Wednesday, March 5, 2008

INTERVIEW: Gary of PigTrip

If you are in the north east and are interested in BBQ, is indispensable. Gary, the owner and creator of PigTrip, has created a resource for the community at large that not only provides details on where BBQ joints can be found, but he also provides detailed reviews of most restaurants. Gary’s site also offers general BBQ commentary, stunning photography, updates on openings and closings and comparative reviews from other sources.

As a lone voice in what was long a BBQ wasteland, is a much needed resource. Providing coverage from New Jersey to Maine, Gary’s dedication to the hobby helps other enthusiasts navigate their way through the BBQ morass. continues to evolve and move forward. Already one of the best resources for restaurant reviews on the net regardless of region, Gary’s site sets the standard for BBQ aficionados looking to provide a guide to their part of the country.

Gary is someone whose opinion I have learned to trust, a Certified BBQ Judge, the owner of a site that I’ve come to depend on and a friend whose advice I always appreciate.

Q. What prompted you to start your site?

As a serious barbecue fan, I like to try every joint I can get to, so for years I was always looking for a resource to help me find pit stops for trips to my in-laws in New York (I'm from Boston). Most websites had incomplete or outdated information, so in 2005 I started compiling my own directory, just for myself. I also started writing short reviews, email them to a small group of friends. Eventually they convinced me to make this information public, and was born.

Q. Can you give us an overview of how it evolved into what it is today?

The backbone of the site, at least as I see it, is the Joints directory, with reviews there for those who want to read what I have to say. As far as evolving, a typical review now has around 20 photos, as compared to only a half dozen or so in the early reviews. About three months into the site, I started blogging. Some of these posts were just updates about the site, but I also got into writing longer essays about topics like all you can eat strategies, tipping, BBQ joint pet peeves, how to tell a good BBQ joint and the differences between competition barbecue and restaurant barbecue.

Q. Although you write about all things BBQ, your focus is on restaurant reviews. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Did your interest in quality ‘Q stem from the restaurants you visited or your personal BBQ experiences?

Definitely from the restaurants. Here in the Northeast, smokers weren’t something you’d typically see in back yards until recently. Although I prefer to cook my own ‘cue, I don’t always have the time or the advance notice, so even now, it’s often more convenient to drive an hour for a barbecue meal than to smoke a pork butt all day.

Q. You have jumped into an underserved niche. You provide an overview of BBQ joints throughout the north east. This burgeoning market has no one else offering this service. Have you modeled your efforts on other regional review services for areas such as Memphis, Texas or Kansas City?

No, although in retrospect maybe I should have. I just set things up in such a way where you could use the site for whatever you want. If you want to read the directory and ignore my reviews, that’s cool. If you want to read the blog and ignore the directory, that’s cool too. I do have one regret: I purposely chose a home grown site over a true blog to allow flexibility, but I don’t have built in comments sections, search features and automatic permalinks like other blogs do.

Q. How do you find out about new places to visit?

I scour websites like Chowhound, Yelp, Eater, Grub Street and all the barbecue-related blogs. I also investigate a lot of the regional "tabloid" publications for areas like Portland, Fairfield and the Hudson Valley. And I still use good old fashioned Googling. Lately, I’m getting a lot of good input from my readers.

Q. Does your reviewing make it difficult for you to visit a BBQ place for a relaxed, casual lunch or dinner? Are you always ‘on’?

Yeah, it makes things hard, especially when it comes to taking photos without arousing attention and focusing on the flavors so I can remember what to write. I feel a lot less pressure to be "on assignment" if I’m visiting a joint I’ve already reviewed. I’ll just take one or two photos and then just treat it as a regular meal. But every restaurant visit, even the non-barbecue ones, gets the mental wheels turning. I just tend to observe a lot and think about things a lot. It just comes naturally.

Q. When you are taking stock of a restaurant, what do you grade a place on?

First and foremost, it’s the food. If it’s fresh, juicy and bursting with flavor, I’m sold, even if the atmosphere and service are lacking. I also like originality. It’s funny that you say "grade," because in my reviews I don’t give stars or scores or ratings for categories, because what you may call a 10 I may call an 8 and vice versa. I’ll talk about the look of the place, the variety of the menu, the appetizers, entrees, sides and sauces. You’ll definitely know what I thought, but I skip the numbers so you can make up your own mind. I try to let the photos help you do that.

Q. As an expert on the variety of BBQ found in the north east, do see any patterns? Are there any predominant styles?

I’d call myself more of a fan that an expert, I just visit a lot of BBQ joints. I think the Texas style, which is less sauce-intensive, is gaining more popularity now: partly because the public is ready to taste the meat first and foremost, partly because pitmasters are more skilled now than a decade ago, and partly because of the success of Hill Country. Speaking of sauces, I notice that in the Boston area you’ll find a lot more Carolina influences, with vinegar-based sauces more common than not on pulled pork. I attribute much of that to Chris Schlesinger’s influence. That’s the way he does it, and about a half dozen Boston area BBQ joints have some ties to his East Coast Grill in Cambridge.

Q. How long have you run

The site launched on August 1, 2006, although I started accumulating photos and compiling restaurant reviews since January 1, 2006.

Q. Have there been any favorite places that have closed during the time that you have been reviewing, or do you mostly see the restaurants failing that you would expect to fail?

For the most part, it’s been the survival of the fittest, but there have been some closings of places I’ll miss: Jake’s Boss BBQ (Jamaica Plain MA), Rouge (Boston MA) and Holy Smokes (West Hatfield MA) all come to mind. I also wish I had made it to Pearson’s in Manhattan (formerly Queens) before it closed.

Q. What traits do you see the successful places sharing?

Passion. There are many joints that exist primarily to make money, because barbecue is "in" nowadays. But the ones that exist because the pitmaster is passionate about barbecue are the ones that are my favorites. If by success you mean profitable, I can only guess, but I’d say the ones that have a varied enough menu to please everybody, along with the ones that are keeping it simple and executing well. I prefer the latter group.

Q. Your site continues to evolve. How do you decide what to add? Does feedback from your readership influence your decisions?

I wish I had time to do all the things I want to do. I do add items that I think my readers want to see, and that people comment favorably on. But I think most of the additions just happen naturally, as a result of my buying a new smoker, or visiting a new restaurant, or spending time with barbecue people who get my ideas flowing.

Q. What was your biggest surprise that you were pleased with at a BBQ joint?

Probably Goody Cole’s in Brentwood NH. Sometimes you just get a vibe based on the website or the signage and certain expectations fill your head. For whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, and it turned out to be one of my favorites in the region. Swingbelly’s in Long Beach NY was a recent first visit that exceeded all expectation. For a specific item, I’d say tasting the burnt ends for the first time at RUB. It was like an epiphany.

Q. With all of your accumulated experience, have you ever considered opening your own BBQ joint?

I think about it all the time, but it’s mostly a dream. Although I’m often critical of BBQ joints, I’m the first to acknowledge that it’s a lot of hard work if you want to do it right. But even if I were successful, I wouldn’t be able to do what I really enjoy, which is going to restaurants (no, not all barbecue). If I could figure a way to operate only three days a week, and not depend on it to make a living, I’d love having my own place.

Q. What would you like to see more of in the restaurants that you review?

Barbecue fresh out of the smoker and onto the plate, with no reheating. There’s nothing like it.

Q. What do you see so much of that it inspires a gag reflex?

It’s not so much the food, though there’s more bad than good. It’s the overdone clich├ęs, like the obligatory stacks of wood for show at New York joints. Or the endless shelves of pig paraphernalia. Or menu phrases like "Cooked to perfection" and "Smothered in our award winning barbecue sauce" and "Falling off the bone." Enough.

Q. What can we look forward to with

There will be more interviews, more coverage of the competition scene, recipes contributed from restaurants, interactive maps and updates for many of the earlier reviews. I’m also going to try to get back into writing longer essays, which have appeared less frequently lately. Someday I’d like to expand to include the Philadelphia area, but that’s at least two years away. There are still too many joints left in New England, New York and New Jersey that I need to hit.


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