Big Apple BBQ: Hometown Barbecue

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Baby Back, melt off the bone, cooked for eons, god-savoring greatness. Pass the sauce please.

It was 79 degrees, but in the sun it felt like 90. Stand next to a giant steel smoker and you can add another 30 degrees. I watched the men wearing black plastic gloves move the sides of beef around like they were room temperature hamburger buns. It was only when I noticed they buried their hands in plastic tubs of ice that I realized they were on fire. There were two of them. Two portable, seven-foot-long Lang trailer-smoker lined up on the northern end of Madison Square Park and I was standing in the middle trying to get a photo with my phone. To say I felt foolish was an understatement. In two seconds I was burning up like I was standing barefoot on the planet Jupiter.

I shouldn't really judge a barbecue restaurant by just two sides of meat, and one side dish, from an offsite festival, but, maybe just this once?

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Tending to the beef ribs on the giant steel smoker.

It was day two of the Big Apple Barbecue Festival and the lines everywhere were hours deep. I began to ignore the menus and instead focused on what line might be the shortest. And then Sam waived over to a burly man wearing a black hat that said Hometown Barbecue. "There's Billy," she called out. "Hey Billy!" He waved and then motioned for us to come on in.

"He used to be a Hollywood bodyguard," Sam said as we nudged our way around the crowd and slithered past the metal barricades. My frilly blue sandals slipped around a bit on asphalt paved in its second day of beef fat.

The first time I saw Hometown Barbecue, I smelled it first. I was on a walking tour with Dustin Yellin, the founder of Pioneer Works. He pointed the place out, and said something like, "That place is great," and then kept us moving. I could smell several reasons to stop.

Wayne Mueller and Billy Durney at Big Apple Barbecue.

Wayne Mueller and Billy Durney at Big Apple Barbecue.

Beef ribs ready to be cut for the crowds.

Beef ribs ready to be cut for the crowds.

Sam and I stood around, feeling both in the way and lucky as hell. She went and grabbed two Tecate's from their cooler. We drank. Sam introduced me to Billy and we posed for a picture. (Don't worry Mom, the tattoo was temporary.) Billy's daughter wandered around with a stack of hats and blue eyes that matched her dad's. We chatted with Wayne Mueller, of Austin barbecue fame. Billy declared that he learned everything he knew from Wayne. I wanted to know how Wayne stayed so trim.

As I drank my beer I wondered if I would be able to get any meat. And finally it came our way. Small bone in pieces that were like candy. The meat tugged so nicely off the bone, leaving it clean, like I had run it through the dishwasher. I ate two.

They weren't serving the baby back to the crowds, they didn't have enough. We waited for the beef ribs to come out. Dark and coarsely covered in salt and pepper, the beef was so fatty I could feel my heart slow down a few beats. I ate each bite of meat dabbed in a pool of barbecue sauce (nice dark color and not too sweet), alongside a cool, bitter pickle. Sam grabbed us two more beers. We chatted with everyone and, I mean this when I say it, those barbecue guys are the sweetest, kindest men you'll ever talk to. I don't know if it's because I've been in New York three years, or what, but those giants with their big muscles, beards and hats on low and tight, they're also puppy dogs who will be sure to hand you a paper towel before you take your very first bite.

Posing with Hometown Barbecue pit master Billy Durney.

Posing with Hometown Barbecue pit master Billy Durney.

Lawrence LaPianta, pitmaster at the swanky cool bar  Aft  in Toronto, poses with my meat.

Lawrence LaPianta, pitmaster at the swanky cool bar Aft in Toronto, poses with my meat.