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Vegetarians, look away. Bourbon BBQ calls forth your inner caveperson. Taste chef Gary Needham’s meltingly tender chopped beef brisket or bite into his two-fisted St. Louis ribs, and you’ll be glad our evolutionary ancestors came down from the trees, tamed fire, and started roasting fleshy beasts.
Needham, 52, a native of Louisville, earned his stripes in fine kitchens in Chicago, San Francisco, Colorado, Florida, and Washington, D.C., before opening his small, creative Silver Oak Bistro (NJM 2.5 stars) in Ridgewood in 2005. Needham, who once owned barbecue joints in Louisville and Indiana called Pigasus, considers barbecue his “lifelong passion.”
He launched Bourbon BBQ last July in the former premises of a Texas wiener joint called Clixies. Farmer Clarence “Clixie” Pruiksma opened the iconic spot in 1950, before Goffle Road was paved. The local connection is carried on by Goffle Farms, which supplies Bourbon BBQ with its chickens.
Happily shuttling the two miles between his restaurants, Needham tends Bourbon BBQ’s all-hickory smoker by day, then hustles to Silver Oak to cook dinner. Barbecue authenticity seems to be inversely related to decor. Bourbon BBQ uses plastic cutlery, puts rolls of paper towels on the tables, and serves food on butcher paper on plastic trays. Needham smokes his brisket for ten hours, then slow cooks it another six hours. The secret of the brisket’s unctuous tenderness is “cooking with the fat side up, so it drips into the meat,” Needham says. You can order it by the pound ($10.99), in a two-meat dinner combo with a large drink and two sides ($14.99, $16.99 with ribs), or settle into serious chowing with the Garbage Plate—ribs, pulled pork, smoked sausage, and brisket, with drink and sides ($19.99). Packages to feed groups from four on up range from $44.99 to $129.99 for the Blanc Trashé Hog Haven.
Needham’s excellent pork spareribs (longer than baby-backs, cut from lower on the rib) are prepared Memphis-style, dry-rubbed with spices, smoked for five hours at 225 degrees, then steamed in an inch of water for 45 minutes in the smoker, which he says is an unusual step that tenderizes and flavors the meat. A full rack with tips is $24.99. The menu calls them St. Louis ribs and tips, which means that the fleshy ends are sliced off and cooked longer.
We found the barbecued chicken a little dry. The pulled pork, though fine, is simply outclassed by the stellar brisket. Needham’s plump Texas smoked sausage, which is more like kielbasa, and his amply topped Hebrew National chili dog, are solid hits.
Needham says Bourbon BBQ is a work in progress. Drumsticks and wings, bland on our first visit, were moist and zesty the second time. Buttermilk-battered fried chicken recently joined the roster. Side dishes, made at Silver Oak Bistro, include terrific new additions such as meat-studded sweet-and-spicy barbecued beans, jalapeño-flecked corn bread, and macaroni and cheddar cheese.
Needham has finally improved desserts, adding red-velvet cake with cream cheese frosting and fresh banana pudding with vanilla wafer crust. But he makes no apologies for the anemic drink selection, limited to push-button sodas. “My priority has to be the meat,” he says.
Needham says he is thinking about adding a roasted-lemon lemonade come spring. Roasting the whole fruit removes bitterness from the peel and caramelizes the fruit, he says. Gary, don’t wait. Just do it.