The 9th annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party was hardly different from the 8th annual Big Apple Barbecue, which wasn't all too different from the 7th annual Big Apple Barbecue. Fortunately, after nine years of building a bigger and better barbecue, the Block Party's repetitions taste more like tradition. A curated festival of Southern-style barbecue in New York City is not something to turn down lightly, no matter how many times we've lined up for our favorite pulled pork sandwich in the past.
That's not say there weren't a few surprises in the mix (and I'm not referring to the sudden downpour of rain, which at this point might as well be part of the fun). North Carolina legend Ed Mitchell, revered for representing Eastern Carolina whole hog, was also serving whole smoked turkey, finely chopped and served on a potato roll with a mayo-based slaw. Many a mighty lonely turkey sandwich sat alongside a constantly moving line of whole hog sandwiches; however, our turkey was well-brined, juicy, and meaty if not smoky.
As Josh and I hopped from tent to tent, we gathered plates from each pit crew based on their cuts, tasting multiple pork shoulders, pork ribs and beef briskets back to back and noting how difficult it is to make barbecue a consistent meal. Some of my usual favorites were spot on (Whole hog by Ed Mitchell and Patrick Martin come to mind). Others were a bit better than we had remembered (Ubon's pork had a dark, nutty flavor and hand-pulled texture that were particularly pleasing). And yet others totally defied our priorities going into the weekend.
What surprised me most was how well New York's cooks represented alongside Southern pit masters who inspire their craft. While Texas's Salt Lick returned to the Block Party with a one-two punch of smoked sausage and beef brisket, it was edged out in fat and flavor by Hill Country NY's rich slices of whole brisket. The fact that Hill Country is three blocks away notwithstanding, it was good to see that New York's homage to central Texas barbecue can go toe-to-toe with a mainstay of central Texas barbecue and hold its own.
The same goes for Blue Smoke's salt and pepper beef ribs, a downright decadent devotion to fatty, juicy, unrelentingly seasoned beef. And Dinosaur BBQ's pulled pork shoulder was simply so good that I went back for a second sandwich. That repeat was just as satisfying, yielding perfectly tender pork with a subtle smoke flavor and slightly crunchy bark that merged perfectly with a splash of Dinosaur's tomato-and-vinegar sauce.
As Mike Mills has told us many times, in barbecue it all comes down to what's cooking that day. And even if the Big Apple's smokehouses may not bring their A game to diners on a daily basis, they were on 225-degree fire in Madison Square Park. Seeing how we New Yorkers throw this party, that's something to stand on as the block party settles into a new kind of New York tradition.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.