A guy from Memphis and a guy from near Kansas City pulled up a bench at a picnic table recently with barbecue lust in their hearts.
It had been so long, these two friends from distant poles of the "low-and-slow" universe lamented, since they'd had a taste of true pit magic in their adopted home of Philadelphia. Maybe never. So the offer to join me for a feast at the new Percy Street Barbecue on South Street was surely a welcome invitation to dream - the crackly spice of an imaginary dry rub already tickling Memphis' nose; the sweet tang of smoky sauce a tempting mirage on K.C.'s lips. And then they looked at the menu.
"Texas!?" they both hollered in chorus. "We don't speak Texas barbecue!"
Most folks 'round these parts don't. And amid the many regional styles that color our barbecue nation, the beef-centric art of true Texas 'cue may be the hardest to master. It doesn't rely on jazzy sauces or rubs to make its case. It's all about drawing deep meaning from the slow, simple union of brisket and smoke. Plus a little salt and pepper to spice things up.
Talk about a minimalist challenge. One mistake building your red-oak fire in the morning can mess with an entire evening's worth of meats, says Erin O'Shea, Percy's chef and co-owner.
But when it works, as it did with her crusty "burnt ends," the results can be transcendent. Those irregular slices of beef, trimmed from both the fat-ribboned "moist" and "lean" ends of the brisket, arrive poking out of a white paper package like meaty treasures unearthed from a fire pit. Somehow still juicy and tender on the inside, their char-edged exteriors caramelize beef, fat, and smoke to their most intense expression. With Lyle Lovett crooning from Live in Texas on the jukebox, a tart pickle, and, yes, even a splash of Percy's zippy sauce keeping those burnt ends moist, my taste buds shimmied with happiness.
O'Shea has struggled to consistently nail that kind of confident snap in some of the other offerings - the center-cut brisket was good enough, but lacked real swagger.
But finally, a few months after opening, that depth of flavor is finding its way into other corners of the menu - in the deeply smoked pork belly whose layers of fat and meat just melt away; in the superbly moist chicken that comes wrapped in a tawny parchment of snappy skin.
But, of course, barbecue people will nitpick any details that smack of false airs.
"This white bread isn't white enough," said K.C., dubiously inspecting his sandwich. "Doesn't look like Wonder Bread to me."
"Too many fancy ingredients in these black-eyed peas," Memphis rumbled. "Is that butternut squash in there?"
The fresh-vegetable alert comes as no surprise to those who've followed O'Shea, who won raves for her contemporary Southern cooking at the old Marigold Kitchen, which was owned by her partners here, Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov. It's an instinct that works to her advantage in other sides, such as the retro green-bean casserole that subs fresh beans for the usual canned, with an indulgent béchamel and crispy onion laces. Her mac 'n' cheese, spiked with good Cabot cheddar and garlicky bread crumbs, is a similarly decadent crock of comfort. Her use of overly sweet root beer in the Texas chili, though, was ill-advised.
But anyone who suspects that the rustic template of traditional Texas barbecue is somehow a comedown for a chef who once earned notice for her creativity is incorrect.
For O'Shea, who spent a youthful decade in Texas before finding her career in fine dining, striving to smoke a brisket with a power akin to Hill Country greats like Smitty's Barbecue in Lockhart is positively "romantic."
And the "Lockhart" tasting option, a full menu sampling for $24 a person (four people minimum), is the best way to taste where Percy Street stands. Of course, Percy Street reaches a bit beyond its down-home Texas inspirations with the Philly market in mind.
The airy South Street room, formerly Crescent City, has a casual and lively vibe that feels like a genuine barbecue hall, with long wood tables, clamp-on paper-towel rolls, chalkboard menus, and utilitarian metal trays to lend a roadhouse feel without too much chainy kitsch.
The servers are friendly and capable of talking about the food in detail. The wandering midweek B-team, though, was absent for long stretches of time.
The drinks list is also a work in progress. There's an effort at some trendy cocktails with a Dixie theme, but there was some uneven craftsmanship behind the bar. The list of American whiskeys is substantial - but, as much as I love it, I don't drink bourbon with my barbecue. I want beer with this meal. And while Percy's taps have some good craft offerings, too many were dark and brooding when what's needed is a slake of something bright and crisp to counter the intense food.
O'Shea's menu, meanwhile, has its own stylistic drift from Texas purity. The pork belly, for example, is a clear nod to the Philly trend, although, as the ravenous K.C. could attest, it works just fine if you close your eyes, add some pickles, and imagine all those melt-away layers of fat to be an indulgent schmear of very tasty mayonnaise.
The pork spare ribs are another non-Texan specialty, and while they wore a nice pink smoke ring, they also had an oddly lacquered finish that begged for a sauce or rub. O'Shea's house-made sausage links are inspired by Texas. But for such intriguing filling - brisket, pork shoulder, and jalapeño cheddar - they were disappointingly dry.
There were no disappointments, though, when it came to dessert. The banana pudding was a bowl of Southern indulgence at its best; the apple crisp, a perfect harmony of orchard fruit and toothsome crunch. The "German" chocolate cake brought an unconventional twist to its moist layers - a peanut butter icing I absolutely loved.
But nothing beats O'Shea's pecan pie, which looked perfectly standard but came with a subtle tweak that made it irresistible: a salt-and-butter roast for the nuts before blending into the pie. Memphis only reluctantly shared with his pal.
"Good God!" hollered K.C. "That makes my apple crisp taste like health food!"
It was one high compliment from a pair of hard-to-please barbecue guys, topped only by another: "We'll be back."
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Square 1682 near Rittenhouse Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.