With a full decade of meaty memories under their (soon-to-be-loosened) belts, serious barbecue crews will converge upon Madison Square Park this weekend for the 11th annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. There will be smoke. There will be sweat. There will probably be a bit of rain. And although there will be lines (most of which are worth their wait), the Block Party is an event that rewards planning with plenty.
Whether this is your first time at the Manhattan rodeo or your eleventh time rubbing pork shoulders with fellow barbecue pilgrims, you will benefit by thinking through the event ahead of time. Here's our shortlist of tips for making the most of your block party experience.
Show up no later than 1030 a.m. with at least three friends. Split up, line up, and designate a meeting spot to share your spoils. Eat all of the things. Repeat as desired. Then, go enjoy the rest of your day (possibly at the Museum of Mathematics).
Block Party 101
The Big Apple BBQ Party takes place this Saturday and Sunday at Madison Square Park, opening at 11:00 a.m. and closing at 6:00 p.m.. Scant table and bench seating will be available, but picnic blankets are an ideal way to take advantage of the park's lawn space.
17 barbecue joints, including several based in New York, will serve barbecue to the masses at a flat rate of $9 per plate. Every joint will focus on a signature dish, often representing a regional barbecue style. Some vendors will offer desserts at $4 to $6 a pop.
As I've stressed in previous years, 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. Aside from an impressive array of smoked meats, the event includes free live music, cooking demonstrations, and cordoned-off area for daytime beers.
The park tends to get very crowded very quickly, and in past years even sudden rainfall has failed to cut through the lines that trail 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 each plate (longer for really popular plates, like Ed Mitchell's Whole Hog). Plan ahead, show up early, and prioritize to avoid getting stuck in a quagmire of rib tips and brisket fat.
What BBQ Styles are Represented?
Almost every pit master representing at this year's Block Party has been here more than once, so don't expect any surprises. 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. And while we've tipped our hats towards New York's up-and-coming barbecue prodigies—Dan Delaney, Hugh Mangum, and Josh Bowen—none of these relative newcomers will be cooking at the Block Party.
Do check out the event's BBQ roster to get a glimpse at what will be offered. Although mutton and burgoo have yet to return to the Block Party, Dinosaur BBQ will change up its routine this year, serving brisket instead of pulled pork. And "Memphis Barbecue Co," which seems like a new addition, is actually just the new name of pit master John Wheeler's crew, formerly of Rack and Soul.
Not-So-New Kid on the Block: Sam Jones
Last year's Block Party saw the addition of a barbecue titan in Rodney Scott, whose South Carolina smokehouse some of the best barbecue I have ever tasted. This year, North Carolina's Skylight Inn has upped the ante, bringing one of the country's eldest barbecue families into the mix.
While it remains to be seen whether the magic of the Skylight Inn's historic pits can be recreated in Madison Square Park, pit master Sam Jones (who is a barbecue comrade of Rodney Scott) has come a long way to prepare chopped whole hog 'cue in the Eastern N.C. style: oak smoke, salt, pepper, Texas Pete, and cracklin' mixed into every sandwich. Be sure to check it out.
How to Choose?
The Serious Eats barbecue bureau has tasted every single plate at the Block Party for the past three years, and we've gotten a good idea of how to prioritize. While many pit crews will be at the top of their game—including the cooks from New York, who should not be dismissed—here's a shortlist for those who can't deal with 17 servings of meat.
- Whole Hog: Scott's and The Skylight Inn. Ed Mitchell's stand is a crowd favorite at the block party, commanding a huge line every year. But for those seeking a different taste of whole hog (or for those who don't want to stand in that line), Rodney Scott and Sam Jones are the ones to watch. Check out "Cut/Chop/Cook" and "Capitol Q", short documentaries on their respective Carolina barbecue joints, to learn more.
- Ribs: The Checkered Pig. All of us at Serious Eats are perennially partial to Mike Mills' baby back ribs, which you can try this weekend at 17th St. BBQ. But at every Block Party, Josh and I have found ourselves just as satisfied by the Tommy Houston's spare ribs. Meaty, moist, and slightly smoky, they're a dependable taste of what a smoked rib ought to be.
- Pulled Pork: Big Bob Gibson. Lavishing praise on the pork shoulder barbecue from Big Bob Gibson is kind of like rooting for the Yankees, but when it comes to heavy hitters, pit master Chris Lilly deserves the title. The pulled pork he's served at the Block Party is a cut above any pulled pork you'll find in New York, so do whatever it takes to have a bite.
- Beef: Blue Smoke. Over the past year, New York's barbecue brisket game has eclipsed anything available at the Block Party. This isn't to put down the reliable brisket of Hill Country NY or Texan Stalwart The Salt Lick, but if you're a fan of the brisket at BrisketTown or Mighty Quinn's, you probably shouldn't bother with brisket this weekend. Instead, try the salt-and-pepper beef ribs at Blue Smoke—rich and intensely seasoned meat on the bone that is always a Block Party hit.
- Breaktime: Learn About Nashville Hot Chicken. The Southern Foodways Alliance, which has held some great panel discussions and film screenings at past Block Parties, will be screening a short film about Prince's Hot Chicken at a hot chicken cooking seminar on both days. Take a break at 3:00 p.m., and enjoy the show.
Don't Be a Stranger!
We say this year after year, but if you're going to invest the time and effort in lining up for barbecue this weekend, then be sure to say hi to the pit masters who travel from miles away to bring their best to New York. The Block Party is a barbecue in the most traditional sense of the word, gathering the masses for a communal, celebratory feast.
If you're a UT graduate, wear your school colors for a shot at getting a seat at the staff table at The Salt Lick. If you're a whole hog enthusiast, talk to the folks at Martin's or Ed Mitchell's to learn more about the craft. And if you're just looking for a friendly face among the crowd, spend some time with the folks at Ubon's, who are always down to make new friends. Just follow the smoke, and we'll see you at the party!