If there was a better way to produce the seductively smoky, juicy and tender qualities of barbecued meats that so many of us obsess over, I'm certain that the technique would have been unearthed during the past couple hundred years that modern American barbecue has been kicking around. And if somebody did discover a better mousetrap, I'm pretty sure plastic bags would not have anything to do with it.
Jay Lee, who recently opened Ribsticks BBQ in University Heights, approaches his "barbecue" process very differently from the great pitmasters of the American South and West. His method involves placing various cuts of meat in vacuum-sealed bags and pre-cooking them in a temperature-controlled water bath.
"I love to cook barbecue in my home and when I began playing with molecular gastronomy I thought, maybe I can make the barbecue really tender," Lee, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, told me. "That's the best approach so far I tried."
Not me. During a recent visit I found few similarities between the foods Ribsticks is offering and those served at other barbecue joints near and far. Lee explained that after par-cooking the meat he smokes and later grills them. I didn't detect any smoke flavor in the brisket, pulled pork or spare ribs on my tray. None of the meats arrived with any trace of bark — that gorgeous dark crust that forms on the exterior of slow-smoked 'cue —even the so-called "burnt ends." Worse, those burnt ends actually are dry nubbins of pork and not the typical gloriously charred bits of fatty beef brisket.
The pulled pork was tender, but neither juicy nor exceedingly flavorful. The ribs were so soft and squidgy that the bones slid right out like a piston. And for some reason, the brisket in my sandwich was shredded into long, obstinate cords. If you, like me and many others, prefer to sauce your own meats, announce that when placing your order at the counter.
The irony of the setup at the "fast-casual" Ribsticks is that the process actually results in slower service than at full-service barbecue joints. That's because Lee's process requires a final grilling, whereas other spots simply need to slice and serve.
A three-meat trio with two sides costs $16. A brisket sandwich is $9.95.
Every pitmaster can have a good day; it's the bad days that keep Jon Ashton up at night. That's why he and partner Danny Cassano start every day at 1 a.m. to smoke all the meats that will be served at Barabicu Smokehouse on that day and that day only. And when they're gone, they're gone.
"We work our tails off here to put out a consistent product above all else," Ashton says. "I want people to come in and have the same kind of experience every time. Keep it simple, keep it juicy, keep it memorable."
Memorable indeed. I'm still thinking about that jiggly brisket, mouth-watering beef bombs beneath a dark-as-night cap of spice and succulent fat. Barabicu's meaty, firm yet yielding, and flavorful baby back ribs are kissed by mild fruitwood smoke and glazed with a thin, sweet crust. Billed as "chicken cupcakes," boneless smoked chicken thighs are blasted to order with a Searzall, leaving the skin hot and crisp and the meat juicy as a waterfall.
Barbecue should be an absolute joy to eat (until you've eaten too much, which is most of the time). When it comes to the how-to, there is simply no substitute for cooking meat low and slow in a moist, smoky environment. Done right, the process results in meat that needs no sauce to shine. Ashton serves all of his meats naked, leaving it up to the diner to choose between a thin and tangy mustard vinegar sauce, a sweet and smoky rib-sticker, or nothing at all.
In addition to the combo platters ($10-$22), there are pulled pork and chopped beef brisket sandwiches ($10), served on fresh-sliced On the Rise bread. Barabicu's sides include deliciously smoky braised greens, memorable smoked potato salad and creamy pasta salad. Specials like smoked meatloaf, smoked meatballs, assorted daily sausages and smoked chicken chili pop in and out of the lineup.
The Parma operation adheres firmly to the KISS principal: for now, it is carry-out only, but some dine-in seating might be added down the line.
If you park in the lot immediately behind the small plaza, you'll quickly spot a beefy trailer-mounted Southern Pride offset smoker with a plume of white smoke rising high into the gray winter sky. That's usually — but not always — a sign that real barbecue isn't too far away.