The Great NYC Barbecue Battle

Photo: Kenneth Chen

Barbecue, in case you haven’t noticed—or endured the endless lines at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party—is big. It’s also apt to start a fight, more so even than New York pizza or Tucker Carlson. The prevailing wisdom is that New York barbecue is doomed to pale next to ’cue from Memphis, Kansas City, Lubbock, and just about anywhere else, despite the best efforts and blind optimism of the entrepreneurs who continue to open new joints here—no less than ten this past year, by our count. To assess the local goods, we staged perhaps the first-ever New York barbecue competition. We stuck to pork ribs—a defining dish—and assembled a panel of experts: three New York Magazine food pros, two chefs (both Texans, even though it’s a beef state), and one young woman from Memphis whom we dragged in off the street. Adhering as best we could to the Kansas City Barbecue Society point system and judging criteria, we sent for the ribs, had the interns place them in unmarked containers, lined them up on the conference-room table, and commenced gnawing.

Blue Smoke,
116 E. 27th St.; 212-447-7733

Bone Lick Park,
75 Greenwich Ave.; 212-647-9600

Daisy May’s BBQ USA,
623 Eleventh Ave.; 212-977-1500

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que,
646 W. 131st St.; 212-694-1777

The Ranger Texas Barbecue,
71-04 35th Ave., Jackson Heights; 718-779-6948

357 West St.; 212-336-9330

208 W. 23rd St.; 212-524-4300

Virgil’s Real Barbecue,
152 W. 44th St.; 212-921-9494

Julie E. Farias,
chef, Ici restaurant; hometown: San Antonio, Texas

Matt Greco,
chef tournant, Café Gray; hometown: Austin, Texas

Janet Ozzard,
“Strategist” editor, New York; hometown: Bridgewater, N.J.

Adam Platt,
chief restaurant critic, New York; hometown: Washington, D.C.

Robin Raisfeld,
food editor, New York; hometown: Atlantic Beach, N.Y.

Laura Rogers,
summer intern at a PR firm; hometown: Memphis, Tenn.

It’s true what they say about eating with your eyes: This category inspired the highest scores, with Blue Smoke, Daisy May’s, Dinosaur, and the Ranger taking an early lead. Bone Lick, RUB, and Virgil’s ran close behind, while Rib brought up the rear. The judges noted Dinosaur’s burnished exterior and distinctive smoke ring, a telltale sign of good technique, and wondered whether these well-trimmed specimens were too pretty for their own good. (“The Stepford Wives of ribs,” Farias declared.) The Texan also admired Blue Smoke’s glossy Kansas City–style entry, which she pronounced “appealing, with a nice pinky color.” Ozzard saw a similarity between the dark-mahogany finish on the Ranger’s product and her grandmother’s end table, but she meant it as a compliment, and Rib’s mustard-colored entry proved controversial from the get-go, sparking a rift between Northerners and Southerners: “What the @##@ is this?” said Farias, as if someone had just served her a McRib sandwich, pointing to grill marks that looked as if they’d “been applied like tattoos,” while Platt concluded that they were “frightening, but somehow alluring.”

A difficult round for Blue Smoke, which fell precipitously from its early lead. “Tough,” “stringy,” and “rubbery”—perhaps the three very words a pitmaster fears most—were the consensus of our hard-nosed panel. Ozzard, Greco, and Raisfeld remarked upon the Ranger’s “moist and meaty, well-marbled tenderness,” which put it out front. Daisy May’s, Dinosaur, and RUB held their own, Bone Lick came on strong, and even Rib redeemed itself, albeit slightly, with a succulence that both Platt and Raisfeld rewarded with high marks. But Virgil’s took a dive for a texture that Rogers described as “flimsy” and Raisfeld agreed was “floppy.”

We doubled the scores in this category, the way the big barbecue-contest organizers do. The Ranger, the leader from the previous round, lost crucial ground for a perceived porkiness deficiency and a bad aftertaste. Blue Smoke, RUB, and Virgil’s all scored poorly in this category as well, with Bone Lick faring slightly better. Rib, meanwhile, plummeted, although Rogers, in a conciliatory mood, declared its ribs “not terrible, just different,” and Platt confessed he’d order them in a restaurant in a heartbeat, “but not in the company of a barbecue loon.” That left the field wide open for Daisy May’s and Dinosaur, who’d run a tight race until now. Ultimately, a superior balance of smoke and spice was the deciding factor. The sweetness of Daisy May’s ribs was a sticking point for every judge. Even a fan like Greco speculated “a whole rack would make me sick,” while Platt likened them to “exotic candy” as he picked clean another bone, then flicked it into the scrap bucket. Dinosaur, on the other hand, was deemed to have just the right amount of smoke by Farias and Greco, and true balance by Ozzard and Raisfeld, and as the sun set over the bone-littered battleground, and the Wetnaps were circulated, a champion was born.

The Great NYC Barbecue Battle