New York is two days away from its best taste of whole hog heaven. (Oh, and rib heaven. And pork shoulder heaven. And beef brisket heaven.) At the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, Madison Square Park will be an animal's graveyard on a roll, with some of the biggest names in barbecue from all around the country coming in for the occasion. Here's our guide to making the most of this year's Block Party.
Block Party Basics
The Big Apple BBQ goes down this Saturday and Sunday at Madison Square Park, opening at 11:00 a.m. and closing at 6:00 p.m.
16 barbecue joints, invited to be a part of the event by Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group, will be serving their best dishes at a flat rate of $8 per entree. All entrees are centered on slow-smoked meats, often representing a regional style or a restaurant's specialty. Some vendors will offer dessert plates for $4 a pop.
The block party also features live music, cooking demonstrations, and a beer zone. The main highlight here is a Southern Foodways Alliance panel featuring food writing heavyweights John T. Edge and Lolie Eric Elie. This year's panel will follow a screening of "To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish," Joe York's documentary on Louisiana's Cajun cuisine. The film begins at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday in Seminar Tent 1.
The park tends to get very crowded very quickly, and in past years even sudden rain has failed to cut through the lines trailing around the edges of the park. Those who have shelled out for a "fast pass" will get to cut to a V.I.P. line, but if this the first you're reading about the Block Party, then you should anticipate at least a 30-minute wait for the most popular plates.
What's Not Included?
Serious Eaters have commented in the past on disproportionate representation at the Block Party, and while there will be plenty of great 'cue, don't expect to see any Kansas City burnt ends, Chicago rib tip sandwiches, Lexington-style chopped pork, mustard sauced hog or Memphis pork barbecue at this event. Also absent from this year's lineup is the fantastic mutton barbecue served in 2010 by the Moonlite Inn of Owensboro, Kentucky.
Josh's Advice: Get on Line Early
Lines are your biggest obstacle to both enjoying the Block Party and eating as much world-class barbecue as possible. To get around this, bring as many friends as possible, and early in the day, disperse into multiple lines that have different items and pick up enough to share, creating a nice sampling of barbecue with everybody only having to endure one line.
If you find yourself having to do multiple lines throughout the day, make the barbecue from outside of New York your first go-round, as they tend to be the most popular and sometimes can run out. Specifically, pit masters who return each year, like Ed Mitchell and Mike Mills, gain a following and have the longest lines, so you want to hit those up before anything else.
James's Take: Make It Count... Twice
If you're not planning on an epic pig-out, you should take a look at what's cooking beforehand, pick two or three places to sample, and buy all of your barbecue in the first hour of the event—then repeat on Sunday. There's little point in committing yourself to hours of lines when you can enjoy two wonderful barbecue lunches and move on with your weekend.
But what should you prioritize? The lineup for this year's block party will be familiar to anyone who's attended the event in years past, and having eaten at every single joint, I can't recommend whole hog enough. It's a classic taste of Southern barbecue that no New York smokehouse has been able to replicate at a decent price, and while the Pit's Carolina whole hog is likely to run out first, Martin's Western Tennessee whole hog sandwich is just as tasty.
Those aren't crazy about pork should know that Ed Mitchell is apparently smoking Whole Turkey this year. Jim n' Nick's Smoked Sausage With Pimento Cheese wins my vote for sausage, and while it's not wise to spend stomach space on the food you could get any day of the week here in New York, Blue Smoke's Salt and Pepper Beef Rib was actually one of my favorite bites last year. It's hands down the restaurant's best dish, and my pick for beef barbecue at the Block Party.
Our man Ed is always down for Big Bob Gibson's pulled pork sandwich, which he considers "flat out, the best pork shoulder sandwich you will ever taste." It's also worth noting that Big Bob Gibson's barbecue team is still smoking from its Grand Champion victory at Memphis in May. Considering how much intensity goes into competition-level 'cue, it's quite possible that Chris Lilly's pork shoulder tastes better in New York than it does in Decatur, Alabama.
Ed also has a soft spot for the 17th St. Barbecue, where Mike Mills's "crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, dry-rubbed baby back ribs, with just enough chew on them" will "make you cry."
Doubling down on my recommendation for whole hog, Ed declares: "Until you've had one of Ed Mitchell's incomparably delicious Eastern Carolina whole hog barbecue sandwiches, with its little crispy shards of skin and bits of meat from all over the pig, you haven't really lived." I'm willing to use the truth stamp on this one.
The Block Party is one of the most fun food events I have ever been to, simply because many of the pit cooks and their posses won't allow you walk way without a smile. If you get a chance, say hello to the crew at Ubon's, arguably the friendliest bunch in the barbecue world. Give our compliments to Patrick Martin and Carey Bringle, two of the Party's most dedicated pit masters. If you're lucky enough to chat with Ed Mitchell or Mike Mills, prepare to be charmed senseless. And if you see us Serious Eaters cruising for the next rack of ribs, by all means don't resist that incomparable urge to buy me a beer.