When it comes to most things, food or otherwise, people are likely to say that North Jersey has it better than South Jersey: more ethnic choices, better bakeries and more upscale restaurants.
But when the weather starts to get a bit warmer, three things come to mind where South Jersey holds its own: the Shore, the local produce, and roadside barbecue.
If you’re heading down Routes 40, 49, 30 or 206 to the shore destination of your choice, you will invariably come across someone tending a smoker and an oil drum. Although a “Jersey-style” of barbecue may not exist, there is plenty of roadside barbecue to be had. It’s one of the great secret gastronomic weapons of South Jersey.
The name that carries a lot of notoriety is Uncle Dewey’s Outdoor Barbecue Pavilion, located on Route 40 in the seldom-mentioned hamlet of Mitzpah in Atlantic County. Uncle Dewey’s has the look of a rest stop picnic area without the fancy stuff: wood and brick, simple picnic tables, and lots of smoke wafting throughout. The aroma is downright Pavlovian. If you want to grab some ‘cue from Uncle Dewey, though, you only have from now until October, and only on weekends.
If you need someone who is also open during the week, head down the Black Horse Pike to the town of Folsom, and Henri’s Hotts Barbecue. Douglas and Ruthie Henri opened in 2009 on the encouragement of a close friend who knew Dougals’ passion for barbecue. And the passion has paid off: in 2011, SJ Magazine named them Best BBQ in South Jersey. Henri’s Hotts cooks up barbecue Texas-style, using indirect smoke from wood (they use oak instead of hickory because it is more readily available on the East Coast) and use a dry rub if you request it.
Henri’s Hotts ‘Texas-style’ barbecue demonstrates one of two schools of thought when it comes to barbecue in South Jersey: some places focus on one particular style of ‘cue and do very little in variations, while other places will draw from a number of styles and add their own little twist.
Brother Bear’s BBQ on Route 30 in Chesilhurst takes some ideas from the Carolinas, others from Tennessee, and even a bit from the Amish — something that you do not hear regularly mentioned as an influence. Open for six years (five of them in Chesilhurst), Brother Bear’s wants to be “your backyard barbecue,” according to Mr. Brother Bear himself, owner Brian Pollock.
His passion for barbecue goes back to his childhood days and it has never waned. Eventually he started a barbecue catering business, then moved on to creating his own roadside stand. His stand is “100 percent mobile” and can be moved in its entirety to locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even New York. For Pollock, the real impetus for getting his place started was due to, as he puts it, “my own desire to get away from corporate food.”
Although no one would claim barbecue is healthy, there is a simplicity and a purity to it that has led to a South Jersey resurgence as more people are shifting back towards real, unprocessed food. Henri’s Hotts prepares their ‘cue with a similar mindset. “We don’t add any salts or sugars; we slow roast to allow (the) real flavor of the meat to surface,” says Ruthie Henri.
Not everyone is into the ‘cue, but the people who enjoy it are very passionate about it. “It’s a cult business,” says Brian Pollock. Apparently, some people are willing to travel a distance for it. It’s not unusual to hear about a biker group or a gaggle of foodie enthusiasts making special excursions to a roadside place. “We know there is a huge market in South Jersey,” says Ruthie Henri. “We often meet great people who crave genuine, good ole-fashioned-down-home BBQ.”
There’s something else about roadside barbecue that makes it such a draw: it’s a fun, communal experience.
As Ruthie Henri puts it, “it’s the flavor, fun, and messiness. BBQ folks are plain and simple. True BBQ eaters are…fun, genuine folks who simply like to have a good time.”