Barbecue is one part smoke, one part patience, and five parts bragging. Competition cooks throw down immodest adjectives to describe their methods, their rubs, their sauces; barbecue restaurants model their marketing on that kind of swagger, the better to convince us that theirs is the only ’cue worth eating on the face of this rib-craving earth.
NOBODY BEATS OUR MEAT, smirks the t-shirt signage at the Smoked Joint in Center City, which subtitles itself “A Barbecue Experience.”
“Legendary pit bar-b-que,” crows the takeout menu at Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que, a Minnesota-based franchise that recently entered the Philadelphia market.
“Outrageous BBQ and much more,” declares the website for the Duck Deli in New Britain, Bucks County.
We’re in the midst of a barbecue boom. Folksy, kid-friendly Famous Dave’s has opened units in Mays Landing, South Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia, and is readying ones in Cherry Hill and Springfield, Delaware County. The edgier, more upscale Smoked Joint moved into the former Marabella’s space behind the Academy of Music. Tommy Gunn’s, the Manayunk rib shack, added a location on South Street, while Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse, the esteemed trailer-with-a-takeout-window in Northeast Philadelphia, now has table service in a spacious renovated warehouse. The Duck Deli, thriving just outside Doylestown, is a living link to North Carolina-style barbecue as practiced in and around the charming Outer Banks resort town of Duck.
So there’s plenty of boasting and basting going on, and a whole lot of hype about who’s doing it right. We visited three to see if they can back it up.
At the Smoked Joint, I’ve had things I loved (beef short ribs, brisket, the reuben, strawberry lemonade), things I hated (smoked baba ganoush, pulled pork), and things that left me indifferent (barbecued chicken pizza, mac ’n’ cheese, sweet potato fries). More than once, an overeager server reached for our food and plates before we were finished. More than once, our dirty forks were handed back as the appetizer plates were cleared.
Despite the rough edges, I’m rooting for the four likable partners who had the nerve to hang a triple-entendre name on their restaurant and park it inside a fancy Center City condominium building. The high-rent-district address accounts for why the Joint costs more than the competition: A half-rack of spareribs with two sides goes for $22 here, compared to $14.99 at Famous Dave’s for a platter that also includes cornbread and corn on the cob, and $13.95 at the Duck Deli, which throws in hush puppies. Those extra bucks aren’t being used to gussy up the dining room, a roadhouse-inspired space with a rough concrete floor, a big square bar, bare wood-block tables, and no-nonsense metal furniture. Tuesday night karaoke is a hoot, and you never know what’s going to turn up on the plasma TVs. I got to watch Dolph Lundgren pummel Carl Weathers in Rocky IV.