Feature: Barbecue in Philly Bars

Step aside, burgers. There’s a new bar trend in town.

A guy walks into an Irish pub and orders … West Carolina hickory-smoked, hand-pulled-and-chopped pork barbecue and smoked brisket with a side of collards.

It’s no joke: Fergie’s, the Sansom Street saloon, has added a slew of Southern fare to its traditional Irish menu. And it’s not the only Philly spot to make the switch: Old City’s long-running rock ’n’ roll club the Khyber Pass has abandoned Fenders in favor of fried chicken, and Queen Village’s Catahoula (formerly Sauté) chucked its Continental cuisine for Creole/Cajun dishes like gumbo. What’s behind this sudden desire for Dixie grub?

There are the usual explanations — comfort food is popular in a down economy; it’s trendy in New York — but mostly, it seems, our dining scene abhors a vacuum. “Southern food is one of those things people in Philly lament, like good bagels,”
says Khyber co-owner Stephen Simons.

“It’s not that readily available.”

At Fergie’s, it was a serendipitous encounter between owner Fergus Carey and Mississippi native Mark Coates, chef-owner of now-defunct Bebe’s BBQ in the Italian Market, that led to the Irish-Southern mash-up. “Mark was looking for a space, and I loved his food at Bebe’s,” Carey says. “We were refreshing Fergie’s anyway, so I thought, ‘Irish and barbecue — why not?’”

Authenticity is paramount to Southern-food fans — so how do these Yankee spots stack up? “I originally opened Bebe’s because I couldn’t find anything in Philly that tasted like home,” says Coates in a thick-as-honey drawl. “It’s simple food. You start to try to be creative, and that’s not Southern food.”

Khyber co-owner Dave Frank takes a more pragmatic approach: “We’re never going to get ‘authentic’; it’s the basis, not a re-creation. The brisket is Texas-ish. We understand it’s not going to be the same.” But he and Simons are making the effort: The po’boy loaves are shipped up from New Orleans’ Leidenheimer Baking Company, which, Frank says, “is the equivalent of opening a hoagie shop in New Orleans and having Sarcone’s delivered.”