Barbecue lovers can, on occasion, be a bit fanatical. Check out some of the barbecue-centric message boards online, or the seemingly endless variety of television food shows devoted to a particular type of barbecue, and you’ll be amazed by not just the range of opinions on the subject but also the passion with which they’re held.
This makes sense, as barbecue goes to the heart of what we are as a nation: a collection of diverse and distinct regions, spread out across an unimaginably large continent, each with different linguistic, cultural and, yes, culinary traditions.
I, for example, grew up on the high-toned zip of South Carolina barbecue, a love affair nurtured over the course of nearly 15 summers of trips south for family vacation. But I also love the smoky succulence of a great Texas brisket, as well as a complex dry rub or a saucy, messy plateful of meat.
But to devotees of the specificity of regional expressions, a restaurant like Blue Belly BBQ might raise a few red flags. It is, after all, among the least fundamentalist barbecue joints around. Right there on the restaurant’s website, it states the reason behind its M.O.: “At Blue Belly BBQ, chef Gene Giuffi cooks the sort of no-rules barbecue that he eats on his days off. ‘Blue Belly’ was a Civil War nickname for a Yankee soldier and is a nod to our eclectic Northern approach to barbecue. In addition to multi-regional styles, look for our international dishes including Korean beef, Mexican lamb barbacoa and much more.”
It’s a gutsy move, this barbecue mishmash, but one that ultimately proves the point that an open mind is the key to some of the world’s greatest pleasures. Who, after all, could argue with the allure of a menu that features dry-rubbed ribs alongside a Korean beef sandwich with kimchi? Those ribs, after all, were meltingly tender, the smoke mirrored in the charring of the edges, the rub singing with personality. And next to the Korean beef, all pulled and impossibly moist, and given a shock by a spicy-aromatic kimchi, the combination was miraculous. (Just make sure to wash each down with a beer, preferably a nice and taut IPA.)
The magnificently named “slow-roasted pig” sandwich was just that: deeply flavorful knobs of pork paired with a tangy mustard sauce and a pickled fennel salad that was the exact flavor opposite to the meat—bright and refreshing alongside the deep, almost earthy heft of the pig. The resulting tension was fantastic. Chicken, which is too often an uninspiring dish at restaurants all up and down the proverbial food chain, here proved that the cliché “tastes like chicken” needn’t be considered a negative. Smoky and sweet and finished in the fryer to crisp up the skin, this generous half-bird is a worthy neighbor to its more fatty (read: glamorous) counterparts on the menu.
All of the smoked meats come with a choice of three sides, and given the generosity of the portions here, that means not just a nice meal on its own, but plenty left over for another one ... or one heck of a snack later that night. Macaroni and cheese, with its Swiss and cheddar threads following your fork with each bite, was simple and honest and all the better for it. Greens found just the right acidity against their stewed richness, and corn cakes, though a bit on the heavy side, were excellent dragged through the remaining fat streaked across my plate.
But the real heroes of the side dish menu were the beans, smoky and tart and kissed with fennel seeds, and the Brussels sprouts, which had been blackened on one side in more animal fat. As for the fingerling potato salad, I fully plan on ordering a few containers of it prior to my mother’s first barbecue next spring, replacing their cardboard containers with a Ziploc bag, and claiming that I whipped it up myself.
Blue Belly, then, is a fantastic addition to our local dining scene, and not just in the realm of barbecue. Frankly, it’s no surprise, considering it comes from the same man behind Cochon, the award-winning French BYOB just across the street.
You can eat in, but with limited seating it’s just as easy to take out. Just consider yourself warned: There’s a good chance most of the food won’t make it back to your home. The intoxicating smell of the smoke and the meat makes it impossible to keep from snacking at every red light you hit on the drive home. It’s the best kind of downside to a new barbecue spot that I can imagine.
Blue Belly BBQ
600 Catharine Street
215-238-0615 | bluebellybbq.com
Photography by Felicia Perretti