Sometimes opportunities come along that are too good to pass up. For Gene and Amy Giuffi, owners of swine-savvy BYOB Cochon, the low-hanging fruit was a nearby ruin that once sheltered Little Fish, a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen space made structurally (and aesthetically) sound by the Tyson Bees posse slated to open a Thai restaurant there. When that project stymied, the Giuffis took over, a prospect so geographically convenient the lease could have been negotiated by tin-can telephone.
Blue Belly BBQ opened in July, and word worked its way through the neighborhood like a flirtatious plume of hickory smoke. The acclaim seemed instant, the status conferred as if through direct deposit. I don’t think Blue Belly is all that, a truth proved over a pair of spreads from this matchbox-sized, cash-only smokehouse, but it can be very good if you order the right combination of things — and better if Cochon’s meticulousness was applied as generously as the dry spice rubs.
From the tidy menu, I tried twice as many sandwiches as platters and liked them half as much. Their nontraditional toppings intrigued: fennel salad, ginger-pear vinaigrette, pickled tomato and more, all compelling-sounding accessories for thoughtfully varied and carefully sourced meats treated with assorted marinades, rubs, hot and cold smokes, fryers, griddles and grills.
Named for the Civil War-era slang for a Yankee soldier, Blue Belly has seceded like the South from the American barbecue Union. Giuffi does his own thing, inspired by backyard grilling sessions on his Big Green Egg. So Jamaica Lite jerked and pulled chicken breast (timid on the habañero, per pansy customers’ requests) stands alongside tender sirloin smeared with a paste of soy, gochujang and tenderizing kiwi in an effort to mimic Korean bulgogi. Mexican barbacoa, done with lamb shoulder instead of traditional goat or beef head, hums with cumin and chipotle. There’s a chili dog buried in pork ragout and a falafel topped off with a smoky charred-tomato vinaigrette. What there aren’t are rules.
“We don’t want the argument,” Gene Giuffi explains. “We just want people to enjoy it and not worry.”
There will be no tribunal called to analyze the salt-and-pepper content of the dry rub, or any citations issued for which sauce — there are four, in squeeze bottles — you choose to pair with what meat. It’s a fun, unencumbered free-for-all ... and a lawless, danger-ridden Wild West. With no rules to curtail the over-embellishment of the sloppily built sandwiches, you wind up with lime-splashed jicama, crunchy radish, chile vinegar and crispy tortilla strips all clamoring to be heard atop that lamb barbacoa. The unfortunate result: None is heard, and some very fine protein suffers.
Chunky pickled tomato, red onion and citrus aioli conspired against the jerked chicken. Oh, and butter. (“Are the guys putting butter on it now?” Giuffi wondered aloud. “They might be.” Not encouraging.) I sought the fruity heat of the ginger-pear vinaigrette in the Korean beef sandwich, but couldn’t find it among the riot of kimichi and crispy shallots.
Only a special pork-belly sandwich’s topping, a spicy, vinegar-soaked pile of braised collards, chard and mustard greens, rang right in its brashness and simplicity. But whereas the other between-bread choices boasted excellent proteins, this one starred some sad pork belly — something Giuffi does so well at Cochon — framed by inedible cartilage and chewy skin. Cutting the belly into long, thick, pink planks was a generous gesture, but they were too big for the sandwich, lolling out the sides of its roll like a shih tzu’s tongue.
Speaking of bread, and God help me for saying this, I don’t think Sarcone’s bulky, unyielding hoagie roll is the right choice for these meats. Something softer and starchier would make me happier, potato or challah or snowflake even. Giuffi’s masterful meats, many of them prepped at Cochon before a final hickory-and-mesquite smoke at Blue Belly, deserve to be swaddled and hugged by their bread, not stonewalled by it.
Set on metal trays lined with butcher paper, platters adhere to the Southern meat-and-three structure, and the unorthodox sides are among the best fixins in town. Where else can you get corn-studded silver-dollar arepas alongside your cold-smoked Painted Hills short ribs (my favorite of the Blue Belly meats), or Cochon’s trademark bacon-fat-roasted Brussels sprouts with a deep-fried, clove-and-fennel-rubbed half chicken? Thin-skinned fingerlings lightly glossed in Old Bay and bacon aioli made a fine potato salad, and I don’t even like mayo-y potato salad. The braised greens were as tender as a side as they were on the pork-belly sandwich, their meaty broth mingling with vinegary juices of the pickled-red-cabbage cole slaw. Melted sharp cheddar and Swiss cloaked curly cavatappi (aka pig’s tail) pasta for a gooey mac ’n’ cheese that would benefit from breadcrumbs but that I really enjoyed anyway. Skin-on fries are from frozen, which would be a problem were they not so good.
But it really is all about the meat, echoed by the sketches of vintage grinders and framed butcher’s diagrams hanging on the whitewashed brick walls, and with Giuffi’s quality proteins as Blue Belly’s foundation, I think the other details will settle into place. Improvements are already en route, with the Wednesday-through-Sunday hours expanding soon and a Bourbon pecan pie arriving this week. Sounds like another opportunity too good to pass up.
BLUE BELLY BBQ | 600 Catharine St., 215-238-0615, bluebellybbq.com. Open Wed.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sandwiches, $9-$13; platters,
$13-$16; sides, $4.