Brisket from Frey Smoked Meat Co., one of many new barbecue joints to debut over the past year. (©Lisa Cates)
While Louisiana has a long-held smoked meat tradition (Ville Platte is billed as the “Smoked Meat Capital of the World”), New Orleans is somewhat newer to the smoke-and-flame game. A recent barbecue craze that hit citywide has resulted in the opening of a half-dozen new pit-smokin’ joints. Add to that all the wood-fired ovens lending flame, scent and flavor to everything from breads to vegetables, meat, seafood and even sweets (check out the grilled s’mores at Primitivo). The reinvigorated local taste for all things smoked, grilled and charred has restaurants, chefs and diners fired up.
In the Central Business District, Chophouse New Orleans’ 28-day-aged steaks come charred on the outside (your choice for interior temperature). The meal to have: a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye, table-size (sharing is caring) creamed spinach and oniony, rich and decadent Lyonnaise potatoes. And though it may seem counterintuitive, Pêche, known for its seafood, fire-cooks a large, table-sharing ribeye steak that begs for a side of white beans and bacon, while the signature whole fish, skin slashed and charred, comes dressed with salsa verde. Go all in with grilled greens doused with lemon and chili.
On revamped Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City, chef Eric Labouchere is all about the smoke and fire at Primitivo. Here too there are big cuts of beef, chicken and duck for sharing. For something smoky and a little off the beaten path, check out the creamy smoked mullet with field-pea puree, crispy earthy charred kale and the standout surprise, a smoky, tomato-rich plate of tripe (do it, trust us) spiked with chile, and mellowed by croutons and a hefty amount of grana (Parmesan) curls.
Walk a few blocks downtown from Primitivo, where chef/personality Isaac Toups has his restaurant Toups South, adjacent to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. There the chef puts to use the original smoker of Aaron Franklin (of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue fame), which was donated to the museum, turning out steaks, a luscious foie torchon and deep, smoky lamb legs plated with sweet corn chow chow, heady aged sheep cheese and roasted red peppers.
Uptown at Patois, chef de cuisine Jonathan Lomonaco regularly fires up the pit for the popular smoky lamb ribs with green tomato relish, but look for the smoked and cured duck breast that comes with foie gras jus. Yes, foie gras jus. Down the street at Clancy’s, the handwritten menu features the restaurant’s iconic and lightly, cherry wood-smoked soft-shell crabs with lump crabmeat and roasted garlic meunière. Divine.
On a busy Magazine Street corner near the Whole Foods Market (there’s a smoker there, too), Kenton’s chef Kyle Knall stokes the pit fire, putting a smoky stamp on oysters, steak, pork and fish. The stunner is a slow-smoked trout with charred red onions, mushrooms and capers. At brunch, pair a smoked chipotle bloody mary (made with bourbon, pickled vegetables and bacon) with the creamy grits, smoked pork belly, poached eggs, broccoli and cilantro.
Paradigm Gardens, which grows and sells produce to Patois, Primitivo and other local restaurants, also holds regular events where chefs cook in an open-flame, brick-hearth oven. Ticketed and open to the public, it’s a party of live, local music and wood-fired food from such well-known establishments as Kenton's Coquette and Ancora. Everything from pizza to chicken legs and curries comes from the flames.
Today’s list of New Orleans barbecue restaurants is lengthy, and each place has a skilled pit master slow-cooking the usual suspects (ribs, brisket, pork butt, etc.) and a specialty menu item incorporating something from their pits. There’s a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) with house hogshead cheese and smoked pork at McClure’s in the tap room at NOLA Brewing; rich, glossy, pork belly at Frey Smoked Meat Co.; brisket nachos and pulled-pork eggrolls at Blue Oak BBQ; killer coleslaw at Ugly Dog Saloon; jalapeno-cheddar sausage at LA 23 BBQ and smoked crawfish and oysters at Central City BBQ.