August 23, 2012

5 Min Read
A Barbecue Revival

By Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Culinary Editor & Community Director of Content

According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, Oxford, MS, only a dozen or so restaurants in todays South cook barbecue the traditional way, with pitmasters tending to the long-burning embers of oak, hickory, pecan and other hardwoods in earthen pits, almost invariably slow-roasting whole hogs. And if they adhere completely to tradition (as some regions throughout the South still do), the finished, shredded pork is never saucedsimply moistened with a piquant mixture of vinegar and cayenne pepper.

Nevertheless, distinct approaches to barbecue have evolved over the years across the South, each state or region with its own meat, cut, seasoning and/or sauce treatments. Consider the preferences for dry-rubbed (but not sauced) beef brisket in Texas, mustard-spiked Carolina Gold" or vinegar-heavy sauces alternately accenting pulled pork and other meats in the Carolinas, and ribs doused with signature sweet-and-spicy sauces in Kansas City. Each approach is ardently defended, with others almost unilaterally scorned. (For more details on the differences in prevailing barbecue styles, review the Regional American Barbecue" Image Gallery on

The stars all align for barbecue, clearly positioning it as a trend worth watching into the foreseeable future: the myriad sweet, smoky, spicy and savory permutations of sauce and meat combinations spawned by regional American barbecue traditions; its comforting appeal as a brief respite from a world increasingly bombarded with healthful-eating messages; and its flexibility throughout every level of foodservice, with prevailing aspects trickling into retail.

Where theres smoke, theres fire

Barbecue maintains perennial seasonal appeal, but of late, barbecuewhether in the traditional sense, or as a flavor or stylehas seen a particularly thriving climate across the country. In early July, Technomic, Chicago, noted that more than 63% of the top-500 U.S. restaurant chains are offering barbecue as a flavor, ingredient or preparation style, with Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the foodservice market-research firm, stating that barbecue is increasingly prevalent on menus."

Technomic notes that most barbecue-style menu items dont indicate a particular flavor or regional approach, suggesting such details as points of potential competitive differentiation. In that vein, this past summer, Burger King called out Memphis, Carolina and Texas styles on its special, limited-time-offer (LTO) barbecue-themed menu: Memphis BBQ Pork, Carolina BBQ Whopper or Tendergrill (chicken), and Texas BBQ Whopper or Tendergrill. The chain also added sweet-potato fries to the mix.

Dairy Queen also added an LTO barbecue item to the menu this summer: the DQ Sweet Apple BBQ GrillBurger, notable in that the smoky barbecue sauce included soft chunks of apple. Other summer barbecue moves of note in the chain world included the return of the BBQ Pulled Pork Slider at White Castle, along with the addition of two new options: a BBQ Bacon Chicken Slider and an Original BBQ Slider. Subway added a Smokehouse BBQ Chicken sub, with smoked, shredded chicken in a tangy barbecue sauce. McDonalds maintains two Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap items on the menu, and chains such as McDonalds, Wendys, Sonic have all experimented with LTO barbecue-themed burgers and chicken sandwiches in the past.

Buffalo and otherwise hot chicken wingsoften featuring barbecue-style sauces, as well as ethnic treatmentscaught fire during our recent recession, when wings were still a less-expensive option in terms of ingredient cost and consumer price point. Despite higher prices today, wings have continued to build momentum. In May, Mintel Menu Insights noted that incidence of Buffalo wings on menus has grown by 19% over the last three years. Buffalo Wild Wings, which has seen strong growth since the recession (averaging around 15% growth per year over the last several years), includes several barbecue-style wings on its chicken-centric menu.

Several Asian cuisines feature barbecue-inspired elements. The world of Latin American and Asian fusion, as seen in Los Angeles with Roy Chois Mexican-Korean barbecue tacos that originally fueled the food-truck trend, has helped push the boundaries of barbecue. This current continues to run through the mobileand traditionalfoodservice world. The flavors of ethnic barbecue, such as those found in Korean, Chinese and Japanese barbecue traditions, can do much to differentiate this ongoing trend. One example is Chicagos Belly Q, a new Asian barbecue concept from Bill Kim (of Urban Belly and Belly Shack).

Affordable indulgences

Barbecue restaurants prevail throughout the South. But major markets outside the South, like New York (Fette Sau, Fatty Cue, Mables, Blue Smoke), Los Angeles (Mr. Cecils, Bludsos, Baby Blues, Phillips) and Chicago (Smoque, Lillies Q, Twin Anchors, Smoke Daddy, Fat Willys), have built thriving barbecue movements over the years, from rustic smokehouses that wouldnt feel out of place in rural Mississippi to concepts bordering on the high end of the spectrum. That latter portion has particularly taken hold of late. Much of fine dining has seen a revamp in recent years, as consumers trade up and down to mitigate economic stress while still partaking in affordable indulgences. Thus, as the white tablecloths have disappeared, more-casual items, like barbecue, have hit the menu.

The historical aspect of barbecue can also drive this trend. Although its menu doesnt solely focus on barbecue, Chicagos Big Joneswhich has a southern heirloom" focus, with some menu items including dates of approximated recipe origination (e.g., Buttermilk Pie, ca. 1928")includes items like Smoked & Smothered Pork Shoulder served with Dutch Fork, SCstyle tart mustard sauce, topped with vinegar slaw on an egg bun." The highly regionalized nature of specific barbecue styles, particularly when recreated with great historical accuracy, could prove a notable draw.

High-end foodservice often serves as inspiration for the industry, and one emerging trend related to barbecue is the use of ashoften from charred vegetables or hayas a flavor accent. Frank McClelland, chef and proprietor of Bostons LEspalier, has been charring vegetables culled from his Apple Street Farm and using the ash to flavor items like oysters and venison. Due to its popularity, hes even considering packaging his ash for retail sale. Both New Yorks Aquavit and Chicagos Blackbird use hay ash as an ingredient, with the latter restaurant featuring it in its Hay Ice Cream, which complements the cool creaminess with the essence of a rural, summertime cookout.

When it comes to barbecue, theres a wide enough spectrum to accommodate everyone.

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