Plump Gulf oysters, red beans, gumbo, snowballs drenched in condensed milk and of course po-boys: New Orleans claims to have some of the best food in the country, but until recently barbecue wasn't considered a serious player in the city's regional cuisine.
That's all changed since New Orleans, like other cities across the U.S., is undergoing a barbecue boom. Over the past couple of years, the city has seen an explosion in the low-and-slow scene, and the trend continues to pick up steam even though New Orleans' identity has never been linked to the tradition like it has in the Carolinas, Texas, Kansas City or Memphis.
"The history of barbecue in New Orleans sort of parallels the relationship between New Orleans and the South," says author Lolis Eric Elie. "We are Southern, geographically, but in terms of culture, our Southernness is rightly questioned." In 1994, when he and photographer Frank Stewart were conducting research for their book Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, neither his hometown of New Orleans nor anywhere else in Louisiana was included.
"Part of that was the effect of time and money, but part of it was that we were interested in visiting places that defined their identity largely through barbecue ... and New Orleans is not one of those places," Elie says. "The barbecue renaissance we're experiencing now is really the reflection of a coalescing of national culture. Regional foods that are getting popular enough are becoming national foods, and in this coalescing, Southern foods are reaching a point of dominance."
Though many credit The Joint in Bywater for paving the way for the current barbecue revival, New Orleans long has had its own style of grilling and smoking meats. There was Ms. Hyster's hickory-smoked ribs and chicken in Central City, Hillbilly Barbecue in Harahan, Walker's BBQ in New Orleans East (purveyor of a cochon de lait po-boy that remains a favorite offering at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival). And what would a second line be without someone selling thick sausages and ribs from a smoker in the bed of a pickup truck?
The local trend that has emerged is restaurants highlighting several types of barbecue instead of focusing on a single regional style. Kansas City ribs, tomato-tinged Memphis sauce on meats, pulled pork similar to styles served in Alabama or the Carolinas and peppery Texas-style brisket now can be found under one roof — the antithesis of extreme regionalism in barbecue.
"I've seen New Orleans try to define the tradition, but right now it's a tradition taken from other areas, where people (here) are trying to make it their own," says Howard Conyers, a NASA scientist and local master of the South Carolina whole-hog barbecue tradition. "Everyone is different ... and barbecue traditions are as different as a gumbo."
The whole-hog tradition, for instance, isn't all that different from Louisiana's cochon de lait, in which a suckling pig is roasted in a wire rotisserie cage over a pit of pecan and hickory wood, or the "Cajun microwave," where a whole pig (or other animal) is roasted on a metal grate inside a cypress box with wood or charcoal burning on a tray above.
The current barbecue renaissance belongs to the "stick burners," cooks who turn off the propane in favor of woods such as pecan and oak, which burn cleaner and hotter. These cooks also often build offset smokers that emulate traditional brick barbecue pits where fire and smoke heat the meats from separate chambers.
When Pete and Jenny Breen first opened The Joint in 2004, the Bywater barbecue restaurant was one of only a few that used live-fire techniques to coax pork shoulder and slabs of brisket into submission. Their Mazant Street spot still draws a crowd for its dependable pulled pork, soft to the point of being creamy and doused in a vinegary North Carolina-style sauce, and the eatery's spicy smoked chaurice.
Conyers also credits Hogs for the Cause's cooking competition for being pivotal in the city's evolving barbecue scene. The charity cookoff, a fundraiser for families of pediatric brain cancer patients, began in 2009 with a backyard contest. By 2016, the festival had blossomed to include nearly 100 teams and amateur pit masters smoking throughout the night and battling torrential rains to prove their barbecue prowess and raise money.
One of those teams included Ray Gruezke, chef at Mid-City fine-dining gem Rue 127. Several years of competing in the cookoff inspired his team's new restaurant Frey Smoked Meat Co., a family-run barbecue restaurant at Mid-City Market. The space, outfitted in reclaimed cypress and farm wood, features a menu with whimsical additions (over-the-top milkshakes topped with add-ons like donuts and cereal) as well as top-notch smoked meats such as melt-in-your-mouth strips of brisket and smoked chicken coated in a spicy rub that blackens in the smoker and packs a powerful kick. Creative sides include spicy charred cabbage slaw and baked beans cooked in a sweet, tomato-based sauce and studded with thick wedges of bacon.
Blue Oak BBQ is one of 2016's most successful openings. Owners Ronnie Evans and Philip Moseley started smoking meats in 2012, when they operated a pop-up out of the Uptown dive bar Grits. Following a successful tenure at the Canal Street music hub Chickie Wah Wah, the duo opened a brick-and-mortar in April in the former Fellini's space on North Carrollton Avenue. Blue Oak's barbecue is smoked over a mixture of pecan and white oak woods and incorporates regional styles ranging from Texas-style brisket, pulled pork reminiscent of North Carolina and spicy smoked sausages dotted with green onions that have a Cajun flair. The team's lighthearted approach throws a curve ball at more serious barbecue players with dishes like barbecue nachos topped with pulled pork, queso and barbecue sauce, and charred Brussels sprouts, which arrive crispy with the slightest tinge of vinegar.
A number of the area's new barbecue joints started out as pop-ups, and many of them are run by self-taught pit masters who learned through years of trial and error the alchemy that occurs when meats are subjected to smoke and low heat for hours at a time.
"A lot of chef friends of mine, we just started cooking in our backyards," says Rob Bechtold, who ran the pop-up and short-lived brick-and-mortar NOLA Smokehouse. "We started popping up at lots of places, doing old-fashioned barbecue — the stick-burner kind: no gas, no electricity, just fire and a smoker."
Bechtold amassed a following for his smoked meats at his Irish Channel spot (when the restaurant shuttered in late 2015, customers endured a three-hour wait and stood in a line that wrapped around the block). Bechtold hopes those supporters will follow him to his new spot, Central City Barbecue, which he and Patois chef Aaron Burgau opened recently on South Rampart Street.
At the 6,000-square-foot space, which includes indoor and outdoor seating, Bechtold features an expanded menu modeled on his NOLA Smokehouse dishes. There's also an ambitious list of smoked meats, including South Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue, which is rarely found in New Orleans. Local produce from Paradigm Gardens across the street will find its way onto customers' plates as will local Gulf seafood. Bechtold says he is experimenting with locally inspired items including pickled strawberries, green tomato chutney, brined and smoked catfish and a blackened and smoked shrimp sandwich. In addition to his fan favorites — brisket, ribs, burned ends and pulled pork — Bechtold says the menu also may include smoked tri-tip and prime rib, sweetbreads and hanger steak.
Neil McClure was another pioneer of the barbecue pop-up scene, starting in 2011 at Dante's in the Riverbend.
"I had started playing around with barbecue back right after (Hurricane) Katrina, when I was feeding first responders in Gulfport (Mississippi) for about a month," McClure recalls. "That's when I really started barbecuing, because we were doing it every day ... and it got me hooked."
McClure, who runs McClure's Barbecue inside NOLA Brewing on Tchoupitoulas Street, says his barbecue style — smoking meats over a fire for close to 20 hours — falls somewhere between the styles of Texas and the Carolinas.
"It's about the level of smoke that penetrates the meat," McClure says. "With what I'm doing, it's a clean-burning fire where you can barely see the smoke when it's running at it's best."
McClure's brisket most closely resembles those made in Texas, predominantly seasoned with black pepper and salt. Though all his barbecue is prepared "dry," he offers sauces that serve as a regional tour of barbecue styles, ranging from a North Carolina vinegar-tinged sauce to a creamy, mayo-based Alabama medley and an Asian-influenced version made with hoisin and soy. (His sweet and spicy Kansas City-style sauce won first place at Hogs for the Cause's 2016 competition.)
Damian Brugger, who operates Bruggers Barbecue in St. Roch Market, also is a pop-up veteran, but the ex-Marine honed his chops in Texas a long time ago.
"I grew up with it, with my family — watching my father and uncles," Brugger says. "Back then, it was more like, 'Hey, go get me a beer and grab some wood.' But just being around, you pick it up and learn stuff."
Brugger's Black Label concept popped up at Ms Mae's bar and Barrel Proof before he moved to Black Label Icehouse in Central City, earning a quick following for his near-perfect Texas-style brisket, which arrives with soft ribbons of fat and a characteristic dusty pink smoke ring. Though Brugger left the restaurant earlier this year, the spot still serves a menu inspired by his teachings, including smoked meat sandwiches and bar snacks such as bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers oozing with cream cheese.
Brugger is set to open a new restaurant and event space on the corner of Annunciation and Terpsichore streets, but he's still smoking on a pit behind St. Roch Market, where he sells a changing menu of smoked meats and snacks inspired by bar food. On any given day, the menu might include smoked duck fat grilled cheese sandwiches and brisket chili bowls sidling plates of pulled pork and ribs. Though his prowess stems from Texas traditions, Brugger says he relates to the group of new barbecue joints whose defining characteristics are creativity and an amalgamation of several styles.
"When I started out, I said I was going to stick hardcore to Texas-style, but really, the brisket is the only thing I do that's sticking within that tradition," he says. "That's what I like about barbecue: Every pit master has their own way of doing things. Even if we used all the same meat and the same ingredients, it would all turn out different."