Barbecue is perhaps the most American of cuisines. Originating and developed in the South and Midwest, barbecue is big in other parts of the country. New York, for instance, has tremendous spots such as Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Hill Country.
In terms of its barbecue scene, Philly is hard to define. It’s not about the pulled and chopped pork-centered barbecue with vinegar or tomato-based sauces of North Carolina. It isn’t, at least until recently, the informal, served-on-paper, Central Texas style of emphasis on the quality of the meat, especially beef, rather than on sauce. And it most definitely does not feature dry rub ribs like Memphis or slow-smoked and heavily-sauced barbecue of Kansas City.
Barbecue in Philly, however, has been evolving. New spots now offer the best features of the traditional styles popular elsewhere. Just in the past couple of months, three spots – Blue Belly BBQ, Bubba’s Texas BBQ and Fette Sau – opened up and are significant additions to the city’s smoked meat scene. Sounds like a good time to do a side-by-side taste test and comparison.
Blue Belly BBQ
Located in Bella Vista at 6th and Catharine, Blue Belly BBQ is a lunch and early dinner spot, open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The inside is relatively small, with seating for about 18, but there’s enough room for two smokers, an oven and a fantastic meat aroma for visitors. As per its motto, Blue Belly serves “barbecue without borders.” The menu includes diverse offerings such as pulled jerked chicken, lamb barbacoa and St. Louis spare ribs. Given that Blue Belly’s owner also operates Cochon, it’s no surprise that slow roasted pig is among the highlights.
There are platters of smoked meats, which include three sides, and sandwiches served with cole slaw and French fries. I ordered the boneless beef short ribs ($15), with sides of mac and cheese, Brussels sprouts and Fries. While pricey, the platter is huge. Each slice of the short ribs was tender and well-spiced. Brussels sprouts and the mac and cheese were solid as well. The slow roasted pig sandwich ($13) includes fennel salad and mustard sauce. Overall, it’s a delicious sandwich, though it certainly doesn’t have much of a typical barbecue pork flavor.
Bubba’s Texas BBQ
The sign for Bubba’s Texas BBQ, close to the corner of Frankford and Girard in Fishtown, was up for what seemed like an eternity, but Bubba’s finally opened earlier in October, rolling out first to a soft opening over a weekend to ensure all the kinks were worked out. The friendly owners and staff were kind enough to explain some of the features, such as the 10 draught beers and innovative usage of PDAs to take orders and scan credit cards. In contrast to Blue Belly, Bubba’s has more of a feel of a nighttime restaurant and sports bar, as it’s open for late lunch only on weekends. Its specialty is Texas-style barbecue, prepared in custom-built smokers that take some time to heat up.
The sliced brisket sandwich ($13.95) is served with homemade chips and coleslaw on the brisket or as a side. Like traditional Texas barbecue, the sandwich doesn’t emphasize sauce, though you can add it yourself. The sandwich, especially on the fluffy and soft roll, is big. You can really taste the smoky, barbecue flavor. While not a big coleslaw fan, I found it to be pretty satisfying as well. I was hoping for the sandwich and sides to come on paper on a tray, but it was not to be. Oh well.
The outpost of a highly successful Brooklyn restaurant, Fette Sau, located next door to Frankford Hall on Frankford Avenue, is Stephen Starr’s foray into the barbecue scene. It’s open for dinner from 5 pm on weekdays as well as for lunch on weekends. The food is smoked, but there’s no limitation on style, as pork belly, St. Louis ribs, brisket, beef ribs and chicken are all offered. As can be expected with a Starr restaurant, the prices are on the high end of fair and reasonable. Meats are sold by the pound, and sides are separate.
Of course, I tried a half pound of the Black Angus beef brisket ($18/pound) with a side of potato salad ($3.75). As a bonus, potato rolls are complimentary. I also totally appreciated the meats being placed right on the paper. And the taste? Simply phenomenal. The brisket is incredibly tender and flavorful, and I had to slow down from devouring it too quickly. It also went well as a mini-sandwich within the potato rolls. The seasoned potato salad was almost every bit as good.
So, in terms of preference, I found the food at Fette Sau to be the most enjoyable. All three spots, however, are well worth visiting.