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Barbecue Isn't Really Meant For Restaurants

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Here now, by special arrangement and for a limited time only, Eater presents the work of writer, meat-lover, dreamer, Josh Ozersky.

Hill Country, NYC [Photo: scaredy_kat/Flickr]

When people go to a really good barbecue restaurant, like RUB (NYC) or Big Bob Gibson's (AL, NC), or Hill Country (NYC), or The Whole Hog Cafe in Little Rock, and taste what smoked meat is really supposed to be, the thought usually hits them: why doesn't all barbecue taste like this? What have I been eating all these years? So this is what it's supposed to be! (It is only after this revelation, by the way, that they should ever be allowed to judge competitions.) The point isn't, however, that most barbecue restaurants fall short for reasons of sloth or incompetence. It's that barbecue is almost impossible to cook in a commercial environment. Doing it well is a kind of miracle, a 100-to-1 shot closer to the Inchon invasion than any standard food service operation.

Think about it. Barbecue takes between three and fifteen hours to cook, depending on the cut, and is only really great for 20 minutes or so. And yet a restaurant has to serve people coming in all day long and expecting A+ product. If your meat came out at 11 AM, and somebody walks in at 3 expecting blue-ribbon brisket, how can he not be disappointed?

In the old days, customer expectations were tied to the realities of cooking. Charlie Bryant, in Dallas, put 800 pounds of meat in in the morning, sold it at lunch, and when it ran out he closed the door. Period. But today's diner wants his food when he wants it; if he doesn't get it he'll go to Houston's. Or Dallas BBQ. And that can't happen.

So you have to stagger your cook times and create ideal holding environments to protect the meat. These include humidity controlled combi ovens, alto shams, and even (as at RUB) dedicated J&R warming pits. Most places just use steam trays or hotel pans, with predictable results. But great barbecue wilts under any conditions in about an hour, so if you have the good luck to be somewhere it's done well, get there at peak times. They'll still run out of meat, because even the biggest smokers are finite, and you can't hold it indefinitely; but you'll get the best a restaurant can give, which is, against all odds, pretty great indeed.

Other Recommended Barbecue Restaurants

Cozy Corner, Memphis TN
Archie's BBQ, South Bend IN
Dreamland BBQ, Tuscaloosa AL
Oklahoma Joe's, Kansas City MO
Blue Ribbon BBQ, Arlington MA
Wildwood BBQ, New York, NY
Dinosaur BBQ, Syracuse, NY
Blue Smoke, NYC
Kreuz Market, Lockhart TX
Southside Market, Elgin TX

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