This remains one of the truer lines to be scrawled into my reporter's notebook. The chef, who I assume would say the same about the many simple fish preparations at his first New Orleans restaurant, GW Fins, was addressing the process of smoking meats, specifically the smoked meats at Zydeque, the Louisiana-themed barbecue restaurant he and his partner, Gary Wollerman, launched in March.
At the time of our phone interview, the hyper-realistic Flynn considered Zydeque's barbecue to be almost there -- "We're doing more good things now than bad things," he said. His modesty was extreme even then, and I can vouch that the quality and consistency of Zydeque's barbecue has since plateaued at a level that leaves much of its competition in the proverbial dust (the dust in this case being the ash of hickory and pecan woods).
Zydeque's spare ribs are treated to a deep-tissue massage with a Paul Prudhomme spice mix, followed by enough time in the pit for a nice, black crust to form on the surface, and for the pork to acquire a rosy flush. These are flirtatious, but ultimately giving, ribs: The meat holds faithfully to its bone, but only until the moment when your teeth are poised to give up, at which point the pork surrenders enthusiastically, tenderly, bringing with it enough fat to smooth over any lingering offense.
Flynn divulged during our conversation that, because the quality of meat varies with every roast, brisket is the most difficult cut to smoke well with consistency. I couldn't tell it from the well-marbled slabs I received earlier this month, each one circumscribed by two smoke rings -- the outer one a dark, spiced char and the inner a matte lipstick maroon. While you may need luck to have the same brisket experience, it's worth a gamble.
What Zydeque's menu calls cochon de lait is identical to the pulled pork at other barbecue joints -- prepared with pork butt, not the suckling pigs of Louisiana cochon de lait tradition. The misnomer (everyone's doing it) steals nothing from the meat's succulence; if the pulled pork is slightly less flavorful than the ribs and the brisket, it makes a better -- and cheaper ($5.50) -- sandwich, preferably dressed with the simple, green cabbage coleslaw.
I wish I could compare these other meats to the turkey leg, but the Renaissance fair classic was unavailable two trips in a row. So was the zydeco music, upstaged by thunderous sporting events distributed between a dozen televisions.
Flynn had always wanted to open a barbecue restaurant; he grew up in Georgia observing the grizzled pit-masters -- like "the old guy who sat in the open pit all night and mopped the meat" -- who worked in his grandfather's restaurant. His current life cavorting in a white chef's coat between GW Fins and Zydeque's Humvee-size, gas-assisted rotisserie pit may be less poetic than his memories, but he reveals himself in conversation and hard work to be a disciplined devotee to the craft.
The chef is probably too brainy to pull off the single-minded image of the pit-masters he remembers, anyway. Just as he and Wollerman didn't create another New Orleans seafood house in the ambitious GW Fins, they built Zydeque around a new idea: Louisiana barbecue, a term heretofore unuttered in this Southern state usually recognized for its barbecue void.
The Louisiana angle is most evident in Flynn's choice of sausage -- andouille; in the hushpuppy-like boudin balls and the coarse-crumb skillet cornbread; in the debris gumbo, whose monotone, gravy-thick "broth" embraces all sorts of meat scraps; and in the barbecue sauce, a tart-hot-sweet (in that order) combination of Steen's cane syrup, cane vinegar and Louisiana pepper jelly that, to my taste, is perfect.
Zydeque's sit-down format and mainstream location keep it from feeling like a joint, and the staff does nothing to cultivate a down-home barbecue mystique. The restaurant is, after all, half a block off Bourbon Street, and every employee I encountered seemed more focused on efficiency than repeat customers; one bartender discouraged me from ordering a specialty cocktail because "it's such a pain in the ass to make." The pre-made sweet tea saved us both.
As Flynn pointed out, when all is said and done, "there's something to be said for a $12 check restaurant." A $12 check restaurant producing solid, regionally minded food in the French Quarter is nearly beyond reproach. Thumb it into your Blackberry, slip it into your wallet, script it into your palm -- you'll need it one day as you wander hungry through the Quarter, after dark in your play clothes, with hardly enough cash for another Hand Grenade. Under such conditions, you'll overlook the cloying bourbon sweet potatoes, the bitter mustard greens, the jambalaya that ran out before 7 p.m. and the sports-bar ambience. Zydeque isn't necessarily a locals' destination -- who pays more for parking than for dinner? -- but it can be a safe haven when the Quarter has scrambled your identity, your sense of why you love eating in this town.