Everything you need to know to successfully navigate NYC's premier barbecue event, happening next weekend.
Table Of Contents (all h2's added automatically)
The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party (BABBP), the annual summer meat smoking and eating frenzy, is less than two weeks away. The charity event benefiting the Madison Square Park Conservatory takes place on the weekend of June 13 and 14 from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. in and around Madison Square Park. Now in its thirteenth year, the event is one of the city's biggest celebrations of real wood and charcoal smoked barbecue, and as always promises to bring in pit masters and styles from across the city and the nation. Though originally established by Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, the BABBP is now managed by an Austin, TX based event company and celebrity chef Tim Love, who will be cooking at this year's event.
The BABBP takes place in Madison Avenue from 23rd Street to 27th Street and along 26th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, and all those blocks will be closed off to vehicles for the weekend. The event is free to attend, and food is sold by the plate ($9-$12 each, complete menu below) that typically contains a portion of meat or a meat sandwich and a side item or two. Dessert and beverages, including alcohol within designated areas such as the beer garden, are also available, and both cash and credit cards are accepted. Neighboring restaurant Eleven Madison Park will once again be offering bourbon and live blues, with a chance to get your hands on some Pappy Van Winkle. Inside Madison Square Park, a lineup of seminars and live bands also provide entertainment between rounds of meat.
The individual pits line the streets where attendees wait in line, with large colored flags marking the end of the line. Be warned that with an estimated 125,000 visitors over the course of the weekend, lines can get rather long, especially for some of the more popular pits. It's best to come armed with a game plan, so look out for the official BABBP map of the pit layout, which will be announced June 10. It will be available online, but copies will also be in plentiful supply throughout the event.
One of the defining aspects of the BABBP is that it brings various regional barbecue styles to NYC. Here are the different forms represented at this year's event. If you're going, you should try at least one type of each of these:
Within North Carolina there are two distinct styles of barbecue. In the eastern part of the state, whole hog barbecue dominates. Hogs are smoked whole and then the entire carcass is chopped and mixed with a blend of vinegar, pepper flakes, and other spices. This style is represented at this year's event by Sam Jones of the Skylight Inn. The other style found in NC is called the Lexington or Western Lexington style, and focuses on pork shoulder. It is not represented at the BABBP.
Beef is king in Texas, and this style of barbecue principally focuses on beef brisket and sausage. Sauce is not a significant factor in Texas barbecue (although it certainly exists there). Instead, the meat is generally rubbed with only salt and pepper and smoked over post oak wood, making it one of the most primal forms of barbecue. Texas is usually one of the best represented styles at the BABBP and this year is no exception. Long time participants Salt Lick from Driftwood, TX will once again be serving brisket and sausage. Meanwhile, Tim Love, who owns the Woodshed Smokehouse in Fort Worth, TX (amongst numerous restaurants) will be bucking stereotype and cooking lamb brisket. But the big news this year is that Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue from Taylor, TX will be cooking for the first time at the BABBP (further details below). The Texas style is also represented locally by both Hill Country and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, both of whom will be serving beef brisket.
As in much of the South, pork is the most popular meat in Tennessee barbecue. Memphis is known for ribs above any other cut. Despite hailing from St. Louis, MO, Pappy's Smoke House unabashedly bills itself as Memphis style barbecue, as does the Memphis Smokehouse, which hails from Horn Lake, MS. Both will be serving Memphis style ribs this year. The more rural areas to the east of Memphis tend to focus more on whole hog barbecue, and this style is expressed by longtime BABBP participant Pat Martin of Martin's Bar-B-Cue Joint from Nashville.
Although not a popularly recognized form, one could argue that a style can indeed be defined by a single establishment, at least when Chris Lilly is your pitmaster. Big Bob Gibson's dates back to 1925 and is renowned for both its mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce and for its pulled pork.
While there isn't a true NYC style per se – most of the city-bred participants are cooking other styles of barbecue – we are beginning to see unique variations of barbecue emerge in local pits. Notably, Bill Durney at Hometown Barbecue will be cooking Jamaican jerk baby back ribs at this year's event, drawing on traditions of the Brooklyn neighborhoods he grew up in.
With 17 pits at the BABBP you will have a lot of ground to cover if you want to hit each spot. At $9 - $12 per portion you are looking at spending as much as $204 to sample everything, not including beverages. It probably helps to break up the feat over the course of two days. Alternatively, think about enlisting some friends to line up at different pits simultaneously. If your appetite isn't quite that ambitious and you want to narrow down the list, here are five must-try pits:
Skylight Inn, pitmaster Samuel Jones (Ayden, NC)
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, pitmaster Patrick Martin (Nashville, TN)
17th Street Bar & Grill, pitmaster Mike Mills (Murphysboro, IL)
Louie Mueller Barbecue, pitmaster Wayne Mueller (Taylor, TX)
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, pitmaster Chris Lilly (Decatur, AL)
If you're driving, know that parking can be scarce in the immediate vicinity of the park, especially since Madison Avenue and the cross streets running from 23rd through 26th street and Park Avenue are all closed. However, Madison Square Park is well served by subways, with the 23rd Street stop of the 4,5,6,N,R trains all next door and the 1,2,3, A,B,C lines only a short walk away.
The event is held entirely outdoors and there is not a lot of shade outside of the park, so bringing a hat or an umbrella is advisable. While there are beverages available for purchase, bringing your own water bottle is the best way to remain hydrated, especially as the lines can be daunting in length. If you plan on consuming alcohol make sure to bring proper ID, and be sure to keep all booze in the designated areas. NYC laws apply throughout the event. Wet wipes and antacid will also come in handy.
The lower tier Fast Pass that sold for $125 has been eliminated this year, leaving only the BigPiggin' VIP Pass, which costs a whopping $284.75 per day (including service charge). This includes unlimited barbecue without the need to stand in line, plus all sorts of other niceties, like access to the hospitality tent where there's a catered buffet, open bar, and perhaps most importantly, air conditioned bathrooms. If this all sounds worth the cost, passes are still available online.
The Menu and Roster