By Eliza Mackintosh / November 19, 2013 / Roads & Kingdoms
Britain has a dirty little secret: it’s binging on barbecue.
I’m acutely aware of this craze as I stand outside Pitt Cue Co, a tiny barbecue joint tucked away on a street corner in Soho. Dozens of people have assembled in a queue that wends its way from the wooden front door down a cobblestoned street. Apparently the restaurant’s no-reservation policy hasn’t deterred the mass of happy people smoking and sipping cans of cider curbside.
These eager punters are here for the magic that is Tom Adams’ grilling. Pitt Cue’s 25-year-old English chef has taken up the tongs to deliver a uniquely British barbecue experience in a city that is currently experiencing a cult-like obsession with all things smoked. Despite Adams’ age, he’s been at this business for a while. At 16, Adams built his first smoker out of old dustbins at his family’s farm in Pitt, Hampshire—the restaurant’s namesake—where he was raised.
“I had no idea what barbecue was then,” Adams said.
What started as a hobby—an interest in butchery, charcuterie and curing meats—led to a popular food truck and blossomed into a renowned restaurant in Central London, which was just rated best value menu in the city by Zagat.
Pitt Cue is one of the many restaurants wrapped up in London’s current barbecue wave. Pub menus, festivals, markets, and street food dedicated exclusively to “American-style” meat menus are cropping up across this city. Barbecoa, Bodean’s BBQ, The Rib Man, Blue Boar Smokehouse, Red Dog Saloon, Porkys, Miss P’s Barbecue, Smoke Stack and Texas Joe’s are just a handful among a groundswell of recent barbecue upstarts.
Adams’ restaurant is a gem among this pack of purveyors. Pitt Cue began modestly in 2011 as a food van underneath Hungerford Bridge, on the South Bank of the Thames. After setting London’s street food scene on fire, the restaurant has successfully transitioned to its hip brick-and-mortar space that sits steps from London’s popular shopping district, Carnaby Street.
Peeking through the white lace-curtained windows at the swarm of customers crowding the first-floor bar, it strikes me that this establishment is undeniably trendy for a place where you eat with your hands. A server tells me that it’s an hour wait until the next available table downstairs, but to come inside and hang out at the bar.
In a show of what can only be described as Southern hospitality, the bartender pours me a pickleback: a shot of Heaven Hill’s sweet, smoky bourbon, followed by a shot of tangy pickle brine. I like it.
The drinks menu is dominated by bourbon mixology, a nod to the Georgia-roots of Adams’ business partner Jamie Berger. I opt for a “Camp America” cocktail with the idea that it will weave into a narrative of US-inspired fare, but Pitt Cue turns out to be anything but.
Starters on white tin plates stack up in front of me, all of them unexpected: a pork jowl scrumpet (read: piggy fish-finger) served with apple ketchup; sourdough slathered in a beef and bone marrow spread made of feather blade and ox cheek and topped with pickled shallots; fat strips of bacon cured for three days and smoked for six; and sticky caramel beef ribs.
After gorging on appetizers, I’m guided into the cozy dining space downstairs, where two-dozen people sit cheek by jowl at wooden farm tables. Before ordering, I sneak into the cramped kitchen quarters where I corner Adams with a few first impressions. Adams shows me around the gleaming stainless steel interior, which boasts a wood smoker, charcoal grill, and freezer.
“There is no real culture for barbecue in this country like there is in the States, but there is an appreciation for it,” Adams says, while plating a pig’s head sausage with a side of green chili slaw. “For us, it’s as much a technique as anything else. That’s the kit that we have, so that’s what we do. And we do every around that.”
Interesting blog checking in on the budding barbecue scene in Britain. Worth a browse.