As unsuccessful as the local Community Board Committees who tried to block it from happening earlier this year, those responsible for the weather also tried to put a damper on this year's Big Apple Barbecue Block Party with overcast skies and intermittent showers. But the smoldering coals and burning wood could not be doused and the smoke signaled the return of an event that has become as much a part of New York City as the St. Patrick's Day Parade. And in the case of BABBQP, where there's smoke, there's invariably great, great barbecue.
Pitmasters from a dozen states, as accomplished as any classically trained chefs, converged on Madison Square Park along with local barbecue greats Hill Country, Blue Smoke, Rack & Soul, and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, most of which we didn't have nine years ago when the Block Party started and to which we owe a debt of gratitude for bringing championship level barbecue to our previously smoke-deprived city. Block party hardly describes the massive proportions to which the Party has grown, covering four full blocks and spanning Madison to Fifth Avenue and all of Madison Square Park.
Focusing on the visiting pitmasters, Chris Lilly has been a pillar of the block party since its beginnings. The face associated with Big Bob Gibson comes to us from Alabama, not with a banjo on his knee, but with the best pulled pork in the country as confirmed by six Memphis in May championships — a dynasty that LeBron James can only fantasize about. I started with Chris this year as his is the longest line even for Disney, er, Big Apple BBQ Fastpass holders. And I have to say, that as great as all the other barbecue is at this event, nothing compares to Big Bob Gibson. I would also give a shout out to Chris' fellow Alabamian, Drew Robinson, whose homemade hot smoked sausages at his Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q tent were the missing links that I've been searching for all my life.
The Salt Lick was back with its own Texas red hots and barbecue brisket, the likes of which would defy comparison with the same animal being served 10 blocks north at the Second Avenue Deli. St. Louis-style spare ribs were well represented by Baker's Ribs out of Dallas and Virginia's Checkered Pig, though Pappy's Smoke House from St. Louis inexplicably served baby backs, which were equally inexplicably my favorites.
The Western Tennessee style whole hog from Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint served with sweet pickles and slaw was entirely different from Ed Mitchell's chopped apple vinegar soused sow. Mitchell, a Big Apple BBQ royal, interestingly has gotten so popular he has gone solo and is no longer affiliated with North Carolina's The Pit.
Final stop were my friends from Ubon's in Yazoo City, Miss., whose pulled pork is magical. For dessert (yes, I had dessert), a newcomer known as The Original Fried Pie Shop, with locations in Texas and Oklahoma, made fried fruit pies that invoked Hostess fruit pies but which were dripping with soulfulness. They were already sold out of blackberry and apricot, but the peach I had was like a cobbler on steroids. I'm already counting the days to next year's BABBQBP.