Bringing Southern style to Philly’s food scene.
In the city, barbecue’s having a bit of a moment. This news comes courtesy of the Department of Obvious Statements, since lately you can’t swing a side of beef without hitting a new smokehouse. Halfway through 2009, barbecue is quietly emerging as the Most Likely to Succeed restaurant concept, eroding the reign of the gastropub one baby back at a time.
Just look at the past six months, which have seen the premieres of El Camino Real, Holy Smoke and Smokin’ Betty’s. After 26 years in business, Old City stalwart Philadelphia Fish & Co. reconceptualized into Q BBQ & Tequila. In October, Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov will reintroduce Marigold Kitchen chef (and former Virginian) Erin O’Shea as the pit mistress at their new Percy Street Barbecue.
In my experience, good barbecue is common. Meat + spice + smoke + hours (and hours) = a forgiving formula for even the most amateur smoker. But great barbecue—the stuff that transcends time and place, conjures our primal urges to gnaw bone and gristle—is a rare thing. The critical difference between the two is a matter of geography: Southerners— like Carolina-born, Mississippi-bred Mark Coates, chef/co-owner of the barbecue lunchbox named for his grandmother Bebe—just do it better.
It’s a romantic, illogical, perhaps even geographically bigoted notion, but I swear it’s true. The same way that no way, no how will someone from Memphis or Savannah make Sunday gravy like my grandmom, no way, no how can a Yankee ’cue quite like a Southerner. (Coates is actually schooling Bebe business partner Tamara Van Winkle, a Long Island transplant.)
Barbecue is part scientific reaction, part innate intuition Northeasterners are just not equipped with. Sandwiched between the salty Sicilian butchers and Mexican tchochkerias of South Ninth Street, Bebe’s is a snug, humble stage for this kind of sorcery.
Sure, the blazing red heat lamps of the upright rotisserie react with the whole chickens in its grips, blistering and burnishing the spice-rubbed skin. And, yeah, the humid hickory smoke generated by the twin Smoke Shack smoking ovens transforms tenacious shoulders, butts and baby backs into acquiescent puppydogs. But there’s more than heat-to-meat happening here, in this two-by-four smokehouse.
Magic, maybe? How else can you explain how an unassuming sesame-seed hamburger bun becomes the hero of Bebe’s pulled pork sandwich? Behind the glass-fronted line of hotel pans kept warm in a baine-marie, Coates so overloads the soft roll, you can’t help having visions of the rusty red stains awaiting your clothes. But the bun, it’s like a sponge for the vinegar-tipped Lexington, Carolina-style sauce, a Memory Foam mattress for the 16-hour smoked pork shoulder, contouring to the heap of unctuous tatters.
Coleman’s mustard powder tins packed with Wet Naps line the wooden strip of a counter, though surprisingly I never needed to reach for one. In a city that takes its pig roasted and topped with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone, you’d better come correct to challenge the reigning sandwich monarchy. Bebe’s certainly does.
The pulled pork costs only $5, or $12 should you want to make it a platter (you do), with two sides. What’s available depends on the day; one visit brings cinnamony mashed sweet potatoes and toothsome collards dripping with pot liquor; another charms with hot-and-sour cabbage and gloriously cheesy mac ’n’ cheese alongside the aforementioned roasted half-chicken—a juicy steal for the $12 platter.
The neon sign in Bebe’s window glows, “HOT BISCUITS,” but instead I settled for yellow squares of cornbread, a dry disappointment I washed down with authentic sweet tea poured from a big plastic thermos.
For dessert, there are banana puddings and pretty pies in disposable foil tart pans. The old-school lemon-buttermilk custard pie could have been silkier, but the taste was like a lemon grove after a buttermilk rainstorm. Fresh and tangy, barely sweetened. One bite, and it’s obvious: We might be the birthplace of America, cradle of liberty, but on a hot June afternoon, there’s smoke in the streets and Confederate in our soul.
1017 S. Ninth St. 267.519.8791
Cuisine: Carolina Barbecue.
Hours: Tues.-Sat., noon-7pm; Sun., 9am-2pm.
Atmosphere: What atmosphere?
Service: Southern hospitality.
Food: Some of the most authentic barbecue in Philly.
Mark Coates, the Carolina-born, Mississippi-bred chef/co-owner of Bebe's Barbecue, shows how to prepare a good southern barbecue lunch: Roast chicken, collard greens and corn bread.