Ah, for the good old days. When legendary smoke men, like Sonny Bryan in Dallas and Arthur Bryant of Kansas City, fired the pits, turning out briskets and spareribs that defined American barbecue.
Well, if you're expecting me to say that barbecue just isn't what it used to be, guess again. It's better! A new generation of pit masters have—choose your metaphor—taken the tongs, relit the torch—turning out smoked meats worthy of our barbecue founding fathers.
Only now, they're cooking with heritage pork, grass-fed beef, and organic or natural chicken. They're expanding our notion of what traditional barbecue is to include lamb and goat, salmon and shrimp (wild when possible), even artichokes, corn, and tofu. The good old days may be gone, but the future looks even brighter. 2013 will go down in history as an incredible year for live fire cooking. Here's my top 6 best barbecue joints and grill restaurants for 2013.
- Chi Spacca (Los Angeles): This homey 30-seat grill parlor—the latest in an Italian restaurant empire by Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich and masterfully run by chef Chad Colby—may be the smallest steakhouse in North America, but everything it serves is bigger than life: a 42-ounce tomahawk pork chop that includes the entire rib bone and pork belly, or a costata alla fiorentina (Florentine steak) that's 5 inches wide and tips the scale at 50 ounces. (Definitely made for sharing.) Meats are grilled over an almond wood-burning grill, but don't miss the crackling crisp foccacia di Recco or butter- and cream-blasted mashed potatoes.
Mighty Quinn's Barbeque (New York City): The American dream is alive and well in Manhattan. Just ask Hugh Mangum, former Wallflowers drummer who parlayed a food stand at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg into an upscale barbecue emporium in the West Village, where the oak-smoked brisket comes so juicy it oozes, and each "Brontosaurus" (beef) rib weighs more than 1 pound. Don't miss the edamame and sweet pea salad (at a barbecue joint?!) and homemade pickles. A new Mighty Quinn's is slated to open in Brookfield Place in lower Manhattan in 2014. The Granary (San Antonio, Texas): This isn't your typical Texas barbecue joint, not with grilled lamb shoulder served with sweet pea pudding and smoked heirloom tomato salad topped with avocado ice cream. Not where the smoky brisket comes in ramen soup and the shoulder clod is accompanied with crispy quinoa. Chef Tim Rattray and his brewmeister brother Alex (all beers brewed on the premises) set up shop in an old cooper's cottage in San Antonio's Pearl District and their modernist approach stands traditional Texas barbecue on its head.
Steven with the Rattray brothers, Alex (left) and Tim (right)
Imperial (Portland, Oregon): The first thing that hits you when you check into Hotel Lucia, home of the new Imperial restaurant, is the intoxicating aroma of wood smoke. The second is the comforting knowledge that you can breakfast on home-smoked pastrami hash, lunch on wood-grilled romaine lettuce salad, and dine on secreto (a butcher's steak cut from the hog's underbelly) grilled and served on a wine barrel stave. The brainchild of Portland culinary legend Vitaly Paley, the Imperial is Portlandia at its best, complete with chandeliers welded from bicycle chains. Fette Sau (Brooklyn and Philadelphia): Musicologist turned restaurateur Joe Carroll didn't set out to launch a food revolution when he opened Fette Sau ("Fat Pig" literally) in a dilapidated Williamsburg garage in 2007. But his St. Louis ribs, supernaturally moist pork belly, and well-curated whisky collection quickly brought standing-room-only crowds. The pastrami cures for 30 days, prior to being crusted with coriander and pepper and smoked for 14 hours. Carroll recently teamed up with Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr to open a Fette Sau in the Northern Liberties district. Charlie Trotter's (Chicago, Illinois—closed): Charlie Trotter's was the opposite of a barbecue joint (it was an ultra-refined, Michelin-starred, French-inspired restaurant). It closed in 2012 and its founder died on November 5, 2013, at the tragically young age of 54. But it did have a wood-burning grill on which Charlie insisted on cooking his meats, varying the woods from oak for wild game in the winter to lighter cherry and apple for poultry and seafood in summer. Charlie was revered for his creativity and cerebral approach to cooking, but I will always remember him for his warm and generous spirit. When The Barbecue! Bible came out, Charlie insisted on hosting the Chicago press party. Thank you, Charlie—wherever you are, we miss you.
Steven's wife, Barbara, with Charlie Trotter.
And just in time for 2014, we're announcing our new Barbecue! Bible Wiki. The goal is to make it nothing less than the world's most comprehensive encyclopedia of barbecuing, smoking, and grilling terms. This is a community effort so we need your help. Add to the lexicon with your own barbecue and grilling knowledge.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is www.barbecuebible.com.