What to Eat with BBQ?
Daniel Vaughn (@BBQSnob) is the Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.
For the longest time, the search for great barbecue was limited to large swathes of the rural South. But over the past decade—thanks to barbecue’s growing TV presence and the meteoric rise of pitmasters like Aaron Franklin—its popularity has grown exponentially, even infiltrating urban centers whose denizens at one point could barely distinguish Texas brisket from roast beef. If that wasn’t enough, the trend has also entered European territory, and let’s be honest: if you’re in Maine or Oregon, you don’t want to be lagging behind the French when it comes to understanding ordering procedures at a barbecue joint.
But navigating a barbecue menu isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In many ways, it’s a lot like looking over your options at a fancy steakhouse, where regulars know to stick with the ribeye for flavor and the flatiron for value, while skipping the flavorless filet or the overpriced veal chop. There are, of course, certain hard-and-fast rules to abide by: In barbecue, fat is good. If you see “lean” anything, don’t chance it. A great slice of lean brisket is hard to beat, but put your money on the fatty slices if you only get one roll of the dice.
One of the most common mistakes for a ‘cue rookie is entering a barbecue joint for the first time with a preconceived notion of what you want to order. The menus might be similar, but the specialties vary from place to place. You need to let your observations dictate your decision-making. Here, we teach you how to identify clues while waiting in line and craft a reliable strategy, so that when your turn’s up, you won’t look like a deer-in-the-headlights who just wasted a golden opportunity.
1. Study up on regional specialties.
There are, of course, plenty of regions where you won’t have many options to choose from. Stick with whole hog in Eastern North Carolina and the mutton in Western Kentucky. However, the menu options around the rest of the country generally include a bevy of proteins. Making the right choices depends on your observations, the region, and even the restaurant’s suggestions. First, understand your location in the barbecue world to guess what the barbecue joint might excel at. There are exceptions to every rule, but you’ll have better luck sticking with pigs east of the Mississippi; feel free to add beef to the mix once you get west of it. There’s a brief cheat sheet below.
2. Understand your setting.
Once you get in the door, check your surroundings. A meat counter where you can talk through your order with a meat cutter is always preferred to having your barbecue plate prepared out of sight in a kitchen. If you’re forced to sit down with only a menu to guide you (and all the barbecue is hidden away behind the kitchen doors), your options for specificity lessen. If one meat is the obvious feature to the menu then there’s no need to stray. If it’s not so apparent, don’t be afraid to ask. Any decent pitmaster will be happy to tell you what he/she does best. Also, be sure to check the specials board. Unlike fine dining where specials are the place leftovers go to die, these are cuts the pitmaster decided to cook on this occasion. This is where the attention will be.
3. Speaking of leftovers, be wary of BBQ-fusion dishes.
You should also know where leftovers do go to die. If a barbecue joint is selling enchiladas, quesadillas, or anything called a sloppy joe, it’s doubtful that barbecue was cooked today. Ironically, these items on a menu (as well as sausage in the beans or brisket in the mac ‘n cheese) are a good sign that the meat on your plate will be fresh since the leftovers go elsewhere.
4. Never take your eyes off the cutting board.
A counter with a meat-stacked cutting board gives you the best opportunity to really pick and choose. Having all the meats in sight will help you make the right decisions, so don’t waste your time in line chatting it up your buddy—that’s a noob move. Watch what is going on with the orders ahead of you. If the cut edge of the brisket looks like shag carpet—or, worse still, like petrified wood—skip it. If it sits like a rock on the cutting board (tender brisket looks relaxed, not springy), look for another option. The same goes if the meat cutter’s first step was to strip away the fat cap and throw it in the trash. This is textbook brisket disrespect. Steam pouring out of the meat as it’s sliced looks cool, but that is meat that wasn’t rested properly; all that steam is actually moisture that is now lost forever, which means you’re going to need the sauce. On the flip side, if you see the juices running from the meat, get a pound.