It’s tricky business to declare a golden age while you’re in the midst of it. But still, for barbecue fanatics, there has probably never been a better time to be alive and eating in New Orleans than right now.
From the dark days, when those familiar with true barbecue bastions around the South found scant convincing options at home, New Orleans now has enough outposts for slow-and-low barbecue to constitute its own in-city tour. Most work from one regional playbook or offer a portfolio of different styles on one menu.
But a new addition, NOLA Smokehouse, is up to something a little different. Here, pit master Rob Bechtold is making a case for what he calls his own style of New Orleans barbecue.
For the record, New Orleans already has a barbecue style, one that has lots of sauce, not much smoke and limited cachet for barbecue purists. Bechtold’s version is not part of that school of cooking.
His barbecue is indeed smoky, with the flavor worked through the purple-lined patterns of the ribs ($13 half rack/$25 full), the rosy tangles of pulled pork ($7 half-pound/$13 pound), the gushing wads of fat over pork belly chunks ($7 half-pound/$13 pound) and — perhaps most of all — in the craggy, meteor-black surface of burnt ends ($8 half-pound/$15 pound), those irregular, ugly and irresistibly flavorful nubs from the long-smoked brisket.
Cane syrup and vinegar from Steen’s, that venerable old Louisiana brand, provide the base for the amber-colored, pepper-struck sauces, which can be beguiling. The sweet variety is more of an apple-tart flavor and is really only sweet compared to the very hot spicy sauce.
None of this comes across as especially New Orleansy. But it’s Bechtold’s own, and he’s from New Orleans, so you can follow his rationale from there. Or you can just eat it, which I recommend you do with company.
With backup, you can get the smokehouse sampler ($29), a picnic-sized serving of the day’s various meats and sides. Eat the twice-smoked Cajun sausage and your mouth glows with red spice; eat the ribs at lunch and your hands will carry a smoky aroma into dinnertime; choose the fatty brisket over the lean and your teeth will squeak as you move your mouth.
Bechtold spent 25 years working in fine dining kitchens. Like others, he heard the laments about the local barbecue scene and saw an opportunity to answer it. The first try was in Fat City, where he and a partner opened Smokin’ Buddha BBQieux in 2012.
This venture folded within months, which Bechtold blames on lease problems. The customer responses had been encouraging, however, so he and his wife Emily soldiered on, running a series of pop-ups until they could re-emerge earlier this year in a cinder block bunker of an address on a fairly hardscrabble stretch of Jackson Avenue.
The accommodations are bare bones and bootstrap, which is fitting enough for a serious barbecue parlor. The place always reminds me of the rural butcher shops that dot Cajun country, apart perhaps from a collection of bonsai trees around the room. If you don’t BYOB, a practice heartily encouraged here, you’ll be drinking Coke, Barq’s or water.
The hours are limited (they close at 7 p.m., unless the meat runs out earlier), and the menu is small, though lately Bechtold has added Friday and Saturday evening dinner plates, like generous slabs of seared salmon ($25) or smoked steaks ($20-$25).
Sides ($3/$6) are fairly traditional, though they’re fresher than the norm. The coleslaw, for instance, is dressed with buttermilk to order, so while it has a lightly creamy flavor, it is as crunchy-crisp as just-chopped cabbage.
Then there are the smokehouse sideshows — not quite sides, not really entrees — like pulled pork baklava with smoked apple butter between the phyllo sheets, oily, loose chili or yaka mein made with bits of brisket. These turn up unpredictably and disappear just as fast and seem like the inevitable result of a local chef with smoked meats on hand and no regional, traditional or family barbecue template to keep within. If this place is about New Orleans barbecue, it’s that impulse that tastes closest to home for me.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.