Friday, September 19, 2014
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A man and his mission to find the best barbecue in America

Missourian Johnny Fugitt is on a quest to find the best in barbecue. Among his Philly-area discoveries: "Meat candy" in Malvern.

A man and his mission to find the best barbecue in America

Barbecue surveyor Johnny Fugitt, in mid-gnaw. He says he found "meat candy" in the form of smoked bacon at Jimmy´s in Malvern.
Barbecue surveyor Johnny Fugitt, in mid-gnaw. He says he found "meat candy" in the form of smoked bacon at Jimmy's in Malvern.

This sounds like a wonderful detour in life:

Johnny Fugitt was a house manager of one of the Ronald McDonald Houses in St. Louis. On his way to a relocation in the Washington, D.C., area, his love of barbecue got the best of him.

More specifically, he wanted to find a resource spelling out the best barbecue in America.

But what he found, he told me, could more accurately be titled "The Best Marketed Barbecue Restaurants in America" or "The Most Historic Barbecue Restaurants in America."

"Some are simply marketing tools like the 'Best Steakhouses in America' lists you see in airplane magazines or lists thrown together on click-and list-happy sites."

For the last nine months, Fugitt has been on the road, sampling barbecue. It's been a breakneck pace: 225-plus restaurants in 35-plus states in nine months. He wants to do this fast to keep the info relevant. And he wants to go everywhere.

"I want to give small, mom and pop, newer, rural or out-of-barbecue-country restaurants the chance to compete with the old, historic, big restaurants in places like Kansas City, Memphis, Lockhart and the Carolinas," he said. "Some of the famous places no longer live up to their reputations and some of the best barbecue comes from the hole-in-the-wall spots."

Fugitt passed through Philly recently. First off, he says, "I'm not sure how Philly views Andy Reid these days, but, as a Kansas City Chiefs fan, thank you for getting rid of him."

Right, pal. Time is yours.

Second, the scene here is not as bad as Philadelphians insist it is. It was better than he expected.

"Expectations were not high after a few other stops in the Northeast [U.S.]," he said, adding that Dover, Del., may have the worst barbecue scene in the country.

"Obviously Philly doesn't have the history, institutional knowledge and critical barbecue culture that you find in the South, but it's a foodie town and barbecue is gaining popularity," he said.

As he's been blogging here, his stops included Jimmy's in Malvern, Percy Street and Phoebe's on South Street, Sweet Lucy's and Rib Rack in Northeast Philadelphia, and Zachary's in Norristown. He wants to save his visit to Fishtown's Fette Sau for the original location in Brooklyn, and said he would be back at some point to try other spots.

So far: "The smoked bacon at Jimmy's BBQ in Malvern is best described as decadent meat candy," he told me. "Sweet Lucy's is great across the board, but the ribs really stood out. Despite their focus on Texas barbecue and brisket at Percy Street, I thought their pulled pork was their best item and it was excellent."

On the minus side, he said he hates to be "overly negative, but I also feel a responsibility to be honest. Phoebe's was really disappointing. I was expecting it to be one of the better stops because it seems to make most of the local lists of good barbecue and has stood the test of time, but it was one of my least favorite stops of the hundreds of restaurants I've visited so far."

One Philly spot will "certainly" make his forthcoming book of "The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America" book and a couple of others are in contention.

Nationally, "there are also a number of famous or historic places that I wasn't impressed with, so they'll be left off the list. I'm going to make plenty of people mad!' he said.

Man does not live by beef alone, and neither does Fugitt. "I'm juicing quite a bit these days and eating a lot of salads," he said. "Mix that with regular cardio exercise and I haven't put on any weight. Gluttonous amounts of meat are nothing new for me, though. I visited Philly for a week a couple of years ago and I think I ate a cheesesteak just about every day." 

He's hoping to spring the book by Memorial Day 2015.

Follow him on the web, Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

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Michael Klein Philly.com
About this blog
Michael Klein, the editor/producer of philly.com/Food, writes about the local restaurant scene in his Inquirer column "Table Talk." Have a question? Email it! See his Inquirer work here. Reach Michael at mklein@philly.com.

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