I’ve been on a carnivore’s odyssey these past few weeks, driving from Cockeysville to Brooklyn, from Reisterstown Road to Harford Road, all in search of the Baltimore region’s best barbecue.
Throughout the pandemic, almost nothing has felt normal the way barbecue has. I’d go so far as to call it the platonic ideal of takeout.
Unlike nearly everything else I’ve eaten to-go — fish, hamburgers, pizza, egg sandwiches — barbecue tastes just as good by the time you get it home as it does in a restaurant. Perhaps that’s by design. While many historians credit native peoples of the Caribbean with first inventing barbecue, Maryland author Michael Twitty writes that enslaved Africans perfected the technique, using practices from their homeland that were meant to preserve freshly butchered meat.
Then there’s the smell. While good hygiene dictates we cover our noses and mouths to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the sweet salty smell of smoking meats is powerful enough to permeate through cloth as soon as you walk in the door of most barbecue joints. You can detect the smoke perhaps a mile away before you arrive at my first stop, Jake’s Grill, on the winding part of Falls Road in Cockeysville.
Jake’s is the kind of place that you’d expect to see Guy Fieri pull up to in an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” He’d park his red Camaro out front, next to the trucks of construction workers and corporate employees that fill the parking lot for lunch. Call out your order to the cooks inside and find a comfortable seat on the patio. I ordered two heavenly sausages hot off the grill, a meal fit for a king, or at least the mayor of Flavortown.
Of course, in the eyes of purists, sausages and hamburgers are no more true-barbecue than is pit beef. True barbecue, that holy sacrament of American eating, needs to be cooked low and slow, by an indirect heat, over wood. These rules and more are spelled out on a sign hanging up at another famed Cockeysville barbecue spot, Andy Nelson’s. Under the headline “True Barbecue,” some commandments. The first: “True BBQ is not meat with sauce on it.” The second: “True BBQ is not hamburgers or hot dogs.” Any questions?
The York Road eatery founded by a former Colts player has been around for more than 30 years; today, the restaurant offers diners a combination of pleasant socially distanced indoor and outdoor seating. Their meaty, succulent pulled pork was the best we tried, a work of art for the carnivorously minded. Dry rubbed “Dixie chicken” won points for flavor and tenderness, though someone should let the owners know that in the year 2020, “Dixie” as an adjective has been officially canceled. (Just ask the band now known as The Chicks). We were also big fans of their baked goods, including cornbread with real corn and an apple cake with real slivers of fruit. I assume the ribs are amazing; they were sold out during a recent visit.
Another football player, Bo Rose, serves up Carolina-style ’cue at his Up in Smoke Caterers stand in Randallstown. Rose moved from his hometown in rural Virginia to Baltimore in 1981 to play for Morgan State University, and started a career in IT after graduating. but kept with him his knowledge of Carolina-style barbecue. Back in Virginia, a neighbor cooked weekly for the crowds; Rose’s stand feels just as friendly as the warmest of backyard barbecues, welcoming city residents and Ravens players alike. Barbecue is, he says, “universal.”
The stand, which Rose runs with his family, operates Fridays and Saturdays from noon until all the food is gone. Customers who live nearby need only to walk outside their homes and sniff the air to see whether he’s cooking that day. Many come for the ribs, which are some of the best I’ve ever had. Tender, meaty and very, very smoky, they still tasted like fire even after sliding around in the front seat of my car for more than an hour. And don’t sleep on the amazing homemade baked goods prepared by Rose’s sister-in-law, worth the trip on their own. (I only regretted not buying more.)
Like many Hampdenites, I’m a regular at Union Avenue’s Blue Pit BBQ and Whiskey Bar, which offers pickup and delivery as well as limited outdoor dining during the pandemic. Some of my favorite dishes include their thick slices of brisket (best with Zeke’s Coffee sauce) or pulled pork with the same. I skip sides like macaroni and cheese, which calls to mind my grade school cafeteria. Then again, did we come here to eat meat or to carbo load? Vegetarians like their jackfruit sandwich, which offers an alternative to meat and soy-based meat substitutes.
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Most area joints we tried had one standout dish with others that were a little so-so. At Hamilton’s Big Bad Wolf on Harford Road, a surprising highlight was the barbecue chicken. Nowhere else was the bird so flavorful and succulent; I’d gladly eat it any night of the week. The brisket, too, thick and smoky, goes toe to toe with some of the best. But the ribs were just okay, especially when compared to some of the top dogs like the ones at Up in Smoke.
From its new kitchen in Brooklyn, The Smoking Swine stands out for all-round consistency. Whether it was ribs or brisket or pulled chicken or even spicy macaroni and cheese, everything from Drew Pumphrey’s kitchen was just damn delicious. (Guy Fieri actually did roll up to the Smoking Swine food truck). Now, this isn’t a place where you can just roll out of your house still in your pajamas and place your order. COVID style planning is involved. Order ahead online for Saturday pickup in Brooklyn. You may have to wait just long enough for the creeping existential COVID dread to reappear into your head.