At high noon on April 28, when the first Big Day Barbecue brisket was sliced in all its juicy, jiggly, bark-crusted glory, there were about a dozen salivating customers lined up beside a 500-gallon, wood-burning pit parked outside Powell Brewery.
Some customers thought they would mosey on over later in the afternoon to avoid the early rush. Bad idea.
An hour later, the line had zigzagged among the picnic tables, snaked past the beer kegs and wound itself around the perimeter of the fence. Babies were passed out under red umbrellas. A long-haired dachshund waddled through the crowd sniffing up beefy billows of smoke. Alanis Morissette and Dolly Parton wailed and crooned in the background.
The wait for a $56 platter with all the fixings was upward of an hour, yet no one seemed to be complaining – likely because the cooks kept running the line to give out free samples and the Old Jalopy Pale Ale was flowing freely.
But those who hadn’t arrived by 1:45 p.m. were out of luck. At 3:15 p.m., it was all gone: 300 pounds of wobbly beef brisket, 100 pounds of shredded pork butt, 180 pounds of glazed ribs, 120 pounds of country sausage and 100 pounds of lightly sauced belly.
“I kept looking up and the line just stayed in the same spot. It was a great turnout, better than we had hoped for, but geez,” Rhys Amber later laughed over the phone.
After staying up all night to tend the smoker, Mr. Amber, a former cook at Campagnolo Roma and Bistro Wagon Rouge, was pretty much slicing and serving in his sleep that afternoon. He and his Big Day Barbecue partners – Colin Staus (with whom he created the concept while working at Campagnolo), David Bowkett of Powell Brewery (because every good barbecue needs a brewer on board) and Doug Stephen of Downlow Chicken Shack (who makes all the terrific slaws, potato salads, sauces and sides) – had best get used to the gruelling schedule and hungry crowds.
Why? Because Big Day Barbecue is ambitious: There will be more than 50 events in the summer series, including a regular feast just like this at Powell Brewery every month. The next is May 26, and on Father’s Day (June 16), they’ll be setting up cinder blocks for a whole-hog roast. If you can’t wait that long, head to the North Shore this Saturday, where they’ll be stationed outside House of Funk Brewing Co. (350 Esplanade East, North Vancouver) for the grand opening party.
I can understand if you’re champing at the bit. For local fans of southern barbecue, Big Day is a huge deal.
Smoked meat is best served straight out of the pit, after being properly rested, when the muscle fibres are still loose and infused with liquid fat. It only holds for a few hours before collapsing into molten mush or seizing up like chewy cardboard.
That’s why barbecue is traditionally served this way, on a first-come, first-serve basis, all across the southern United States. And unless you’re cooking in your own backyard, Big Day is one of the very few ways you can find smoked meat at its peak in these parts.
Sure, we have some great barbecue restaurants – shout out to Dixie’s and Memphis Blues Barbeque House – that smoke all night over hardwood and have devised crafty methods of keeping their meat hot and moist. But consistency is almost impossible to achieve. Unless you hit those restaurants within a very narrow window, the brisket might be a bit tense (too early) or stretched out and loose (too late). And even if you do find the brisket at its optimal temperature, chances are the pulled pork and ribs won’t be in sync.
Then there is competition barbecue, the kind that has been popularized through such television series as Fire Masters and BBQ Pit Wars. The competitive circuit is robust in British Columbia and you may have stumbled across a contest or two. But it is not the best way to enjoy barbecue. These are one-bite competitions. In order to wow judges with a single bite that will make the mouth water, the competitors hit their meat with so much sickly sweet flavour, it actually tastes quite disgusting by the third or fourth chew.
There are no such problems at Big Day.
The brisket, lightly rubbed with salt and pepper, is meltingly tender with a loose windowpane texture after seven hours on smoke and a six-hour stall wrapped in tinfoil. The bark (or blackened outer layer) might not be as crunchy as some might prefer, but it’s deeply caramelized with the fat fully rendered, yet still firm enough for slicing. It tastes like pure beefy goodness and nothing else.
Memphis-style ribs are lightly glazed and slightly tacky, but still firmly stuck to the bone. Wrapped while they rest in sauce and butter, they melt in the mouth without falling apart in the hands and even hold up the next day should you find the willpower to take some home.
Salty pork-and-beef sausages are heavily speckled with mustard seed. Creamy on the insides, they are darkly sizzled within a thick, snappy casing.
The pork belly is a nice surprise – not exactly traditional, but gorgeously succulent and lightly hit with a sweet-and-sour sauce that has been fortified with beef bouillon.
For me, the pulled pork was perfect. Instead of shredding it all in a big batch at the beginning of the day, they kept pulling it apart, one foil-wrapped bite after another, so every bite was hot and melty, balanced with the sharp tang of an apple-cider-vinegar-based sauce. If you didn’t eat it immediately, you could almost see the silky fibres tense up and liquid fat thicken right before your eyes.
That’s why southern barbecue has to be served fresh. That’s why you’ll find me standing in the line for the next Big Day. And that’s why you really shouldn’t mosey on over late and miss out.
The Big Day Barbecue series pops up monthly at Powell Brewery (1357 Powell St., Vancouver) and various locations around Metro Vancouver. For dates, follow @bigdaybbq on Instagram.