Taste: Reviews: On Fire

BBQ’s booming — but can these new pit stops live up to their blustery barbecue brags?

A subsequent midweek takeout order is ready in 20 minutes and neatly packed. The spicy red breading on the fried catfish fingers, which I nibble in the parking lot while they’re still hot, is heavy on paprika, and so salty I’m afraid a cop will pull me over on the way home and slap a blood-pressure cuff on my arm. Juicy chopped pork on a squishy sesame-seed bun has delicious crusty ends mixed in, and a top dressing of thick, sweet house barbecue sauce. The similarly sauced pulled barbecued chicken sandwich isn’t as interesting. A side dish of Drunkin’ Apples tastes like the inside of a McDonald’s hot apple pie.

The usual secrecy surrounding the signature sauce is a non-issue at Famous Dave’s, because the squeeze packets dropped into every takeout bag list what’s in the ­competition-winning Rich & Sassy. No wonder it’s Twinkie-sweet: Corn syrup is the first ingredient.

Chris Forlano is a rarity among barbecue men. He’s never cooked in a competition, and he’d rather do his job than brag about how well he does it at the Duck Deli in New Britain — the website’s promise of outrageous eats is as close as he comes to a boast. But the hickory logs stacked next to the Southern Pride smoker out back, and the enormous exhaust fans on the roof of his red barn building, attest to the serious nature of his craft. Pulled pork, smoked for 14 hours, then drenched in house-made, apple cider-based Eastern Carolina vinegar sauce, is his best-seller. The pork is very good, but my favorite is the smoked tuna salad, made from fresh tuna loins rubbed with brown sugar and cracked black pepper before they hit the smoker. Have it in a hoagie, the best tuna hoagie you will ever eat. Smoked chicken isn’t equal to the tuna. Fresh salmon rubbed with paprika and brown sugar ultimately becomes a smoked salmon cake, a topping for a green salad, or an addition to penne pasta with Alfredo sauce.

Duck Deli’s link to North Carolina is Chris’s father, Ron Forlano, who moved to the town of Duck after he retired from practicing dentistry in Warminster. The elder Forlano couldn’t take it easy, and opened a Duck Deli takeout barbecue spot, now run by another son. Their success led to the opening of the New Britain location, which gave Chris Forlano a chance to be his own boss after two decades of working in various pizzerias and Italian restaurants. The northern branch has a broader menu than its southern siblings, and a 54-seat, country-cute dining room with a duck-and-pig motif.

Forlano smokes the pork spareribs for three hours, not as long as some places do. This leaves them meaty though slightly fatty, caramelized on the outside from the sugar in their spice rub. At serving time, they’re warmed on the grill and glazed with house-made Western Carolina sauce, which is thicker and more tomato-based than the Eastern variety. Beef brisket, pink-tinged and smoky after more than 12 hours in the smoker, is sliced paper-thin and served in the Western Carolina sauce. The secret is lemons, chopped in a food processor, rind and all, and added to the sauce. A smoked prime rib sandwich is a single thick slice, grilled before serving, tucked into a roll with lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions and horseradish mayonnaise. Not bad, but not up to my expectations, because the smoke flavor was almost undetectable.

Potato salad and creamy coleslaw are extraordinarily fresh, straightforward versions made from recipes handed down by Forlano’s maternal grandmother.

After visiting 13 barbecue restaurants for a story last July, and now these three competitors for barbecue bragging rights, I think Philadelphia still lacks a pit stop that can do it all. But each one has at least one or two standout meats or sides, and that should be enough to fill anyone’s plate.