Jersey Shore Barbecue Joints to Savor

Up and down the coast, the invigorating salt air meets its match in the aroma of smoked meats.

Partners David Gill and Joel Romano at Wildwoods BBQ in North Wildwood

Partners David Gill, left, and Joel Romano keep busy at Wildwoods BBQ in North Wildwood. Photo: Courtesy of Wildwoods BBQ

Preeminent in pizza, pork roll, frozen custard and other delights, New Jersey cannot claim a long tradition in the art of barbecue.

That has encouraged some determined souls to import the benchmark styles of the South and Midwest. What began in the 1980s as lighthearted approaches to barbecue at kitsch-filled restaurants such as Memphis Pig-Out in Atlantic Highlands (closed in 2017) and Big Ed’s BBQ in Matawan, still packing a crowd, has expanded and evolved.

Now you can find convincing renditions in all four Shore counties, variously adhering to the major styles: Texas, Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City.

“We didn’t need another pizza joint,” asserts Len Dagit, co-owner with brother John of Back Bay BBQ, a cash-only, dog-friendly, seasonal stand in Somers Point, Atlantic County. “Pulled pork is a staple. You get a sandwich for less than $10.”

At the behest of his wife, Lisa, who manages the front of the house, Len added seafood to the menu. “She said to me, ‘You’re running a stag house,’” Dagit says, laughing at his wife’s reference to the otherwise carnivorous menu. His own tastes, he says, run to “Hellmann’s mayo on cold brisket.”

Back Bay does offer indoor seating and tables with umbrellas on the patio overlooking Ship Channel, which feeds into Great Egg Harbor Bay. Dagit and his brother, John, originally wanted to build a marina on the property. When that didn’t pan out, they pivoted, opening Back Bay in 2009. They eschewed gas in favor of outdoor cooking with what Dagit proudly calls “real smokers and grills” fueled by cherry wood.

For baby-back ribs, Dagit favors Memphis-style dry rubs, traditionally sweetened slightly with brown sugar and a complex mix of spices, including paprika. On Back Bay’s affordable menu, the $30 full rack is a “high-end” item, Dagit says. “There’s nothing better.”

Whatever the fixings, smoke is transformative. “The beauty of barbecue,” says Texas-trained Doug Walsh, who co-owns Jersey Shore Barbecue in Point Pleasant Beach with his wife, Dana, “is taking cheap, tougher cuts of meat and making them magical.” He smokes brisket 18 hours over pecan wood, “and it outsells everything. In Texas, brisket is king.”

Walsh opened his first location in Belmar in 2010; in 2017, a second in East Brunswick with his cousin, Denis Barnao. After receiving several readers’ choice awards, he closed Belmar and, in 2021, opened the 5,800-square-foot restaurant in Point Pleasant Beach, with two smokers and a coal-fired pizza oven. The barbecue is Texas style, focused on beef.

“Palates in New Jersey are catching up to smoked foods,” Walsh says. That includes delicately flavored cold-smoked foods. Walsh serves cold-smoked lobster salad and tops pizzas with cold-smoked cheeses and meats.

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Steve Raab has collected many accolades, including overall wins at the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship in 2009 and 2011, under the name Fat Angel, and as Local Smoke in 2013 and 2017.

“We bring the best of the country to New Jersey,” Raab says of the six Shore locations serving North Carolina-style pulled pork, Texas-style brisket, and ribs sweetened to St. Louis and K.C. standards. Raab uses cherry and maple, running his Southern Pride gas-assisted smoker 24/7.

Local Smoke’s top seller is pulled pork, but Raab thinks his chicken, fresh from Holly Poultry in Maryland and brined by him, is what Local Smoke does best. “The freshness makes the difference,” he says. “I know the birds are walking around on Sunday, are slaughtered Monday morning and are brined by Monday afternoon.”

Joel Romano and David Gill, childhood friends from Australia, added a fresh perspective when they opened Wildwoods BBQ in North Wildwood in 2021. They handed customers paint pens to decorate the pink walls. Valuing sustainability, they make hot dogs from scraps of spare ribs, burgers and brisket. They’ve experimented with making shrimp sausage, but have yet to perfect the recipe. Veggies are no afterthought. They feature main dishes of pulled mushrooms and fried cauliflower. Still, beefy Aussie sausage with pepper, salt and cumin “is our signature,” says Romano. “People are adventurous and open to trying new things. There is no cooking-for-the-masses here.” 

The scene continues to expand. Mutiny BBQ opened in Asbury Park in 2021. New to Barnegat this summer is Andrea’s Soul Food Cafe, which Shakierra Morris named for her daughter.

“Low and slow,” the mantra of barbecue, refers to cooking at low temperature, with indirect heat, for hours. At Jersey Shore BBQ, an average day starts at 7 am and ends at 9 pm. “On catering days,” notes Walsh, “even longer.” At Back Bay BBQ,  says Dagit, “we use prime brisket, four inches thick, and it takes 12 hours to grill.” 

The constant cooking creates a siren’s song for the hungry. “Our greatest advertisement,” Dagit says, “is when the wind blows smoke across the highway.” 

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