In honor of Sunday's sold-out Meat Fight, we're celebrating smoked animal flesh all week long in our inaugural Meat Week, in which we celebrate the procuring, cooking and face-stuffing of dead-animal flesh.
Popular opinion of barbecue sides is that they should support the primary meat. Cole slaw cools the mouth when spices overpower. Bread soaks up sauce. Smothered greens add color/ham to the plate.
But sides can be much more. When a barbecue restaurant puts the same focus and effort into their cornbread as their brisket, everyone wins. Every part of your barbecue indulgence should be delicious, and if a side isn't good enough on its own then it isn't good enough to appear alongside lovingly and diligently smoked meats. Here are just a few of the sides that have caught our attention.
Lockhart Slaw at Lockhart Smokehouse As a child I refused to eat anything mayo-based, but with the wisdom of age I've come to appreciate the tangy cooling effect of a well-executed slaw. The first bite I had of Lockhart's slaw was so good I didn't realize I had mechanically spooned in for more until I'd already had two more mouthfuls. These were immediately followed by a low, slow burn, one that took over my entire mouth just as I started to notice it. Lockhart has some fancier cole slaws, including a bleu cheese-based one, but the buried sriracha, paprika and cayenne in their titular one elevates it past just cabbage and mayo.
Brisket Deviled Eggs at Lockhart Smokehouse Lockhart seems to specialize in making eccentric tweaks to classic sides. Their deviled eggs are no exception. There's room for a lot of variation in deviled eggs, considering that you can make limitless adjustments to the filling, which in its simplest form is just the egg yolks blended with mayonnaise or mustard. Lockhart pumps up the flavor and plays with the texture by incorporating bits of brisket into the mix. It's surprising to find brisket used almost like seasoning instead of a main dish, but these little things are addictive.
Hushpuppies at The Slow Bone Barbecue Slow Bone has a lock on barbecue sides. Everything from their peppery mac and cheese and their holy sweet potatoes is masterfully executed. But the stand out is their hushpuppy.
Technically, at Slow Bone, hushpuppies are considered a "bread option" and not a side dish. That designation is up for debate, but we'll skip it because it's so damn good to see proper hushpuppies. When you crack open a hushpuppy it should be fluffy, steaming and flecked with green. You should absolutely not see pure yellow inside -- the omission of fine chopped green onion and/or parsley is egregious, and enough cause to flip your table without anyone thinking you've overreacted. Growing up in Louisiana the fried cornmeal was a staple at any festival or cook-out, and it was wise of owner Jack Perkins to include them on the menu.
The Cheezy Corn Bake at Mike Anderson's BBQ Cornbread is the sort of dish that is always the subject of debate. Region to region and house to house people disagree on things like sweetness, firmness, white cornmeal or yellow cornmeal. No two cornbread recipes are exactly the same anywhere, and the variations deserve their own cookbook series.
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Mike Anderson's BBQ skips all that by transforming their cornbread into something else entirely: the cheesy corn bake. Cornbread turned into a casserole consistency, filled with poblano and onion and topped with cheese. Descriptions of this dish range from "heavenly" and "transcendent" to just inarticulate moans. It's a rich and deep sweetness, balanced with heat, that offsets the smoke and tang of Mike Anderson's legendary barbecue sauce, which comes in its own compartment on the cafeteria-style trays. The cheesy corn bake may sounds like some poorly-marketed box dinner, but the quivering yellow mass is nothing short of sublime.
Fired Okra at Mike Anderson's BBQ (above left) The best description I've ever heard for fried okra is to call it Southern popcorn. When done properly there's a lightness to it that's usually impossible to find in fried foods, and the addictive quality of the little nuggets is hard to overemphasize. There's an art to converting the slimy, finger-like okra pods into something edible (they are creepily called "lady fingers" in other parts of the world) and when properly stewed, fried or stuffed into seafood few vegetables are more delicious. Mike Anderson's has some of the most compulsively-eatable fried okra I've had in years, both dry and as a vehicle for ketchup or barbecue sauce. While there are no delusions that fried okra is good for you, it's wonderful to see vegetables turned into something that produces the same ravenous effects of other barbecue staples, proving there's space at the table for everything in the food pyramid.