Mr. B's Bistro BBQ Shrimp
Mr. B's Bistro

The First ‘Barbecue Sauce’ Was for Shrimp, Not Ribs

It doesn’t bear much resemblance to any other barbecue-style sauce
Mr. B's Bistro BBQ Shrimp
Mr. B's Bistro

In New Orleans, Mr. B's Bistro turns out a stellar barbecue shrimp.

Stick the word “barbecue” in front of any type of food and most people will interpret that to mean that it’s been smoked low and slow. And even though there are many different types of barbecue sauce out there, the general template doesn’t vary too much. But there’s one dish out there that’s “barbecued,” and drowning in sauce, but it doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything barbecue-related: New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp.

As legend has it, barbecue shrimp was invented at an Uptown New Orleans restaurant called Pascal’s Manale in the mid-1950s, after a regular who’d just gotten back from a business trip to Chicago told the chef about a dish he had there that had shrimp, lots of butter, and pepper. The chef tried to replicate the recipe, and what he created was even better than the original. It was added to the menu, and remains there to this day.

Plenty of restaurants and chefs around New Orleans have put their own spin on the recipe since, but it basically boils down to this: Whole Gulf shrimp are tossed in a sauté pan along with butter, cream, Creole seasoning, black pepper, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, white wine, garlic, and hot sauce. It’s usually served in a large bowl, with plenty of French bread on the side for dipping.

This dish (and its accompanying sauce) is insanely delicious, but it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what’s coming out of the great smokehouses. So why is it called “barbecue” if it clearly isn’t?

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NPR tracked down Mark DeFelice, the current chef-owner of Pascale’s Manale, and asked him that very question. "Only because when it comes out, it kind of looks like it's got a reddish tint," he told them. And because barbecue sauce as we know it — that sweet, vinegary, tomatoey sauce — didn’t become a staple until the 1970s, nobody thought to call the accompanying sauce anything other than “barbecue sauce.” For New Orleans’ 31 best restaurants, click here.