Vancouver’s Best Barbecue
July 1, 2009
Some things have soul and other things do not. You know it when you feel it. Lynyrd Skynyrd singing "Sweet Home Alabama" has soul. Kid Rock rapping over it does not. Though Vancouver has a big heart, it has a deficiency of soul. So I'm hungry to taste redemption when I can, even if it's in the humble act of sucking lashings of sauce and pork grease off my fingers.
Double D has soul. He's a wiry white guy with a wispy pale ponytail and 'stache. His T-shirt makes his business as a barbecue pit master perfectly clear: Get the Lard Out. When he plays lap steel guitar and sings the blues at the Princeton Pub or the Yale, it's with an intuition earned by travelling across the American South and eating barbecue along the way. His barbecue is a noun, not a verb; it's made by smoking meat over low and slow heat, using hardwood charcoal and plenty of love.
On this morning, in the kitchen at Memphis Blues on Broadway, Double D's instrument is a quivering, gelatinous pork butt, a cut of fat-mantled, bone-in pork shoulder that has spent 14 hours in the applewood fumes of the restaurant's Ole Hickory smoker. He slaps on thin latex gloves; it seems a bit like donning stockings to walk on hot coals. He plunges his fingers into the caramelized sugar-and-spice crust to pull the pork by hand, by feel. (At a barbecue joint on the side of a highway in South Carolina, a red-faced, plaid-shirted pit master once told me that a properly smoked pork butt "should jiggle like a woman's ass." Nobody every mistook soul for chivalry.) He passes me a piece, tinged with a deep burgundy smoke ring just inside the dark crusty bark. My fingers are covered in grease; my heart is bathed in soul.
For many B.C. gastronomes barbecue is a passion, maybe an obsession. Bill Gaston, a novelist, UVic professor, and otherwise sane man, burned a house down smoking meat in his backyard. Ron Shewchuk, a Vancouver-based speechwriter and head of the champion Rockin' Ronnie and the Butt Shredders barbecue team (click link for their award-winning Beef Burger with Chili Butter Core recipe), burned out the interior of the family car by leaving a smoker in the trunk overnight. Chefs like Brian Fowke (Mon Bella, Metro, Rare) and Neil Wyles (Hamilton Street Grill) have caught the fire for barbecue competitions. Michael Allemeier (departing chef at the Terrace at Mission Hill) has four smokers in his Kelowna backyard. Shewchuk invited him to join the Butt Shredders at the hallowed Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbeque (the annual holy grail of barbecue competitions, held at the Lynchburg, Tennessee, distillery every summer), where Allemeier poured a bottle of the winery's pricey Five Vineyards Riesling into the smoker's drip pan in place of the usual apple juice-then took a glug from the bottle. Evidently he, too, caught the fire.
VANCOUVER'S BARBECUE RESTAURANTS are not the best I've eaten at, and a couple of them rank among the worst. (I don't mention them in this article.) I take comfort in the fact that we do have the start of a good local barbecue restaurant scene, and we may even have the beginnings of a regional barbecue style all our own. And so I had high expectations when I saw duck on the barbecue menu at Migz (formerly Slimz), a dark, pubby joint at Broadway and MacDonald. The dish has the potential to be Vancouver's entry in the Asian-fusion barbecue canon. We start with hush puppies that are like juiced-up Timbits, with the addictive bite of salt and the tang of buttermilk balancing their crisp cornmeal crust. The pulled pork and succulent beef ribs taste and smell of the cherrywood they use in the smoker. But the duck is oily, stringy, and burnt-tasting, and the pork ribs are desiccated and too crisp, as if they've been reheated in the fryer or left in a too-hot oven. Food that takes half a day to cook can't be made to order, so keeping it hot, fresh, and moist after it comes out of the smoker is the challenge.
It's something they do well at Burgers Etc., a homey, humble place on the stretch of East Hastings that's suddenly Burnaby. No warming ovens, manager Calvin Levesque confides. The terrific pork side ribs are prepared in advance, then brushed with sauce and reheated on a grill. "A lot of people say that's not traditional," he shrugs, "but that's how we do it." The butts are shredded and portioned when they come out of the smoker, then reheated in hot pork stock for every juicy pulled-pork sandwich ordered.
The busts of bluesmen and wall-mounted licence plates from Texas, Kansas, and Washington declare Burgers Etc. as regionally agnostic. "It's all barbecue," says Levesque, which is heresy to many. Also abhorrent to purists is his topping of lettuce, tomato, and onion on the pork sandwich. And indeed, why innovate when his take on the traditional topping-slaw that's zingy, crunchy, and lively with celery seed-is this good? The bun it's served on is not the traditional soft, white, pork-delivery device, either. But who cares when the food is this toothsome and you can get a big platter of it for 40 bucks that'll stuff two people, with leftovers?
"THE MEAT IS THE SUPERHERO," says a friend and fellow barbecue devotee, "and the sauce should be the costume." That comes to mind at my next stop, Dix BBQ and Brewery in Yaletown. They use two overpowering sauces: a Carolina red sauce for pork and chicken, and a brownish Texas whiskey barbecue for beef. The red is overly fruity and, like almost every sauce in town, too sweet without the backbone of vinegar and heat that a Memphis-style ketchup-based sauce needs. The brown has the tamarind tang of a Texas sauce, but also a weird cookie-spice taste. Still, the beef sausage has a slow burn and a nice snap (though it doesn't quite pass the Texas test and spurt juice when I poke it with a fork). And the Original Aficionado sandwich, slices of beef brisket on white bread with mayo and the brown sauce, is a chewy, savoury mouthful. The house microbrews are just hoppy enough to cut through the meat and sweet sauces.
Barbecue is the food of country roads and rural routes, and so I head to Whistler, where a BBQ Bob's recently opened inside Roland's Pub in Creekside. A little piggy sign is the only clue to the great 'cue inside. With its worn-plank floor, old-school Frogger table game, and help-yourself soda fountain, this place just needs a buffet table of crackers, bagged Wonder bread, and pickles to feel just like the south. Co-owner Bob Hasselbach has earned the more than 60 ribbons, plaques, trophies and medals on the wall. A tabletop card says: "Vegetables: that's what food eats."
Almost everything is good here. The pork ribs are excellent–meaty and crisp with a bit of maple-syrup-inflected sauce brushed on. The brisket is big, loose corned-beef-textured slices that shred in luscious strings under the fork. This fall, Hasselbach will use the brisket ends to make a shepherd's pie that I'll gladly drive two hours to sample. The brisket sandwich is served on garlic-buttered filone bread with mayo, barbecue sauce, and crispy tidbits that are like onion rings gone to the dark side (in a good way). BBQ Bob's beans look like they were ladled from the devil's own cauldron, a dark and heady mixture of molasses and Keith's plus the holy trinity of peameal back bacon, Montreal smoked meat, and pork butt. Even the cornbread is great, a buttery, light, and slightly sweet puffy-topped muffin.
I've eaten barbecue from South Carolina to Louisiana and Texas-always with an eye for the deep-red smoke ring and pinkish hue that's a sign of deeply smoked meat (even if it often provokes complaints of undercooking from ignorant restaurant patrons.) My only complaint at BBQ Bob's is that I can smell the smoke, taste the smoke, but I can't see that telltale pink or red smoke ring.
It's there at Ozarks, a new place in Langley that, at 6 p.m. on a Saturday, is packed with followers from the former deli and barbecue operation of the same name in White Rock. It's still pit master Rick Moore running the smoker, mostly on maple and alder. "All local wood," he tells me proudly.
His St. Louis style side ribs have amazing smoke flavour and a deep-red smoke ring, though they're leaner than I prefer. There's lots more to like, though. A slaw that's more of a chopped salad. A killer brisket sandwich so tender that the beef is shredded, not sliced. The Tennessee red sauce sneaks up and kicks you in the butt with its heat, and the Carolina honeyed mustard sauce was a 2006 winner at the National BBQ Association Awards of Excellence.
BACK AT MEMPHIS BLUES, owners George Siu and Park Heffelfinger's serious foodie backgrounds show on the chalkboard that lists the house wines, an astute selection that includes Selbach Riesling, Joie Rosé, and Novas Carmenère. (The burly, amiable Heffelfinger is well-known and respected in wine circles.) The red works with the rich, loose strands of beef brisket, and the Riesling refreshes after a fatty pork rib. Joie Rosé, B.C.'s most food-friendly wine, is magic with the pulled-pork sandwich, particularly if you ask for it Carolina style, doused with a concoction of apple cider vinegar, pepper flakes, and a little sugar. (See our related Guide to Smoking and Drinking.) The meats at Memphis Blues are wisely served with their sauce on the side, except the pulled-pork sandwich, which suffers for it. The house sop is a viscous, mahogany, molassessy, brew, and even the slaw on the sandwich, with its load of purple cabbage and citrus punch, can't quite wrestle it down.
Ask for a side of the mean ochre-coloured Carolina mustard sauce that Memphis Blues sometimes serves with lamb specials; why they keep this blond stunner hidden behind the counter is a mystery. Bison ribs are an occasional special, too, and the use of game meat-along with an award-winning apple butter by Vancouver barbecue team House of Q, and Ron Shewchuk's new apricot-and-nectarine-based barbecue sauce-points to a new regional style infusing the flavours of B.C. into barbecue.
Slow food. Fast food. Barbecue just might be the original comfort food. When I ask Double D why the smoke and heat have such a hold on him, he hollers, "It goes back to the most primitive, neanderthal way of cooking." The music blares. He boogies behind the counter. The table is laden with barbecue, and I surrendered to it, heart and soul.
Memphis Blues 1465 W. Broadway Ave., 604-738-6806, and four other locations. Memphisbluesbbq.com
Migz 2884 W. Broadway, 604-733-3002. Migzbbq.com
Burgers Etc. 4091 E. Hastings St., 604-299-8959. Burgers-etc.com
Dix Barbecue and Brewery 71 Beatty St., 604-682-2739. Markjamesgroup.com
BBQ Bob's 2129 Lake Placid Rd., Whistler, 604-932-4424. Rolandswhistler.com
Ozarks 19696 Fraser Hwy., Langley, 604-530-0883