Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Barbecue at Night - Petersburg & Saucy's

Pity the Old Dominion.  In the world of food, Virginia is, and remains, that middle child of culinary accomplishments, that long-suffering Jan Brady of gastronomic provinces that necessarily (if haplessly) occupies that contiguous and fixed line of demarcation between itself and the far, far more celebrated gastronomic triumphs of North Carolina.  Because North Carolina boasts two of the most lauded of American culinary achievements—its eastern-style, whole-hog, vinegary barbecue goodness, and its (almost) equally great Lexington (aka Piedmont) shoulder-only, catsup-in-the-mix style found in its central and western counties—Virginia, poor, poor, Virginia, is remanded to the loneliest of familial exiles of watching its closest, Southern sibling garner the kind of acclaim that have made its own attempts at barbecue greatness seem knock-kneed, ham-fisted, and altogether foolish for the trying.  So great is the disparity between these two respective reputations—Carolina and Virginia—that Virginia might easily be forgiven if it suddenly and collectively abandoned the business of barbecue altogether and endeavored to refashion its own culinary identity through the appropriation of some entirely alien food form like, say, fish tacos or deep fried Mars bars; anything to remove, even conquer, the ever-persistent Marsha, Marsha, Marsha aspect of its relationship with the supremely superior-in-every-way barbecue of North Carolina.

And yet, in its never-ending, and seemingly Promethean quest for parity in barbecue achievement with North Carolina, some of Virginia’s finest culinarians doggedly persist.  Some who fight the good fight.  Some like the good folks of Saucy’s Walk-Up BBQ in Petersburg, Virginia.   

For Saucy’s and me, this was purely a chance encounter.  For on a very recent return from North Carolina barbecue country (a trip of mine which featured beautifully triumphant visits to the highly celebrated—and deservedly so—Parker’s Barbecue and Bob Ellis’ Barbecue, both of Wilson, North Carolina) I stopped for gas in Petersburg, thirty miles south of Richmond, and there, amid the gas fumes of the Shell station, and badly flickering florescent lighting, just happened to catch the slightest whiff of wood smoke and melting pork fat on the wind, that olfactory signature of my own culinary nirvana.  So around Petersburg I drove, windows down, face out the window, pursuing the smell of dripping pig through its Southern streets like a madman, wet with fop sweat, jonesing for his culinary fix.

Located in what the parlance of our times calls a “transitional” and “mixed use” neighborhood of actual working industrial warehouses and now-former industrial warehouses-turned-yuppie-filing-cabinets, Saucy’s is itself a post-industrial architectural marvel of erstwhile-shipping-container-turned-restaurant, and it was lit, the night of my visit, like some beacon of culinary hope against a darkness purely post-apocalyptic in its depth, and almost Jarmusch-like in its lunar, last-man-left-on-the-moon sense of desolation.  Barbecue being the most collaborative and convivial of American cuisines, it was strange to arrive in Saucy’s gravel lot, plunged into darkness, and so very and palpably alone.  But on exiting my pickup (because that’s how we roll these days, yo), I discovered a smoker, two of them, in fact, loaded with pork shoulder and brisket, and nearby, piled against the back wall of the restaurant, stacks of hickory and oak.  Better still was the greeting I received from the lone Saucy’s employee:  spritely, verging on the ebullient, like some last survivor of the End of Days, blissfully unaware the world around her has forever turned to ash.  I nodded hello and smiled back. 

Saucy’s succeeds by offering only what it does well:  pulled pork, brisket, chicken, ribs.  These are your only options for protein.  Sides are equally (re: wisely) utilitarian in scope:  potato salad, cole slaw, and a sweet, three bean salad.  Because the barbecue purist knows better than to require anything more than the possible addition of greens.  My own order was unimaginative in the extreme.  But that was the point:  it would, I knew, reveal Saucy’s ability—be it nascent or inept—to rival the efforts of their culinary brethren in that ever-so-close, and yet oh-so-far-away Carolinian south.

I ordered what is inarguably gold standard of the mid-Atlantic barbecue world:  a pulled pork sandwich, topped with slaw.  It arrived straight-backed and immaculate as a preacher on Sunday, and as the pure, Aristotelian form of what every barbecue sandwich, everywhere, should aspire to be.  But what the sandwich delivered, flavor-wise, was purely Virginian in all aspects.  It borrowed little from Carolina, east or west, nor from Texas, nor from Kansas City or Memphis in any of its approach.  The pork was singularly Old Dominion through and through: a slightly tangy tomato sauce, perfectly complimented by the considerable smoke of the meat, which, in turn, was expertly offset by the pleasing acidity of the cole slaw.  A magnificent little sandwich.  For Virginia.  For Carolina.  For anywhere.  Truly good barbecue.  But here, in this post-apocalyptic industrial darkness of the Petersburgian night, a sandwich of this savor seemed almost miraculous.  The pork was good, deeply and deliciously good, and I left Saucy’s, and its city of Petersburg, truly convinced that Virginia does have a dog in this barbecue fight.

To think this contest over barbecue supremacy just might be far from decided is a novel idea to any barbecue enthusiast who has believed the results have long been determined.  But maybe not.  Maybe Virginia has something to say, something of importance, after all.  And if the cuisine coming from Saucy’s is any indication, Virginia cooks just might be at the vanguard of this push from the north.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  And Carolina, you’ve been served.   

Your link:  http://saucyswalkupbbq.blogspot.com

1 comment:

  1. Well, now, looks like you too have joined the conspiracy to try & prove that Petersburg exists! Very enjoyable post this -- thank you, Sir