Purists complain that you just can't get good barbecue outside of Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas, and Texas.
But that theory is being tested as two restaurants, Fette Sau and Bubba's Texas BBQ, open a block apart this week in Fishtown, joining Blue Belly BBQ, which opened in July at Sixth and Catharine Streets in Bella Vista.
They are part of a trend toward artisan barbecue - some of it practiced by Northerners.
When lazy restaurateurs buy a smoker, hardwood, and "hire some kids to cook the barbecue, you do get junk," said barbecue pro Chris Hart, who with his buddy Andy Husbands won the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in 2009.
"To do barbecue right, you have to embrace the artisanship," said Hart, who does not live down some country road in East Bootlick, Texas, but is a Yankee from Hopkinton, Mass. - hence the title of his and Husbands' recent cookbook Wicked Good Barbecue: Fearless Recipes From Two Damn Yankees Who Have Won the Biggest, Baddest BBQ Competition in the World.
Hart said the elevation of barbecue - and cooks eager to take the traditionally lowbrow cuisine seriously - has followed the recent exaltation of that American comfort food, the burger. "There have been burger places forever, but there's a real trend toward higher-end beef sourcing," Hart said. "And with the better beef comes more technique and then you're able to charge $12 to $18 for a burger."
Which leads us to a barbed-wire-topped metal fence in Fishtown, behind which is Fette Sau, another Yankee project, which opened this week at 1208 Frankford Ave.
Founder Joe Carroll worked in the music industry, owned a beer bar in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section, and dabbled heavily in the recreational smoking of meat before he entered the restaurant/bar business five years ago.
Carroll and his wife, Kim, cleaned up an old garage across from their bar, Spuyten Duyvil, and installed a simple concept named after the German phrase for fat pig: carved-to-order pork belly, brisket, boneless short ribs and such, all sold by the pound on metal trays lined with butcher paper. Fette Sau sells a few sides, including German potato salad, half-sour pickles from Guss', and sauerkraut.
As vegetarian unfriendly as it comes. Time Out New York categorized it as the "best highway to gout."
Carroll wanted to syndicate the idea. Stephen Starr, buoyed by the success of Frankford Hall, heard Carroll's spiel and re-created Fette Sau - down to the facade of a rural shack behind the fence - next to the Fishtown beer hall. Carroll has two Southern Pride smokers and Starr staffers eager to work them. Meats are $18 to $24 a pound. There's a bar with brown liquors. Taps spew nine beers and a cider, available by the glass, half-gallon, or full gallon container. Seating is indoors and outdoors on picnic tables, and it is all set to a rock-and-roll soundtrack.
Around the corner on Girard Avenue, a transplanted Texan known to all but his mama as Bubba has his head in a custom-made smoker the size of a small car, welded from scratch by a guy in the Pine Barrens.
Robert Kolbasowski came east two decades ago to work in construction, and one of his partners was developer Steve Ehrenhalt. Kolbasowski rigged up a mobile smoker and worked the festival circuit. Specialty: brisket, smoked for 20 hours. Sometimes, he drove the smoker to the job site.
"He kept telling me we have to get in business together," Kolbasowski said. That idea got closer two years ago when a tenant in Ehrenhalt's building left.
The men spent the better part of two years building out Bubba's Texas BBQ, whose tiger wood bar has 10 beer taps and graffiti on the side. "It's an homage to the edgy neighborhood," Ehrenhalt said.
Menu is more familiar - smoked brisket, wings, ribs, mac and cheese, a bacon mac and cheese, white bread - served on plates; most entrees are under $17.
There's plenty of room for both Bubba's and Fette Sau, Ehrenhalt said, not to mention Blue Belly BBQ, the tiny tiny shop run by Gene Giuffi, who owns the BYOB Cochon across the way. Giuffi burns hickory and mesquite smoke and deliberately eschews labels about region as he cooks a diverse menu including lamb barbacoa, Korean beef, roasted pig, and his own sausages. "Blue Belly," says his website, was a Civil War nickname for a Yankee soldier.
Hart has been cooking barbecue for 20 years. One way to get started: a good grill. Hart recommends the Webber Smoky Mountain cooker.
"Your body doesn't need to be in Texas," Hart said. "You have to have the knowledge and put in the time, It's like being a beer brewer. You can't really short-cut it. A weekend trip to Texas Hill Country does not make you a pitmaster."
World Champion Chicken Rub
Makes about 11/2 cups
1/2 cup kosher salt
6 tablespoons turbinado sugar
3 tablespoons freshly ground white pepper
4 teaspoons lemon pepper
4 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1. Mix all ingredients thoroughly, then process in spice grinder to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container for up to a month.
Contact Michael Klein at email@example.com.