In the normal course of events, enterprising culinary scenes - like people - will tend to get better with practice. And Philadelphia has certainly benefited from such efforts in recent years. Burgers, brick-oven pizzas, tacos (authentic and nuevo), charcuterie, and speakeasy-style artisan cocktails are just a few of the indulgences that have been refined in recent years to new gastronomic heights.
But real barbecue? With the exception of Percy Street, whose Texas-style brisket too few people get, the pit scene here seems to be drifting backward, like an ever-hovering mirage of sweet smoke that wafts away every time we get close.
I pity the poor soul I saw shivering inside a man-size pig costume at 18th and Chestnut Streets at 9:15 one chilly morning last week, trying to coax Rittenhouse sophisticates into a platter combo at the new Famous Dave's BBQ Shack annex. But "Wilbur" can stand there until the cows come home before I return for what was the most insipid pseudo-BBQ meal I'd had in a while. The sweetly glazed meat was so rubbery I could hardly pry it from the ribs with my teeth. The sludgy wild rice soup came with a telltale crust. The soggy corn on the cob was so mealy, it looked to have been bobbing for days in steam-table hell. I've never been a fan of the ever-growing corporate 'cue scene, but I don't recall the South Philly branch of this chain being quite so bad.
So what of Fergie's Pub? The stalwart Irish charmer recently underwent a kitchen makeover, recruiting Mark Coates, who for a moment thrilled barbecue fans with his zesty rub at Bebe's in the Italian Market before closing his tasty-but-scatterbrained joint last year. There is at least serious smoke in Fergie's ribs. But the flavors never quite came together (more ashy than sweet and full). Coates' addictive rub seemed M.I.A. The brisket and pork weren't even close to tender. It's just weeks into Coates' tenure there as pit master, so there's promise for fine-tuning. But for now go mostly for the fried dill pickles, hush puppies, and beer.
Imagine my hopefulness, then, at the possibility of yet another new arrival, Baby Blues BBQ, which after ensconcing itself in California as a growing mini-chain (Venice Beach, West Hollywood, San Francisco) has naturally opened another outlet in - West Philadelphia?
It makes sense once I learn of Baby Blues' local roots with the Fischer family of West Chester, the same clan that just recently resurrected a branch of their dad's old Gino's burger chain. The entire 10-sibling Irish family, it seems, has baby-blue eyes - thus the name when brother Danny began his barbecue spot in L.A. in 2004 with partner Rick McCarthy. It was brother Steve, though, who brought the concept east when, after location-scouting the region, they opened their doors in October in the double-wide space that once was the Bubble House.
Paired with partner and kitchen manager Tim Kearney, an Ambler native and former Marine cook who also did time at hotel restaurants in South Carolina, and the local rib connection (and Southern repertoire) is clear.
The seating is cramped, but there's a funky warmth and college-town energy to the space that I like, with exposed brick and distressed walls and mismatched tables, and a countertop ringing the open kitchen made from a thick slab of marble unearthed from Independence Mall.
The waitresses are chirpy and enthusiastic - and thoroughly perfumed with smoke. The big exhaust hood over the glassed-in central show kitchen was gimpy on my first dinner visit, turning the entire dining room into a smokehouse. Our platters of ribs and pulled pork would suddenly arrive in the hands of perky blond maidens appearing (cough-cough!) from the billows of mist.
So why, I wondered, does Baby Blues' food have such a weak taste of smoke when I take a bite? The entrées are priced on the high side (with most combos in the mid-$20s), leaving little room for error. There's also a big Southern Pride smoker at the back of the kitchen - usually a good sign.
But the fact is, most of the meats here spend less than an hour in that tank of an old-school smoker before finishing their slow ride downstairs in an electric "cook and hold" oven using wood chips and steam. The result across the board was meats that were tender. The pulled pork even had that distinctive pink halo of a smoke ring. But the actual smoke print in the meat was superficial, leaving most of the flavor to Baby's secret rub and variety of sauces.
The pulled pork is so lacking in actual flavor that the honey-soaked hot pepper, cheddar, and slaw did not give the "Macnow" sandwich nearly enough sass to do justice to the name (in honor of a certain WIP food hound and radio host).
The linebacker-size "Gargano" beef rib (named for Macnow's beefy cohost) was probably the best bet for entrées - tender and flavorful - though the meat that wasn't completely charred to briquette texture at the edges still had the consistency of something braised.
The chicken wings were also pretty addictive, absorbing a vivid smokehouse kiss before getting their turn on the grill - a nice change from the usual fried flappers. Add one of the house-made sauces - my favorite was the "XXX," a chile-pepper-porn sauce made with blazing habaneros.
It's hard to get past disappointing pork ribs, though, at a barbecue joint. And while I've had worse recently (see Famous Dave's above), both the baby backs and the bigger "Memphis"-style ribs left much to be desired, including an overly saucy sweet glaze and lack of dusty rub that left my pal, a Memphis-born ringer, singing the blues.
At least he wasn't stuck with the chewy brisket, which was more reminiscent of beer-braised pot roast than anything from a Texas pit. Or what about my $23.75 blackened strip steak that was sliced down on the plate and delivered ice-cold?
It was kindly taken off our bill. But the problem, of course, was that the overzealous kitchen had tried to pump out our entrées within minutes of our appetizers' arrival. I didn't want to speed through the meaty Brunswick stew, one of the highlights of our meal. Or the amazingly crisp-yet-moist-inside hush puppies with honey butter. So we tried to put the meal on hold.
Many of the sides and frills were not worth the delayed consideration - under-sweetened corn bread; bland fried okra; pasty mashed potatoes; sour collards; spinach "creamed" in an oddly browned garlic sludge.
On the plus side, there were some addictive cobs of milk-poached corn dusted in cotija cheese, butter, and lime (a.k.a. "blues on the cob"), and a fresh-tasting, bacon-studded potato salad that needed to be attended to.
But mostly, good hush puppies - of which we're seeing a welcome sudden revival at other spots like Fergie's and Catahoula's - simply cannot be rushed. And, of course, neither can good barbecue, the ultimate low-and-slow pursuit. It is also devilishly elusive, as we've learned the hard way. Unless a true pit master is stoking the fire, all the practice in the world doesn't necessarily promise anything more than a smoky mirage.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Village Belle in Queen Village. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.