NEW YORK - This is what happens when you walk into a Southern-styled barbecue joint in Manhattan and ask for details about its sauce:
"It's a secret."
That's what the waitress said.
In other words, don't ask.
But I did Wednesday afternoon when I ended up here on 26th Street at a place called the Hog Pit. It's across the street from another BBQ place, Hill Country. A few blocks to the north is the Empire State Building. On the menu are fried pickles, fried frog legs, fried bacon, pulled pork-stuffed cornbread and, of course, barbecue. And beer. On the wall is a boar's head. In the corner at the bar is a bearded guy in a wide-brimmed hat.
He's drinking PBR.
I'm no foodie, but I'm intrigued by what's been billed as a Southern invasion of America's largest city -- in music, clothing and culture, and especially in food. A few years ago, writer Jessica Mischner -- a transplanted Southerner in NYC -- wrote in Garden and Gun magazine that "... [T]he South is flourishing as much in Manhattan as it is in Memphis or Mobile."
Thus, lunch at the Hog Pit.
I ordered simple, a barbecue sandwich and fries. I also had low expectations because of a Southerner’s inbred belief that some things we just do better than anyone else. Barbecue, its historic origins in the South, is ours, and always will be. (Complain away, Kansas City.) That Southerners from the Carolinas to Texas can't agree on the best meat (pork or beef) or sauce (red, white and all the variations) isn't all that important.
Not everyone agrees.
In fact, not everyone in Anniston agrees.
There are talented chefs all around, Anniston's Joe Jankoski told me on Facebook. He then asked, "Is New York City barbecue just like Memphis, Kansas City or Carolina's? No. But it still can be tasty and interesting."
Jankoski is a New Yorker by birth -- he grew up on the south shore of Long Island -- and lived in Manhattan for eight years after college. So he's qualified to speak about the place. That said, he's also a long-time Alabamian who trained at Fort McClellan and has been involved with several worthwhile activities and organizations in Calhoun County.
Here’s his opinion about NYC 'cue:
"Do I expect Alabama pizza to taste 'just like home?’" he said. "Not really, but I enjoy it for what it is. All that being said, I have had good barbecue at different places in the Big Apple."
I'm not sure the Hog Pit was one them, however.
My meal was pedestrian, the child of those low expectations. A Texas-toast sandwich, sauce on the side, coleslaw on top. The meat was a tad bland -- Was it smoked? Shouldn't it be? -- and the fries reminded me of the curly ones you get at Arby's. Just sayin'. And the sauce was a bit odd: thick, deep red, sweet at first and then an aftertaste I can't really describe.
That's why I asked the waitress about it. “I’m from Alabama,” I told her, and was wondering what was in the sauce.
She didn't know, but she'd go ask.
She returned and gave me the bad news.
“It's a secret.”
Turns out, today's NYC is indeed overflowing with restaurants specializing in soul food, Southern comfort food, barbecue and fried chicken. If I'd done my homework instead of haphazardly picking a place for lunch, the results might have been better. (The Hog Pit drinks menu also features several varieties of wine, both red and white. Not the kind of thing you'd see at the old Dreamland, is it?) But that leaves out a vital point: why would someone who can eat top-flight barbecue seven days a week come to Manhattan -- with all of its world-class restaurants -- and eat more barbecue?
Call it a lesson learned.
In a sense, Manhattan and Calhoun County have something in common. There's good barbecue and there's forgettable barbecue. Be careful where you eat.