Letter from London: Through the Big Fog in Search of Smoky Meat

DFW's favorite limey Gavin Cleaver recently regaled us with an account of Texas barbecue in London, which put my mind at ease to a certain extent. Even if the product wasn't any good, at least I knew that someone somewhere had meat on a smoker, should my blood's oak levels dip too sharply. See, I have called London a very temporary home for the last three weeks and will do so for three more. It has to do with school, or something; I haven't really been paying attention to much aside from the pubs and the food and the jumping off point for weekend trips.

Barbecue has in the last five years become something of a curiosity in London, though Texas barbecue isn't necessarily the standard (the horror, the unmitigated effrontery, I know). I looked for or stumbled upon three barbecue joints in Central London, and the more closely they tried to mimic American barbecue, the worse it got. Traveling for six weeks will teach you certain lessons which, upon realization, feel like they should be common knowledge. One of the life truths that searching for barbecue in London gifted me is that the greatest cuisine takes the best of one culture's food and marries it with the best of another's.

Pitt Cue Co. (Soho, London)

And that's just what's happening at London's Pitt Cue Co. It's farm-to-table. It's a solid oak smoke. And there are plenty of similarities between Pitt Cue's menu and the options at your favorite joint back home. But what makes this place great is the fact that its barbecue is on British terms. Which is only fair, as it stands on British ground.

They've got a very nice pulled pork to hear the gentleman sitting next to me tell it, and we had to stand "in queue" before it opened for dinner, just like some of DFW's best barbecue joints. In fact, the primary conversational bit as we queued up was rampant vegetarianism, which made me feel at home, while the lovely British accents of the conversation-havers were somewhat of a jolt. The joint, if you can call it that, started as a food truck, but the brick-and-mortar version opened three years ago.

The jolting differences continued on the menu. The pig is prevalent; the mangalitsa, to be exact. The mangalitsa breed is a Hungarian mountain pig, and the curly-haired tasties have apparently only recently started to be imported stateside. For Pitt Cue, they are raised, along with many other menu items, on farms in Cornwall. The fat is marbled like a good prosciutto, and the thin strips of shoulder cut I tried were some of the tenderest pork I've ever tasted. Apparently the breed was so well known for the taste its fat lent to other dishes, it was once traded as a prized commodity on the Vienna stock exchange.

But pork shoulder and ribs are about where Pitt Cue departs from what a Texan would know as barbecue. They thankfully didn't fool around with fries, barbecue beans or potato salad (there is a green chile slaw). The conversation around sides starts and ends with the bone marrow mash, which swims in fat and is crowned with the requisite dab of marrow. The beef sausage is done in-house and is as tender as the mangalitsa, though it is a different breed altogether. 

There is no barbecue sauce at Pitt Cue. The music over the speakers is house instead of the obligatory bro country. The menu tomorrow might not contain everything it did today, and that's quite OK. There is something to be said for the culinary freedom Pitt Cue comfortably works under, which is engendered by the lack of cultural allegiance to 'barbecue' the institution. If you find yourself in London and can spare a few quid ($$$), this is the perfect British take on the barbecue genre. 

The more laughable slip-ups in the English Barbecue Experiment happen when they attempt to import and reproduce our barbecue. Even among these unfortunates, there is still a pecking order.

Bodean's (multiple locations)
That's right. London has a barbecue chain. Not only that, famed British culture mag Time Out gave Bodean's a Polished Turd Award when it said the joint had the "best ribs this side of the Atlantic." Both the spare and the baby backs were considerably better here than at the third place, but they'd be lumped into the tough and chewy middle of the road in the Dallas barbecue scene. They are trying to do beef rib, too, which is at least worth acknowledging. 

This is a chain that knows what good barbecue is, as the pulled pork and the chicken thighs on my massive sampler platter were both very edible, even good! The hickory smoked and chipotle sauces were fair as well, but there seemed to be some confusion on what a burnt end is. Bodean's burnt ends are neither burnt nor are they ends, kind of like Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island. Discuss amongst yourselves. 

No, what I got instead of the charred and crusty critters I expected was more of a brisket box. Little brisket cubes without much smoky char at all. I laughed out loud as I chewed, but I ate a second one. You win, I suppose, Bodean's. 

Porky's (Shoreditch, London)

These folks are trying. That's about all you can say about Porky's. The thin strands of pulled pork coiled tightly into piles made good fodder for the toasted bun resting on a separate platter. Just making it over to the bun with a full forkful of pork was a bit like crossing the Atlantic. The pickles were red. The beans were hard and white. You need surgical retractors to split one rib from the other. 

This is the horror story you imagine when you think "barbecue in [insert country outside U.S. here]." 

Then, in a discussion about the Porky's "process," the manager, Michael, let slip the joint's cardinal sin. "And then comes the liquid smoke," he said. At least hide the fact that you use liquid smoke like any number of Texas joints, man. Don't be so out in the open with it. When he continued on about Ragu being in the sauce for the beans I made sure to leave before either fainting or laughing the guy out of his own restaurant.