Update 19/4/2021 – added reviews of The Big Smoke (Bromley), Crossroads and Pappy’s
Summer and barbecue go together like Bank Holidays and rain. One naturally follows the other, but even better is a summer filled with American-style barbecue, a world away from a typical suburban garden grill topped with bangers and burgers. The low ‘n’ slow method of smoking meat produces such sublime results, that it has become one of the most heavily covered topics on this website.
From my original Best and Worst group test of London’s then barbecue eateries to a companion round-up, followed by subsequent reviews of new and refreshed restaurants serving the cuisine, I have covered the evolution of American barbecue in London with the devotion and demanding appraisal I think it deserves.
Of course, indulging in American barbecue isn’t quite as easy and stress-free as it once was. At the time of original publication, the Government has eased the coronavirus lockdown to allow restaurants to reopen. And yet I have, you may be surprised to learn, deeply mixed feelings about returning to the world of sit-down dining.
I have missed the comfort and escapism of restaurants deeply. I yearn for a return to the world of table service and professional expressions of culinary techniques I could never hope to master, while surrounded by the jovial chatter of dear friends. But I also feel deeply uncomfortable in asking restaurant staff to work in perilously close quarters without the benefit of a vaccine. As much as I want to support their livelihoods, much of the public – from the drunken lads falling over each other to halfwits on public transport with masks tugged down around their chin or upper lip – seemingly cannot be trusted to follow public health advice. That makes me jumpy about everyone’s safety, not just my own.
Thankfully for my misanthropically distrustful nerves and growling stomach, many American barbecue restaurants now offer meals for delivery or collection – either warm and ready to eat, or vacuum packed to be reheated at home. Along with my potted introduction to the broadly accepted regional styles of traditional American barbecue, it’s also worth bearing in mind that these aren’t on-demand, whenever-you-want-it Domino’s-style operations.
Since smokers have a hard limit to how much barbecued meat they can produce, most of the eateries reviewed here have a cut-off date for orders each week with delivery/collection on a specific day at a set time. This isn’t spontaneous takeaway ordering, more a coordinated approach to meal planning that won’t suit everyone. This also means that there are a few big names and promising newcomers missing from this round-up, as their collection/delivery times have been too inconsistent and erratic.
While this group test is focussed on American-style barbecue, I’ve included a few vendors whose styles don’t strictly fit into the currently accepted traditions of that cuisine. Which is, in many ways, entirely fitting given that American barbecue has adapted in the past to changes in technology and peoples and will doubtless continue to to do so.
Delicious, adaptable and a mirror of the peoples who drove its development. There are few better lockdown meals than low ‘n’ slow barbecue.
Table of Contents
Spring 2021 update
BBQ Whisky Beer from The Grey Horse
Despite winning plaudits at barbecue festivals, BBQ Whisky Beer has since been content to ply its trade out of a pair of pubs rather than set up its own restaurant. The sole London establishment is The Grey Horse in Kingston, a suburban location which may explain why it has been overlooked by most other reviewers, along with their seesawing quality over the years.
I tend to favour spare ribs over baby back ribs for their greater levels of meatiness and textural variation. That doesn’t mean baby back ribs can’t be done well, however – such an occurrence is just rare (in London at least) and BBQ Whiskey Beer is one of the few to have done it. Meatier than expected with a springy top layer and an umami that reminded me of some Cantonese-style roasts, this rack of pig was far more delectable than expected.
BBQ Whisky Beer’s lamb ribs, which are sometimes available in place of the usual pork spare ribs, should’ve been everything a carnivore could want. A bouncy spring in its first bite, leading to layers of wanton fattiness and lightly earthy meat. Except it was a touch too chewy for my liking and it wasn’t anywhere as nuanced in taste as Cuepoint’s lamb ribs.
Umami with a lick of saltiness and tender enough that it could be cut with a fork, the beef short rib was an eminently enjoyable hunk of cow. It bore more of a resemblance to a brined or salt-cured style of beef, such as pastrami than the other leading slow-smoked beef short ribs here. While not as luxuriantly sophisticated as the best Jacob’s Ladder ribs here, it was still a consummate charmer on its own terms.
While BBQ Whisky Beer isn’t quite in the top flight of London’s barbecue eateries, and hasn’t been for a while, that doesn’t really matter. It seems content to forge its own path with its own gently quirky take on barbecue that’s well worth having.
Average cost per main dish: £5-10
Delivery/collection: collection only, seven days a week noon-22.00.
Reheating instructions: none provided
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Bodean’s (Fulham branch)
I’ve long been disillusioned with Bodean’s, the undeservedly popular face of American barbecue in London. Time after time. And yet one small part of me continues to hope that they’ll turn over a new leaf. At the time of original publication, only two of Bodean’s branches – Fulham and Clapham – offer delivery and collection. Annoyingly, there are small differences in the collection menus between the two, so pore over them carefully if you’re after something specific.
The best of Bodean’s porcine pantheon was undoubtedly the sausage. The crisp bite led to a dense follow through with a light smokiness. The curled member was dotted with bits of fat as well as hints of what tasted like mustard.
Pulled pork came second. Tender with occasionally springy bits of char, every strand and morsel was unfailingly moist with subtly moreish and vinegary tints. It’s still not a patch on the pork from either Texas Joe’s or Smokestak, but it was still eminently scoffable.
Pork spare ribs and baby back ribs were, quite oddly, almost interchangeable. Neither were packing much on the bone, which is to be expected for baby back ribs, but disappointing for spare ribs. The total absence of fat and connective tissue on the spare ribs made them as tiresome, dreary and borderline dry as the baby back ribs. This wasn’t helped by the feeble sauce-encrusted surface of both types of ribs, which had none of the saucy shimmer as the pulled pork.
While impressive in size, the beef short rib wasn’t quite tender enough as it put up a little too much resistance to Bodean’s own plastic cutlery – almost snapping one sprong in half. It wasn’t too tough on the teeth though, despite lacking moisture, character and connective tissue. The closest it came to a bit of personality were the occasional pointed bits of the bark which packed a caramelised browning that was deeply moreish. If only more of this Jacob’s Ladder had been as potent.
That caramelised browning was also deeply missed in the burnt ends, where it would’ve gone down a storm. These cubed bits of rather bland, overly soft beef leaned far too heavily on the thin, tangy sauce to be truly enjoyable in their own right. I’d almost swear these cuboids of mediocrity came out of a casserole pot rather than a smoker.
Chicken thighs were even drier and more tired than my own hirsute locomotive flesh lumps. The charred skin had all the suppleness and desirability of a sunburnt gammon waddling back from the seaside. Chips were cut from whole sheafs of potato, but were too soft and floppy for my liking with a salting barely worth of the name.
Based on this takeaway from the Fulham branch, Bodean’s continues to stagnate while many of London’s other barbecue eateries strive forwards and break new ground. Unless you’re sticking solely with the sausage and pulled pork, ordering barbecue from Bodean’s is clearly a third-rate option. Even though the takeaway market is full to the brim with so-so carton shifters, that’s still remarkably slack given the quality of the barbecue competition in the capital.
Average cost per main dish: £16
Reheating instructions: N/A
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
The somewhat misnamed Charred is a Spitalfields street food stall that has turned to home deliveries of vacuum-packed meats as a result of lockdown. Ordering was a somewhat longwinded process that took place almost entirely via Instagram direct messaging, a palaver that has thankfully been replaced by a dedicated website. Delivery was prompt and the printed instructions were legible and easy to follow.
Charred is halal-friendly, like Cuepoint and Smoke & Bones, which explains the pulled beef. A bovine-based alternative to pulled pork, it closely resembles its porcine inspiration but not necessarily for the better. The soft and inoffensive mash was a featureless blank slate, both in terms of mouthfeel and flavour. When it comes to texture, the cleaved chunks of pork shoulder approach taken by Texas Joe’s and From The Ashes seemingly produces more consistently pleasing results than the shredded/pulled approach of the popular imagination.
Charred’s brisket made for a far better plate of beef. Although its bark was more of a thin slip of mild pepper liable to wash away in its own juices, it still contrasted neatly enough with the beef underneath. Each slice was perfectly, evenly tender and riven with juicy, just-rendered connective tissue. Dipping each slice into the recommended chimichurri added another layer of succulence, one tinged with a hint of bittersweetness.
Tipping the scales at 1.5kg, the lamb shoulder is less a portion of meat and more a supply line for Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Served on the bone, the meat resembled pulled pork in its sinewy and thread-like strands whether you actually pull the meat away or just carve it off.
The lamb shoulder couldn’t quite bear the weight of my expectations. The mellow bitterness of the coarse yet supple skin, the occasional layer of fat and the earthy seams closest to the bone were the best bits of this hunky bleater. The vast majority of it was tender, but otherwise somewhat monotonous without any of the moreish or vinegary rubs that help enliven pulled pork shoulders. It’d therefore be best to pair this chuffer with one or two of Charred’s sauces and garnishes, such as the peppy chimichurri and the ticklish pickled chillies.
While the smoked aubergine side dish wasn’t as smooth as the baba ghanoushes that it resembled, it did pack a remarkable level of smokiness. That woody smoke contrasted well with the zing of the za’atar-flecked feta, even though the cheese itself was a non-presence. It also contrasted neatly with the sweetness of the pomegranate, even though the crunchiness of the ruby-hued fruit pieces was arguably something of a distraction. Even so, this vegetarian side could be a main course in its own right. It’s no booby prize for your meat dodging flatmate.
Dense and tightly-crumbed squares of cornbread not only had a gentle sweetness, but also an occasional spicy hit courtesy of embedded jalapeño slices. Already winsome, it was even better when daubed with the lightly creamy sweetness of the maple butter.
Despite the wobbles in Charred’s approach to some of its smoked meats, there’s clearly a huge amount of potential on show here as demonstrated by the brisket. I’ll be watching their development with keen interest; in the mean time, consider ordering their brisket.
Average cost per main dish: £15 (£40 for the lamb shoulder)
Delivery/collection: deliveries every Friday; orders must be placed by 18.00 the preceding Sunday.
Reheating instructions: Easy to follow and concise
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Cuepoint bills itself as a British-Afghan barbecue, but the cuts of meat it serves bear enough similarities with the American canon that I’m sneaking them into this group test. Plus, but for the pandemic, I would’ve eaten at their White City restaurant by now.
Although my vac-packed helping of beef short rib arrived already sliced off the bone, with the bones themselves hilariously included in separate bags, that was their most serious flaw. The balance between the peppery bark and the salty, moist flesh underneath was perfectly poised, neither one overpowering the other. Although not as buttery soft as some of the other Jacob’s Ladder ribs in this round-up, they were far from hard with a yielding bite. Each mouthful was succulent thanks to both rendered and extant connective tissue. An impressive debut.
Like the beef short rib, Cuepoint’s brisket was a remarkably well-assured dish. Consistently, evenly and perfectly tender throughout, its moistness was bolstered by occasional extant seams of quivering connective tissue. Although the pepperiness of the bark could arguably have been bolder, it was far from a wilting wallflower of a rub. Its relatively subdued, but nonetheless intriguing flavour ensured that the brisket’s spot-on mouthfeel remained the star of the show.
The scarlet hue of the lamb ribs was striking, but that trait was merely a crimson sign of even greater things. The meat on each rib was bouncy then tender with a glossily lacquer-like yet yielding layer of fat. This multilayered mouthfeel was crowned by the bittersweetness of the sticky ruddy-hued sauce. Brisket-style burnt ends were eminently superior to the actual brisket burnt ends available from Bodean’s. Heartier and fleshier than the rest of the lamb ribs, with a layered fatty pointed tip possibly from the lamb’s flank, they were so life-affirmingly splendid that I’d argue no helping of Cuepoint’s lamb ribs would be complete without them, anatomically impossible though that may be.
Pulled lamb ranged from fatty medallions to brisket-like slices of bark-encrusted shoulder and flank. The fatty morsels held an indecent level of smokiness. Although the fleshier parts weren’t especially earthy, every slice was consistently and evenly tender throughout with a subtle but nonetheless noticeable level of umami to match. Given the quality of lamb we have in this country, perhaps more of it should be slow smoked if the results are this superlative.
Bolani, an Afghan-style filled flatbread, has been described by some as a counterpart to a quesadilla, pa jeon or lamachun but it’s really its own thing if Cuepoint’s version is any indication. Inside the thin, soft folds was a scattering of chopped spring onions and cabbage. Its unexpected moreishness was boosted further by the chive-flecked sour cream. Whether dipped, dunked or spreadeagled, the two were made for each other.
Cuepoint’s condiments deserve a special mention. For the chunky, zesty, citrusy chilli jam to the markedly moreish, lightly oily chimicurri to the lightly tangy barbecue sauce that never became too sweet, heavy or cloying, each one was full of personality. The pickled cabbages, onions and chillies, ranging from boldly vinegary to tangy sweet and fiery were just as unmissable, adding additional layers of flavours to the slow smoked meats.
The fact that Cuepoint is overshadowed by the bigger names in London barbecue is frankly outrageous. Their barbecue beef and lamb, paired with choice sauces, stands head and shoulders above many of their more ballyhooed competitors. The question isn’t whether you should order some meat from Cuepoint, but how much and how often.
Average cost per main dish: £30
Delivery/collection: deliveries every Friday; orders must be placed by 20.00 the preceding Tuesday. Delivery fees £8-10. Collection points available in Shoreditch and White City.
Star rating: ★★★★★
From The Ashes BBQ
From The Ashes is a local delivery and collection-only establishment in Hackney Wick, a short jaunt from both the canals and the Olympic Stadium, with orders placed at and collected from a hatch-in-a-wall. Apparently founded and staffed by laid-off Temper veterans, this heritage is reflected in its menu which is a little more eclectic than other more strictly American barbecue eateries.
The flagship pork shoulder doughnut has almost certainly been designed with Instagram in mind, but it’s no slouch in the mouth. A mix of pork shoulder and belly came sandwiched in a squidgy and lightly sugared English-style doughnut. Sweet-and-savoury segregationists will bristle at such a combination. And while this pairing was somewhat gimmicky as neither really needed the other, there was a certain symmetry between the fatty porcine succulence on one hand and the pillowy doughy sweetness on the other. Although the sweet chilli jam needed a little more spicy kick to really cut through the combined porknut richness, it still had enough to add another layer of pep to this perky little indulgence.
If you just can’t get on board with the idea of smoked pork in a doughnut, then the same mix of dense-yet-tender pork shoulder and fattier, crisper belly is available in a bun that stayed out of the meat’s way. Instead of sweet chilli jam though, a garlicky aioli counterbalanced the waddling succulence of the pork with its punchiness.
Although the beef short rib wasn’t nearly as massive as all the others in this round-up, that was ultimately inconsequential as its real flaws lay elsewhere. While reasonably tender, it was a tad too firm in places. A squidgy, almost gelatinous hunk of fatty connective tissue lay at one end of my rib, while the bark had an intermittent umami. But the majority of beef in between these two ends struggled with a lack of character. It was no by means bad, but it was telling that the most consistently enjoyable part of this fore rib was the layer of just-rendered connective tissue closest to the bone – soft, succulent and tearing away easily from the surface.
The beef bun was a more well-rounded bovine dish. Tender, moreishly browned and lightly tangy brisket bits came interspersed with bits of connective tissue and an occasional sprig of tingly chilli. It’s not the best brisket dish in this round-up, but it was a satisfying bite nonetheless.
There’s only one dish for vegetarians, a fleshy and lightly smoky helping of aubergine topped with lightly creamy yoghurt and pickled onions brimming with tart sharpness. It was on the small side though, so you’ll want to bulk up with the potatoes. That was hardly a hardship, as the yielding l’il spuds came dusted with tingly chilli powder and a hefty dollop of lusciously creamy hollandaise-style sauce on the side for dredging/dipping.
Burnt end beans were light on the beef, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the burnt ends were far too bland and squidgy. Thankfully, the just-so beans and moreish sauce picked up the slack.
Pickles were an essential palate cleaser – sweet then briney with a mustardy burn.
While the barbecue dished up by From The Ashes isn’t the best here, there is still much to enjoy in the smoked beef and pork sandwiches. An equally large part of its appeal comes from its location – weather permitting, chowing down on a pork doughnut while perched canalside on a sunny day as boats, joggers and walkers stream by is one of London’s small but delectable pleasures.
Average cost per main dish: £11
Delivery/collection: both, but deliveries are currently only available in the Hackney Wick area.
Reheating instructions: N/A
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Brisket, only served as part of the Smoked Selection, was easily the best thing going. Consistently tender throughout, its almost buttery texture and succulent reams of connective tissue and fat were not only a pleasure in their own right. They also contrasted neatly with the lightly peppery bark.
The rest of the Smoked Selection lived and died in the shadow of the brisket. Chicken thighs were gamey, but let down by a lifeless dry rub. Medallions of pork shoulder were dense, but were a bit too dry for my liking. They ended up being overly dependent on the fruity sweetness and tingly chilli heat of their marinade for both moisture and flavour. Without it, the pork shoulder would’ve been far less digitestible.
Pork ribs – which were probably from the arse end of the bellyside rib cage or possibly from an unusually meaty nub of a baby back rack – were scanty on meat and overly dependent on the same spiced rub that graced the pork shoulder. A chunk of sausage was better – bitty, coarse and dense with a light smokiness.
The beef short rib – only available on its lonesome and not as part of the Smoked Selection – largely lived up to the bovine example set by the brsiket. The bark was dense and moreish, while the yielding seams of ruddy pink bovine flesh underneath were juicy with umami. Hot Box’s Jacob’s Ladder held its own in a field full of high-quality competition.
To my surprise, Hot Box’s barbecued beef bounty stood heads and shoulders above its pork dishes. Given how tricky it is to achieve high-quality beef barbecue, I would’ve expected it to be the other way around. Still, don’t look a gift cow in the mouth – if you’re ordering takeaway from Hot Box, do yourself a solid favour and lean heavily on the beef.
Average cost per main dish: £24
Delivery/collection: both, but deliveries are currently only available in the Spitalfields/Whitechapel area.
Reheating instructions: N/A
Star rating: ★★★★☆
I’ve reviewed Prairie Fire many times before, from its initial street food/market stall incarnations to its recently opened permanent restaurant in White City. That also means I’ve seen the quality of its barbecue stagnate and even decline. While I live in perpetual hope of an eventual return to its former glory it seems that we’re all doomed to waiting in perpetuity.
Prairie Fire’s log of pulled pork had a firm and bouncy initial bite, with a reasonably tender and moist follow through. But, much like the average Love Island contestant, it was deeply lacking in personality. It had none of the character or succulent mouthfeel as the best pulled porks here, such as the one from Smokestak. Even dabbing a forkful with the restaurant’s Original barbecue sauce didn’t help, give the condiment’s milquetoast presence.
The bottom half of Prairie Fire’s brisket, almost certainly the flat muscle in terms of anatomy, was the most enjoyable part of this slab due to its relative succulence and tenderness. Cross the Rubicon of fat in the middle through into the top half though and it’s much more of an undiscovered country. The point muscle and fat cap, while not parched dry, weren’t nearly as moist. They certainly didn’t have character, or any bark worth speaking of, to make up for that flaw either. Daubing the joyless top husk of brisket with the Original sauce was a futile attempt at reviving this dreary carcass.
The only thing more lacklustre than the quality of Prairie Fire’s smoked meats is the state of its delivery service. While it clearly focuses on local deliveries in the areas around White City and Bethnal Green through Deliveroo, it still offers larger vacuum-packed portions for collection and delivery further afield. At least it does in theory. In practice, the farther away you live from Prairie Fire’s corner of West London, the less likely they’ll have even a convenient delivery slot any time soon with the collection option pressed upon you instead. Which is obviously problematic when the entire point of delivery is to avoid unnecessary travel around droplet-spewing members of the public. Unimpressive. Deeply unimpressive.
Average cost per main dish: £16
Delivery/collection: both, but deliveries are effectively only available in and around the White City and Bethnal Green areas.
Reheating instructions: ‘bring pan of water to boil, reduce heat to simmer, place vac-pack in pan for 10-15 minutes then extract’ (no written instructions provided, but this verbal direction worked fine)
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Red Dog Saloon (Soho branch)
Since I visited the Shoreditch original in the Before Times, Red Dog Saloon has sprouted a couple of branches across London including a small air-conditioned outpost in Soho. Although no longer advertised on their website, the Soho branch still offers its entire menu for collection as well as delivery. The catch is that it was so dismally dour, that I couldn’t stomach it and gave the bulk of it away.
Pulled pork shoulder was reasonably moist with a modest bounciness, but the characterless flecks of oink leaned heavily on the sauce for pep. It might have gotten away with it, except the sauce only had a timidly sweet vinegariness to is name. The pork rib was very similar, but with the modest benefit of a chewy bark. But that couldn’t wholly make up for the scanty, lifeless meat underneath.
Naysayers of my reviews in general, and my Best and Worst group tests in particular, like to accuse me of being too negative about dishes that can’t possibly be as bad as I say they are. Such hypoxic gammons deserve inedibly pallid dreck, such as Red Dog’s brisket. It achieved the miraculous feat of being simultaneously tender and dry, its bleached tastelessness having all the charm of a sclerotic clown lying face-down in a pool of its own alcohol-scented vomit at a child’s birthday party.
While dense with a reasonably moreish bark, the beef short rib soon outstayed its welcome with relatively tough flesh that put up too much of a fight against both plastic and wooden picnic knives. The effort was hardly worth it, given the soulless boiled-in-a-bag level quality of the lean beef. Take the huge bone and bludgeon a passing pigeon to death. That’d make for a better meal than the Jacob’s Ladder meat itself.
Red Dog’s wild card morcilla sausage still had a rim of chewy skin attached, which was hardly endearing. Although somewhat grainy in texture, it didn’t have nearly enough earthiness, heartiness, fattiness or spice to its name. To top it all off, it was off-puttingly, excessively greasy too.
No. Just no.
Average cost: £7-9 per 100g of meat
Delivery/collection: both; deliveries from the Soho branch are unsurprisingly limited to the Soho area.
Reheating instructions: N/A
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Smoke and Bones
Smoke and Bones had only just moved from their street food stall into semi-permanent premises in Camden when lockdown closed their doors. While they have reopened at the time of writing, their halal-compliant, pork-free, Texan-style menu continues to be available for delivery.
Smoke and Bones’ beef short rib is an impressive-looking monolith, but the bark’s initially bold pepperiness soon faded. The meat was tender and moist, but it didn’t have enough extant connective tissue and the seam closest to the bone soon turning hard and plasticky in places. Mostly satisfactory, but ultimately second fiddle to the short ribs from Smokestak and Texas Joe’s.
While studded with pepper, the brisket’s bark tasted almost like five spice in its bittersweetness and umami. The beef underneath was competent enough, but its levels of succulent tenderness fell short of what both Smokestak and Texas Joe’s achieved. Smoke and Bones’ brisket was also lacking in connective tissue, with fewer rivulets flowing through the wide bovine strips compared to its competitors. While not exemplary, this brisket still made for a fine mouthful.
If only the standard smoked brisket had been as sublime as its stablemate, the pastrami. Also made from brisket, but brined before smoking and steaming, pastrami isn’t typically considered part of the American barbecue pantheon. But by colouring outside of the usual lines, Smoke and Bones shows what it can really do. Each bovine rasher was veined with connective tissue, blessed with a beefy tang and encrusted with a subtly peppery and bittersweet, almost aniseedish bark. Each and every mouthful was consistently moreish.
Smoke and Bones’ inventiveness doesn’t always pay dividends, though. The veal ribs is an admirable attempt at providing a porcine substitute for those who cannot eat pork baby back ribs. In this, it both succeeds and fails. It succeeds in replicating the thin layer of moist meat clinging to each rib bone. But it also succeeds in simulating the non-existent mouthfeel and dull taste of most pork baby back rib meat. This rack wasn’t a total loss though – the tingly presence of the stridently peppery, almost aniseedish bark was unmistakable. It would’ve been almost overpowering, but for the recommended application of the sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. Fundamentally flawed, but enjoyable enough all the same.
The barbecue from Smoke and Bones, while not exceptional, is nonetheless competent with something to enjoy in every main dish. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t fail to order though, it’s the pastrami – a many splendored thing that is easily Smoke and Bones’ standout dish.
Average cost per pack: £25
Delivery/collection: Delivery only. Delivery charges: £3 inside the M25, £10 outside the M25.
Reheating instructions: https://smoke-and-bones.com/prepare-your-order
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Smokestak’s delivery operation has grown gradually from the area immediately surrounding its Shoreditch restaurant to the whole of London and now to the rest of the UK.
Smokestak’s pork belly was a multilayered meaty millefeuille marvel, in more ways than one. The quivering, just-rendered fat interleaved with sinewy, lightly smoky swine flesh reminiscent of gammon. The occasionally bouncy bark blended a subtle fruity sweetness with an aniseedy moreishness to delicious effect, effortlessly complimenting the sumptuous mouthfeel of fat and sinew. Superb.
Smokestak’s pulled pork was no paltry pub chain pretender. Tender with an occasional spot of springiness, yet also succulently fatty, it already had a winsome mouthfeel. It would only have been half as good without the same subtle fruity sweetness that tinged the pork belly, as well as a hint of smoke. If you need your faith restored in pulled pork after having being subjected to the countless misshapen versions available in so many other London eateries, then Smokestak’s version will have you singing like a chorister.
The best of Smokestak’s two beef dishes has to be the beef short rib. Although the connective tissue closest to the bone was too tough, the rest of it flowed as gelatinous rivulets through the tender bovine expanse lending it a consistent level of moisture. Lacquered with a peppery umami bark as a finishing touch, it was easily one of the best beef short ribs here despite the niggling flaw with its connective tissue.
Smokestak’s brisket was easily its weakest dish. While reasonably tender and moist, it lacked flavour. Its bark was a partial exception, packing a peppery umami similar to that found on the beef short rib but not to the same sassy levels of strength. A few burnt ends had been included with my portion. While they had a more pronounced peppery kick than the rest of this helping of cow chest, they were also far too chewy and hard. A deeply inconsistent effort, from beginning to end.
Although Smokestak’s brisket has remained stubbornly immune to improvement, the rest of its oeuvre continues to scale new heights in deftly executed mouthfeel. So much so, that it often rapidly sells out each week. Don’t despair though – if you’re slow off the mark, there are other barbecue purveyors that are just as good or even better.
Average cost per main dish: £20-25
Delivery/collection: Collection and delivery. Delivery charges: £24 minimum order, £5 shipping fee, free shipping on orders over £75. Deliveries every Friday; orders must be placed by the preceding Wednesday.
Star rating: ★★★★☆
For those in the know – otherwise known as long-time readers of this site – Texas Joe’s has been the benchmark by which all other American barbecue in London is judged. The reasons for this valorisation are plainly evident in their beef dishes, such as the brisket. Every bovine strip was consistently and evenly tender throughout. Although not every strip had an extra boost of succulence courtesy of extant connective tissue and fat, they did all have a peppery bark impressive in its savouriness.
The peppery, almost candied crust of the beef short rib easily tore apart to reveal dense yet tender and moreish seams of moo meat. Juicy seams of connective tissue flowed throughout, including a rivulet close to the bone that peeled off with ease.
Texas Joe’s pork slabs aren’t quite as good as their flagship beef dishes, but they’re not afterthoughts by any means. Pork shoulder had a dense initial bite, followed by tender seams of moreishness with an almost gamey character.
Texas Joe’s pork ribs were even better, the umami and lightly sweet crust breaking apart to reveal gently smoky seams of pig interleaved with connective tissue and fat, every layer pulling away from the bone with ease.
For now, some dishes such as the mutton aren’t available on Texas Joe’s takeaway menu but they’re unlikely to be missed given the barnstorming, standard-setting quality of its beef barbecue and its winsome pork barbecue. It’s important to note that Texas Joe’s actually has two takeaway menus, a selection of sandwiches for delivery and bumper picnic packs of meat – either in pre-picked selections or sold by the weight – for collection. Happy Buddha, The Lensman and I opted for the latter and waddled away highly satisfied. You will too, of that I am confident.
Average cost per main dish: variable, but expect to pay around £25-33 per person
Delivery/collection: Collection and delivery. Delivery within a 3mi/5km radius of the London Bridge restaurant. Collections available Weds-Sat, 15.00-21.00.
Reheating instructions: N/A
Star rating: ★★★★★
Spring 2021 update
The Big Smoke (Bromley)
The idea of a delivery-only barbecue business trading out of Bromley might seem odd initially, but stranger things have emerged out of this otherwise stiflingly mundane suburb.
The Big Smoke’s menu is an oddball collection of barbecue staples alongside more unusual dishes. Beef short rib came pre-sliced off-the-bone, almost resembling brisket as a result. While tenderness and succulence are usually desirable attributes in beef short rib, you can have too much of a good thing. The Big Smoke’s beef short rib was gushingly moist, as if every single last strip of fat and connective tissue had been rendered and ladled into the vacuum-packed bag – with more poured in just in case. While the rest of the short rib was peppery, supple and moreish, the constant chin mopping undermined those qualities.
Pulled pork was even more of an unbalanced effort. While firm and reasonably moist, there wasn’t nearly enough bark and little evidence of either a wet or dry rub. While its texture was reasonably sound, its blandness made for dull eating.
Texan-style hot links sausages were coarse, moist and reasonably meaty.
The amusingly named ‘pig candy’ was either rib end trimmings or offcuts from the belly or loin. Probably. The sauce was an unusually multi-layered affair – sweet, tangy and dotted with unapologetically bold peppercorns. Sadly, this wasn’t matched by the pork itself which was just a bit too hard to be truly enjoyable.
While the ‘tikka’ smoked lamb had little in either ovine earthiness or subcontinental spice, it wasn’t completely lacking in charm. The tender and moist l’il bleater was blessed with the occasional seam of connective tissue and fat.
While Bromley’s Big Smoke wasn’t as inedible as I had feared, its decidedly wobbly efforts means you’re almost inevitably better off ordering from one of its competitors elsewhere in the big smoke instead.
Average cost per main dish: £15
Delivery/collection: UK-wide delivery.
Reheating instructions: their PDF instructions
Crossroads is a delivery and collection-only barbecue business located in a ‘dark kitchen’ [LINK] near Bethnal Green that rents out kitchen space to several brands, not just Crossroads. It’s not clear if Crossroads is truly an independent effort or a front for an existing restaurant. Either way though, Crossroads still has a long way to go.
The only thing Crossroads’ beef short rib had going for it was moistness. The near absence of connective tissue (despite appearances) and complete absence of bark robbed this beef of significant sources of both mouthfeel and flavour. Worse still, the entire slab was far too hard. The copious amounts of elbow grease required to cleave off each sheaf of meat and fat was wasted effort for almost no reward.
While the brisket had the good grace to be at least edibly tender, it was an otherwise joyless experience. Like the short rib, there wasn’t nearly enough extant connective tissue and next to no bark.
Lifeless pork spare ribs had all the appeal of a Wetherspoons special smeared across a slab of gum-specked pavement. At least those ribs weren’t as grotesque as the burnt ends. Their teeth-grinding toughness and unusually, excessively oily sauce meant they were quickly dispatched from my mouth into a bin.
I’d rather stumble across my aged parents mid-coitus than eat any of this pap ever again.
Average cost per main dish: £13
Delivery/collection: UK-wide delivery
Reheating instructions: listed under ‘Additional info’ on each dish’s webpage
Pappy’s is based in the Lake District with nationwide delivery available for most of their menu, with some items regularly selling out.
The most frequent to go MIA is the brisket and with good reason too. I tucked into the lean end version, but a fattier cut is sometimes also available. The very idea of a fattier cut makes my knees tremble, as the lean end cut was delectably unctuous as it was with sufficient quantities of well-rendered connective tissue interleaved with tender muscle and the whole lot topped with a poppingly peppery bark. The brisket’s only real flaw was its smokiness which had a slight astringency that became cumulatively more noticeable the more you ate.
The firm, bouncy and fruity sweet bark of the pulled pork gave way to reveal tender and lightly woody swine flesh. It just about managed to stay on the right side of dry, but only just, somewhat diluting its appeal.
The gammony sheathes encasing each bone of the baby back ribs had the same woodiness and gentle sweetness as the pulled pork. This gammony quality and sufficient levels of succulence raised the baby back ribs above the pulled pork in my estimation. That is no mean feat given my usual disdain for baby back ribs.
Pappy’s beef short rib started out well. Stridently peppery bark topped yieldingly tender and moist seams of purple-hued meat, itself tinged with a mild smokiness. Unfortunately, all this good work was almost entirely undone by the state of the connective tissue. Far too many seams hadn’t been rendered properly, their inedibly stringy elasticity ruined one mouthful after another.
The hot link sausages were reminiscent of seekh kebabs – coarsely grainy with a modestly spicy pep as well as a highly potent waft of smokiness.
Pappy’s take on Cumberland sausages weren’t really any better or worse than the standard template, just different. While chunky and coarse, the usual pepper-herb balance had instead been replaced by a puff of smokiness that was neither here nor there.
For a barbecue eatery that endlessly bangs on about its Texan heritage (and in a rather cheesy manner too), Pappy’s really isn’t as consistent as it should be. Its dishes were a rollercoaster affair reaching heady heights matched only by their ragged lows. Choose wisely and you’ll eat well, but Pappy’s is nonetheless ultimately a second-best choice.
Average cost per main dish: £14-20
Delivery/collection: UK-wide delivery; collection Friday-Saturday 16.00-19.00
Reheating instructions: you’ll have to watch this video and I’m really sorry about that
Making truly great American-style barbecue involves both a great deal of smoking time and the hard-earned knowledge to get that process right, a combination that isn’t easily acquired by shortcut-takers. It’ll therefore be of little surprise to readers of my previous barbecue coverage that longtime leading London smokehouses Smokestak and Texas Joe’s remain nearly unrivalled.
Texas Joe’s brisket and beef short rib are must-haves, with its pork treats now almost as lust-inducing. Smokestak’s vacuum-packed vittles are exceedingly desirable additions to any carnivore’s fridge. Whereas Texas Joe’s strong suit is beef, Smokestak’s speciality is pork. Well, almost – its beef short rib has improved so much that’s finally the equal of the one from Texas Joe’s which is no mean feat. Only its lacklustre brisket prevented Smokestak from sweeping the board. Even so, that’s a significant improvement for Smokestak which once depended more on location and marketing than actual chops in the smoking arts for its popularity.
Cuepoint, whom I snuck into this round-up, deserve all the plaudits and then some. Their quietly confident yet distinctively delicious take on barbecue is a robust rebuttal of the accusation that smoked meats are repetitive, tired or staid. As far as I’m concerned, Cuepoint is one of the very few eateries leading the way for barbecue in London. They’re that good.
The pandemic has upended all our lives. With such a dark cloud looming over us all, a silver lining is needed to keep us going – and possibly to keep us mildly sane at the same time. Of course, that silver lining won’t be the same for everyone.
For me, and hopefully for many others, it’s the ability to have the visceral, unmistakably sassy joy of American barbecue delivered safely and securely. Or to have it carted away in a foil packet or origami carton to be enjoyed with the people who matter most to us, whoever that may be. None of that, generally speaking, was possible in the Before Times. It’s a small silver lining I grant you, but I’m holding on to it firmly and tightly nonetheless.