There is perhaps no other style of food that breeds debate like barbecue. And that may be surprising given the simplicity of a cooking method that has only five components: meat, seasoning, wood, fire and smoke.
Of course, producing quality barbecue is no easy task. As with any process that appears deceptively straight forward, the Devil is in the details—a simple search of any online forum concerning barbecue will reveal strong and differing opinions regarding every step of the process, from how to properly trim meat, to proper spice rub components, to appropriate smoking temperature and time, to the variety of wood, to the type of sauce served alongside.
Unlike the oft-debated inputs to the barbecue equation, it takes no more than one simple bite of the output to tell when someone really nailed it. That perfect bite of a tender but not over-cooked rib that still requires the slightest pull to separate it from the bone or a succulent piece of fatty, tender brisket that wafts fragrant smoke towards your nostrils as you pull it towards your mouth is truly a transcendent experience and, hopefully, one that everyone has experienced at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, the barbecue scene in Baton Rouge has been stagnant for far too long. Sure, Baton Rougeans have their favorite places for smoked meats and certainly frequent them quite often—I am no different. But my patronage doesn’t come from a true craving for the barbecue being produced by the current pit-masters around town. Instead, there is an innate hankering for barbecue that rises every now and then that can only be dulled by what is available.
So when I read that a Louisiana Culinary Institute graduate was returning from Chicago to open his own barbecue restaurant, my eagerness got the best of me.
I projected all my hopes for a restaurant that would fill the void onto the new construction of BRQ Seafood and Barbeque.
Walking into BRQ for my first visit, I thought that I may have found that place. The parking lot was packed, and the hostess informed me that there was a 20 minute wait unless I wanted to sit at the bar. I took the crowd as a great sign, and a seat at the bar sounded perfect anyway. As I approached my seat, it became clear that a lot of thought and planning went into the layout of BRQ. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I conjure up images of barbecue restaurants, the results are often dimly lit and unpolished spaces focused more on the barbecue they are slinging than the atmosphere accompanying it. BRQ clearly sought to put both the food and atmosphere on equal playing ground. The layout of the restaurant is open and spacious with plenty of light pouring in through the multiple windows lining the front entrance of the restaurant. The clean wooden tables and white chairs and booths are set beneath a high ceiling anchored by large wooden beams that run the length of the walls of the restaurant.
The minimalist butcher decor also helps to hone your focus to the true reason for your visit. The bar itself consists of a long wooden top, which is flanked by large white open cabinetry displaying all of the restaurants available libations. The layout of the restaurant coupled with the employees’ gingham shirt and blue jean uniform give the feel of a modern western restaurant. It’s difficult to find any critiques with the ambiance of the restaurant; it truly is a fantastic layout where every detail was considered.
As I took my seat and examined the restaurant’s menu for the first time, I quickly realized that this was not a barbecue-only restaurant. The starters section alone contained 12 unique options like crab beignets, burrata and caviar and barbecue-smoked octopus. The owner’s culinary education was clearly on display in the ambition behind these dishes.
Despite the starters, various seafood options and other creative entrees like smoked rabbit pot pie, I decided to stick to my guns and order a classic barbecue plate. As I honed in on my decision, the bartender arrived with a complimentary batch of bread and butter pickles and an order of house-made chips—definitely a unique spin on the bread and butter basket many restaurants serve before a meal. Regrettably, the chips had been sitting for too long and become soggy, and the sugar in the seasoning dusted on the chips overtook the other flavors. I found the pickles to be a bit better but still lacking the definitive crunch I look for in a pickle.
Despite these initial shortcomings, the bustle and energy of the restaurant still had me hopeful for some solid barbecue. I settled on the Pitmaster, a two meat plate with the addition of either a half rack of baby back or St. Louis ribs and two sides. I opted for brisket, pulled pork, the leaner and meatier baby back ribs and sides of pit beans and poblano cheddar cornbread. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the high price point of this dish. At $38, it is at least $10 more expensive than comparable dishes at other barbecue restaurants in town. I chalked the premium up to the added overhead of running a restaurant like this and, hopefully, the superior quality of meats and other ingredients in use. In addition to my Pitmaster, my dining partner chose the smoked brisket pastrami grilled cheese sandwich with fries, which clocked in at a more reasonable $12.
The Pitmaster arrived with a side of four different barbecue sauces: original mild, North Carolina vinegar, Louisiana spicy and South Carolina mustard. I’m sure many have heard the explanation touted by pitmasters that good barbecue doesn’t need sauce and should only be served on the side. I tend to agree and appreciate a restaurant allowing me to supplement with sauce if I desire—not necessarily to cover inadequacies in the dish, but to add complementary flavor. Of these sauces, I found that the North Carolina vinegar and South Carolina mustard were the only two sauces worthy of any attention. The original mild was too sweet and lacked any discernible flavor and the Louisiana spicy seemed to be a muddled version of the original mild with the addition of some red chili flakes on top. With my sauce selection limited, I set my sights on the barbecue in front of me. I started with the ribs, which had an excellent bark but at the same time appeared to be slightly dried out. Unfortunately, that appearance proved to be reality. The ribs tore easily from the bone, but they were room temperature and overly chewy. Moreover, there was a predominant sugar taste from the rub that masked any other seasoning that might have been used. It’s a common culinary instruction to balance flavors like smoke and salt with sugar, but the lack of both of the former left the sugar unchecked. I found the smoke flavor I was searching for in the sliced brisket, but its texture and temperature suffered from the same inadequacies as the ribs although to a lesser degree. The pulled pork was tender but really lacked any serious flavor or smoke, and it was “pulled” to such an extent that the individual strands of meat all clumped together and the great texture that can come with pulled pork was lost. As for the sides, the poblano cheddar cornbread came stacked high with a nice, crispy bottom crust but was entirely void of any cheddar flavor and was only scantily specked with poblano.
For a side named “poblano cheddar cornbread,” I would like the actual dish to remind me of those unique ingredients in a much more straightforward way. The pit beans were similarly underwhelming. Until you’ve had the smokey, savory combination of proper pit beans that are supplemented with and draw extra flavor from the addition of smoked meat, you really don’t know just how badly you’ve been cheated with the cloying sweet and sticky version of baked beans that most barbecue restaurants serve. While I did appreciate that the pit beans were not overly sweet and contained a few pieces of meat, they were bland and lacked any real depth of flavor.
My dining partner’s order fared a bit better. The thin-sliced pastrami on her pastrami grilled cheese was rich and fatty and made me yearn for a bit more fat in the sliced brisket on my plate. However, it could have benefited from a bit more of it of it in order to balance the thick cut rye bread. Further, for a sandwich advertised as a “grilled cheese,” it required at least twice as much cheese to properly live up to the expectations that name implies. While it could definitely use some tweaking, the sandwich was quite delicious overall. Unfortunately, the side of fries shared a common sin of my meal on this visit: they were cold and soggy. Even in their aged condition, I could tell that the fries probably would have been above average if they had arrived to our table earlier in their life cycle, but in the state they arrived, they were simply a space filler on the plate.
There should certainly be some consideration given to the fact that BRQ is still a new restaurant and as the menu indicates, it already has higher ambitions than many of the restaurants you’ll encounter in town. However, the restaurant’s desire to be everything for everyone may be the source of its greatest difficulties. If it can work out some kinks and balance its ambition with execution, it has some serious potential. Despite the shortcomings of my visit, BRQ is still a really cool place to hang out, although I may seek out their happy hour deals for my regular visits. As for the quest for the perfect barbecue in Baton Rouge, I’ll be back to see if things improve but, for now, the search is still on.