Barbecue is smoking!
To many purists who love pork, beef and chicken smoked low and slow over wood, the phrase “barbecue trends” is an oxymoron. To them, there there’s nothing remotely modern or food fashionable about this typically southern U.S. delicacy.
But barbecue as a menu segment is trending, even though its rise to national awareness has happened about as slowly as the smoke ascending lazily from the all-important hickory and fruit wood fires required to make it.
Once the domain of roadside stops located below the Mason-Dixon Line, barbecue “joints” like Butcher Bar and Rudolphs Bar-B-Que are popping up in such northern U.S. cities as New York and Minneapolis, respectively.
Chains such as Smokey Bones, Famous Dave’s, Dickey’s BBQ Pit and Sonny’s BBQ are expanding steadily as a growing number of diners now appreciate how the formula of wood smoke + time + temperature can turn otherwise fatty and tough cuts of meat into heaven on a plate.
Even mainstream restaurants are adding barbecue to the menu mix, often relying on a wide range of high-quality, premade sauces and rubs to help them compete in the growing marketplace.
Proof that Tennessee whiskey’s tastes great in barbecue sauce is T.G.I. Friday’s nine item Jack Daniel’s Grill section of its menu. In addition to pork ribs, the lineup includes sauce-slathered steaks and shrimp. Customers choosing Chili’s Grill & Bar baby back ribs get two new sauce choices this year: one sweetened with Dr. Pepper and a more savory Craft Beer sauce. At Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, fans of ribs can choose from three sauce options: sweet Asian chile, smoky chipotle and honey BBQ.
But as is common during such growth spurts, operators find themselves working to differentiate their products from those of their competitors.
Some say the drive to satisfy a highly mobile customer base that’s exposed to incredible variety via food-centered TV shows is leading them to broaden their offerings. Others are attempting to stick to what they do well while allowing some variations on themes.
John Rivers, founder of Four Rivers Smokehouse, a nine-unit chain based in Orlando, Fla., is one such pit master. In his global travels he finds barbecue done in countless ways and says those influences are spurring his creativity.
“I’d never substitute the real bread-and-butter styles of what we barbecue, but there are so many opportunities to bring other flavors in,” Rivers says. “I change one thing on the regular menu, my life will be threatened! But when I cook for James Beard dinners or a Food Network show, I get to cook with an open palate and try new things.”
Such twists include a chimichurri-like sauce made of smoked and chargrilled tomatillos, tomatoes and onions that are pureed with jalapeño and cilantro. He serves the sauce on smoked tri-tip and smoked beef tacos.
“Those incredible Latin flavors are so fresh on smoked meat; they really pop out,” he says. “I also like what I’m seeing in other markets with different ethnicities that are grabbing on to barbecue. There’s a new place in Orlando that’s serving pulled pork with plantains and black beans.”
In New York, Butcher Bar offers spicy tacos with a choice of smoked pork or barbecued chicken served on a soft corn tortilla with pico de gallo, jalapeños and habanero sauce.
Tony Roma’s A Place for Ribs will introduce a white barbecue sauce this month to accompany bone-in chicken that’s beer braised and finished over a fiery grill. According to Bob Gallagher, senior vice president of culinary and purchasing at the Tampa, Fla.-based chain says vinegar-and-mayonnaise-based white sauce is popular in nearby Alabama, but it’s catching on quickly throughout the South.
“The mainstream tomato-based barbecue sauce is here to stay, and that makes the white sauce really unique,” Gallagher says. The sauce is basted onto the chicken as it grills, giving the bird’s skin an extra crunch, he adds. “We’re going to use the white sauce on smoked sausage as well.”
For Chad Cooley, owner of two-unit Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ in Louisville, Ky., the uniqueness of his barbecue is in the preparation. One example is his chicken wings, which are smoked for two-and-a-half hours and, when ordered, deep-fried and dusted with barbecue spice rub.
“Just the dry rub, no sauce at all on them, so they’re really crisp, but still tender and smoky,” he says. “I don’t like just smoking the wings; they’re just gummy that way. They’re a huge hit this way.”
Patrick Martin says the trend is to blend — not sauces or rubs or meats, but unique barbecue styles cross-regionally on the same menus. The founder and pit master at Nashville, Tenn.-based Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, says Americans are increasingly peripatetic and want a taste of home when they’re away, especially if they move to an area where they’ll put down roots. That’s forcing many pit masters outside their regional ‘cue comfort zones.
“The traditional lines are getting blurred quickly,” says Martin, who travels widely and, not surprisingly, tastes a lot of barbecue while on the road. “You’re seeing a lot of pork ribs, whole hogs, shoulders and Boston butts showing up at places in Texas that only did beef before. … I find it’s because people want the same things they had growing up.”
That means beef brisket is on the menu at all three of his Tennessee restaurants, though he volunteers that his isn’t as good as versions he finds in the Lone Star State.
“I don’t cook brisket as well as Aaron Franklin does,” Martin says, praising the owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. Before he opened Martin’s in 2006, he assumed correctly that the highly transient population working in Nashville’s music industry would want smoked beef.
Rivers says he’s seen the same trend, but he credits a different reason for its emergence.
“National TV exposure has really raised people’s interest in barbecue over the last five or six years,” Rivers says. “And it’s especially what’s made brisket so popular and growing now where we are.”
But wandering hog lovers aren’t the only reason pit masters in beef bastions like Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska are pulling pork onto the menu. Martin says the soaring price of beef is forcing them to smoke hogs and get a better margin.
“Brisket and clod used to be inexpensive to smoke, but not anymore,” he says. “Charging $29 a pound for great brisket is out of the budget for the normal customer who used to eat it twice a week. Now it’s once every other week.”
It’s also become a special occasion item, says Rivers.
“Brisket took off in my catering division several years ago, so of about 300 hundred weddings we’re doing a year, it’s barbecue,” he says. “People don’t want the old steak and potato servings anymore. They want a high-quality taste, and that’s our barbecue.”