Some couples do massages. Others go for a weekend getaway to a small, remote Bed and Breakfast for some quality rest and relaxation. Asheley and I? We go to the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Nothing says I love you more than gazing into each other’s eyes while sharing gluttonous amounts of slowly-smoked meat. Right? Who’s with me?
So Asheley and I, along with quite a few of our friends from church, descended upon Madison Square Park this past weekend for what has become an annual outing. With 17 pit masters from all across the country each serving up one of their signature dishes, the question quickly becomes, “What do we eat?!” Not all barbecue is created equal, and with limited stomach room, we want only the best.
And over the few years we’ve been attending the festival, we have learned some important insider tricks and tips that can help you enjoy your time at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party even more…
The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party starts right around 11 a.m. If planning on going Saturday, hang around the Blue Smoke rig around 10:45 to watch the annual “opening rib cutting ceremony”. You’ll get a glimpse of all the big-time pit masters, along with Restaurateur Danny Meyer (owner of Blue Smoke, Shake Shake, Grammercy Tavern, and many more).
Several of the all-star pit masters have quite the cult following. Their lines can fill up pretty quick with a loyal fan base. If you are planning on visiting The Salt Lick, Ed Mitchell, Big Bob Gibson, and Mike Mills (17th Street), your best bet would be to arrive early.
By the time 12/1 p.m. rolls around, the crowds are out in force. 11 a.m. is a bit on the tamer side. Hit up the most popular pit masters first, since typically the lesser-knowns (although some have a better product in my opinion) typically don’t get crazy slammed.
I didn’t even bother waiting in line for The Salt Lick, which consistently had the longest lines of anyone. And honestly, after the report I got from some trusted ‘cue friends of mine, the overhyped dry brisket wasn’t worth the wait.
Going on both Saturday and Sunday this year, Asheley and I noticed that Sunday was definitely the less-packed day. Still very busy, but not quite the same crazy volume as Saturday.
So you probably see the hoards of hungry New Yorkers, right? One way to avoid the extra long lines for the general public is to get yourselves a fast pass. For $125, you get a pre-loaded card for $100 worth of food and access to shorter lines. The other $25 goes to the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which is the group responsible for maintaining and beautifying the park.
An interesting observation, though… sometimes the fast pass lines were just as long (and in rare instances longer) as the general public lines this year. Overall, though, I think the fast pass is definitely worth it. Shorter lines in general, no need to worry about handing cash (they just punch your card), and you’re helping out a good cause. Fast passes typically go on sale around April/May.
So how about we talk about this food, huh? I’m ready if you are. Oh, and while on the subject of food, consider coming armed with a cooler and some plastic takeout containers. These guys only roll around once a year, so Asheley and I like to stock up on our favorites. Barbecue freezes and reheats very well.
I’ve always been a pulled pork type of guy. But man, let me tell you, whole hog is my absolute new favorite. It pretty much looks like pulled pork, but instead of just pork shoulder, they slowly smoke the whole pig and then combine all the meat together. What results is an incredibly flavorful meat mixture that makes me cry tears of pork joy.
And if one man knows Whole Hog, it’s this legend right here. Pit Master Ed Mitchell. Hailing from North Carolina, he know’s ‘cue.
No sauce is served with Ed Mitchell’s whole hog sandwich. And no sauce is required. It’s the most juicy, succulent, flavor-packed barbecue I’ve had. Ed Mitchell was my favorite last year, and he’s still my favorite this year. It is not to be missed.
South Carolina pit master Rodney Scott (who according to my ‘cue guru friend James) is a relatively lesser-known pit master. His lines were therefore pretty tame. But with the magnificent whole hog he pumped out, thought, his lines should have been 10 times as long. The pork was moist and tender, and the textural element of crispy. crumbled crackin’ on top blew my mind.
Skylight Inn’s pit master Sam Jones also brought his whole hog to the party. It was rich, tender, and moist, and with the bite that comes from the thin vinegar sauce that you come to expect from a North Carolina pit master, was darn delicious.
Although my least favorite of the bunch (splitting hairs, really), pit master Patrick Martin’s whole hog was also quite enjoyable. The only thing holding it back was a bit of lack of moistness. When paired with the slaw and sauce, however, it was mighty tasty.
All in all, I would be beyond happy to eat any four of these options weekly for the rest of my life. Whole hog has changed me.
That cleaver-wielding guy up there is Alabama pit master Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. He’s a well-known barbecue personality and the author of the book (and recipe) that helped me start pumping out my own delicious pulled pork shoulder on my gas grill. Oh, you want to learn also? How convenient, I wrote a post this past fall all about how to make authentic pulled pork on a gas grill!
The pulled pork is good. Very good. But I have to be honest, it pales in comparison to the whole hog in my opinion. All the whole hog I sampled was a bit more moist and succulent. Lilly’s pulled pork shoulder, though, had a bit more smoke flavor than the whole hog, if you’re into that sort of thing.
But let’s talk about the side: Mustard Cole Slaw. At mostly all the other pit masters, the side is kinda a throwaway. I could take it or leave it. Or definitely leave it. But this cole slaw is dynamite. Ridiculously good.
Coming off my new found love for brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, I was excited for Hill Country’s Texas-style, dry-rubbed beef brisket. Unfortunately, I found it very heavy on the smoke and not nearly as moist and tender as Mighty Quinn’s. My ‘cue guru friend James, though, thinks Mighty Quinn’s brisket is on the cusp of being too moist and tender, so maybe that’s just my personal preference. Lots of people love Hill Country’s brisket, so maybe it’s me.
I’m not a sausage fan. I mean, I’ll eat them, but they never call my name. But then last year my friend Steve told me I needed to try this smoked sausage from Jim N’ Nicks. I pretty much ignored him but he quite frankly wouldn’t shut up about it. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Whatever Steve tells me to try, I need to try. This smoked sausage is legit.
With 29 Jim N’ Nicks Bar-B-Q locations, most of which are in Alabama, you probably could call it a chain barbecue restaurant. But man, it doesn’t taste that way. Head pit master Drew Robinson seems to put a lot of TLC into every sausage he puts out. They are consistently, without fail, one of the best items served up at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.
The pimento cheese they pair with the spicy smoked sausage is simple yet heavenly. And lucky for us, they happily give away the recipe (or do they… I’ve always wondered if places give away a “fake” version of the actual recipe, so you can never quite replicate it at home). In any event, here it is: Mix together 1 pound of grated cheddar cheese, 1 and 1/4 cup mayo, 1/2 teaspoon of tabasco, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and 10 ounces of fire-roasted red peppers.
Blue Smoke’s restaurateur Danny Meyer and pit master Kenny Callaghan started the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party 11 years ago. It’s humble beginnings of a small block party in front of their restaurant has turned into an annual event of epic proportions (over 140,000 people showed up last year!).
They seem to serve up these Salt and Pepper Beef Ribs every year, and all my friends love them. I have to admit, I’m just not a huge fan of ribs. It’s super messy, there is normally not a ton of meat on the ribs, and I don’t know… I just seem to have a greater affinity towards whole hog and pulled pork.
Of course I gave them a try this year though, and they were quite enjoyable. Simple, fatty, greasy barbecue comfort food. But still, I gotta give it to the whole hog.
You can’t go to the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party and not have Mike Mills’ (of 17th Street Bar and Grill) baby back ribs. They are saucy, tender, and delicious. The beans he serves with them are good as well, albeit very sweet (and that’s coming from me, who loves sweet).
My friend James is a huge fan of Mike Mills, so much so that he somehow got invited to volunteer at the 17th Street rig this year. You’ll see pictures of him in his fancy orange t-shirt and plastic white apron below.
Here’s one of the biggest tips I can give you for a successful Big Apple Barbecue Block Party experience: Don’t waste precious stomach room on the bread. For the life of me, I don’t understand why people eat the sub-par bun that is served with all the whole hog and pulled pork.
I know that at some food establishments, the bread is thought-out, carefully chosen, and an essential part of the overall dish. That’s not the case here. Every pit master serves the same stock bun provided by the event organizers. And that bun is crap.
So yea, by the end of the day, we had quite the massive pile-up of freshly-gnawed bones and uneaten buns. Save all your room for the meat. That’s what you’re there for.
I told you that James was wearing a bright orange shirt and plastic apron!
What makes an event like this extra special is being surrounded with a great group of people. Come with your crew. Your posse. Your best-ies. Sure, the barbecue is amazing and blah blah blah, but sharing said glorious meat with friends is what makes the day spectacular and memorable.
Oh, and there is a quite practical, strategic reason to bring friends. Use your group power to hold down a picnic table or two. Some people stay at the table, others line-up at the rigs to grab food. We have the system down at this point. 🙂
Enjoy some pictures of our friends chowing down…
While my friend Valerie and I held down the fort as other scavenged for more food, we got bored and did a little impromptu photo shoot. She’ll probably be really mad at me for sharing all of these, but it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission, right?
What a crew! Thanks friends for making it such a fun weekend 🙂
Almost forgot about dessert!! The Original Fried Pie Shop had some really delicious fried pies. The crust was buttery, flaky goodness, and the fillings were spot on. Really though, how could a fried pie not be delicious?
At this point, normal people would probably call it a day. We ate a ton of barbecue. Had a fried pie. We’re good, right? Nope, not us! We all piled into our cars and drove up to the Upper West Side for a little more dessert. Our friend Matt and Rachelle suggested Beard Papas, which have the most amazing cream puffs I’ve ever (and probably will ever) have.
They fill them for you on demand, so the pastry stays light, airy, and crisp. The custard filling is illegally good.
We might have went to Levain Bakery for a cookie and the Coolhaus cart, posted outside of the Museum of Natural History, for some ice cream sandwiches after that. Might have. May have. Okay did. Don’t judge.
No, we didn’t have more dessert! What kind of fatties do you think we are?! This was the next day, when Asheley and I returned to the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.
Every year we really, really, really (thousand more really’s) look forward to Blue Smoke’s blueberry crisp. I don’t know what it is about that crisp, but it’s so freaking good. It’s like one of the highlights of the entire day that we always look forward to. And the nerve. The horror! No blueberry crisp this year! I don’t know why. I’m going to have my people call their people and demand an answer.
So Asheley and I thought we would be super clever, walk the extra couple of blocks to Blue Smoke’s actual restaurant, and order a blueberry crisp to go. They didn’t have any that day 🙁 But we did get this tart rhubarb crisp with orange blossom ice cream to share. It was good, but not the same as blueberry crisp. When you have that blueberry crisp on your mind, there’s nothing that will replace it.
Make sure to reserve June 7 & 8, 2014 for next year’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. I actually don’t know if that’s going to be the official date, but it’s typically that weekend. Hope to see you there 🙂