James Cruse Jr. has racked up some hefty honors in the competitive barbecue circuit, and he’s twice won the top food award in the most-watched New Orleans barbecue event, Hogs for the Cause.
Now he’s taking on a different kind of food challenge.
Central City BBQ has named Cruse as its new pit master, putting him in charge of the smokers and kitchen at the city’s largest barbecue restaurant.
“My goal is to improve what we do here first and then introduce some of my own tweaks,” said Cruse. “There’s a lot that we can do that you just don’t see anyone around here doing.”
Cruse doesn’t have much background in restaurants. The 41-year-old Arabi native has worked in sales and project management. His barbecue bona fides, however, are lengthy.
He started pursuing barbecue as a backyard hobbyist while he was still a kid and eventually stepped into the competitive barbecue world. He’s part of a team, the Bluff City Smokers, that competes at Memphis in May, one of the country's top barbecue competitions, and he travels for other events. He teaches classes for the Barbecue Competitors Alliance and he has sponsors from charcoal makers and grill brands.
Closer to home, Cruse cooks with the Hogs for the Cause team Aporkalypse Now, which won the annual event’s grand champion award in 2015 and 2016.
Central City BBQ has also fielded Hogs for the Cause teams. With Cruse now on the restaurant staff, those two Hogs for the Cause teams will merge.
“Essentially, Central City BBQ will be the home for Aporkalypse Now,” said Cruse.
Don’t expect a major menu overhaul anytime soon. Cruse said his goal is to polish the restaurant’s techniques and consistency, then gradually add his own signature. He said more examples of his own style will turn up as specials, including some from his competition barbecue playbook.
“It’s stuff you can’t do all the time at a restaurant, but that we can do as specials,” Cruse said. “It’ll give people a chance to experience that.”
He rattled off a list of other possible specials to come, like wet ribs, smoked pork tenderloin and "Memphis prime rib" (a.k.a. smoked bologna).
On a recent visit, Cruse broke off a few pieces of pork butt and brisket from batches he is currently field testing at the restaurant to demonstrate his aim. The brisket was lusciously rich, its beefy essence imbued with smoke and salt; the pork pulled apart easily into velvety strands, from a tender center to a craggy exterior.
Central City BBQ opened two years ago this month in a renovated old seafood warehouse in what was then a desolate corner of Central City by the elevated highway. As its footprint has grown progressively larger, so has its range, adding an events venue, the Smoke Yard, and a rustic-style private room. From the Marley Gras Jerk Chicken Fest and Wing Wars to wedding receptions and team dinners for visiting college football teams, this barbecue compound has proven multi-faceted.
Barbecue classes and product demos at Central City BBQ are another potential area for crossover from Cruse's competition world to the restaurant. While he acknowledged the two realms of barbecue are different, he said he's ready for the test.
“After 21 years of doing this, it’s still fun, and that’s what this is about,” he said. “I am a competitive person. I want this to be the best barbecue in New Orleans.”
1201 S. Rampart St., 504-558-4276
Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Over the years, Eric Hunn’s barbecue team Mr. Pigglesworth has won a clutch of awards at Hogs for the Cause. On any given weekend, however, he…
New Orleans banks on its reputation as a food city the way other places rely on their beaches or mountains.
The line between restaurant and bar can be hard to distinguish, but it’s easy to see why places in this category are so appealing right about now.