brad Boyd, who opened Hurricane BBQ & Seafood Co. in January with business partner Ken Veron. "But what you're seeing now is low and slow, and that's much different."
So why are so many coming along now? Some credit coverage of regional barbecue joints and competitions on the Food Network and similar media outlets, while others see demographic changes at work.
"I think [Hurricane] Katrina kind of mixed up the snow globe so now you have more people in town who know about barbecue or have seen different styles around the South and they want it the way they know it," says Rob Bechtold, a New Orleans chef who was co-owner of the short-lived Smokin' Buddha BBQieux.
Bechtold's Fat City restaurant sparked interest among local barbecue aficionados, though it closed in February after just two months (Bechtold says trouble with the lease was the culprit). This week he is slated to open a second venture called NOLA Smokehouse, a delivery-only service for his smoked meats and barbecue sides.
"There's a real change in the barbecue you're seeing in town now," Bechtold says. "There's some smoke, it's not gray meat. People are really bringing something to the table now."
Evidence of a broader, grassroots interest in the low-and-slow approach to barbecue in New Orleans isn't limited to restaurants. Organizers of Hogs for the Cause believe a previously untapped passion for slow-cooked pork has helped propel the growth of their annual cook-off, a fundraiser for pediatric brain cancer that will be held again on March 24 (see "Competitive 'cue,").
Local attorneys Becker Hall and Rene Louapre started the event in 2009 by inviting some friends to cook whole hogs while raising money to help families facing pediatric cancer expenses. Today, it's a major event, with a slate of regional music acts and some increasingly competitive and creative teams of cooks. Held at Audubon Park last year, the 2011 edition of Hogs for the Cause featured 50 teams, drew 7,000 attendees and raised more than $100,000. This year, with more room in a larger location at City Park, organizers opened 60 spots for teams, which were filled by eager competitors within three weeks. Louapre says next year they could expand to 100 teams.
"I'm continually amazed," by the event's rapid growth, says Louapre, who also co-writes a restaurant column for Offbeat magazine and the local food blog BlackenedOut.com. "I think a large, large part of our success was people in this area just crying out for something like this."
Such a good showing at competitive events is indicative of a strong barbecue subculture around the state that has been underappreciated for too long, says Andy Hollerman, coordinator of the Louisiana BBQ Cookers Association (LaBCA). A physicist and astronomer at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Hollerman and his wife Lynn oversee more than a dozen competitions sanctioned by his association across the state each year (there are no LaBCA-sanctioned events in New Orleans).
"We're not known for our barbecue (in Louisiana) but I tell you what, if you want good food, get someone from Louisiana to cook it for you," Hollerman says. "They remember what their grandmothers taught them about cooking at home. Go low and slow, don't look at it, don't open that lid, all that good stuff." Success in these competitions can be a big confidence boost for aspiring barbecue professionals, Hollerman says, and that was certainly the case for Lee Mouton.
In 2008, using a humble $35 smoker purchased from a local hardware store, Mouton, a New Orleans native, won the grand prize in the amateur category at Hammond's Smokin' Blues & BBQ Challenge, the state's largest sanctioned barbecue competition. Encouraged, he started a food truck business called Boo Koo BBQ, which last year morphed into a walk-up barbecue window inside Finn McCool's Irish Pub in Mid-City. Mouton plans to eventually open a stand-alone barbecue restaurant to expand his repertoire, and ultimately, he hopes, to build the reputation of New Orleans barbecue. "There's not one longstanding barbecue place here that's not a chain," he says, referring to the Metairie location of the Memphis-based Corky's Ribs & BBQ, which opened in 1992. "Right now, no one tells people, 'Oh, when you go to New Orleans you have to go to here for barbecue,' like they do for oysters or even hamburgers."
While New Orleans has never been a barbecue mecca, it has supported its own homegrown barbecue scene. The longtime players here have changed up significantly lately, however.
Podner's Barbecue, first established in Central City in 1956, might have been the oldest New Orleans barbecue purveyor operating before Katrina, but it didn't reopen after the disaster. Neither did H&P Bar-B-Q Masters in St. Roch, which dated to 1972. Texas Bar-B-Q Company, which originally opened on St. Claude Avenue in 1962 and moved to Metairie in 1974, shut down last year. Luther's Bar-B-Q, a Houston-based chain with a Metairie outpost since 1980, closed in 2007.
Last October, brothers Oronde and Sekou Robertson opened Bar-B-Q Kings on a Gentilly side street. Their uncle, Hugh Robertson, had operated H&P Bar B-Q Masters, and though he moved to Washington, D.C. after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, the family approach to barbecue lives on at Bar-B-Q Kings, whether it's the mix of charcoal and hickory smoke in the cooking to the mammoth beef ribs on the menu, an H&P specialty.
"My brother and I grew up working (at H&P) and that's what we know," says Sekou Robertson. "We looked around and didn't see too many people doing barbecue so we thought we'd bring it back."
Where the New Orleans barbecue style still finds its most prodigious expression, though, is along parade routes, at Saints tailgate parties and at family gatherings of all types. This sort of New Orleans barbecue is all about portable grills, charcoal and large quantities of thick, often sweet barbecue sauce.
Darren West, who goes by the moniker Bittles with the Vittles, can be found working his huge, trailer-mounted barbecue grill at second-line parades, Mardi Gras Indian events and outside music clubs. He says his homemade sauce is the key to the flavor that many New Orleans people crave from their barbecue.
"I see people from all over, and they say, 'Your sauce tastes like this, or your sauce tastes like that' style. But it's just something I created knowing the flavors people like here in New Orleans," West says. "Everybody's got their opinion about barbecue, but this has been working for me for 18 years and people want to buy it by the gallon."
As more barbecue purveyors spread across New Orleans, the city's tastes and habits are influencing how they operate. That's why on the first Friday of Lent this year, Rich Labatut and Gary Kurz were grilling tuna sandwiches as a special at Saucy's BBQ Grill, the restaurant they opened in September near Metairie's Lakeside Shopping Center.
"Our idea was to be more hardcore — really just ribs, bread and sauce — but with the location we got we had to appeal to more customers, so we're doing wraps and salads, and now seafood for the fighting Catholics," Labatut says. He says there's been a learning curve as they introduce their hickory- and oak-smoked barbecue to customers who don't always have an innate understanding of the style and staples.
"The barbecue I.Q. in New Orleans is low, but people think they're experts," he says. "You hear from people all the time and they might not understand why this piece of meat is fatty and this one is lean. So we're constantly educating and tweaking and listening to what people tell us."
Brad Boyd, co-owner of Hurricane Barbecue, tells a similar tale. Originally from the Dallas area, he brings a Texas sensibility to his barbecue.
"It's all dry rub, so if you want to ruin it with sauce that's up to you," he quips.
But when it comes to Hurricane's business model in general, there is a lot more flexibility. The menu includes shrimp and catfish, and the restaurant boils up hundreds of pounds of crawfish each Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the season.
"It's a total hybrid," Boyd allows. "It's still south Louisiana and especially during Lent people will want seafood options."
At the same time, New Orleans influences are working their way into the very grain of some of the new barbecue emerging around town.
"I don't have the ego to say I'm creating a New Orleans style barbecue, but all of my rubs are Creole-based," McClure says. "None of them come out of the barbecue world. They're based on the rubs that have been in the kitchens at every New Orleans restaurant I've worked in, and that stuff just makes meat taste real good."
The idea of New Orleans-style barbecue, at least as a branding concept, is beginning to spread around the region thanks to the franchising efforts of VooDoo BBQ & Grill, a chain founded in New Orleans in 2002 and now based in Prairieville, La. From its first 11 locations, all in Louisiana, the company is now in the process of adding eight franchises in the Carolinas, five in Austin, Texas, and it has plans for 26 more restaurants across Florida, says Chad Tramuta, the company's senior director of franchise development. More are in the works for Houston, and he says a group in Washington D.C. has plans to open 40 locations around the Mid-Atlantic.
"Our first two (out-of-state) franchises are in Texas and South Carolina, two places known for their own barbecue," Tramuta says. "The reason we can do that is because we're not coming in and saying we're better than what you have here, but just that we're different. We're New Orleans and Louisiana, that's our roots, and we're different." That difference features jazz music on the restaurant soundtrack and a French Quarter motif in the decor, and includes dishes like barbecue shrimp and bread pudding on the menu and Crystal hot sauce.
Jenny and Peter Breen opened the Joint, their Bywater barbecue restaurant, in 2004 and recently relocated four blocks away in the same neighborhood. Since then, the Joint has emerged as a stalwart for the low-and-slow approach in New Orleans barbecue, and some of those starting today's new barbecue restaurants cite it as inspiration.
Like many of these newcomers, the Joint does not adhere to one particular regional style, but borrows favorites from many. Here, St. Louis-style ribs are offered alongside Texas-style brisket and Carolina-style pulled pork.
New Orleans has long been the Switzerland amid the Balkanized rivalries of the barbecue world, simply because it had so little indigenous barbecue turf to defend. Perhaps now, as the styles, standards and traditions of these areas take deeper root and incorporate local flavors and customs, the city will become a diverse and delicious neutral ground for barbecue lovers.
"We don't want to be militantly barbecue. We encourage people to explore and get creative," says Louapre of the approach preferred at Hogs for the Cause.
"At the end of the day, barbecue is not something you need to be in a specific place to do," he says. "It's not like Louisiana oysters or something that's better closer to the source. If you have the right meat, the right wood, the right smoke, you can do it anywhere, so why not here?"