Neil McClure, a 30-year restaurant veteran and proprietor of the recently opened McClure’s Barbecue, wants to make something clear right off the bat.
“I’m no chef,” McClure says. “I’m a pitmaster; there is a distinction. I haven’t been classically trained as a chef, but I’ve always been in this industry, mostly as a front-of-house manager, waiter and busboy, but I’ve cooked all my life as well.”
It’s curious, if not downright puzzling, that as food-obsessed as we are here in New Orleans, we’ve never been known for barbecue. Seafood, Cajun and Creole cuisine, of course, and even recent forays into culinary modernism. But for most BBQ enthusiasts (the devotion to lovingly smoked meats often becoming a cult-like obsession), the Big Easy isn’t exactly a holy temple of American barbecue. McClure is hoping to change that.
The man is, naturally, one of those barbecue obsessives, beginning as a child growing up in Pensacola, Fla.
“I grew up cooking whole pigs with the family, that was always our thing,” McClure said. “We had this elaborate rig that was made with a washing machine motor in the axle of our old car. It was very awesome, but pretty redneck, too.”
McClure moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola, stayed and started a family. It wasn’t until a vacation trip, however, that inspiration truly struck.
“After Katrina, we went on a long road trip with our 5-week-old, and it happened to be throughout the Southeast. Already being a barbecue fan, I wanted to hit all of the shrines in all of the different states, eventually heading back through the midwest, Kansas City and Texas.”
“I always wanted to open my own place,” McClure continued. “After Katrina, we all came back, worked to death, had a second kid, and then I decided that I had to do my own thing. My original concept was actually to do a boarding house-style restaurant, where everyone is passing around food family-style. Then one night I was up in the Appalachias, sitting there, staring at the fire, and something just clicked. I said, ‘I want to watch fire for a living.’ I came back, told the chef that I wanted to open up my own restaurant within a year, and he said, ‘Let’s do a pop-up here at Dante’s Kitchen.’ ”
The rest, as they say, is history. The pop-up quickly became wildly successful, leading to the much-anticipated opening of McClure’s brick-and-mortar location on Magazine Street, Uptown.
While McClure hopes to dish up authentic meats slowly smoked over hardwoods (“I committed to being a stick-burner, using only firewood — never charcoal, and never a gas or electric-assisted smoker,” said the pit-master), he also makes sure to focus on a variety of distinct sauces from popular barbecue regions around the country, as well as hand-made side dishes.
“I wanted to do traditional, authentic barbecue, but without those canned sides that every one of them has. I’ve been in gourmet food my whole life, so I wasn’t going to do things half-assed, so to speak. My macaroni and cheese is from scratch, the baked beans take six hours to put together, we shred all of our slaw by hand because pre-shredded cabbage tastes terrible. I shred my own cheese, because pre-shredded cheese has all that cellulose fiber in there to keep it from caking, I mean ... no thanks.”
McClure’s passion for all things barbecue is outspoken and clearly in evidence at his eatery, and New Orleanians have taken notice. Within minutes of the restaurant opening at 11:30 a.m., a line of hungry patrons stretched from the counter to the door. These people obviously knew the catch, when it comes to barbecue: with a product that takes anywhere from six to twelve hours to cook perfectly, demand can often overtake supply.
According to McClure, “As we start out, there’s going to be the problem of running out of food after lunch and dinner, because of how long it takes to cook. So my hours read, ‘11:30 until we run out.’ And when we do, that’s it: see you tomorrow.”
On a first visit to McClure’s, it’s easy to see why people would stack up in a queue before noon like addicts at a clinic looking for their fix. The brisket ($7.50/half-pound) was clearly prepared in the traditional Texas fashion, with that distinctive, peppery black bark on the outside and a bright red smoke-ring, an unmistakable sign of “low and slow” smoking. The pulled pork — smoked for a solid 12 hours before being shredded by hand — was instantly reminiscent of a North Carolina pig pickin’ ($6/half-pound). The pork also works nicely as a sandwich ($7), topped with spicy, sweet slaw and served, in true New Orleans fashion, on a Dong Phuong roll.
Special attention should be paid to two other dishes at McClure’s: the sausage ($9.50), and the outstanding smoked chicken (¼ for $7, ½ for $8.50). While the sausage is the only meat not made in-house at McClure’s — it’s actually a chaurice sourced from Cajun country — it packs a wallop of flavor and spice in a natural casing. As for the chicken, a dish notorious for drying out in a smoker, nothing greater can be said. Juicy, tender, and basted with a robust sauce during the last hour of smoking, it alone should make you check out the fare at McClure’s.
Also noteworthy are the sauces (if you’re not an anti-sauce purist) ranging from tart, tomato-based Memphis to mustardy South Carolina, spicy and vinegary North Carolina, dark and tangy Kansas City, to the incomparably rich and spicy Alabama sauce, made with a mayonnaise base (excellent on chicken and pork). “I had that sauce as a kid, and it was one of the first ones I wanted to learn how to make,” McClure said.
After only a week of being open, both New Orleanians and McClure himself are sure that McClure’s Barbecue is a welcome addition to the Crescent City dining scene.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” the pitmaster said. “I could probably use a little more sleep and a little more staff, but the customer response has been great, and my staff is having a great time.”