Andy Nelson's Barbecue
11007 York Road, Cockeysville; 410-527-1226; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
When I check out a barbecue establishment, I always take a gander at the back of the joint. That is where the wood should be stacked. Without wood, there is no smoke. Without smoke, there is no legitimate barbecue.
The back of Andy Nelson's barbecue not only had a stack of hickory, it also had rows of picnic tables filled with smiling eaters. The "Cue," in particular the pork, had drawn the crowd.
The pulled pork sandwich ($5.50), pork shoulder cooked over green hickory, is superb, an artful mix of pork and smoke. When topped with Nelson's vinegar-based Pig Dip sauce, it is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the best barbecued pork sandwich in this neck of the woods. It stands pork shoulder to pork shoulder with some pork sandwiches of North Carolina. It is leagues above any pork I have eaten in Alabama, another stronghold of smoke.
The barbecued chicken breast sandwich ($5.50) is no slouch, especially when you slather on some of Betty's South Carolina sauce, a tangy, mustard-based concoction that, true to South Carolina form, is yellow. The beef brisket sandwich ($6.50), with the slightly sweet tomato-based Bama Sauce, is fine fare, but is overshadowed by the glorious pig.
The baked beans ($2.30), cooked with green pepper, were winning; they were tangy rather than sweet. The collard greens ($2.30) were pretty good as well.
The slice of apple cake I ate for dessert ($2.85) was moist, flavorful and was baked by Nelson's daughter, Linda.
I have patronized this place for years, but it wasn't until recently, when I was sitting at one of those picnic tables eating pork, that Andy Nelson Sr., the proprietor, sidled up and told me of his long history with hogs.
He told me he grew up in Limestone County, Ala., where his father, Guy, was a master smoker, running a business called Hoggly Woggly. His father cooked whole hogs, in hand-dug pits that were fueled by roaring hickory fires at either end of the pit, and then shoveled hickory coals around the pig. "Every pit has a personality," his father told Nelson.
This paternal barbecue wisdom came in handy for Nelson when his career in the National Football League - most seasons with the Baltimore Colts, where he was a 172-pound defensive back - came to a close in 1964.
At age 75, looking trim, Nelson is still cooking. He is assisted by his sons, Andy Jr. and Paul. Other family members contribute as well.
Having been in business almost three decades, the restaurant has plenty of regular, vocal customers.
A woman toting platters of barbecue stopped to greet Nelson, telling him, "I got lazy so I stopped here to pick up supper."
This easy banter between customers and staff stopped only once during my visit. It happened when a newcomer ordering a sandwich asked the woman working the counter, "Is that fried?"
The word "fried" hung in the air, like a bad odor. The joint grew so quiet you could have heard a ham hock drop.
"No, sir!" came the reply. "Everything here is smoked."
Best bite: Pulled pork sandwich, $5.50
Best bargain: Alabama apple cake, $2.85
Also tasted: Barbecued chicken breast sandwich, $5.50; beef brisket sandwich, $6.50; baked beans, $2.30; collard greens, $2.30