Smokin' Joints

With three new restaurants opening in Westchester in the last year, barbecue is hot in the county.  

I’m Jealous! I can’t help it. Despite my four years at an Ivy-League school, I realize now that I may have picked my educational institution poorly. Why oh why didn’t I enroll in Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama? I could have been one of the “Southern BBQ Boys,” a group of four “average college students” who, this past winter, completed a “seventeen-day academic journey across the South to eat, analyze, and blog about Southern barbecue.” And, the college gave them $700 to help complete this, ahem, “research” project as well as course credit. (Check out their website at southernbbqboys.com.) Not to be outdone by a bunch of Southerners, I conducted my own journey, across a more sparsely barbecue-joint-laden Westchester. 

My passion for barbecue began about a decade ago. My father, both a federal judge and, some would say, more interestingly, a certified barbecue judge, decided it was time to take me to Safeway’s National Capital Barbecue Battle in Washington, DC, and introduce me to the world of competitive barbecue. The National Capital Barbecue Battle is a two-day event in which teams from around the DC area create succulent servings of chicken, beef, and pork attempting to win various competitions presented by national barbecue contest sanctioning bodies—the NCAAs of barbecue contests, if you will. Winners take home some serious cash; up to $40,000 in prizes are distributed. Champions also are invited to compete against the best barbecuers from around the country in national competitions.

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As luck would have it, the DC battle I attended was short a few judges. The organizers took a chance on a young ‘cue fan and let me judge. I got a quick lesson in what to look for and I headed out to taste pork from three randomly selected smokers. Wouldn’t you know it, I ended up not only tasting the best barbecue in my life but also that of the inevitable champion—Jack’s Old South BBQ (jacksoldsouth.com).

Barbecue is judged by taste, color, and tenderness. Taste is subjective, but the taste of the meat should take precedence over that of the sauce, i.e., the meat’s flavor should always be delicious even when served sauceless. Shoulder meat should be tasty all the way to the bone. Pork generally will be sweeter and fruitier tasting than beef.

Color is easy, well, easier to judge. Ribs should have a smoke ring on the inside with white meat closest to the bone and pinker meat radiating out from there. Shoulder, or pulled pork, should be dark on the outside; the meat inside, a nice shade of pink. A darker, crunchier area, known as “bark,” found on the outside of pork and ribs, is perfectly acceptable and, to some, desirable.

Tenderness is the easiest aspect of meat to judge. Rib meat should not—repeat, not—fall off the bone. Instead, it should pull away easily. Ribs that are hard to pull are not good ribs.

So how does the barbecue around here fare? Well, I don’t think I had it as good as those Southern BBQ boys, but if you order the right dishes at the right places, you can put together a pretty delicious barbecue platter here in Westchester. Here are the results of my journey (not for course credit) and the best buys at each of Westchester’s barbecue shops.

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BEST RIBS

➤ Memphis Mae’s
173 S Riverside Ave, Croton-on-Hudson (914) 271-0125

Memphis Mae’s lip-smacking ribs—wet and dry—accompanied by their famous fried pickles.

Mae’s menu is cutesy. You won’t find words like “slab” or “whole hog” anywhere; you will find offerings such as “jalapeño bottlecaps” (essentially jalapeño poppers) and “Memphis Pasties” (pastry pockets full of meat) though. Okay, I get it—it’s progressive barbecue. One thing I don’t get, though, nor can I tolerate, is the restaurant’s $4 plate-sharing policy. Are you kidding me? A penalty for sharing at a barbecue restaurant? Imagine how that would go over in the backwoods of the South.

Mae’s serves both wet and dry ribs. Stick with the wet. The rack is sweet but not too sweet and has a delectable tomato flavor that complements, not overwhelms, the rich, smoky flavor of the beef. Oustanding. But it’s not for those worried about their cholesterol. The fat on these ribs is pretty close to perfect, and there’s plenty of it. Mae’s knows how to cook ribs. Both the wet and dry ribs are cooked spot-on, the meat, still on the bone, is super-tender, and the smoke ring radiates from white to pink from the center. Have them with Mae’s fried pickles.

 

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BEST PORK

➤ Bob-B-Q’S
958 E Main St, Shrub Oak (914) 214-8239

Bob-B-Q’s pulled-pork sandwich, surrounded by several scrumptuous sides (cornbread, anyone?)

A certain editor-in-chief of a local magazine and I decided to take the trek up to Bob-B-Q’s on a cold day this past spring. We’ll cut the Northern Westchester smokehouse some slack because it’s new to the now-bustling Westchester barbecue market. Bob-B-Q’s does counter service in a nondescript store inside of a mini strip mall. Across the street is a liquor store, and Bob-B-Q’s is BYOB. Just don’t ask for a cup for your liquor-store purchase. They had no cups the night we visited. Straws, perhaps? 

Bob-B-Q’s sells both St. Louis-style ribs and baby back ribs. The former are sweet and sticky and nearly perfectly cooked. Actually, “sweet” doesn’t begin to describe them. They were candy-like, tasting a bit like brown sugar. And this is good. The baby back ribs were not as sweet and had more of an apple-cider taste. Still, they were enjoyable. Bob-B-Q’s pork is juicy, and again, sweet—almost too sweet. But the color of the meat was perfect—brown with a touch of pink. There were also slices of crunchy bark mixed in.

And the taste? It had a subtle smoky flavor that was just awesome. Damn, this is good pork!

Sides are good, too. Love the portobello crisp, cooked tempura-style, and the French fries, extra crisp with lots of salt. The cornbread is delicious, too, and, not surprisingly, sweet.

BEST SLICED STEAK

➤ Mighty Joe Young’s
610 W Hartsdale Ave, White Plains (914) 428-6868

It’s only natural. Mighty Joe Young’s, the very popular and kitschy jungle-themed meat-eaters’ sanctuary in White Plains, added a barbecue menu to its beefy protein-laced bill of fare two years ago. My first impression? Wow, this is good eatin’. But with a new year came a new chef and, at least on my visit, things don’t seem as good—the care and originality that were always infused into the meat at Mighty Joe’s were gone. This restaurant had always been my go-to grill when I needed a good steak (or slice of wild boar) cooked perfectly. But let’s not dwell on the negative. Let’s obsess about the brisket. Yum. Mighty Joe’s does brisket really well—no small feat. Beef can dry out even quicker than pork and loses its flavor and texture fast. It’s no surprise that Mighty Joe Young’s, which specializes in beef, avoided this problem. Its “sliced steak” requires very little chewing; it’s so tender. It also has a woodsy flavor that many diners, myself included, like. Biting into it inspired thoughts of sitting in front of an old cabin in the country, with the grill on and the smell of freshly cooked meat wafting in the air.

Ribs on the Run’s melt-in-your-mouth BBQ chicken, served with both corn fritters and golden cornbread.

 

BEST CHICKEN

➤ Ribs on the Run
396 N Central Ave, White Plains (914) 428-7427

Ribs on the Run owner John DeRosa, known as “The Big Rib,” has been in the barbecue biz for 30 years, 18 of them in Westchester. You won’t notice DeRosa’s eatery in the Dalewood III Shopping Center on Central Avenue, unless you’re actively looking for it. Inside, a large anthropomorphic pig-themed mural covers one entire wall. It’s counter service here with a few varnished wooden tables scattered about. DeRosa’s philosophy: serve lean ribs that are pre-cooked in an oven with liquid smoke flavor (never steamed). “Smoking machines leave a pinkish line that makes the meat look raw,” he says. After that, grill ’em. His choice of sauce: a vinegar-based commercial sauce (he won’t tell which) with secret spices and hot sauce.

What to get? Chicken is my least favorite barbecued meat, yet I would return to Ribs on the Run for its poultry any day. The bird has a wonderfully smoky flavor, is really tender, and wears a great golden color. It tastes like barbecued chicken should. To go with your bird, try the mouthwatering sweet but not overly fried corn fritters and, of course, the delicious cornbread.

 

 

BEST SIDES

➤ Q Restaurant & Bar  
112 N Main St, Port Chester (914) 933-RIBS
487 E Main St, Mount Kisco (914) 241-RIBS

Q, the county’s most popular barbecue eatery, is so well liked that another branch opened in Mount Kisco last summer. Both combine counter service with waiter service. You order at the counter, receive a numbered card to place on your table, and a waiter brings your food to you. The Port Chester location also has a bar at which you’ll find baskets of addictive seasoned potato chips.

And as for the grub? Gotta love the sides: the grilled corn on the cob dusted with paprika and Cotija cheese; the big, fluffy biscuits served with maple butter; and the super-moist corn bread. The best entrée to eat with those sides? The ribs, of course. Perfectly cooked, with a smoke ring as pure as a virgin…forest, that is. (Where do you think the wood that makes the smoke rings comes from, anyway?) The meat peels off the bone, just like it’s supposed to. One quibble: too much sauce. Have faith in your meat, Q, and lay off the sauce!

BEST BRISKET

➤ The Barnacle BBQ and Fish Shack
181 E Boston Post Rd, Mamaroneck (914) 777-6610

Wherever you were scheduled to eat tonight, cancel. Go to the new Barnacle BBQ and Fish Shack and eat brisket. And bring along any vegetarian you’ve been trying to convert; they’ll likely too end up chowing down slabs of bovine bliss. The brisket is life-changing: juicy, salty (in a good way), and butter-tender—hey, the meat has been smoked for 12 hours. Heaven.

So, in what surroundings will your soon-to-be-a-carnivore friend’s life change? The Barnacle was previously home to a Charlie Brown’s and then Jolly Trolley. Now, a large horseshoe-shaped bar divides the restaurant comfortably. The room is dark. There are drawings on the ceiling, condiments come in toolboxes, and, the best part, there are small towels on the table instead of napkins—great for picking up wet ribs and really digging in.

Speaking of the ribs, the Barnacle serves them both wet and dry—and both are super-tender. As for sides, there’s something called pork bites, which are strips of meat fried after being smoked. Avoid them. Ditto the pulled pork spring rolls. But do get a side of slaw—
superb. And, in a clever move that rekindled fond childhood memories, the Barnacle serves Tater Tots!

W. Dyer Halpern was raised in a family in which bad barbecue was as unacceptable as bad grades. He must admit, though, he still doesn’t really like barbecued chicken. Just don’t tell anyone.

 

 

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