You don’t need to able to read smoke signals to understand that it’s barbecue season in America. Sponsored by Kraft Foodservice - Bull's-Eye BBQ Sauce
You don’t need to able to read smoke signals to understand that it’s barbecue season in America. And if your eyes and nose haven’t alerted you, a wave of TV, print and Internet advertising by restaurant chains surely has.
Outback Steakhouse is running a Moonshine BBQ menu that includes a liquor-infused sauce for wings, ribs, steaks, burgers and a grilled chicken chopped salad. Sixty-nine unit Dave & Buster’s has rolled out a Maker’s Mark Grill promotion tapping the legendary Kentucky bourbon in sauces for its Smokehouse BBQ Burger and its wings appetizer. And not too far away from traditional barbecue is Au Bon Pain’s BBQ Chicken Salad that includes barbecue sauce-marinated chicken.
Since opening nearly three decades ago, barbecued ribs have been a mainstay for 100-unit Happy’s Pizza. During the summer the chain is running a “feed a family of four” special combining St. Louis rib tips or beef tips, fries, slaw and garlic toast for $15.95.
“We find barbecue sells really well in the summer when pizza sales go down some,” says Sherrie Handrinos, spokeswoman for the Detroit-based chain. Among Happy’s nine-sauce options are teriyaki and sweet red chili. “We rub our ribs and tips the day before, smoke them overnight and then glaze the meat with sauce when they’re ordered.”
While barbecuers rightly claim a low, slow and smoky cooking style is the key to tenderness and succulence, sauces are now at the flavor forefront as chefs move beyond tomato bases and add exotic spices. Though the sweet-and-savory “red sauce” standards still fill the lion’s share of squirt bottles on restaurant tables, barbecue sauces now come in shades of yellow, orange green and even color-free white. Just a glance at better grocers’ shelves proves that point, says Daniel Levine, director at Avant Guide, a consumer trends tracker in Manhattan.
“This is all part of an explosion of artisanal barbecue sauces, something in the trends business we’ve been calling ‘the Brooklynization’ of barbecue sauce,” Levine says. Not only are an array of new seasonings and flavors from the Far East showing up in barbecue sauces, Levine says the way they’re marketed follows the line of boutique descriptions for other products. “We’re seeing these sauces described as small batch, locally sourced, handcrafted and made from heirloom ingredients. It’s almost funny to think, ‘This is barbecue sauce!’”
In the meantime, some sauce manufacturers are responding to operators' growing concerns about the use of food additives or artificial ingredients in their products. They have jettisoned artificial food products and flavors in favor of using “real” ingredients like molasses, tomato puree, natural smoke flavors and real sugar in place of high-fructose corn syrup — addressing what many have begun to call the “clean-label” issue in food preparation.
Sauce, in fact, remains one of a restaurateur's key signature touches when it comes to serving barbecue. Ten-unit Full Moon Bar-B-Cue in Birmingham, Ala., just introduced its new Alabama White Sauce that co-owner David Maluff described as “right down the middle, not too vinegary, not to mayonnaisey. It’s got a nice little kick to it because we add crushed red pepper and some cayenne.”
Since the company began offering it over its retail counters one month ago, more than 800 bottles have sold. Asked why, in the land of sweeter-red sauced ‘cue, is white sauce taking off, Maluff explains that it’s a little-discussed Southern classic to begin with, but “I also think people mostly like a change now and then. Plus it’s excellent with our chicken, our fried green tomatoes and fried okra.”
More compelling on the palate, he insists, is the dash of house-made chow-chow added to every entrée and sandwich leaving the kitchen. The chopped, cooked cabbage condiment is spiced with mustard seeds and hot peppers, which Maluff says adds an irresistible zip to Full Moon food.
“Chow-chow is not only very Southern, it’s very good on barbecue — on anything, really,” says Maluff, whose stores sell a combined 100 cases per month. “Our recipe is organic and all natural. No fooling around.”
Maluff says the chow-chow and all Full Moon barbecue sauces are made on premises from raw ingredients — a process which he notes is labor intensive. He says he contacted several manufacturers about producing the sauces off premise, “But they wanted to take short cuts, use preservatives and not use fresh vegetables. I know what clean labeling is, and ours is clean because it’s all done from scratch. It’s why we devote so much space to kitchens in our restaurants.”
Meanwhile, barbecue continues to grow in popularity around the country. Some time ago, 35-unit Wild Wing Café ran barbecued ribs as an LTO, but this summer it’s bringing them back as a permanent menu item. Using a proprietary spice blend made at each restaurant, the ribs are rubbed, slow cooked in an oven and, when ordered, sauced to customers’ preferences and grilled.
“By doing our rubs and sauces in house and in small batches, we really get good flavors that you wouldn’t by opening a jug and pouring it out,” saysand spokesman, Erik Combs. Customers can sauce their ribs with choices from a list of 34, including one created by a customer in a recent contest.
“The winner this year was a honey-lime sriracha with lots of cilantro and orange,” Combs says. “Be it on our wings or on ribs, you can go anywhere with honey, citrus and cilantro.”