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SIZZLING HOT Hearty, saucy and satisfying -- barbecue is getting big in WNY

Think smoke.

Think racks of ribs and strands of pork and slices of glistening brisket all piled on a bun. Think spicy sauce -- but not too much of it. Think bibs and beer and beans.

Think barbecue.

This historic cuisine now has a huge presence in Western New York, with several new outlets in place.

And there's no longer any doubt that "real barbecue" -- the slow-cooked, smoky kind -- has at last moved north to stay, which makes the local practitioners very happy.

Among them is Donnie Leverette. Leverette has been doing barbecue in Buffalo since 1999. His current location, 883 Jefferson Ave., has been open for three years.

This is a guy who takes his job seriously: Leverette usually cooks outdoors -- in snow, rain, heat or gloom of night. He is a member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which holds national tournaments. Leverette has collected more than 100 impressive-looking trophies.

"They call me the Lance Armstrong of barbecue," he jokes while his partner and wife of 27 years, Racine, takes a good look at the local situation.

"Competition is finally beginning to come here," she admits. "And they are all trying to catch up."

The couple do not seem worried. There are even rumors that they have some exciting expansion plans in the works.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Greg -- aka Gregory Engelhardt -- was one of the first local barbecuers in the area. He opened Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit on George Urban Boulevard in Cheektowaga 9 1/2 years ago, and it was only the second such place in the area.

Born in Texas and growing up in Paducah, Ky., Engelhardt is excited about the recent barbecue explosion in Western New York. "More people are eating barbecue up here," he says, "and that's good for all of us."

"I'm not worried about the competition," he adds. "In my hometown, barbecue places are as plentiful as hot dog places are here."

And Engelhardt has a theory: "Food is not as regional as it used to be," he says. "People are displaced like me. Used to be people grew up and worked in the same place all their lives but nowadays that's not the way our society and our economy operates."

Engelhardt was, he says, "shocked" when he first came to Western New York to visit his wife's family and found so little barbecue here. "It's the type of food Buffalonians like," he says. "Barbecue is traditionally blue collar, no-frill meat and potatoes fare and we eat a lot of that kind of thing here."

A new guy on the block has noticed the growth, too. Ted Stinner opened Buffalo Barbecue & Brew on Elmwood Avenue this summer, although he's been on the tournament circuit with his family for quite some time.

"People need barbecue," Stinner says firmly. "And I think TV has a lot to do with barbecue's popularity." Stinner credits television with increasing interest in barbecue. "Everybody is watching the Food [Network]." he says. "Even the chains have seen that this area is an open market."

It's a more educated market, too. For one thing, most people in Western New York finally realize that "to barbecue" means something different than "to grill." Grilling is cooking food (usually meat or poultry) quickly over an open flame or heat; barbecuing is cooking slowly, covered over wood so that flavorful smoke is produced and penetrates. The meat is usually rubbed with a spicy rub before cooking begins and it may be basted with a flavorful sauce during the process.

But that's a pretty bare-bones definition. To many, barbecue is mystic, one of those styles of food with a cult following that can become a way of life for both eaters and providers.

"It's just about the only thing I really enjoy," Leverette says. Born in South Carolina, he moved to Buffalo with his parents in the late 1960s. His father was a butcher. His mother and an aunt opened a little restaurant on Broadway across from the Buffalo Forge Plant called "Mom and Pop." Leverette was 12 years old and he remembers it clearly.

"It sure was busy when the whistle went off at 12 and 4." Leverette says that typically South Carolinan barbecue was served. "It used a lot of vinegar and ketchup and brown sugar."

Leverette, himself, was a computer repairman when he decided to go into the barbecue business. He traveled from coast to coast asking people what kind of taste they liked.

Then he came home and worked for about a year to develop his own rub and sauce. "It's pretty much all around," he says. "It uses vinegar, tomato, molasses and a little extra stuff."

It took about a year to develop and when he started to compete in tournaments he was very modest -- using the most humble of barbecue rigs -- a Brinkman.

At the big Kansas City and Memphis tournaments, competitors get much more elaborate than that but Leverette did well anyway.

"I used to keep telling him about David and Goliath," Racine says, laughing. "The important thing is balance," her husband says. "You want a little smoke flavor but you don't want so much that you can't taste the meat."

Balance is an elusive thing, of course, and everybody has their own way to achieve it. Cooks hint at special wood or secret spices and other alchemy.

But if you ask most barbecue chefs they will say the real secret of cooking can be summed up in one word. Or sometimes the same word mentioned several times: "Slow, slow, slow," as Stinner puts it.

Leverette agrees that "slow" is important but other things are important to him, too. Like "quality" -- good meat. And careful "trimming" and the right "temperature." It's important for him to allow his rub to stay on the meat for 24 hours or more, he says.

It's important to let the wood burn off its impurities before he begins to cook, to use special spices on the brisket and to remove every bit of fat when the pork is pulled for sandwiches.

But like all chefs, Leverette agrees that barbecue is "real soul food."

But in this case it's soul food that appeals to all nationalities.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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>FOLLOW THESMOKE

Here are some of the places to find barbecue in Western New York. Bring napkins:

Al-E-Oops, 5389 Genesee St., Lancaster, 681-0200.

Buffalo Barbecue & Brew, 1680 Elmwood Ave, 362-2602.

Buffalo Smokehouse, 257 Franklin St., 853-3600.

BW?s Barbecue, 5007 Lake Ave., Blasdell, 824-7455.

Donnie's Smokehouse, 883 Jefferson Ave., 884-2191.

Fat Bob's Smokehouse, 41 Virginia Place, 887-2971.

Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit, 2186 George Urban Blvd., Depew, 685-6599.

One Eyed Jack's, 5983 S. Transit Road, Lockport, 438-5414.

Valley Inn, 10651 Main St., Clarence, 759-6232.

Restaurants chains with barbecue:

Famous Dave's, 1753 Walden Ave., Cheektowaga, 892-7427.

Smokey Bones Barbecue & Grill, 2007 Walden Ave., Cheektowaga, 683-0724, and 4120 Maple Road, Amherst, 834-0148.

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