The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, which happens this weekend in Madison Square Park, is the biggest and most important barbecue event of the year by far. But you still stand a good chance of being miserable there unless you know what you’re doing. Every year more people come, putting more pressure on the vendors and making it hard to enjoy yourself. Here are a few tips on finding barbecue bliss.
• Get there early — as in the minute it opens. Crowds and heat aside, barbecue tends to run out, and even when it doesn’t, its quality deteriorates from sitting out all day. Also, be prepared for infrastructure problems: There is no running water to speak of, so bring some kind of wet naps or hand cleanser. There are never enough garbage cans, so try not to tie your hands up with extra junk. And since lines tend to snake and shuffle, zealously guard your place.
• Although Shake Shack will have the usual insanely long line, the frozen custard “express line” will be open and much more manageable. That custard might be the perfect digestif.
• The panel discussions will be a lot of fun, but none of them include barbecue heavyweights. You would do better to converse with the pitmasters if you want to learn about the smoky arts. If we were to go to one panel, it would surely be Sunday’s “Beyond Barbecue” (1 p.m.), featuring Smokestack Lightning author Lolis Eric Elie, Ed Levine of Serious Eats, Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue, and Southern Foodways Alliance head John T. Edge. Their combined food knowledge is staggering, and Elie and Edge are true scholars of ‘cue culture.
• Here’s the single most important thing to know: Barbecue is a specialist’s art, and this is your one chance to get the best of each kind. That means pulled pork from Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s; whole hog from Ed Mitchell of Mitchell’s BBQ; baby-back ribs from Mike Mills of the 17th Street Bar & Grill; beef ribs from Hill Country BBQ; sausage from Bryan Bracewell at Southside Market; and pork spareribs from Garry Roark at Ubon’s.
• When ordering, it’s not rude to ask the servers to give you particular parts of the meat. When getting pulled pork, ask for some of the “bark,” or “Mr. Brown,” the crusty exterior of the pork butt (a good pork sandwich should always contain some.) For brisket, ask for deckle, the rich, tender cap muscle where all the flavor lives. If someone is about to hand you a gnarly-looking rib or sausage, don’t be ashamed to ask for a different one.
• You can tell if barbecue is done right by certain signs that judges look for in competition. For example, if you take a bite of a rib, the meat should come away cleanly and easily and leave a clear bite mark behind. Pork should be soft enough to shred by hand, but not so soft that it disintegrates. The presence of a ton of sauce is a dead giveaway that the pitmaster has no faith in the taste of his meat.
• Here’s a quick and easy glossary of barbecue terms. “Carolina style” means served with a light vinegar dressing and centers around pulled-pork shoulder. “Pork butt” means pork shoulder. “Texas style” means simply smoked over oak wood, with only salt and pepper as seasoning. “Pink ring” is a coloration of the meat, caused by nitration, that is a sure sign that it has been cooked right. Spareribs are bigger but less tender than baby-back ribs, which come from the loin, the same area as pork chops. “Rub” is a spice mixture that is massaged into the meat before cooking.