When it comes to food, Baltimore is a primal city. We're talking about a place where many are content to spend a Saturday night sitting at a picnic table tearing apart hot crabs with bare hands, tossing aside the guts and devouring the rest.
Obviously, we're not afraid to get our hands dirty.
So it was only a matter of time before Baltimore got serious about another kind of feast that requires some finger work: barbecue.
There are few other foods so disputed and so proprietary. By all accounts, barbecue is defined by slow-cooking meat over an open pit or flame. Beyond that, what's on the grill can vary vastly. In Texas, it's all about beef — brisket in particular reigns. From Tennessee to Mississippi, the pig takes precedence. And you wouldn't believe what barbecuers in Georgia can do with a chicken.
For decades, these secrets were kept by pitmasters who spent their days doing their cooking well south of the Mason-Dixon line. But in recent years, interest in long-established cultural foods has surged, thanks in part to food channels airing shows like "BBQ Pitmasters" and "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," which feature home-grown flavors in restaurants around the country.
"Regional boundaries of cooking have been knocked down," says John Stage, founder of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the New York-based restaurant that opened a branch in September in Fells Point. He credits the Internet with providing access to equipment like wood-burning barbecue pits and smokers, "making it easier to barbecue in places [where] you couldn't barbecue before."
Dinosaur is among the latest entries to the Baltimore scene, where the barbecue culture has evolved beyond some beloved long-standing predecessors, like Andy Nelson's, Boog's and The Corner Stable, to include a new generation of passionate grillers and smokers who've studied grillmasters around the country in a quest to create original and exciting flavors.
"Without being confined to any specific region, I do modern American barbecue," says Josh White, 39, whose restaurant Smoke opened this month in Cockeysville. "Texas, the Carolinas, St. Louis — I do my own translation of it all."
A longtime chef who worked in restaurants around the country, White became intrigued by the ribs and brisket at Yardbird, a popular eatery in Miami that serves up what he calls a "very modern take on old-school Southern dishes."
He began spending his spare time experimenting with dry rubs and smoking processes, ultimately becoming so hooked that he decided to relocate the concept north to a location that gives him easy proximity to farm-fresh resources.
"All of our pigs and cows come right off the farm, within 10 miles of here," he says. "We cure our own bacon, we make our own bratwurst — we're collaborating with a brewery in Delaware (Rubber Soul) on that recipe and for a mustard sauce we make."
But White doesn't plan to get too carried away with the sauce, a sticking point in what seems to be a never-ending barbecue debate. "I prefer, and will serve, meats dry-rubbed only. You can add as much or little sauce as you want," says White.
The meat, cooked atop hickory in a Southern Pride smoker he named "Jeff Spicoli" — after a character in the 1980s movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — speaks for itself, he says. At the same time, White says he is pretty certain that some of the more unconventional menu items will acquire a following, like his recipe for nachos using homemade pork rinds.
If that sounds a bit sophisticated for stick-to-your-ribs barbecue, it's because White's vision is to marry New American culinary techniques to traditional barbecue methods. It's an approach that has tastemakers taking notice, recognizing barbecue as an artisanal, epicurean craft.
"The fact that Aaron Franklin, one of the best pitmasters in the country, just won a James Beard Award means that barbecue has turned a corner as a culinary trend; it's definitely more legitimate and respected now," says Dave Newman of Blue Pit BBQ & Whiskey Bar in Hampden.
In Zagat's, for example, listings of featured barbecue joints is increasing at a rapid rate. Even the Culinary Institute of America has ventured into the pit, offering enthusiasts a Grilling and BBQ Boot Camp based in Texas.
Following suit, adventurous chefs are exploring the methods and recipes of the masters in the South and tweaking them with ingredients from their region to create localized versions of barbecue.
Mission BBQ co-founder Steve Newton believes that barbecue has broad appeal because of the shared American experience of gathering around a grill in the backyard to cook, converse and chill out.
"Most Americans grew up eating meat off the grill, so it's not a stretch to venture into this type of food. Not many other foods feel so quintessentially American." Newton says.
Dinosaur's Stage agrees. "Eating barbecue is also a very social outing," says Stage. "And it's affordable."
At Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a meal that includes two entreez and two side dishes costs $16.95, a comfortable price for many diners. The menu at the Fells Point location offers traditional Southern barbecue entrees, like slow-cooked brisket and apple-brined chicken, along with a few "local bents," including Old Bay on the fries and in some sauces, and smoking the meats with local oak.
Hampden's year-old Blue Pit BBQ & Whiskey Bar is a little bit hipster, a little bit neighborhood food hangout.
"My wife and I wanted to open some type of business that was comfortable and affordable in our neighborhood," says Newman, a former executive chef at Brewer's Art. "I loved cooking barbecue on my days off, and there wasn't much [around Baltimore], so that's what we decided to do."
By design, the menu is somewhat smaller than most of his competition. "We model ourselves after the roadside barbecue places — you order at a counter and someone brings it out to you," he says.
While the menu represents the range of the popular styles around the country, Newman says having fewer entrees allows him to focus on the preparation. The restaurant grows its own herbs, which he uses liberally. "In Texas, they'd never do that; it's just salt and pepper for them."
Each of his meats has a smoke profile: peach and hickory for the pulled pork, Texas post oak for the Zeke's coffee-rubbed brisket, maple and hickory for the pulled chicken, and peach and hickory for the ribs and jackfruit.
"The challenge in cooking barbecue is that in every other type of food I've ever cooked, if I've done it once, I know exactly how it will turn out. I've been doing this for a year now, and while we do the same [processes] every time, we can never be certain it will be exactly the same."
In Baltimore, the vegeterian barbecue choices are so appealing they may even tempt meat lovers. Blue Pit offers a sandwich of pulled jackfruit, a protein-packed fruit from Asia that is often considered a vegetable in its unripened form and is available canned and packed in brine in Asian markets.
"We drain it, coat it with one of our barbecue rubs, smoke it for four hours and shred it. Then it has the appearance of pulled pork. Sometimes people are surprised that it's not meat, and we get a lot of meat-eaters ordering it too, " says Newman.
Smoke is creating a barbecue tofu sandwich and Dinosaur produces a smoked portobello platter, accompanied by grilled zucchini, chilies, melted Swiss, onion, and their sauce.
Offering off-the-grid menu items is another thing that sets these independents apart from each other and the chains.
"Traveling through the South, I fell in love with grilled baloney sandwiches. So we are making our own baloney from scratch, smoked and fried with mustard sauce," says White. "It's our Phony Baloney Sandwich."
Korean barbecued pork belly
2 pounds of skinless pork belly
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh cracked pepper
1/2 yellow onion, sliced thick
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 star anise
½ can lager (For example, Yuengling)
Chicken stock, as needed
Chopped cilantro, for garnish
Run pork belly lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Sear both sides in pan until brown.
In a pot or vessel deep enough to cover, place pork belly on bed of onion, thyme and garlic. Add beer and finish with chicken stock to cover halfway up belly. Cover with lid (or foil) and braise for 3 to 31/2 hours, until tender but not falling apart.
When done, drain liquid and press belly carefully between two weighted plates or pans. This will give the belly a more even appearance. Place weighted belly in fridge and cool overnight.
Slice into desired sizes. To serve, deep fry (or pan fry) cold pork belly pieces in oil until golden brown and warmed through.
Toss pork belly in sauce (recipe below). serve with side of pickled vegetables and garnish with chopped cilantro. These work great in tacos as well.
Korean barbecue sauce
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons gochujang
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, then whisk well.
1 carrot, peeled into strips
1 radish, sliced thin
½ yellow onion, sliced thin
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
Place all ingredients except vegetables in pot and bring to a simmer. Cool slightly.
Put vegetables in container large enough to cover with liquid completely. (Mason jars work well.)
Cover and place in fridge overnight.
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Recipe courtesy of Josh White, owner of Smoke