American culture has slowly but surely permeated day-to-day Australian life, yet the influence of American-style food hasn’t quite had the reach of television, music and films. Thankfully a growing number of astute restaurateurs are bringing the American barbecue experience of beef brisket, pulled pork, sides of slaw or mac ‘n’ cheese, ribs and sweet and sticky sauces to the adoring masses, and our palates are so much better for the experience.
American barbecue (from the Spanish barbacoa, meaning ‘to preserve by drying or slow roasting’) is said to have had its origins in the south of the US, where cooks slow-roasted tough cuts of meats over fire pits to make them tender, succulent and juicy. Even though there is no such thing as a definitive American barbecue style, the regional influences of Texas, Alabama, South Carolina and Kansas City contribute to the rich variety of delicious textures and flavours that end up on your fork.
The tastes vary according to the meat used (beef, pork and chicken among others) and its cut, the wood used in the smoking (from hickory and pecan to maple, apple and pear), the method and duration of smoking, and how the meat is served (pulled, shredded, chopped or sliced).
Then there comes the subject of sauces, which can vary from the vinegar-based spicy concoctions to the sweet and sticky molasses-based treats.
Big Boy BBQ [27-31 Hardware Lane] claims it was Melbourne’s first “low and slow” smoked meat experience after founder Lance Rosen’s Kansas City road trips inspired him to open in 2011. And so began his “Slow food … fast” quest to provide a healthy alternative to fast food. Available for dine-in or takeaway, it’s hard to stop salivating when you can choose the hickory-smoked saucy glazed pork ribs, a smoked meat platter to share with mates, or the barnyard-style Zee Man sandwich laced with saucy pulled chicken, smoked cheese, fried onion strings and barbecue sauce.
All good things in the American barbecue world take time, which is why Meatmaiden [Basement 195 Little Collins Street] continues to delight. A natural progression from the success story that was Meatmother in Swan Street, Richmond, Meatmaiden has a $30 Xpress Meat lunch menu that provides a taste of what to expect when you return for dinner. Its success is based on custom-built smoker brought over from the States is kept lit with Blue Mountains ironbark, while its dry-ageing meat cabinet hangs its premium produce for up to 40 days for maximum flavour and tenderness. Remember, patience has its rewards.
Collingwood is spoiled for choice with The Gem Bar and Dining [289 Wellington Street] and the ever-fashionable Le Bon Ton [51 Gipps Street]. The former provides a vegetarian-friendly menu that features the likes of the maple-roasted pumpkin with baby spinach, chili, walnuts and feta or dukkha-spiced barbecue cauliflower with chickpeas, spinach leaves, radish, mint and avocado dressing to exemplify comfort food. But the Texan rubbed meats, such as the $28 BBQ Combo Wednesdays and the Pitmaster’s platter, will also have no shortage of admirers.
The latter showcases dishes and techniques from multiple regions of the American south – from New Mexico to Alabama. Those with a hunger can opt for Le Bon Ton’s Smoker’s Lot among the pit-smoked meats (smoked over ironbark for up to 12 hours), indulge in the simplicity of the chicken wings with cayenne pepper sauce and chipotle ranch, or sample the Le Bon Ton Tacos. They all sound like a delicious slice of heaven to me!
If your boots are made for walking in the heart of the city, step on up to Fancy Hank’s [79 Bourke Street]. Its free-range meats from Gippsland are cooked in the custom-built smoker for up to 22 hours to deliver classics such as beef brisket, pork shoulder and beef short rib, while its sides including the roast beet salad (smoked farro, goats curd and hazelnuts) will also whet the appetite.
If you want to go west, be sure to drop into Burn City Test Kitchen [31a Vernon Street, Kingsville] for its jalapeno poppers (roasted peppers with brie and pistachio), the eight-hour smoked beef short rib or the kids brisket burger for the youngest barbecue fan in the family.
In the north it’s hard to go past Chris Terlikar’s Bluebonnet [124-126 Lygon Street, Brunswick East], which includes miso-glazed fried brussels sprouts and bourbon, ancho and peach-glazed Borrowdale free-range pork ribs on the menu.
Or venture further north to Bluestone American BBQ [470 Sydney Road, Coburg] for its $12.50 Tuesdays, chilli cheese fries or the double-smoked asado beef ribs with chimichurri.
Bad Shepherd Brewing Co. [386 Reserve Road, Cheltenham] covers the east in glory with its craft beers and smoked offerings, such as pulled pork (seasoned with Carolina vinegar and served with Texas toast and candied jalapenos), tempting sandwiches or succotash salad with corn, tomatoes, edamame and peppers. And for those in the south who find it hard to get their fill, Third Wave Cafe [189 Rouse Street, Port Melbourne] will keep the biggest appetite satisfied with its all-you-can-eat BBQ degustation on Tuesdays, burgers or loaded fries. Bring your stretch pants is our best advice.