I got married a few weeks ago:
Afterwards I went on a honeymoon with my lovely bride through the southeastern US. Unlike a North Carolina vacation we took a few years ago, the focus of this trip was not barbecue. That said, we still had quite a few good barbecue meals. (I mean, it’d be a downright sin to go through North Carolina without stopping at some of the shacks.) Without any further ado, then, here is a retrospective of my wedding and honeymoon through the lens of smoked meats. Part 1, appearing here, deals with what I’ll call “the West” – or more specifically, barbecue in the style of the west-of-the-Appalachians, which dominated the first part of our trip. Part 2, “the East”, will come later in the week.
June 5, the wedding day: Dinosaur Bar B Que, Syracuse, NY
When Rebecca and I decided to tie the knot (and to celebrate with a real party instead of eloping), the first thing we decided was that we wanted to have extremely awesome food at the wedding reception. Since the in-laws live near Syracuse, the home of Dinosaur Bar B Que – a joint that we’ve enjoyed very much both in Syracuse and here in NYC – it seemed a perfect fit. Dinosaur brought out a smoker rig:
The menu was ribs, pulled pork and chicken for the meats. For sides, we had baked beans, cole slaw, and macaroni salad. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of great pictures of the food – everyone seemed to be too anxious to eat it to be able to take good pictures, and I haven’t gotten the files from the photographer yet – but here are a few pictures I could scrounge up. My own take on Dinosaur, and this meal in particular, is that their ribs (the meaty St Louis cut) are really top-notch, the best I’ve had here in NYS. The sauce is a traditional KC-style tomato sauce. Dinosaur also provided a spicier sauce with a bit of mustardiness that went well with their unsauced pulled pork.
I’ll leave it to some of my gentle readers who were in attendance to give more feedback on the quality of the food. IMO it was pretty effin good for wedding grub.
June 9: Ridgewood Barbecue, Bluff City, TN
We spent a few days in Washington, DC near the beginning of the honeymoon, and from there we traveled to eastern Tennessee and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Knowing we’d be traversing the whole diagonal of Virginia, I pinged my SW VA pal Jeremy for a recommendation. Before he had the time to respond, my research had led to the same recommendation that he ended up delivering: Ridgewood Barbecue, just inside of Tennessee. We knew we had entered the South when a fellow in the parking lot gave us the unsolicited advice to try the beef, even if we normally preferred pork barbecue.
This is an appropriate place for me to step back and make some commentary on barbecue snobbishness. I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, an area that might excel in venison summer sausage and fried cheese curds but has little in the way of local barbecue. As a result, I haven’t been raised with any deep prejudices about the nature of barbecue: that it must be pork, that it must be smoked over hickory, that it must not have tomato in the sauce, what have you. While I can’t out-and-out claim that I’m glad I grew up not eating barbecue, I can say that a pleasant side effect of my barbecueless youth is that I’m willing to take it on its own terms. (As an aside, I think I enjoy a similar position with respect to pizza, though living in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade has probably warped me a bit.) This is in stark contrast to other barbecue fanatics whose rantings I have so often come across on the web, whose hearts and hatches are closed to a large portion of the wonders that the world of smoked meats has to offer. I feel sad for them.
And I feel glad that I was able to take the gentleman’s advice seriously, and order both beef and pork barbecue sandwiches at the Ridgewood. That’s because, while the pork (unusual in that it’s sliced ham, rather than chopped or pulled shoulder) was really delicious, it was a bit overwhelmed by the amount and the character of the sauce on the sandwich. The sauce is a weird mix of a couple of different styles: far more tomatoey body and sweetness than a Carolina sauce, far more vinegary tang than a Western sauce. Really good, but too much for the relatively delicate pork. (Order it on the side, if you can.) The beef, however, was really something to behold. A huge beefiness and a punch of smoke flavor punched through the sauce. It was awesome. And the sides were pretty great too, especially the baked beans: with more onion and peppers than you expect in barbecue beans, these were possibly the best baked beans I ever had. Perfect balance of sweetness and spice. Worth the trip in themselves, really.
The second clue that we were really in the South was when the waitress, without asking, brought enormous styrofoam cups of soda to the table as we were finishing our food – “refills to go”, she said. Wowza.
June 10: Bennett’s BBQ, Pigeon Forge, TN
As I said above, the honeymoon was not intended to focus on barbecue. If it had been, we wouldn’t have travelled to eastern TN, which is not to the best of my knowledge particularly well known for its barbecue. That said, we did drive past a number of places bragging about their ribs (pandering to northern tourists, maybe?), so we decided to succumb. A bit of research showed that Bennett’s was perhaps the most reliable in the area.
Rebecca got the baby-back rib meal, and I got a platter with brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. I was not expecting much from the mini-chain and its Applebeeesque decor, but I was pleasantly surprised. The St Louis ribs, which were sauced with a mercifully light hand, had enough meat on them to see (and taste!) the smoke ring. The pulled pork (again, unsauced – thank you!) was even better: after the initial sweetness of the pork fat, a very nice smokiness took over. And they weren’t stingy with the burnt ends (or outside brown, or whatever you want to call the brown stuff on the outside of the shoulder). You can see a strip of it in the picture below:
The brisket was disappointing, especially coming from the incredible beef experience we’d had the previous day at the Ridgewood. The fat was gristly, the meat was underseasoned, and there wasn’t much in the way of smoke flavor. As for sides: as at the Ridgewood, the standout was the dish of baked beans. The beans were very straightforward and traditional, but really nicely executed, with a bit of smoke, a bit of sweet, and beans that didn’t have the texture cooked out of them.
It’d be a few more days before we traversed the Great Smokies and managed another barbecue meal. But that’s a subject for another post.