Quarantinication: My First Time Smoking Pork Belly Will Not Be My Last

Monk: During the pandemic, more people are resorting to backyard smoking. Between the meat shortage due to supply chain issues and inventory being picked up by restaurants, selection can be hit or miss. This means I can’t just walk into my neighborhood grocery store and pick up a pork butt like I used to. However, this does allow for the opportunity to try some different cuts, assuming I come across them.

Pork belly is one such cut I’ve been looking to smoke but hadn’t come across it, even pre-pandemic. However, on a recent trip to Costco they were flush with pork bellies even though the rest of the beef and pork meat case was pretty bare.

But what to do with the 9 pound pork belly? Should I cube it and make pork belly burnt ends or smoke it whole with a salt and pepper rub a la a brisket? Robbie from City Limits Q down in Columbia suggested over Instagram that I split it in half and do both, which only made too much sense. His big thing, however, was to be sure I brine the belly and I did exactly that with kosher salt overnight the night before.

That morning, as I fired up the smoker and let it get to temp, I sliced the pork belly in half and cubed one half and sprinkled in with Hardcore Carnivore’s Red rub. For the “whole” half, I sprinkled the same kosher salt and coarse ground pepper rub I’ve used on tri-tip and other beef cuts. Then, onto the smoker they went.

After 2 hours at 250-275 degrees, the burnt ends were done with their smoke bath. The next step was to toss them in barbecue sauce, honey, and butter and put back on the smoker in a covered pan.

After 1.5 hours, I took off the foil and finished the final 30 minutes uncovered. Then, they came out in sauced little nuggets of pork and fat. About 4 hours total, and I got this perfect sweet and savory bite.

As for the other half of the belly, a little after 3 hours it was already up to 200 degrees internal temperature. I wrapped in butcher paper and rested in a cooler for a few hours until dinner time.

…But not before slicing off a couple slices and throwing onto a potato roll with some homemade pickles I made a few weeks back. The pork belly is such a fatty, rich cut that the acid from the pickles nicely counteracts it. The combination of which makes a pretty darn good sandwich.

I’m not saying this will replace my pork butt as my go-to but it’s nice to have it in the arsenal. While a pork butt will take me 10-12 hours depending on the size of the butt and how fast I’m smoking, I smoked this pork belly two ways and got two fantastic dishes in less than 5 hours total (both of which I have received really good feedback on). On one hand, it was nice to knock out the smoke before lunch but on the other, I didn’t get any extended beer drinking time.

As others have urged, if you are apt to smoking, use this weird time of pandemic as a reason to try something new. You may just love the results.

John Brown Smokehouse – Long Island City, NY

Name: John Brown Smokehouse
Address: 10-43 44th Dr, Long Island City, NY 11101
Order: 1/2 lb of burnt ends, 1/2 lb pork belly, and 1/2 lb pulled pork with corn bread and collards (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

A quick work trip to New York City allowed me to accomplish a couple of barbecue-related things while in town (after finishing up my day job requirements, of course): try another New York barbecue joint to see how its barbecue scene continues to develop and also meet up with Sean Ludwig of NYC BBQ and The Smoke Sheet.

Regarding the latter, I had met up with Ryan Cooper (aka BBQ Tourist), the other half of The Smoke Sheet, last year in Charlotte so meeting Sean would complete my Smoke Sheet punch card. Turns out, Sean is also a great guy and I enjoyed “talking shop” regarding all things barbecue and how they run The Smoke Sheet. Sean is a thoughtful guy and gave me a lot of great things to think about when it comes to Barbecue Bros.

In terms of barbecue, I knew I would be limited when it comes to barbecue options after 8pm on a Monday night. Consulting with Sean ahead of time, we settled on John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City since it’s open until 10 and was convenient to both my midtown hotel and Sean’s apartment. John Brown’s is a Kansas City-style barbecue joint that opened in 2012 and its co-owner and pitmaster Josh Bowen has also opened the Texas-themed Mothership Meat Company a few miles away, but that appears to be more of a warm weather patio spot.

Thankfully, John Brown Smokehouse was able to mostly deliver when it came to barbecue though some meats were understandably out by the time we get there (which is of course always preferable to serving old or not-up-to-par meats). Sean took the lead in terms of the order and we settled on a 1/2 lb each of burnt ends, pork belly, and pulled pork.

I’ll get the pulled pork out of the way since it was my least favorite of the three meats. John Brown Smokehouse served a coarsely chopped pulled pork that had good bark that surprisingly lacked much flavor.

The brisket is apparently not the order at John Brown and instead Sean recommended that we should go for the burnt ends. According to Sean, the brisket is sliced too thin while the burnt ends are taken from the fatty point of the brisket so you should just order them instead. Curiously, the burnt ends were not sauced as you might expect from a Kansas City joint but regardless, they were moist and flavorful.

I’m not sure if pork belly is typical at Kansas City barbecue restaurants or if this was a case of just wanting to have a variety of meats on John Brown’s menu, but it was yet another case of a successful protein available past 9. Similar to the other meats, it came sauceless but the well-rendered fattiness of the pork belly didn’t require any sauce.

Speaking of sauces, be sure to taste test your sauce bottles if you do go for sauce, as the highly spicy variant of the barbecue was mistakenly labeled and could have led to unexpected results had I been overly aggressive with the sauce.

In terms of sides, the cornbread is a must order at John Brown Smokehouse. Though its not a traditional cornbread cake, instead having a texture of a corn pudding. Moist and sweet, their version of cornbread was a different twist on cornmeal I hadn’t seen before that more than made up for their lackluster collards.

John Brown Smokehouse would have been forgiven for mediocre meats at a less-than-optimal time of day. Thankfully, they more than delivered a great meal on a rainy, nasty Monday night and I can imagine earlier in the day it would have been even better.

Ratings:
Atmosphere – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 3 hogs
Burnt Ends – 3.5 hogs
Pork Belly – 3.5 hogs
Sides – 4 hogs
Overall – 3.5 hogs

Monk’s Favorite Barbecue Meals of 2019

Monk: I never got those “best of the year” lists that publish in early December, whether it’s barbecue, music, or film (yes, I understand deadlines but stay with me here). What, do they think they aren’t going to potentially eat a great barbecue meal (or discover a new album or film) sometime in the last three weeks of the year? Not me; I’m always going to give myself every opportunity to eat a meal which could possibly make the list. And then I’m going to post that list in January.

That being said, with no signs of the barbecue boom slowing down any time soon, some of the best meals I’ve had yet in the history of this blog happened in 2019. Here were the best of those, and here’s hoping 2020 is full of even more great barbecue.

Honorable Mentions: Brisket and pork from Farmhouse BBQ (review), Whole hog sandwich from Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint (review)

10 (tie). Chopped sandwich with hush puppies and Cheerwine from Mr. Barbecue (review)

Sadly, shortly after my visit in March Mr. Barbecue experienced a fire in their stick burning brick pits that has temporarily closed the restaurant but hopefully they will reopen soon and continue slinging their Lexington-style barbecue to the lucky citizens of Winston-Salem.

10 (tie). Pork, brisket, ribs, burnt ends, chicken from Hubba Hubba Smokehouse (review)

Hubba Hubba Smokehouse has been quietly churning out great barbecue from their massive brick pits in the mountains of NC since the early 2000s. They had been on my list for years and I finally got a chance to check them out this year and also spend a little time with pitmaster Spencer Purcell. They are closed for the winter but any serious barbecue fan should check them out once they reopen in the Spring.

9. Bryan Furman’s whole hog and brisket at Sweet Lew’s BBQ (post)

In September, Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque in Atlanta and Savannah did a “pit takeover” of Sweet Lew’s and brought together several of Charlotte’s pitmasters for his overnight cook. He also brought his whole hog barbecue and brisket to Charlotte, and here’s hoping it was a trial run for a future restaurant in Charlotte.

8. Brisket, pork, ribs from Revenge BBQ (review)

Revenge BBQ is one of two places on this list from an unexpected barbecue location, with Revenge being in the scenic Hudson Valley town of Irvington, about 45 minutes north of New York City. And as is the case with just about any restaurant in an unexpected location, they adhere to the Texas tradition pretty closely and with good results. The brisket shone that day and the Kreuz Market-imported sausages were properly smoked, proving that disciples of Texas barbecue are continuing to spread the message far and wide.

7. Chopped barbecue tray with onion rings from BBQ King (review from 2017)

This meal from late December is exactly why I waited to publish my list until January. My previous stop at BBQ King was nearly 3 years before this visit but this simple tray of fresh barbecue on a Friday at 3pm on December 27 reminded me that I need to make it a point to stop by there more often. As should all barbecue fans in western NC.

6. Pork, ribs, and brisket from Apple City BBQ (review)

While Apple City BBQ had been on my radar for some time, my visit this year was completely unplanned and only happened as a result of several detours on the way from Charlotte to the Wilkesboro area for a weekend getaway with the oldest Monkette. As soon as I passed Apple City in Taylorsville right at dinner time on that Friday, I turned the car around and made the stop. Thankfully I did, as it was a fantastic meal of pork, ribs, and brisket. Plus, those deep fried corn nuggets were a unique and noteworthy side.

5. Cheerwine hot link from Jon G’s Barbecue (Speedy’s take)

While the brisket, pulled pork, and ribs were on point each and every time I had Jon G’s Barbecue this year, the Cheerwine hot link represented a cool and exciting development for owners Garren and Kelly. From what I am hearing, 2020 is going to be a big year for them and I can’t wait for more folks in the Charlotte area to be able to try their barbecue. It is our #1 on the Charlotte Big Board, after all.

4. Brisket, pork belly, ribs, and pulled pork from Owlbear Barbecue (review)

I certainly didn’t expect one of the best barbecue meals I had in 2019 to be in Denver, CO. While in the past I would have considered Denver to be a bit of a barbecue wasteland (from a local circa 2013: “Head to Texas if you want good barbecue”), that appears to be changing as part of the nationwide barbecue boom. Owlbear Barbecue owner and pitmaster Karl Fallenius is originally from Texas and previously worked at Franklin Barbecue and has brought that approach to Denver. The brisket rivaled some of the best I’ve had in or out of Texas and the pork belly was the best meat on the platter that day and one of the best meats I tasted in 2019.

3. Whole hog barbecue sandwich and hash and rice from Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que (review)

The simplicity of the whole hog sandwich from Sweatman’s reminded me that, when done right, mustard-based barbecue isn’t some unholy union of sauce and pork. Plus, that hash and rice was life-changingly good.

2. The Miss Mary Platter (Lexington-style barbecue, brisket, turkey, ribs plus eastern and red slaw) and smoked wings from Noble Smoke (review)

In July, Noble Smoke gave Charlotte a true destination barbecue joint and based on several recent visits, locals and out-of-towners alike have shown up for it. I can only hope that with the recent additions of Noble Smoke and Sweet Lew’s BBQ, both in our top 3, Charlotte’s barbecue scene continues the momentum into 2020.

1. Mine and Speedy’s own whole hog (post)

2019 certainly was the year of whole hog barbecue, and that looks to be continuing into 2020 (Particularly in Raleigh, who is getting no less than 4 whole hog joints – Sam Jones BBQ, Wyatt’s Barbecue, Ed Mitchell’s new place The Preserve, and Lawrence BBQ). 2019 was also the year that I finally achieved what I had been hoping to do for several years – smoke a whole hog on a cinder block pit in my backyard. Speedy made the trip into town and the two of us took shifts manning the pit overnight. I was extremely pleased with how (relatively) easy it was and how good the barbecue turned out. For my first whole hog, I couldn’t have been happier (or more tired).

So that’s it. What were some of your favorite barbecue meals this year?

Linkdown: 11/27/19

More on Wyatt’s Barbecue, coming to downtown Raleigh in late 2020

Pork belly burnt ends were first served at Fort Worth’s Heim BBQ, writes Texas Monthly BBQ Editor Daniel Vaughn

Photographer Kelly Yandell has some photos from the TMBBQ Festival earlier this month

Wood’s Chapel BBQ makes Thrillist Atlanta’s list of Best New Restaurants of 2019

Doug Saul’s BBQ and Seafood in Nashville, NC has temporarily closed due to salmonella, the first such incident in its 42 years

Boulevard Barbeque is coming to Morganton later this year or early next year, and will be smoking all the meats on a gas-assisted Old Hickory

New Zion Church BBQ in Huntsville, TX has closed after 53 years

Just gonna leave this here: