Smokin' Joints

With three new restaurants opening in Westchester in the last year, barbecue is hot in the county.  



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I’m Jealous! I can’t help it. Despite my four years at an Ivy-League school, I realize now that I may have picked my educational institution poorly. Why oh why didn’t I enroll in Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama? I could have been one of the “Southern BBQ Boys,” a group of four “average college students” who, this past winter, completed a “seventeen-day academic journey across the South to eat, analyze, and blog about Southern barbecue.” And, the college gave them $700 to help complete this, ahem, “research” project as well as course credit. (Check out their website at southernbbqboys.com.) Not to be outdone by a bunch of Southerners, I conducted my own journey, across a more sparsely barbecue-joint-laden Westchester. 

My passion for barbecue began about a decade ago. My father, both a federal judge and, some would say, more interestingly, a certified barbecue judge, decided it was time to take me to Safeway’s National Capital Barbecue Battle in Washington, DC, and introduce me to the world of competitive barbecue. The National Capital Barbecue Battle is a two-day event in which teams from around the DC area create succulent servings of chicken, beef, and pork attempting to win various competitions presented by national barbecue contest sanctioning bodies—the NCAAs of barbecue contests, if you will. Winners take home some serious cash; up to $40,000 in prizes are distributed. Champions also are invited to compete against the best barbecuers from around the country in national competitions.

As luck would have it, the DC battle I attended was short a few judges. The organizers took a chance on a young ‘cue fan and let me judge. I got a quick lesson in what to look for and I headed out to taste pork from three randomly selected smokers. Wouldn’t you know it, I ended up not only tasting the best barbecue in my life but also that of the inevitable champion—Jack’s Old South BBQ (jacksoldsouth.com).

Barbecue is judged by taste, color, and tenderness. Taste is subjective, but the taste of the meat should take precedence over that of the sauce, i.e., the meat’s flavor should always be delicious even when served sauceless. Shoulder meat should be tasty all the way to the bone. Pork generally will be sweeter and fruitier tasting than beef.

Color is easy, well, easier to judge. Ribs should have a smoke ring on the inside with white meat closest to the bone and pinker meat radiating out from there. Shoulder, or pulled pork, should be dark on the outside; the meat inside, a nice shade of pink. A darker, crunchier area, known as “bark,” found on the outside of pork and ribs, is perfectly acceptable and, to some, desirable.

Tenderness is the easiest aspect of meat to judge. Rib meat should not—repeat, not—fall off the bone. Instead, it should pull away easily. Ribs that are hard to pull are not good ribs.

So how does the barbecue around here fare? Well, I don’t think I had it as good as those Southern BBQ boys, but if you order the right dishes at the right places, you can put together a pretty delicious barbecue platter here in Westchester. Here are the results of my journey (not for course credit) and the best buys at each of Westchester’s barbecue shops.

BEST RIBS

Memphis Mae’s
173 S Riverside Ave, Croton-on-Hudson (914) 271-0125

Memphis Mae’s lip-smacking ribs—wet and dry—accompanied by their famous fried pickles.

Mae’s menu is cutesy. You won’t find words like “slab” or “whole hog” anywhere; you will find offerings such as “jalapeño bottlecaps” (essentially jalapeño poppers) and “Memphis Pasties” (pastry pockets full of meat) though. Okay, I get it—it’s progressive barbecue. One thing I don’t get, though, nor can I tolerate, is the restaurant’s $4 plate-sharing policy. Are you kidding me? A penalty for sharing at a barbecue restaurant? Imagine how that would go over in the backwoods of the South.

Mae’s serves both wet and dry ribs. Stick with the wet. The rack is sweet but not too sweet and has a delectable tomato flavor that complements, not overwhelms, the rich, smoky flavor of the beef. Oustanding. But it’s not for those worried about their cholesterol. The fat on these ribs is pretty close to perfect, and there’s plenty of it. Mae’s knows how to cook ribs. Both the wet and dry ribs are cooked spot-on, the meat, still on the bone, is super-tender, and the smoke ring radiates from white to pink from the center. Have them with Mae’s fried pickles.

 

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