The only way to celebrate US Independence Day is with barbecue.
The 4th of July means American-style barbecue which is apt as it’s been almost a year since my comprehensive, popular and divisive group test of American BBQ restaurants and eateries in London. I’ve also covered the handful of new entrants since then, which have ranged from superb to merely okay overall and all the way down to drearily disappointing.
Despite such let downs, my enthusiasm for this quintessentially American cuisine burns unabated, which is just as well as there are two new entrants – the long-delayed Covent Garden branch of Big Easy and market stall Howard’s Meat Co. I also took the opportunity to revisit the Shoreditch branch of Texas Joe’s and food truck BBQ Lab, mainly because I just happened to be passing by the both of them. For a potted introduction to American barbecue, and for what I consider to be quality US-style barbecue, please refer back to my group test. Now, onwards…
I wasn’t overly impressed with BBQ Lab when I visited this food truck as part of my barbecue round up. BBQ Lab is a little bit different from almost all of the other barbecue eateries in London though. Like Pitt Cue, it’s more at home when cooking up new, experimental dishes rather than sticking to the time-honoured classics.
The pulled pork and the smoked pork cheeks are a case in point. The former is a Carolina classic and here it’s tender with pleasing, tingly hints of aniseed. It’s not very smoky, but it is served wet with a ‘hot’ sauce that’s more fruity than spicy. It’s competently done, but it won’t suit the world of barbecue alight (crap pun intended). Far more interesting were the sides – not the inoffensive potato salad, but the tart, aniseed-ish red cabbage and the pickles. Ah, the wafer thin pickles – layered with depths of sweet and sour flavour that are simply unrivalled.
The smoked pork cheeks trounce the pulled pork. Although not especially smoky, the unctuous medallions of tender pork bear a surprising resemblance to beef brisket. The sweet and tangy sauce is livened up even further by punchy, fiery slices of pickled chillies. It’s not on the same level as The Rib Man’s Holy Fuck sauce, but it’s a good substitute. It’s sloppy, messy, sticky goodness that I could eat all day.
Average cost for one person: £7
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Big Easy Covent Garden
To say that I wasn’t expecting much from Big Easy is an understatement on par with saying Stalin was a bit naughty – the pork ribs at at the original Chelsea branch were very average. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the tender, fruity sweet bark of the St. Louis cut spare ribs. The thick, intimidating layer of fat held a lot of the mild smokiness, which verged on being too artificial at times, but was nonetheless pleasurable. Even so, the ribs teetered on outstaying their welcome. When ordered as part of the Taste-o-rama, you get three ribs which, along with the other meats, is a life threatening amount of flesh.
The most surprising part of the Taste-o-rama was the chicken. The moist, smoky and milky poultry was also blessed with a taut, fruity sweet skin that slid off the white meat with ease.
My favourite of the three meats in the Taste-o-rama had to be the pulled pork. A firm bite gave way to tender meat that was strongly smoky and tinted with peppery hints and fruity sweetness. It’s easily my favourite pulled pork in the entire city, edging ahead of the superb pulled pork from The Joint.
The coleslaw served as part of this meat platter was inoffensive, while the beans were soft and almost a little too sweet due to the heavy presence of peppers and onions. If that’s still not enough food, there’s always the cornbread muffin. Although fluffy, it only had a mild nutty sweetness.
Sadly, the beef brisket (not to be confused with the steaks or the horde of other non-barbecued dishes on the menu) is a special that’s available only erratically. Getting a table can be surprisingly difficult too – book ahead or be prepared to wait for up to an hour and a half when it’s busy. Alternatively, prop up the bar and wait for a stool to free up at the counter which can’t be booked. Still, the Covent Garden Big Easy goes a long way to erasing the stain of its Chelsea forebear.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £25
Star rating: ★★★★★
Howard’s Meat Co
Don’t be fooled by the sample menu on the website for this street food stall – typically only three barbecued meats are available at any given time. Still, Howard’s is worth seeking out for its quality beef brisket. The charred, slightly chewy bark gives way to reveal moist, tender, lightly smoky beef. If you’re lucky then you’ll get a burnt end – these chewy and woody tips have the fatty unctuousness that’s missing from the main hunk of beef and are easily the best burnt ends in London, although given the competition that’s not too hard. The brisket isn’t quite as flavoursome as the brisket from Texas Joe’s below, but it’s still good stuff.
The pork shoulder is less pulled and more chunky, but still tasty thanks to the slippery, taut and slightly sweet bark. The swine flesh itself was moist and tender with a hint of fruity sweetness. It doesn’t have quite the same depth of flavour as Big Easy’s, but it’s still very good.
Accompanying both the pork and the brisket is a small smattering of sides – a tart and fruity red cabbage, fluffy sweet potato tips and a few drab pickle slices. Howard’s portions in general are a tad on the small side and doesn’t quite meet the heady standards set by fellow market stalls Smokestak and Miss P’s Barbecue, but it’s all quality grub nonetheless.
Average cost for one person: £7
Star rating: ★★★★☆
The best thing at Texas Joe’s was and is the beef brisket. The moist, fatty, lightly salty and smoky slices of beef are simply unrivalled in London. It’s served with a helping of tangy and molasses sweet sauce on the side. The brisket is also available cubed, dressed in the sauce and sandwiched between two doorstop slices of Texas toast as throwback to Texas Joe’s market stall origins. Superb either way.
The superlative quality of the brisket makes the rest of the meats all the more disappointing in their merely satisfactory nature. The Squinting Brummie’s hunk of pork shoulder was a touch too dry, as was the spare rib. The latter didn’t have quite enough fat, but the fruity character of the meat made up for it to an extent.
Although a little dry, just like the pork, the chicken wings weren’t quite as thirst-inducing and were actually quite satisfying thanks to the smokiness of the reasonably tender meat.
Vicious Alabaster’s chilli mac and cheese was disappointing. It was hard to make out the pasta shells underneath the mass of mostly dry chilli, with very little cheese present.
The cornbread was also a damp squib. Although reasonably moist and flecked with jalapeños, it was far too salty.
Texas Joe’s is still unrivalled when it comes to beef brisket, but the merely okay quality of its pork drags it overall rating down.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £20-25
Star rating: ★★★★☆
American-style barbecue in London has finally reached a turning point. My round up last year concluded that the only way to get truly high-quality barbecue in London was to head out to the capital’s street food vendors. While those guys still set the standard by which I measure BBQ in London, there’s finally a sit-down restaurant that accepts reservations and is actually worth going to – Big Easy Covent Garden. Their spare ribs still need a little more refinement, but their unexpected turnaround overall is nonetheless a welcome one.
My worry is whether Big Easy can maintain that high standard and it’s not an academic concern. The management apparently brought in expertise from Hill Country in New York, but when I visited that Big Apple favourite over the course of 2011 what started out as an ecstatic experience declined into a merely okay one. Hopefully that won’t happen to Big Easy Covent Garden, but if it does then at least we’ll still have the quality flesh of Texas Joe’s, BBQ Lab, Howard’s Meat Co. and more besides.
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Since Big Easy has one central kitchen (I believe in North London) and the BBQ dishes are just reheated at the restaurants, it’s likely you were just lucky on the second visit – rather than there being any difference in quality between the two locations.
Possibly. However, the difference in the meat I had at the Covent Garden branch was profound and substantial. Plus I visited the original Chelsea branch before the Covent Garden branch had opened and before Big Easy’s management had brought in the American pit masters. The more likely explanation, in my mind, is that the central kitchen, if it does indeed exist, had upped its game considerably. The only way to be certain, of course, is to make repeat visits to both branches which I’m considering doing.
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