BBQ, Barbecue, Bar-B-Q, Barbeque. A rose by any other name is just as sweet.
The British summer inevitably means that groups of men all across the country will be huddled around a heap of coals, trying to light and stoke a barbecue grill. While there’s a lot of joy to be had in a backyard grill at home (especially if Ginger Pig sausages are involved), it’s hard to beat a proper American-style barbecue. Although it’s entirely possible to cook up an American-style barbecue at home, it’s difficult, expensive and takes a lot of time and space.
This is why, I suspect, there are so few American-style barbecue restaurants in London and so few of them can do it well – attempting to smoke enough meat to a sufficiently high standard, satisfy customer demand and without any wastage is a serious logistical undertaking. Over the past two months I’ve endeavoured to visit every American-style barbecue restaurant and market stall in London to find the best pulled pork, ribs and beef brisket.
For an introduction to what I consider to be a good American-style barbecue, then keep reading. Otherwise, feel free to scroll down to the Table of Contents and the reviews themselves.
This is local barbecue… for local people.
American-style barbecue isn’t about slapping something on a grill and then removing it a few minutes later. It involves smoking meat over heat from a wood-burning fire for long periods of time – sometimes as long as 18 or even 24 hours. The woods used are a seasoning onto themselves, giving the meat a certain flavour, so the use of charcoal-based fires is a matter of some controversy. I strongly suspect most (but not all) of the barbecue eateries covered here use charcoal-based fires and while it’s much more practical, and the results are probably indistinguishable in some cases, some character is lost by switching away from a wood fire.
There are a lot of regional variations in American barbecue and it’s difficult to summarise it all without going into excruciatingly parochial detail or without making crude regional generalisations. At risk of doing the latter, here’s a very, very brief overview of the six main styles. If I’ve made any gross inaccuracies, let me know.
- Memphis – pork ribs prepared either dry or wet. Dry ribs are rubbed in a mixture of salt, sugar and spices before smoking. Wet ribs are brushed with a sauce both before and after smoking. The two main varieties of pork ribs are:
- Spare ribs come from the bellyside of the pig, have more fat than meat and can be comically huge. Spare ribs trimmed of their tips and other bits are known as St. Louis-style ribs for some reason that may or may not involve the city of St. Louis.
- Baby back ribs come from the spinal area of relatively young pigs. Much smaller than spare ribs. The meat here tends to be ‘wedged’ in between the bones, rather than hanging off the bone as with spare ribs.
- Carolinas – pork cooked slowly so that the meat becomes very tender, but still with a firm bite on the caramelised exterior, so that the meat can be pulled off the bone. Pulled pork is usually made from pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt for some reason), but sometimes from cuts across the entire pig. Often served in a vinegar and/or tomato-based sauce.
- Texas – beef brisket and beef ribs. Beef brisket comes from the area of the cow above the forelegs (roughly) and is usually served sliced or chopped into smaller pieces. Marbled with connective tissue and fat, it’s damn difficult to cook brisket so that it’s tender yet moist and flavoursome.
Beef ribs tend to have much more meat on them than their pork counterparts. The two main types of beef ribs are:
- Short ribs which come from the bellyside of the cow and tend to have a lot of lean meat (much more so than pork spare ribs) as well as fat attached to them. Also known as a Jacob’s Ladder.
- Back ribs come from the spinal area of the cow and have a thin layer of meat between each bone.
- Kansas City – various meats hot smoked with a dry rub and then served with a tomato and molasses-based sauce. Also known for the pointed tips of beef brisket, known as burnt ends. If not cooked for long enough, these can be very hard and chewy. If cooked for too long, these can be far too dry.
- Kentucky – mutton served with a Worcestershire sauce-based dip.
- Atlanta – some of sources are adamant that Atlanta doesn’t have its own home grown-style of barbecue, while others disagree just as vehemently. According to the latter camp, Atlanta-style cue consists of whole hogs smoked over Georgia peachtree wood.
Carolina-style pulled pork, Texan-style beef ribs and Memphis-style pork ribs (both dry and wet) tend to be the most common forms of American barbecue in London. Texan-style beef brisket and Kansas City-style dishes do pop up from time-to-time, but they’re very rare.
For me, pulled pork should have an exterior that’s caramelised and a little firm, giving way to a smoky, tender and moderately moist interior. Although some swear blind by pork ribs, I think beef short ribs are far superior. A thick chunk of moist, smoky beef that’s tender enough to be pulled off the bone with ease and is layered with soft, oozing connective tissue and fat is a beautiful thing.
I’ve concentrated here on dedicated barbecue restaurants and eateries. I’ve also included some restaurants that serve both barbecue and non-barbecue dishes, but still allegedly focus on food from the American Deep South and Midwest. Please don’t write in complaining that I’ve excluded your favourite Wetherspoon’s and its oven-heated rack of baby back ribs. I don’t care and neither should you.
Table of Contents
Bare Bones Cue
BBQ Whiskey Beer at The Wargrave Arms
The Big Smoke at The Elk Bar
The Blues Kitchen
Joe’s Southern Kitchen
Last Summer Swine
Miss P’s Barbecue
The Rib Man
Red Dog Saloon
Rotary Bar and Diner
I first visited Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa shortly after it first opened and found the experience to be, at best, a rather mixed one. I revisited Barbecoa with the help of The Euro Hedgie and found that the food had devolved to a shockingly bad state.
We started off with the deep-fried pickles, but these were no match for the excellent version available at Meatliqour. The slices of pickle were juicy, but they were also far too thick and firm. They were coated in a coarsely textured and crispy coating that was also far too bland.
The meat on the baby back ribs was far too firm and completely lacking in tenderness – so much so that I suspect they had been cooked in an oven rather than on a barbecue. The ribs were prepared wet with the sauce tasting strongly of spring onion and mildly spicy chillies. Although not traditionally American, it was still quite pleasing. It’s just a shame the rib meat was so bad.
The Hedgie found his bourbon chicken wings to be very bland and uninteresting. At best, they were subtly sweet. The sweet, moist and refreshingly crisp watermelon accompaniment, which had a strangely spicy tinge to it, was far more interesting.
Barbecoa’s pulled pork is apparently made from pork shoulder and served on a waffle along with coleslaw. The texture was neither too firm nor too soft, but the meat was also very sweet. Although not noticeable in small bites, the cumulative effect once the entire plate had been devoured was one of overpowering and excessive sweetness. If it wasn’t for the creamy coleslaw acting as counterpoint to the sweetness, the pulled pork would have been inedible.
Even worse than the pulled pork was the beef short rib. The beef was far too firm and waxy with an unpleasantly bitter taste to it, while the collagen stubbornly stuck to the bone and required real effort to pry off.
There was no escape from the bad cooking, even in the side dishes. The sweet potatoes were so bland and tasteless, we almost thought the kitchen was attempting to pass off some butternut squash that had gone past its sell-by date as sweet potato.
The food at Barbecoa is irredeemably awful and the only good thing about the place are the night time views of St Paul’s. Leave this place to the tourists and portly, bellicose City boys and head somewhere else instead.
Average cost per person: £30-35 approx.
Bare Bones Cue
Bare Bones Cue is a market stall that makes appearances at various markets, mostly those south of the river. Bare Bones lives by its name, selling only one dish – pulled pork, either in a bun or on a bed of lettuce as a carb-free option. Although the hide of the pork was lightly charred and smoky, the meat itself was too dry and tough. A choice of sauces is available, but it was hard to get a feel for my choice of hot and spicy from the minimal squirt given.
Average cost per person: £5
At the moment BBQ Lab is a one meat-only food truck, serving up pulled pork either in a bun or in a box with a selection of sides. The boxes sold out in an hour on my weekday lunchtime visit to BBQ Lab’s pitch at Kerb King’s Cross, so I had to settle for the bun instead. The pork was a little dry and a bit too soft, but not disastrously so.
It was on the bland side though with most of the flavour and character coming instead from the sticky, sweet and sharp bourbon-infused sauce. The sharp pickles were a tart touch, while the candied bacon stuck out like a sore thumb – very sweet with a hard, crackling-like texture. The brioche bun was muted in its butteriness, which is a good thing as this meant it didn’t take too much attention away from the sauce.
Average cost per person: £7
BBQ Whiskey Beer at The Wargrave Arms
This residency at an Edgware Road pub gets an award for the most unoriginal name here. The kitchen is open every day and starts serving at noon.
The pulled pork is available in a sandwich, in a burger or on top of a bed of chips. I opted for the latter which is charmingly called Fryer Trash on the menu. The pork was a little too tender, but not excessively so. The pork wasn’t very smoky, but it was moist and had a mildly sweet, smoky, boozy, tangy sauce mixed in. The chips were thickly cut, but they were too chewy and each chip also tended to be too bitty on the inside. Not bad.
While the pulled pork was merely satisfactory, the beef short rib was very good indeed. The meat was tender, moist and a little pink with rich rivulets of fat and connective tissue running through it, while the collagen peeled off the bone without any effort. Although the beef was not especially smoky, it did have a mildly sweet and tangy taste to it.
I was expecting the cornflake sundae to be a visceral pleasure in the vein of Hawksmoor’s cornflake milkshake which was perhaps unrealistic, but by any measure this dessert was underwhelming. Hard and crunchy cornflakes were drizzled over a milky, vaguely cornflake-flavoured dollop of ice cream. Beneath that were scoops of mediocre chocolate and caramel flavoured ice creams drizzled in caramel. Meh.
Despite my preference for beef ribs over pork ribs, I had to return to BBQ Whiskey Beer to try out to their St Louis cut ribs and I was glad I did. The pork was very tender, a little pink and surprisingly light despite the amount of fat and connective tissue running through it. The sticky glaze had an odd, but pleasingly sweet tanginess to it. Like the beef ribs, it was accompanied by some bog standard pickles and coleslaw spiced up by the addition of parsley.
Given the excellence of the ribs, the flawed triple cooked chips were especially disappointing. Although crisp, they were also far too oily. Each chip was also bitty or hollow on the inside instead of being a recognisably thick cut slice of potato.
Although not every dish was perfect, BBQ Whiskey Beer deserve a permanent home based purely on the quality of their excellent ribs.
Average cost per person: £20-30 approx.
Big Easy is something of a Chelsea institution, mostly due to its all-you-can-eat specials and other deals. The kitschy decor, meant to resemble a Gulf coast crab shack, is an acquired taste though as is the food.
Although not a barbecue dish, the crab claws is one of Big Easy’s signature dishes so I had to try them. Served chilled and on ice, the claw meat had an oddly musky and earthy yet still pleasing flavour. The excessively sweet honey-based dipping sauce is best avoided though.
The ‘prime belly’ ribs are nothing if not generously proportioned. Each rib had a thick slab of meat and solid, unrendered fat attached to the bone. The smoky, tangy flavour was very weak and was at its strongest in the strip of meat closest to the bone. Overall each rib was bland and uninteresting, which made eating each one a dull, monotonous and unsatisfying experience. Ironically, the side dish of soft, smoky beans dotted with bits of pork was a tastier and more interesting dish.
A second branch of Big Easy is due to open in Covent Garden sometime during the summer of 2013, but they’re clearly aiming for the indiscriminate tourist crowd if this is the standard of barbecue that they’ll be offering.
Average cost per person: £20-30 approx.
The Big Smoke at The Elk Bar
Located within spitting distance of the Fulham branch of Bodean’s, The Big Smoke is one of very few barbecue eateries in London to serve beef brisket. However, the thin slices of dry, tough, cardboard-like of beef were repulsive and inedible.
Even worse was the pulled pork. The texture of the bland-tasting pork was inconsistent, with some strands too firm and others excessively soft. The worst part was the puddle of grease at the bottom of the plate which gave much of the pork a slick, runny sliminess that ended up trickling down my chin. Disgusting.
The least offensive parts of my meal were the side dishes, but this is a back handed compliment as the coleslaw and sweet potato fries were so bland as to be utterly forgettable.
My meal at The Big Smoke was so vile that I couldn’t bring myself to return and try out the pork ribs. I can only assume The Big Smoke is some kind of cruel joke at my expense.
Average cost per person: £20-25 approx.
A lot of American barbecue restaurants in London look like a pastiche of actual barbecue restaurants in the US. Wood-panelled walls, random Americana dotted all over the place, gingham table cloths, grease-proof paper and food served in enamel tin plates. All that’s missing are faux Southern accents.
Blue Boar in Westminster couldn’t be more different – a snooty maître d’, plush carpets, white linen table cloths, an expensive wine list, finger bowls, silver service and abstract paintings of prime ministers on the walls. It was all rather puzzling until I realised that Blue Boar is the in-house restaurant of the InterContinental Westminster hotel.
I’m not quite sure which ribs were used in the pork ribs starter. The shape resembled St. Louis cut spare ribs, but the relatively sparse amount of meat on the bones and lack of fat was more reminiscent of baby back ribs. In any case the meat was reasonably firm – neither too soft nor too tough. The charred crust gave way to meat that was mildly smoky, moist and a little pink. The most intriguing thing about these ribs was the marinade – its mild heat, zestiness and fruitiness was distinctively moreish.
The ribs were a good starter, which made the underwhelming pulled pork all the more disappointing. Although the texture was just right, the pork was bland and greasy enough to soak through the grease-proof paper underneath. The accompanying beans were far more interesting – tangy, tart and smoky. The sage and onion rolls were tough and chewy though and there’s little to be said about the unremarkable pickles and coleslaw.
Although the skin-on chips were free from excess oil, the promised sea salt was almost entirely absent. Each chip was so ridiculously big and thick, eating one required a knife and fork. The chips were undercooked though – they either needed to be thinner or have more time in the fryer.
Desserts at most barbecue restaurants usually involve brownies or sundaes, but Blue Boar’s desserts have a more British feel to them. The chocolate and orange dish was effectively a de-constructed Terry’s chocolate orange. A creamy, soft and intensely tangy chocolate fondant was paired with sharp, candy sweet slices of orange. The combination was almost overpoweringly sweet, so the icy palate-cleansing sorbet was a welcome relief.
Blue Boar is perhaps worth going to once for the novelty of silver service barbecue, but the generally satisfactory food isn’t worth returning regularly for.
Average cost per person: £45
The Blues Kitchen
Situated halfway between Camden Town and Mornington Crescent Tube stations, The Blues Kitchen was surprisingly full of yummy mummies lunching on my late afternoon weekend visit. Perhaps they found the deliberately worn-around-the-edges, Deep South blues-themed decor less cheesy than I did.
The pulled pork and the St. Louis cut pork ribs can be had as a combo dinner dish. The pulled pork was quite dry and would’ve been tough eating if it wasn’t for the fruity sauce mixed into it. The pork generally came in chunks rather than strands and was a little too firm and dense as a result.
The pork spare ribs weren’t any better. Apart from a slight hint of smokiness, they were rather bland. The thick slab of meat and fat wasn’t tender at all and eating my way through that firm block of pork was more like eating a grilled pork chop than proper smoked ribs.
There wasn’t any need for dessert with the Oreo milkshake to hand. Uncrushed halves of Oreo cookies were dotted throughout the icy, moderately thick milkshake. It was refreshing and filling, but it was little more than a bland vanilla milkshake decorated with Oreos rather than a true Oreo milkshake.
Blues Kitchen is a very below-average barbecue restaurant. If you can’t drag yourself out of Camden to find good quality BBQ elsewhere, the nearby Porky’s is a better alternative.
Average cost per person: £20 approx.
The Soho branch of Bodean’s is packed day and night. Unless you’re part of a group of six or more, you can’t book. But if you are part of such a large group, you have to order from the limited group menu. It’s better to simply avoid the crush of tourists and Soho media types and go to the Fulham and Tower Hill branches as I did.
The Fulham restaurant is rather cramped. Like all the other branches, it serves up burnt ends, either on their own or as part of a combo dinner with the other meats available, such as the pulled pork.
Fulham’s burnt ends were a little too tough, dry and dense for my liking. One chunk was very moist and fatty, but that was as interesting as they got. The thin, mildly sweet and tangy sauce made it all a little more bearable, but I was glad to move on to the pulled pork.
The pulled pork started out well with a firm, bouncy texture and a strong hit of smokiness, but the latter faded quickly leaving behind a bland tasting greasy mess. The coleslaw was unremarkable, but the salty fries were decent enough and had a dusting of mild chilli that helped them stand out.
Most of the dining space at the Tower Hill branch is downstairs in the rather musty basement. The best seats in the house, for single diners and couples at least, are the window-side stools with views of Tower Bridge.
The spare ribs were surprisingly good. The moist meat had a thin layer of fat and connective tissue basted in a mildly sweet and smoky marinade.
Although far from bad, the beef ribs couldn’t match the standard set by BBQ Whiskey Beer and Miss P’s Barbecue. Although the meat was thick and moist, it was also rather bland with only very occasional hints of tanginess and smokiness.
I doubt anything I say will dent the popularity of Bodean’s, but the middling standard of the food is hardly deserving of the blind, ardent devotion shown by its fans (cough, NyanMaru, cough). Especially when there is far better barbecue to be had in London.
Average cost per person: £25-30 approx.
The menu at Duke’s has changed since I first visited the Haggerston restaurant last year and for the better too. The Greatest Hits platter allowed me to sample the pulled pork, beef short rib and pork spare ribs all in one sitting.
The pulled pork was moist and firm with a fruity, smoky flavour. Its smokiness was far more pronounced than it was in the pulled porks at both Bodean’s and Pitt Cue and helped make it more satisfying.
The blackened bark on the beef rib was tough chewing. The meat underneath was moist, but it was a little too firm and didn’t have quite enough extant fat or connective tissue. It tasted slightly sweet with salty, tangy, umami-esque hints, but it was all a little too subtle for its own good.
There was a fair amount of fat and connective tissue on the pork spare ribs which helped make the pork moist. The meat had a noticeable smokiness to it as well as more subtle sweet and salty hints but, as with the beef short rib, you’d have to be looking for them to notice them.
The accompanying coleslaw and pickled onions were limp and unremarkable. Far more interesting was the garlic toast, a thick slab of white toasted bread slathered with garlic butter and parmesan but it was the unmistakable taste of garlic that was predominant. As cheap stomach liners go, it’s an addictive one.
The kitchen has also revamped the desserts menu since my last visit with intriguing options such as the shoofly pie. The syrupy filling of this treacle tart was thick, viscous and very sweet while the densely crumbed pastry had a salty tang to it that was brought out by the vanilla ice cream rather than obscured by it. The sweet and salty elements complimented each other very well.
Duke’s ribs aren’t as good as the ribs available elsewhere, but they’re not bad. The pulled pork was a success though, as was the dessert, which makes it just about worthwhile trekking out to Haggerston.
Average cost per person: £30-40 approx.
Joe’s Southern Kitchen
Formerly known as Navajo Joe, both the menu and the decor at Joe’s Southern Kitchen has been revamped. The menu is still a sprawl though, taking in burgers and a couple of seafood dishes as well as barbecue. The high ceiling dining room has a mezzanine level which gives a good view of the bustling bar, but the overpolished Americana and thumping music make the place feel like a Las Vegas tourist trap. This feeling was only reinforced by the cheesy pre-recorded Southern voices in the toilets complaining about the Civil War. Needless racial insensitivity is surely grounds for firing soft-in-the-head restaurant designers.
I was almost as baffled by the excessively strong lemon taste to my iced tea, so much so that I was convinced that I’d accidentally been served lemonade until I detected a small hint of tea swirling amongst all the citrus.
The corn bread arrived in a completely unexpected form. The soft, quivering slices, probably steamed rather than baked, were more like a pudding than the muffin/loaf-like corn breads I’d had elsewhere. The fragile slivers consisted of large but bland kernels. Attempting to spread the accompanying paprika butter or the tomato chutney onto the bread was an exercise in futility due to the unabsorbent texture of the bread, the blandness of the butter and the wateriness of the chutney.
The pulled pork was an improvement, but it was a case of two steps forward and one step back. The pork was firm and served in a thin but sharp and fruity sauce. The meat was tasteless though and could’ve been almost any meat.
A similar problem afflicted the beef short rib. Although the exceedingly moist meat was so tender that it fell off the bone, it was also devoid of taste. Eating it was a chore akin to holding down the bland boiled meat stews my parents insisted on feeding me as a child. Only the collagen tasted of anything, with a very mild hint of peppery tanginess.
I couldn’t bring myself to order dessert at Joe’s Southern Kitchen. The texture of the meat dishes may be just right, but the utter lack of flavour makes for a tedious, joyless dining experience.
Average cost per person: £30-35 approx.
Eating at The Joint (or The Food Joint as it’s also known) requires careful scheduling and the ability to put up with furniture that would make most chiropractors blanch. This Brixton Market operation shares premises with The Burnt Toast Cafe so it only serves lunch on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday while dinner is only served on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The tables and seats consist of nothing more than upturned crates, with some seats facing back onto other store fronts.
It’s worth putting up with though as the pulled pork buns are excellent. The pork is tender, moist and smoky with great depth of flavour ranging from sweet to tangy. The fruity, milky notes in the bun compliment the meat rather than obscure it. The crisp, smoky bacon isn’t really necessary, but at least it’s executed well.
An alternate, ‘Asian’ version of the pulled pork is just as tender and porky, but with the smoky, sweet tanginess entirely absent. Instead there’s a hearty helping of ginger and crisp vegetables such as carrots, giving this version a banh mi feel. A lighter, but less flavoursome alternative to the buns are wheat flour tortillas.
The baby back ribs are available in small and large portions. Although the meat was tender and came off the bone easily, they were coated in mildly sweet sauce that tended to stick to my fingers rather than to the meat. A more interesting alternate version has the ribs slathered in a scotch bonet-based sauce and dressed in crisp spring onions. It packs quite a wallop.
The Joint may be a bare bones experience, but the quality of the pulled pork makes it all worthwhile.
Average cost per person: £14 approx.
Last Summer Swine
If nothing else, Last Summer Swine deserves an award for the most pun-fully amusing, if slightly overwrought, market stall name here. Established by a pair of advertising sales executives in their spare time (don’t run away, really), this stall only makes very rare appearances at special events but they’re well worth catching.
Although a bit dry, the pulled pork did have a firm bite giving way to tender strands of meat with a gently sharp and fruity flavour. The chewy, floury supermarket bap got in the way of appreciating the pork though.
Although the chicken wings aren’t a match for the confit chicken wings available from Patty and Bun, they were still very good in their own right – moist, sweet and slightly tangy.
Average cost per person: £8 approx.
Located a short jaunt away from Farringdon Tube station, this diner-bar mash up serves up a handful of barbecue staples alongside a few other booze-appropriate dishes. The menu is a little too indiscriminate, so much so that I almost didn’t include Lazybones in this round-up.
The chicken wings were smothered in a thick, deep-fried coating and a tomato-based marinade that was moderately smoky and had a very mild amount of garlickiness and spiciness to it. The sauce stuck to my fingers rather than the meat though which made for a very messy, if finger lickin’ experience. If it wasn’t for the garlic, it’d be easy to mistake these wings for a kung pao chicken Chinese takeaway.
Lazybones’ pulled pork is only available in a bun. The pork was juicy and tender, but not too soft, and served topped with a sauce that was mildly fruity, subtly woody and packed a mild chilli heat. The oddly pickled coleslaw added a touch of sharp tartness. Although I’d have preferred the flavours of the sauce to be bolder, it was still satisfying.
Average cost per person: £14-20 approx.
This pop-up inside various pubs sounds like a dodgy porn flick rather than a barbecue eatery, but Meat Lover is worth seeking out.
The eponymous Meat Lover platter allowed me to sample the pulled pork, beef brisket, fried chicken and baby back ribs all in one sitting. That much meat could do some serious harm, but luckily it’s available in both small and large sizes. The large is big enough to feed two people, so I sensibly went for the small so I could have room for dessert too.
The platter started off with a whimper rather than a bang. The pulled pork was fruity, but a little too soft for my liking. I wasn’t expecting much from the fried chicken so I was pleasantly surprised by the crunchy, grease-free coating and its mildly sharp, fennel-like flavour, while the meat underneath was firm and milky.
Although the brisket had a smoky, woody flavour reminiscent of chipotle, it was also too dry which was disappointing. It’s still far better than the brisket at The Big Smoke though.
A similar mildly smoky and spicy chipotle-style flavour also turned up on the pork baby back ribs. The moist rib meat was tender enough to fall off the bone. The well-chosen combination of texture and flavour made these sublime ribs the highlight of the platter.
The biscuit base of the salted caramel cheesecake was unremarkable, but the smooth and creamy filling had a salty tang that was complimented nicely by the sweet tang of the caramel sauce. The soured cream providing a counterpoint to those strong flavours and helped cleanse the palate.
I had to return to Meat Lover for the Jacob’s Ladder beef short rib and I wasn’t disappointed. The tender beef came off the bone easily and had the same smoky and mildly spicy chipotle-style flavour as the brisket and baby back ribs. It’s not quite as good as the very best beef short ribs here, but it’s not far off.
The bone marrow mash should’ve been the perfect accompaniment to the Jacob’s Ladder. While it was light and managed to be both creamy and lightly coarse, its fatty unctuousness was too subdued so it was ultimately a disappointment.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of an Eton mess when chowing down on a dessert of strawberry shortbread biscuits served with cream and mint. Although the thick, mint-flecked cream was enjoyable, the muted shortbread biscuits were underwhelming even when taken with the slices of fresh strawberry.
The menu can be hit and miss, but the quality beef and pork ribs are more than enough to make me wish that Meat Lover would find a permanent home.
Average cost per person: £26-30 approx.
Miss P’s Barbecue
This market stall serves up Atlanta-style barbecue and turns up quite frequently at street food markets such as Kerb and the West Norwood Feast. Although there are some occasional specials, at the time of writing there are just two main staples: pulled pork and beef ribs.
The tender pulled pork had just the right texture – neither too soft nor too firm. The sweet and slightly fennel-esque flavour was enhanced by the tingly, spicy heat of the scotch bonnet-based hot sauce. The only accompaniment is the coleslaw which is firm and not too heavy or excessively cream. Its moistness added a much needed change of pace.
As good as the pulled pork was, it paled into comparison next to the beef ribs. The charred crust of the massive slab gives way to tender and moist layers of meat, connective tissue and fat. The depth of flavour is exceptional, going from sweet to tangy and moreish in a few mouthfuls. The spicy scotch bonnet sauce is a little too strong when taken with the rib meat, but the bold flavours of the rib meat more than make up for this. Simply outstanding.
Average cost per person: £5-8
Pitt Cue has become the byword for quality barbecue in London since it opened. The menu has changed since my first visit with the disappearance of the beef brisket and the head chef, Neil Rankin, has left too. The pulled pork was flavoursome with fruity sweet and sharp, fennel-ish hints to it, but the texture was a bit off. Some strands were a little too soft, while others were a little too firm.
The beef ribs had a charred crust, but underneath that they were a little waxy in places which was a disappointment. The lean meat tore away from the bone in thin but hearty strands and were a little sweet. They weren’t bad beef ribs, but these back ribs were not as good as their short rib counterparts at either BBQ Whiskey Beer or Miss P’s Barbecue.
The mashed potatoes proved to be a good side dish to both the rib and the pulled pork. The thick and creamy mash was made all the better by the unctuous and meaty gravy.
The tart and mildly creamy lemon posset was topped with a crunchy biscuit crumb. This would’ve been a perfectly good, simple dessert in its own right, but for some reason the kitchen also added some rather lacklustre and frankly unnecessary strawberries.
The real highlights at Pitt Cue aren’t the pulled pork and beef ribs, but its specials where the kitchen gets to show off its creative side – no doubt a legacy of its now departed head chef. The pig’s head sausage may sound off-putting, but the addition of pig’s head and cheek gives this otherwise smooth and light beef and pork sausage an occasional bit of coarseness. The sharp taste of fennel mixed with a light paprika heat and a gentle smokiness was very satisfying.
Even better was the smoked and cured pork jowl. The deliciously fatty and tender meat with its bold smokiness was a simple but visceral delight.
The deceptively simple name of the strawberries and cream disguised a far less conventional dessert. The creamy, eggy custard base resembled a creme brûlée and was the best part of this dish. The topping of small meringue and strawberry pieces was unimpressively forgettable. More custard please.
It’s a shame that main barbecue staples at Pitt Cue aren’t as good as they once were, but the specials are more than good enough to be an attraction in their own right.
Average cost per person: £16-25 approx.
This newcomer serves up Memphis-style barbecue and is located a 10 minute walk north of Blues Kitchen in Camden. It’s a relatively small joint with space for a few dozen covers and doesn’t take reservations, but Baron Greenback and I didn’t have any trouble snagging a table on our weekday evening visit.
We were both ravenous and ordered a dangerous amount of meat. While waiting for it to arrive we snacked on the BBQ popcorn. The fluffy kernels had a cumulative spiciness that packed a fair amount of heat as well as a buttery undertone. The combination sounds odd, but it worked quite well.
The first meat to arrive was the pulled pork which proved to be a bit odd. Although the pork was moist and firm with a mildly sweet and peppery taste, the bitty pieces were nothing like the pulled strands I was expecting.
Although the St Louis cut pork ribs were streaked with fat, the meat actually tasted bland with only a hint of smokiness in the thin strip of pork closest to the bone. The sauce was especially unimpressive. Although mildly sweet, it had the consistency of uncooked pasta sauce and didn’t stick to the meat, clinging instead to my fingers.
The chicken quarter was underwhelming too. The moist poultry had a slight hint of aniseed, but that was it.
Of our two sides the barbecue beans were the more satisfying – firm beans in a tomato-ish sauce with a hint of Tabasco. By comparison, the mac and cheese was a bland and unremarkable concoction – soft with barely any discernible cheesy goodness to it.
Baron Greenback’s dessert choice of a chocolate brownie sundae will please undiscerning kiddies and drunks, but no one else. Under all those layers of soft, icy, monotonous sweetness was a bit of crunchiness and a hint of dark chocolate, but that was all the joy to be had from it.
The soft, flimsy pastry used in the cherry pie was uninspiring, as was the bland accompanying vanilla ice cream. The sweet and sour taste of the squidgy fruity filling made up for this though.
Although a few dishes at Porky’s did have their charms, overall it was a lacklustre and disappointing experience that just can’t compare to the best of the rest here.
If Miss P’s Barbecue is a little tricky to track down, then finding Prairie Fire is even harder. Previously limited to Thursday-only appearances at the Merchant Square market near Paddington, this market stall is starting to make more regular appearances at the easier to reach Kerb market near King’s Cross. Prairie Fire serves just pulled pork and beef brisket, but if you’re willing to hire them for private catering, then you could sample their St Louis cut pork ribs and other dishes too.
Prairie Fire’s pulled pork had a soft, caramelised skin with moist, tender meat underneath. It was a touch too greasy, but not unpleasantly so and certainly not nearly as greasy as the slimy effort from The Big Smoke. Most of the taste here came from the sauce squirted on top which had a tangy sharpness to it.
The beef brisket was excellent. While it didn’t have the visceral salty, fattiness as the best Stateside briskets, it was still very good. The firm bite of the exterior gives way to a moist, tender interior blessed with an occasional hit of fatty goodness and a woody flavour. It’s enhanced rather than overwhelmed by the tangy, mildly sweet sauce squirted on top. My only complaint is that the brisket portion, served in a bun, is a touch on the small side. I’d happily pay more for a larger helping.
The accompaniment of barbecue beans was no afterthought or, if it was, then it certainly doesn’t seem like it. The mixture of pork, kidney and turtle beans in a thin but deliciously meaty and moreish sauce hit the spot. Finishing it all off was a small helping of pickled vegetables for cleansing the palate.
Prairie Fire’s pulled pork is satisfactory, but the real star of the show is the brisket. If only the ribs were available too.
The Rib Man
The Ribman is a market stall that only occasionally serves up pork ribs in their traditional form on the bone. A far more regular offering is rib meat in a bun. Although this makes these ribs completely different from the others here, I had to include them given the Ribman’s towering reputation.
It’s a reputation that’s well deserved – the moist, tender rib meat was unctous and complimented nicely by the tangy, lightly smoky sauce. My only complaint was the chewy and oddly bulbous bun. With the meat stuffed into a small slit in middle of the bread, it was not only ungainly to eat but looked like a comical jacket potato.
Red Dog Saloon
I was underwhelmed, at best, following my first visit to Red Dog Saloon when it first opened two years ago. The place is ragingly popular with Hoxtonites, but I’m at a loss as to why.
The pulled pork was tender with a firm bite, but it was very bland.
The same pulled pork turned up again, this time heaped on top of dreadfully average baked beans.
The St Louis cut pork ribs didn’t make a good first impression with the tough, chewy bark of an exterior. There wasn’t a lot of meat on the bone, nor was there much fat or connective tissue. What meat there was did have a sweet smokiness, but it was very subdued.
If I were a culinary reductionist, I could describe the burnt end pie as an Americanised cottage pie but I’m not so I won’t. I’m not sure which was more forgettable – the top layer of mashed potato or the bottom layer of dry, limp and tasteless burnt ends.
Things improved on my next visit. The meat on the beef short rib was moist and pink, but there wasn’t quite enough of it and there was a little too much fat and connective tissue instead. It was all mildly smoky, the collagen peeled off the bone easily and the crust was pleasingly charred. Not a bad attempt at a Jacob’s Ladder, but not an exemplary one either.
It’s a sad state of affairs when the best meat dish I had at Red Dog Saloon was the side of hot links, a large and smooth beefy sausage with a mild smokiness.
The food at Red Dog Saloon was dreadfully mediocre, but that’s unlikely to dent its appeal with the locals. If you insist on going, then at least avoid the tables squeezed into the passageway between the main dining area and the bar. Getting elbowed in the head by drunken boors became old very quickly.
Rotary Bar and Diner
Rotary is a pop-up located inside the premises formerly occupied by Meter and will only be open until December. I’m not sure if Rotary’s transient nature explains the retro feel of the decor from the cheap wood-pannelled walls to the plastic school hall chairs or whether this is a deliberate attempt at irony, but I don’t like it either way.
The baby back ribs are only available as occasional specials, but the pulled pork is a permanent fixture of the menu. The meat was tender but could have done with more of a bite. It could also have done with a little more character – most of the taste came from the very sweet and tangy sauce. The chewy bits of fried onion was an odd addition, but not an unpleasant one.
Pickles and corn bread accompany all the barbecued mains. While the sweet pickles and tart pickled onion were a reasonably good palate cleanser, the jalapeño corn bread was a disappointment. The muffin-shaped bread far too dry, but it did at least have a bit of heat from the jalapeño flecks.
The beef dripping chips aren’t really chips, but fries. The thin, bitty sticks of fried potato were only moderately crispy and their mild beefiness subsides quickly.
Even though they were a little too oily, the devilled pig skins were far more satisfying. Like armadillos, they were crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Unsurprisingly, they tasted like a poor man’s crackling or a rich man’s pork scratchings – but without the potential to break your teeth. The sour apple sauce could’ve been a touch sweeter, but it was still a tasty accompaniment for the pig skins.
I’m not sure if the strawberry and buttermilk sundae is brought in from elsewhere like the other desserts. In any case the icy, crisp dairy dollops were too sharp and sour to be enjoyable, while the white chocolate crumble scattered on top tasted mostly of sugar. Thanks, but no thanks.
To my surprise the hot chicken wings had a surprising amount of heat. The tabasco-based sauce was only moderately spicy at first, but the cumulative effect of scoffing an entire plateful of wings was quite potent. The wings didn’t rely entirely on the sauce – the thick, crisp batter and moist meat was pretty good too. It’s no match for Patty and Bun’s confit chicken wings, but they’re certainly scoffable in their own right.
The smoky flavour of the smooth pork sausage was surprisingly strong, even though it wasn’t really complimented well by either the mildly tart pickled peppers or the same sweet and tangy sauce that accompanied the pulled pork.
The barbecue beans weren’t too bad, although the tangy sauce didn’t have the same moreishness as the sauce used in Prairie Fire’s beans. The beans themselves were also a little too soft for my liking and needlessly topped with chewy fried onion bits.
Sorbitium is the supplier behind Rotary’s choc ices and while they’re certainly not bad, they’re not that remarkable either. The sour cherry version didn’t taste of anything at all, while the hazelnut version tasted more of caramel – so much so, that I’m pretty certain I was served the caramel one by mistake.
The food at Rotary isn’t bad, but I won’t be shedding any tears when they shut up shop at the end of the year.
Smokestak is nothing if not visually captivating. The staff at this market stall are all ridiculously attractive and the massive steam engine-shaped smoker immediately catches the eye. The gargantuan ‘Flintstone’ beef rib is meant for sharing and would probably damage me if I attempted to eat it on my own. Thankfully, a much more manageable beef short rib is also available and it was utterly marvellous. Underneath the slightly chewy, peppery bark was beef that’s moist all the way through and blessed with incredible depth of flavour. The tender beef was smoky with hints of sweetness and tanginess that was immensely satisfying.
The pulled pork wasn’t as spectacular, but was still reasonably good. It was a bit dry, but not disastrously so. The firm bite gave way to reasonably tender strands of pork, but most of the flavour came from the sweet, sticky and tangy sauce.
Smokestak’s pork spare ribs were just as good as the Jacob’s Ladder. The firm bite gave way to very tender meat tinged with a pink smoke ring, streaked with fat and connective tissue and was deliciously but not overpoweringly sweet.
My only quibble with Smokestak is that the portion sizes are a touch small, but that’s merely the perfect excuse to have all three meats. At £6 a portion, it’s not an outlandish thing to do and the combined cost is far better value than a similarly priced main course at dreck shovellers Barbecoa or The Big Smoke.
An disused industrial yard by a canal in Hackney doesn’t sound very glamorous, but this proved to be a surprisingly picturesque setting when kitted out with decking, picnic benches, recliners and an eye-catching wooden arch welcoming you to the pop-up outdoor barbecue restaurant that is Smokey Tails. The only thing missing are some sinks, or at least some hand wipes, for the inevitable post-meal sticky fingers.
All meats come with your choice of two salads. Some may scoff at the very idea of a salad at any barbecue, never mind an American-style one (Veal Smasher, I’m looking at you), but the ones here are no afterthought. The tomato and basil salad was a refreshing combination of sweet, sharp fruit, punchy, flavoursome herb and even a squidgy and nutty pickled walnut. Even better was the chargrilled sprouting broccoli – crunchy and flecked with some chilli providing a mild heat.
The salads almost outshine the meat. The rack of baby back ribs was a little dry, but the charred bark and peppery flavour were pleasing enough.
The pulled pork served in a bun was far better. The firm strands of meat were doused in a sharp, tomato-based sauce with the sharpness enhanced by the pickled cabbage. It was all more than flavoursome enough to outweigh the brioche bun it was served in.
I couldn’t tell if the laconic Texan proprietor of this market stall was brusque and unfriendly or merely drained from his appearance on Dragon’s Den, but in any case his beef brisket is something to behold. It’s chopped and served in a bun, either by itself or with other meats such as pulled pork and sausage. I went for the plain version to get a better idea of how good the brisket is and it’s very good indeed – moist, fatty, sharp and lightly smoky. The coleslaw isn’t really necessary and the construction of the entire structure is somewhat wobbly, but the bun is pleasingly crisp.
Texas Joe’s beef brisket is excellent and the good news is that the stetson-wearing smoker will soon have a residency at Brewdog Shoreditch, starting in September with a duration that has yet to be determined.
When I started my American barbecue journey through London, I fully expected some places to be significantly better than others. However, even my jaded sensibilities were shocked at the appalling quality of food at Barbecoa and The Big Smoke. Those two restaurants should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Long time London favourite Bodean’s was, as expected, merely average. Surprisingly, the vaunted Pitt Cue was merely okay when it came to the barbecue staples of pulled pork and beef ribs, but they were at least in a class of their own when it came to their specials.
If you want the best American-style barbecue in London then you have to get off your arse and get out to the capital’s street food vendors and pop-up eateries to get it. Smokestak, Prairie Fire and Miss P’s Barbecue were worthy runners-up when it came to pulled pork, but my personal favourite here has to be The Joint which deserves a slap on the back and a firm handshake.
Prairie Fire almost clinched it when it came to beef brisket, but Texas Joe’s edged ahead here with its chopped and served in a bun version. When it comes to pork ribs, it’s no contest – Smokestak is heads and shoulders above the rest.
Finally, when it comes to beef ribs the undisputed champions were joint victors Miss P’s Barbecue and Smokestak. While the versions available at Meat Lover and BBQ Whiskey Beer are very good, they simply can’t match Miss P or Smokestak for texture, moistness and depth of flavour.
American-style barbecue in London still has a long way to go, especially if you want to sit in an actual restaurant with tables and reservations, but the situation has vastly improved over the way it was a mere year ago. Here’s to the future!