As millions of Americans fire up their backyard grills this month in commemoration of our nation’s independence, New Orleans celebrates a multi-year surge in the number of local eateries specializing in what some consider America’s only indigenous cuisine: barbecue. What was once a glaring omission in the city’s otherwise wide-ranging culinary community now features a small-but-fervent number of “low-and-slow” connoisseurs. While all of the newcomers have collectively elevated the profile of barbecue around town, one in particular out-smokes the competition.
In late 2011, Chef Rob Bechtold and a partner opened Smokin’ Buddha BBQieux in Fat City, but a lease dispute resulted in that venture being short-lived. Bechtold then embraced his inner Siddhartha and wandered the city while spreading the gospel of barbecue to all who would taste it, eventually landing a regular pop-up gig on Sunday nights on the back patio of PJ’s Coffee Shop on Magazine Street.
At the beginning of this year, his NOLA Smokehouse found a permanent home on Jackson Avenue (in the former digs of bounce artist 10th Ward Buck’s Finger Lick’n Wings), where a smoldering combination of hickory and fruit-tree wood creates a distinctive aroma and plume that announce lunch is served.
The menu at NOLA Smokehouse stretches from the fundamentals to extraordinary specials. Slices of brisket bear a prominent pink smoke ring, while the burnt ends are dark, gristly nuggets of crunchy, intensified beefy richness. Pork spare ribs and twice-smoked sausage round out the everyday meat offerings along with pulled pork, which is best enjoyed stuffed inside a banh mi loaf from Dong Phuong bakery and dressed with house vinegar sauce. Daily specials range from boudin to pork belly to prime rib.
Chef Rob’s fine dining background shines through in the side dishes. Okra is stewed with chunks of brisket, and greens are simmered in pot liquor infused with pork trimmings. Cole slaw might be classic one day, Asian-inspired the next. A certified Southern recipe for baked macaroni competes with the addictively creamy sweet-corn spoonbread for a starchy choice.
The ambience at NOLA Smokehouse follows the conventional wisdom, which dictates that the more Spartan the atmosphere, the better the barbecue. As such, the vanilla box interior is spruced up with only a few card tables and a bonsai tree or two signaling Chef Rob’s spiritual center. Bottles of water and Barq’s root beer quench the thirst of customers who seem content to experience barbecue enlightenment while sober, although BYOB is allowed and encouraged. Just don’t plan on bringing a bottle of your finest wine to dinner, because barbecue this good usually sells out during lunch.739 Jackson Ave., Thurs.-Sat.: 11 a.m. ‘til sold out, (504) 418-2591, www.nolasmokehouse.com.