Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Andy Harris’ pork ribs
"Subtlety" is not the first word that comes to mind when it comes to barbecue. Whatever region it is from, barbecue is about big flavors, not tweezers. At Grand Ole BBQ y Asado (3302 32nd St.) though, it is the poetry Andy Harris finds in the smoke it uses to coax those big flavors into being.
If barbecue doesn't qualify as America's national cuisine it's certainly our national dish. Nothing says more about us, who we are and where we're from. There's the sweet, sauce-forward Kansas City style. There's Memphis' pork ribs (dry or wet with a less-sweet sauce). There's "Carolina Gold" mustard-based sauce. Then there's Texas barbecue where beef joins the party, smoke is the spice, and sauce is strictly optional.
That's the core of what Grand Ole BBQ offers: central Texas barbecue cooked low and slow (200-250 degrees) over local live and white oak for many, many hours. Take, for example, Harris' barbecued beef short ribs. While not a classic canvas for the pitmaster's art, they show why, perhaps, they ought to be: Short ribs are an incredibly flavorful cut that benefits from a long, slow cook. Harris' smoking technique—aided only by a salt/pepper rub (heavy on the latter)—concentrates the meat's flavor where braising doesn't. Tender, with intense, savory, beefy flavor and a layer of soft smoke there may be no better way to cook the cut.
Smoke played a different, more assertive, role in the Texas turkey; a star turn rather than a supporting part. Turkey is not the most inherently flavorful of meats, and smoked turkey brings to mind bad-deli, low-fat sandwiches. Here, though, the smoke brought out the glorious essence of the bird: its savory character and meaty textures, all elevated by the smoke.
Then there's Grand Ole BBQ's pork spareribs. Not the most classic of Texas BBQ meats—that would be brisket (available evenings until sold out)—the ribs are, frankly, perfect. The meat is tender but toothsome, retaining just a bit of structural integrity, meat but not mush. While the sparerib rub is more elaborate than the beef's, the focus of the ribs is the flavor of the meat itself. While Grand Ole BBQ has four sauces available (as well as pickles and a selection of hot sauces) none were necessary, though the vinegar-based sauce played nicely with the pork.
On Sundays, Texas barbecue gives way to Harris' family roots in the form of an updated Argentine grill. Harris cooks skirt steak, whole chicken, lamb and morcilla (blood sausage) with the same precision he brings to the barbecue and pairs it with a great chimichurri sauce. Try, in particular, the morcilla sausage over polenta.
It is that precision, the poetry of the cooking and use of smoke that makes Grand Ole BBQ exceptional. Often with Texas barbecue it seems you're eating some meat with your smoke. Not so here. The smoke is calibrated perfectly to enhance the meat, not dominate it. The result is meat that tastes more like what it is. The smoke may be the catalyst, but it's all about the meat. It's all about those big meaty flavors and, yes, subtlety.