Monday, January 24, 2011

Baby Blues BBQ - The Philadelphia Version

As a recent transplant from Los Angeles, I was extremely disappointed that I didn’t make it to Baby Blues BBQ in Venice before I had to move to Philadelphia for my new job. Considering that LA isn’t known for its BBQ, missing out on one of the few places in the city lauded by picky Yelpers was definitely upsetting.

That said, imagine my surprise when I ran across the Baby Blues sign as I was strolling down Sansom between 35th and 34th! Soon after I’d made this amazing discovery, I was informed by my favorite foodie friend Peter (a Philadelphia native) that this was indeed an outpost of the Venice original.

What truly made my week, however, was the opportunity to experience the famous BBQ with Peter and a bunch of his foodie friends -- and even some fellow foodie photogs! BBQ is best eaten family-style, so that everyone can try everything. Plus, when you’re checking out a new place, wouldn’t you want to order everything on the menu? (Or at least attempt to?)

While we were waiting for everyone to arrive (and because we were starving), I decided to order a half rack of the Memphis-style long bone pork ribs. By the time the ribs came out to the table, almost everyone had shown up, so the ribs turned out to be a great appetizer dish.

Before we could dive in, Sarah and I did our food paparazzi thing and took several pictures. Even though I went with minimal flash, you can tell here that the meat had great color. More importantly, it had a great crispy texture on the outside, while simultaneously maintaining a moist and tender consistency on the inside. Unfortunately, the meat was under seasoned, which is always tragic, especially when the texture and consistency are so spot on.

Having had some amazing (and authentic) beef ribs recently (c/o some Texan friends), I was intrigued when I saw them on the menu. I was a little nervous though when I noticed them being sold at market price (“MP”), which usually equates to “very freaking expensive” or, at the very least, “more expensive than you’d like to pay on your not very high salary.”

I decided to ask the owner/manager how much market price was for “The Gargano” Texas-style beef rib, and he said “$15.75 per rib” (or something close to that). We must’ve looked appalled, so he proceeded to ask whether we wanted to take a look. Of course, we all nodded yes, so he came over with a plate, on which was sitting two massive ribs, which appeared to stand at least 4-5 inches high. He told us not to worry, and that we were indeed staring at two ribs, and not just one.

We decided to order one and share it, and thank goodness too, because there’s really no way that one person (ordinary or otherwise) should be allowed to tackle that thing. As we divvied up the meat, we realized that it not only had the perfect char, but that it also fell apart in the best way possible. Unlike the pork ribs, the meat was very well-seasoned -- smoky and salty -- with just the right amount of chew.

Even though the notion of meat falling apart sounds great, you definitely don’t want it too soft. The meat on the beef rib fell apart with the cut of the knife, but still required enough chew so that you could taste the salt and spices on your palate.

Another important point of note (as well as contention and discussion) is the idea of dry vs. wet BBQ. As a strong proponent of good seasoning, I prefer (and desire) good dry-rubbed BBQ. I personally don’t like or use BBQ sauces very much, as I think they tend to cover up and detract from the perfectly good meaty flavor and texture of pork, beef, and chicken. Plus, I feel like chefs and cooks often dismiss the need for salting their meat by relying on sauces to impart flavor. My response: Come on! Who doesn’t salt their meat?

All that said, Baby Blues does a great job of catering to both dry and wet BBQ lovers. Not only is their meat (generally) seasoned well, they also provide a slew of sauces to choose from, ranging from milder, sweeter sauces to smokier and spicier ones. All of their sauces are available on every table, making it possible to mix and match as you see fit.

In addition to trying the various meats a la carte, we decided to order the Side Car platter, which consists of any 4 sides with cornbread. From all the delicious-sounding options, we chose the mac ‘n cheese, the mashed sweet potatoes, the creamed spinach, and the collard greens. We also decided to order ½ lb. of the beef brisket to round out our meal.
Of the sides, we liked the mac ‘n cheese and the creamed spinach best. First of all, what isn't there to like about mac ‘n cheese? Especially one that comes with toasted bread crumbs on top! Secondly, we thought the creamed spinach, albeit different from what most of us would consider creamed spinach, was quite tasty. Unlike the typical version of this dish, Baby Blues’ version contained larger chunks of spinach that didn’t arrive at the table soaked in cream sauce. This made the dish seem a little less heavy (emphasis on “a little,” of course).

The mashed sweet potatoes, the collard greens, and the cornbread left a lot to be desired, perhaps because we simply had higher expectations. Honestly though, I think a little more salt would’ve gone a long way in making these sides more enjoyable overall. (The cornbread might have benefited from a little bit of honey as well.) Thankfully, the flavor and texture of the beef brisket helped to offset any minor disappointment from these sides.

Even though we’d all exclaimed that we were stuffed by the end of the meal, Susan and I couldn’t help but order the banana pudding -- a dessert that is listed as a house specialty, and one that would be a quintessential end to a quintessential Southern meal.

Although the dish was photograph-worthy, I must admit that we were slightly disappointed. Having tried (and made) different versions, Susan and I both found Baby Blues’s version somewhat off-the-mark. While the Nilla wafers embedded within the banana pudding are okay softer, the ones sitting on top shouldn’t be. So when we bit into wafers with no crunch, that was pretty much the beginning of the end.

After that, we were further disarmed by the fact that the pudding itself really wasn’t pudding-like. The texture was way too thick and clumpy, and definitely not creamy enough to be considered pudding. Quite honestly, they probably could’ve done better with box pudding. Last but not least, I’ve personally made banana pudding with meringue on top. It’s a small addition (though a slightly more laborious one), but if they weren’t going to have it, they should’ve at least provided some homemade whipped cream. But as you can tell from the picture, no whipped cream. Sad.

Thankfully, the owner/manager made one last grand gesture that totally, well, turned our frowns upside down. As we were finishing up the last of our bites, figuring out the check, and making our last pronouncements, the owner/manager asked us what we thought of the meal. As self-proclaimed foodies, we did our best to give our “expert” opinions on the meats, the sides, and the dessert. At one point, we mentioned that we didn’t get a chance to try the baby back ribs (normally an essential part of any BBQ meal). And what does he say to us? “Well, would you like to try some? I’m sure we can get you a small portion to sample.”

Even though we were all completely full at this point, my automatic reaction to free food is always “Sure!” As soon as I said it, the entire table turned and looked at me with that “Are you kidding?” expression, and I had to sheepishly shrug. Nevertheless, I thought it was a wonderfully generous gesture. And while we all agreed that the beef rib was still our favorite of the night, we also agreed that the baby back ribs were more tender and flavorful than the Memphis-style ones.

Maybe the guy was fully aware of our food blogger/photographer/reviewer status, and how we could potentially bring in more customers. Or maybe he was just an awesome proprietor. Either way, we were quite impressed -- by the quality of the food, the customer service, and the prices.

Baby Blues is great for small and large groups, foodies and locals, and particularly sports fans. From where I was sitting, I noticed a great bar wrapped around a carving station, as well as a slew of TVs showing that night’s basketball and football games. Definitely a quality atmosphere for throwing back some beers, catching up with friends, and enjoying some delicious BBQ.

Baby Blues BBQ
3404 Sansom Street @ South 34th Street

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