NEW ORLEANS — The platter of food in front of me seems out of place. Smoked brisket, pork ribs and pulled pork in New Orleans?
The seafood-centric city has taken its Big Easy time catching up with a frenzy that has seemingly gripped the rest of the country for about a decade. But barbecue fever has finally arrived.
A lunch at McClure’s Barbecue shows how this newcomer cuisine is trying to find its voice in a town with such an established culinary identity. The platter mates traditional Southern meats with such sides as fried boudin balls, red beans and rice, Creole potato salad, barbecue jambalaya, and, in a nod to Louisiana’s French-Acadian history, “BBQ Poutine.” Among the sauces is one called NOLA East, which includes soy sauce, hoisin, Sriracha and chiles for a tangy Asian flavor profile that draws from the city’s Vietnamese population.
“Lots of the restaurants serve Texas-style barbecue and Kansas City barbecue and North Carolina barbecue,” said New Orleans Times-Picayune food critic Brett Anderson, who had declared that his city “is now officially barbecue country” in an article last year. “A lot of these restaurants are looking for what’s indigenous to southwest Louisiana.”
In a phone interview later, owner Neil McClure concurred. “I think if I’m trying to create my own style of New Orleans barbecue, it’s with those sides,” he said.
Central City BBQ, which opened in 2016, bathes meats in the smoke from smoldering oak in giant all-wood offset smokers, like in Texas, and the menu runs the usual pan-regional gamut. But there’s also smoked boudin (freckled with tomato for a Creole touch), spoonbread and buttermilk- and Tabasco-accented Creole coleslaw.
“We’re adding a little flair,” manager Jonathan Rodriguez said.
The annual Hogs for the Cause barbecue competition, a fundraiser for pediatric brain cancer that began in 2009, has launched some of the city’s newer barbecue joints, several of which work to simply get the basics right.
Frey Smoked Meat Co., which opened in 2016 and grew out of a barbecue team that competes at the contest, removed gumbo from its menu. “We’re first and foremost a barbecue place,” manager Boe Reboul said. “Gumbo isn’t what people come here for.”
The Joint, opened in 2004, is perhaps the granddaddy of the city’s modern barbecue wave. Husband and wife co-owners Pete and Jenny Breen moved into their small, funky current location in the Bywater neighborhood in 2012. They smoke pork, ribs, chicken and brisket over oak and pecan wood in a custom-made all-wood smoker. Pete, who grew up in Baltimore, likens their style to crowd-pleasing music.
“I look at it as a greatest hits,” he said. “We never came in with the idea of doing anything specifically New Orleans.”
Yet as if by osmosis, heritage seeps in. The vinaigrette on the Joint’s salad is deepened with smoked Creole tomato. And the restaurant serves a Louisiana sausage known as chaurice (a local variant on chorizo) made by a company called Creole Country.
The Louisiana-centric sensibility has historical roots. In a June article for the Houston Chronicle, barbecue columnist J.C. Reid noted that trench cooking of whole hogs in Cajun Country, west of New Orleans, is one of the South’s oldest barbecue traditions, but never caught on commercially. “The boucherie is a long-standing community tradition involving a hog that’s slaughtered and cooked on the spot,” he wrote.
Barbecue aficionado and New Orleans resident Howard Conyers, host of a PBS Digital Studios show called “Nourish” on the network’s YouTube channel, agreed that whole hog cooking has been part of the state’s culinary history. But in recent years, he said, what’s called barbecue in Cajun Country isn’t what most folks would imagine: Typically, it’s “a really big pork chop with a bone in it,” he said. Conyers cited Hogs for the Cause and barbecue’s popularity nationally for the cuisine’s local emergence.
Rien Fertel, a Louisiana food and barbecue expert, said New Orleans barbecue traditions are unseen by the general public. “It’s going on every Sunday at second-line parades,” he said. “It’s mostly African American crowds. Because it’s street culture, it’s something that’s always there but relatively hidden.”
Fertel acknowledged that these barbecues revolve around sausages, burgers and pork chops. “There is no low-and-slow barbecue to speak of” at these events, he said.
There is, though, at the city’s restaurants nowadays. A progenitor of a New Orleans barbecue style is VooDoo BBQ & Grill, which opened on Mardi Gras in 2002. Its menu offers gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and meats dry-rubbed with Creole, Cajun and Caribbean seasonings. “It’s a fusion of all the best that BBQ and New Orleans has to offer,” its website reads. Through franchising, VooDoo has locations as far away as Florida and Indiana.
Perhaps because of the way people think of New Orleans cuisine, until recently barbecue has struggled. “People don’t come to the French Quarter to eat barbecue,” said Tenney Flynn, co-owner of the seafood restaurant Fins.
Flynn co-founded Zydecue in 2004 in the Quarter as a barbecue/Cajun/Creole hybrid. It was shuttered in 2016. Its sausage was made by chef Alex Patout and its seasoning blend concocted by Paul Prudhomme. “We would take a little license with barbecue history and say that barbecue existed with the western Louisiana cochon de lait,” recalled co-owner Tenney Flynn. “We’d say it was the genesis of barbecue.”
Barbecue origin story aside, if the city has a signature barbecue item, it might be that cochon de lait. The name derives from the days when tender, flavorful young pigs (cochon) still feeding on their mother’s milk (lait) were slow-roasted over wood embers. These days, it’s typically smoked pork shoulder piled into French bread with coleslaw.
Walker’s Southern Style BBQ, which began selling the sandwiches in 2001 at Jazz Fest, serves what many consider the definitive version. The flavorful, juicy, spice-rubbed pork is smoked for 16 hours and piled onto French-style bread, baked by James Beard award-winner Dong Phuong, that’s dressed with a spicy mayo-based sauce and topped with dry slaw.
It’s sensational. Not surprising, perhaps, given that owner Jonathan Walker took first place in whole hog at the 2014 Hogs for the Cause.
Such local traditions are still trying to find their way into the city’s contemporary vision of barbecue, though. When Walker said to me, “Tell them we do barbecue,” he pulled something from the smoker and held it high with a pair of tongs: It wasn’t cochon de lait, or trench-cooked pork, or even smoked boudin. It was a rack of ribs.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com . Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.