Smoke will rise from Madison Square Park tonight as 17 barbecue crews get fired up for the 10th annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Whether this is the first time you've caught the scent off Broadway or the tenth time you'll be making the pilgrimage, you'll benefit from a plan of attack to make the most of limited time, money, stomach space, and patience for one of the most daunting cookouts of the Summer.
Let the Serious Eats Barbecue Bureau lend a hoof.
Block Party 101
The Big Apple BBQ Party takes place this Saturday and Sunday at Madison Square Park, opening at 11:00 AM and closing at 6:00 AM.
17 barbecue joints, invited to be a part of the event by Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group, will serve signature barbecue at a flat rate of $8 per plate. All plates will be centered on slow-smoked meats, often representing a regional style. Some vendors will offer desserts from $4 to $6 a pop.
As its name suggests, the Block Party is not a contest. It's more of a free-flowing street fair with short lines for those who've purchased a "fast pass" and long (but orderly) lines for the general public. Beyond copious amounts of meat, the Party offers free live music, cooking demonstrations, and a beer zone.
Almost every pit master representing at this year's Block Party has been here more than once, so the geographic reach of the event hasn't changed much. Don't expect to see any Kansas City burnt ends, Chicago-style rib tips, Lexington-style chopped pork, mustard sauced hog or Memphis pork barbecue at this event. Do check out the event's BBQ roster to get a glimpse at what will be offered this weekend.
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. If you haven't already purchased a fast pass, then you should anticipate at least a 30-minute wait for the most popular plates. Plan ahead, show up early, and prioritize to avoid getting stuck in a quagmire of rib tips and brisket fat.
Josh's Tips: Form a Posse
Since the party's inception, my goal has been to try every glorious smoked meat cooked up at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. Massive lines have been the main obstacle in accomplishing this, but last year my divide-and-conquer technique was finally refined enough to achieve this gluttonous goal.
To make the most out of the block party you need a dedicated posse. With a group of 'cue lovers at your beck and call, you can orchestrate a day where everyone takes turns waiting in line, picking up enough plates to share. Doing this in rounds throughout the day is essential, as it both eases the burden of those dreadful queues and spreads the food out into a bunch of smaller bites—avoiding the all-at-once overeating that's such an easy mistake to make at an event like this.
I realize not everyone is so inclined to eat it all, so another strategy is to sample the best of each type of meat. My recommendations would be:
- Pork: Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint. There's some mighty fine pork shoulders at the Block Party, but none quite grasp the full flavor of the incredibly moist and smoky pork Patrick Martin gets from his whole hogs.
- Ribs: 17th Street Bar & Grill. I'm always looking for a new rib to recommend each year, but Mike Mills has remained consistent with his baby backs. They have a sauce and rub that add just the right amount of spice and sweetness to complement—but not overpower—the flavor of the pork.
- Brisket: Hill Country. A die-hard Texas barbecue fanatic, I feel at odds recommending a NYC-joint for brisket, but you can't argue with the shimmering slices of pure beef from Charles Grund, Jr. If possible, go with the moist (deckle) and forgo the lean (flat).
- Sausage: Salt Lick. I still lament the loss of the masterful links from Southside Market from the Block Party, but Salt Lick is not settling at all. Their links start with a snap that then gives way to a spicy, smoky meat that no other pitmaster at the park can touch.
- Wildcard: Blue Smoke. The Block Party has mostly homogenized into only the most popular barbecue cuts (no more mutton, brunswick stew, or snoots), which leaves Kenny Callaghan's salt and pepper beef ribs as the lone "different" item left, and there's good reason these incredibly beefy bones have stuck around while so many other types of 'cue have fallen to the wayside.
With the right blend of friends and purpose, you're bound the make the Block Party exactly the day you want it. Think about arriving early as well to chat with the pitmasters—the richness of the food is matched by the warm and welcoming personalities of those who are cooking it. About an hour before the crowds start arriving at 11:00 AM is a great time to talk shop and get some inside knowledge from these masters of barbecue.
James's Tips: Go Whole Hog
Wood-smoked whole hog represents a rare world of barbecue, and it's never had a bigger presence at the Block Party than it will this weekend. If you're looking to taste something that is in strictly limited supply on the other 363 days of New York living, send your posse to gather plates from Ed Mitchell's (Eastern Carolina style), Martin's (Western Tennessee style), and Scott's (South Carolina 'cue in a league of its own). Nothing like a back-to-back-to-belly-to-cracklin' taste test, right?
I'm particularly excited about Rodney Scott's decision to join the pit masters—the whole hog with pepper-and-vinegar sauce from Scott's Variety and B.B.Q. is some of the finest 'cue I've been lucky enough to taste. It remains to be seen whether Scott and his crew can adapt their local operation to the massive demands of an event like the Block Party, but I will be first in line to welcome the man to the Big Apple and fork over for a taste.
Whole hog aside, I'd also advise that 'cue lovers don't ignore the New York cooks, who had a very strong showing at last year's Block Party. The cooks from Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Dinosaur and Rack & Soul may not all have regional barbecue cred, but they know how to serve a packed house and will be serving only their best on game day.
Ed's Tips: Make Friends with Chris Lilly
One more (non-rib) tip: Don't miss the incredible championship pork shoulder sandwich served by pitmaster supreme Chris Lilly at Big Bob Gibson's. It's plenty smoky, and so tender you can watch Chris and his crew pulling the pork with just their rubber gloved hands (don't try to shake Chris' hand while he's working). This supremely porky meat and bark (the exterior meaty crust) is so seriously delicious it will change your life.
Spot the Serious Eats Crew, Win a Beer*
The Block Party is one of the most fun food events I've ever attended, simply because many of the cooks won't allow you to walk away without a smile. Shake hands with the crew at Ubon's, arguably the friendliest bunch in the barbecue world. If you're lucky enough to chat with Ed Mitchell or Mike Mills, prepare to be charmed senseless. If you need a break from the meat and the heat, visit the pop-up cinema, where the Southern Foodways Alliance will be screening a retrospective series of food films all day long. You just might bump into John T. Edge, Lolis Eric Elie, Calvin Trillin, or other food writers lured to Madison Square Park by the promise of a good rack of ribs.
On that note: Josh, Ed, Max, and I will definitely be making the rounds this weekend. If you find us, don't hesitate to say hi!
* = all beers to be purchased by
Max Falkowitz James Boo Max Falkowitz, in triplicate.