by RYAN SPARKS
NEIL MCCLURE AND I ARE STANDING IN THE KITCHEN of his long-awaited restaurant at the corner of Magazine Street and Bordeaux. I’ve stood in the same spot before. Back when this was a crowded tattoo parlor, I watched a young kid spit tears while getting his septum pierced, right about where the prep table is now. I’ve also stood where the new hooded range is, watching my cat moan with a broken paw when the building was home to an animal clinic. McClure goes me one further.
“I washed laundry here back in the day. I lived up the street back when I was at Loyola [University].”
We briefly consider the years that separate those younger versions of ourselves from the present, but this last twelve month period seems to have lasted the longest. For McClure, it’s been an interminable year of self-underemployment. He’s been location scouting, wrangling financials, and butting heads with a city that has recently found its resolve in the arena of code enforcement. For me, it’s been a year apart from one of the most comprehensive offerings of barbecue I’ve ever had.
“I won’t say it’s been the best year,” he told me, leaning back with a sigh against his new industrial fridge. “What started out as the greatest year turned into one of my worst years. I won’t lie, it’s been a tough road to here.”
Late in 2011, McClure decided to reroute his propensity for working long hours in a restaurant. He resigned as general manager of Dante’s Kitchen in the Riverbend but briefly took over the spot during lunch when the restaurant was normally closed. His family-style barbecue pop-up was an instant hit, and he began investigating permanent locations for what he envisioned as a true no-frills shack.
He had his financing secured not too long after the pop-up wound down, but the search for the right location proved to be a struggle. Once he settled on the spot on Magazine Street, the long task of fully satisfying the city began. He signed the lease nine months ago, but didn’t get building permits until May.
“I haven’t worked in a year. I haven’t had two weeks off my entire adult life, going back to when I was thirteen, basically, not counting Katrina. I’m not any good with this not-working stuff. I’ve been going crazy.”
But while an eager drive to keep things moving benefits a restaurant manager, patience is what defines a BBQ pitmaster. Sitting near the smoker for ten hours at a time, feeding it assorted chunks of hickory, going low and slow: all of these things are important to McClure. It’s part of what he calls “taking care of the food.” There’s a new Lang smoker installed onsite, so all the preparation is done in house: nothing is brought in then steamed or otherwise “finished.”
That keeps the process simple, but one that still requires plenty of attention. I’m a little worried when McClure tells me he’s on the calendar to work a double in the kitchen every day. The way he says it makes it sound as if someone else set the schedule but that he chose to go along with the plan. “It gives me the flexibility of watching the fire and going into the dining room and running food. I’ll be the second kitchen person.”
Of course, that kind of intense schedule is often necessary for a proprietor to launch a new small business, but aside from the responsibility being his alone, it seems McClure just plain feels like there’s a lot of ground to gain back. As if he needs to make up hours not for payroll purposes but just for pride.
It’s easy to admit, though, that if you’re going to be doing something for sixteen hours a day, it might as well be making people happy with delicious meat. That’s the way he’s seen it done across the South when he made travels to various barbecue regions first out of enthusiasm and then for research as he developed his own methods.
“I don’t want to be reinvent the wheel. I want to be a barbecue joint. I don’t want to be a New York barbecue joint rubbing my briskets down with coffee and serving it with quinoa. There’s a place for that, that’s not what I want to do. I’m a traditional southern boy. That’s their passion, this is mine.”
Other cuisines in New Orleans are susceptible to this kind of creative competition, but outside of the Joint in the Bywater, there are no venerable barbecue institutions or traditions, so there’s no need to rebel. McClure's shop reinforces the idea that in New Orleans distant traditions are unified and adapted.
Due to the time, set up, and large cuts of meat required to do barbecue correctly (and cost effectively), it's not a cooking style that’s easily transported by families. It’s not like packing your grandmother’s recipe for apple pie along with you in a box. Many hometown devotees had to leave barbecue behind altogether if they decided to move to a city with no established variety of its own (or rely on poor corporate substitutes). So by bringing all of those migrant taste memories together, McClure has hit on something special: offer flavors new to natives and familiar to transplants.
McClure’s devotion to barbecue comes from the love of a method, not a single meat. He’ll offer pulled pork, brisket, ribs, chicken quarters and halves, and chaurice on a daily basis. Leftover meat will be used in various ways; he’s particularly fond of putting smoked brisket in jambalaya.
The meat is undeniable, but the sides make strong arguments for themselves as well. The cole slaw is sweet and spicy, with crisp cabbage that isn’t oversaturated. The Bechamel-based 4-Cheese Macaroni is divine. McClure’s family has given up on trying to convince him to do “canned beans but better” for convenience’s sake. He’s stuck to his principles of starting from scratch, so the beans in his Pork & Pork & Beans start soaking the day before they’re needed.
As for his sauce selection, there are six representatives from around the South to choose from, each with their own separate base: Eastern Carolina, Memphis, South Carolina, Alabama (down near Decatur way), New Orleans East, and Kansas City. Devotees who found favorites at last year’s pop up will be happy to know the recipes for these haven’t been altered, save for the KC.
“I wasn’t happy with it. It was just too much of a sweet without any meat to it, but I’ve completely changed the recipe.” And he’s 86’ed the Western Carolina sauce because his Memphis sauce has flavors that slightly overlap the former’s tomato-based variety. Some solace is available for Tarheels who feel marginalized: all the sandwiches are served Carolina style with slaw on top.
There’s only one characteristic of the typical barbecue joint McClure has eschewed: folksy and kitschy pig-centric decor. Fun paintings of depicting New Orleans legends and passions by artist Scott Guion line the walls instead, and the ceiling boasts a fun, painted pattern of kinetic stars. “My mom actually bought me a big, six-foot waiter pig statue,” he laughs. “I had to send it back. I love you mom, but I just couldn’t do it.”
McClure's Barbecue, 4800 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA will initially be open Wednesday-Sunday 11:30a-9p.
PIG PICKIN' WITH NEIL
Part of McClure's inspiration for his food comes from the old-fashioned family style service that you used to be able to find almost anywhere up and down a state highway. To that end, he hopes to host regular whole hog nights where he'll smoke an entire pig and offer it up chopped and ready for a social crowd.
Where will the whole hogs come from?
Two Run Farm because they’re big, fatty, delicious. I cooked some of their shoulders for a Maurepas Foods party a couple of weeks ago and they were the best pork butts I’ve ever cooked. It can be a tricky thing.
How do you prep them?
I actually add a little sugar to the rub, which I don’t do with my other stuff, but when it’s in the cavity and when it’s on the lowest part of my smoker, it’s not getting a lot of heat, and it gives it a nice sweetness. I do brine it a little bit, I try and brine the whole pig for six to twelve hours, taking it a little easy on the salt end of that brine because I don’t want it all to taste like country ham.
Do you inject it?
Not usually. It depends on the pig. Usually that thing’s got more juice than you need.