If you know me, then you know I love good barbecue. Good, authentic, juicy, tender, smoky, well prepared and well made barbecue. Conversely, I hate food and restaurants that call themselves "barbecue" and then offer a product that is not even remotely related to the great American tradition of barbecue.
There are a lot of "BBQ" joints around. Most don't even know where brisket comes from on a cow, much less prepare it properly. Great brisket can show a pit master's chops like little else. Unfortunately, here in Western New York, there are very few options to even sample true barbecue brisket, much less those that do it well. That said, properly done barbecue pork can show a pit master's skill too. It takes some hard work, skill and art to properly smoke a pork butt/shoulder or ribs.
There are many good barbecue restaurants in Western New York. There are even more want-to-be barbecue joints that can't do it right. At least, that's always been my experience. In thinking of about that, I started to wonder what the best barbecue joint in Western New York truly is. Is there a truly authentic barbecue joint in Western New York that properly demonstrates how great this genre of food can be? Are there joints that are as good, if not better, than the competition level barbecue you can get in the South right here in Western New York?? These questions, I felt, were worthy of another Nittany Epicurean competition, much like the Märzen and IPA battles I'm conducting.
Therefore, I'm starting a competition to find the best barbecue Western New York has to offer. Since it's so hard to find good brisket here, I decided that I needed to judge the places on something they all make. It had to be meat because, while side dishes are good and essential to barbecue restaurants, it's the pit master's skill in smoking and preparing meat that makes a barbecue joint great. I ultimately settled on barbecue pork as my litmus test. Barbecue or pulled pork can be found on nearly all barbeuce menus in Western New York. It can be done in a way to make you never want to eat it again. It can also be done in such a way that you want to eat it every day of your life.
In terms of judging the pork, it's got to be well smoked. I should be able to see evidence of the pink smoke ring that shows proper smoking on some of the pieces. It should be juicy and tender and not dry nor chewy. Lastly, there must be bark! Bark, if you don't already know, is the well seasoned, smoked and charred exterior of barbecued meats. Good barbecue or pulled pork has to meet all the aforementioned criteria and it must also have some tasty bark in it!
I've enlisted the help of some of my friends in the Buffalo/Niagara Foodies group on Facebook to give me suggestions of the places that need to be included in this competition. A big thanks to all those good folks who have already given me a number of places that I need to try or revisit.
Donnie Burtless of Buffalo Eats, a killer food blog that I've been featured on, suggested a standout barbecue place. It's a little hole in the wall in the Riverside neighborhood of Buffalo. As well all know, sometimes the best food you can get in any restaurant can be found in joints that are tiny and are off the beaten path. With this kind of recommendation, I knew I had to start the competition at the place Donnie suggested:
Suzy-Q's Bar-B-Que Shack.
Here's the front of the menu:
When you walk in, the place has the faint odor of barbecue smoke and is quite small. That's a good start. Here's a look at the modest interior:
We were greeted immediately by Suzy. In fact, she was incredibly accommodating and came to our table several times throughout the course of the meal to make sure we enjoyed everything and to see how our kids were doing. There's no substitution for an omnipresent owner who shows concern about and pride in their establishment.
As we looked over the menu, I noticed that it was quite large, and filled with many appetizers, sandwiches, wraps, specialties and, of course, barbecue. The barbecue meat options include pulled pork, smoked turkey, smoked sausage, smoked beef brisket, smoked chicken thighs and smoked ribs. I really thought about getting something in addition to the pulled pork, but ended up with choosing that as my sole meat in my 1/2 "Heap of BBQ Dinner". I chose the coleslaw and "Fire & Ice" pickles as sides. My wife also opted for the pulled pork. For the kids, we got 4 smoked chicken thighs and 2 sides for them to share. We ordered some pops and I went with my standard barbecue drink (when I don't choose beer), sweet tea.
After an average wait, the food arrived. Here's a look at my plate:
Before I began eating, Suzy explained each of their three homemade sauces. They have a Kansas City style tomato based sweet barbecue sauce, a spicy version of the Kansas City style sauce and a Eastern North Carolina style vinegar based sauce.
The pork was very good. It was tender and was relatively moist. You could see the smoke ring on many of the pieces. It had a nice smoked flavor, but was under seasoned. I would assume it was by design as many barbecue joints rely on their sauces to season the finished product. There wasn't enough bark, however. That would have made the pork really outstanding. That aside, it was very good. The sides were good, and I really enjoyed the pickles. They were sweet & sour or bread & butter style pickles that were also cured with sliced jalapeños. While they were slightly spicy, they weren't too spicy for my four year old son to enjoy them! He stole them right off my plate!
With the meat, I started with this sauce:
This sauce is not quite what I was expecting from a North Carolina sauce. I was certainly expecting the vinegar bite and it delivered there. However, I was expecting a bit of mustard in it, which wasn't present or at least not at the forefront. Nonetheless, it was sweet, acidic and spicy. It was the best of the three sauces for the pork for my palate. My wife preferred the sweeter, Kansas City style sauce. I love when a barbecue joint scratch makes their sauces. That earned Suzy another notch.
My wife also enjoyed the corn bread. I didn't order any, but probably should have. It was warm, crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. It had an intense corn flavor, which often gets lost with cornbread. Here's the side she received, albeit not the best picture I've ever taken:
All in all, Suzy-Q's Bar-B-Que Shack was a great first stop in the competition. The barbecue was well done and well priced. My 1/2 heap of pork with 2 sides was only $7.75. The kids' chicken thighs with two sides totaled $11.95. The pork was well prepared and I found a new barbecue joint worthy of a trip in Western New York. We'll be back for sure.
Which stop will be next in the Western New York Barbecue Competition? How will it fare against a high standard set by Suzy-Q's Bar-B-Que Shack?? Stay tuned!
If there are any places that you think need to part of this competition, please leave me a comment!
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