In hog heaven at Big Papa's BBQ

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After my recent Second Helping on Big Papa’s BBQ, one of my favorite barbecue joints, I received this missive from Big Papa himself: I'm glad you like my BBQ (particularly the baby backs). I'll tell my mom that you think her potato salad recipe is bland.

You should get to know my kitchen a little better. I've got a Southern Pride 700 pounder. It's the best smoker on the planet, bar none...especially with split hickory. We don't use liquid smoke to "flavor" our meats. That's a lynching offense in North Florida. I'm sorry that you were exposed to this at a young age. And our proteins aren't from a plant. We wrap our ribs 2 hours after being smoked (for 4 hours) to keep them moist until we finish them off on the grill. We don't cryovac anything.

Thanks for educating people that rib meat should pull away from the bone cleanly, not just "fall off the bone." That crap will get you disqualified at any KC Barbeque Society sanctioned event faster than a democrat on an earmark.

Big Papa Hogtown, North Florida

The return address got me immediately: I want to live in Hogtown, even though I have a long-held and stated loathing for the entire state of Florida, where I once spent a few unfortunate months. Still, the name Hogtown conjures up images of an idyllic wonderland where all suckling pigs are born roasted and bacon dangles from the trees. It looks a lot like Homer’s vision of Candyland in that episode of The Simpsons where everything was made out of chocolate and he took a bite out of a mailbox and a schnauzer walking down the street.

I also appreciated Big Papa (ne Frank Alfonso) hipping me to the way his back of the house operates. My usual tactic for testing a BBQ restaurant is simple: I drive toward it with my windows open and see how close I have to get before I can smell it. The best spots can be scented on the wind from a good ways off — a half a mile, if the wind is blowing right. But I’ve driven right up to the Big Papa’s at 6265 East Evans Avenue without smelling anything but the McDonald’s next door and, occasionally, odd odors wafting from the Palace Chinese restaurant on the opposite corner.

Inside Big Papa’s, the smell of barbecue is thick and rich. But outside? Nothing. And that has always made me a little nervous. So it’s good to know that Alfonso has that big, hickory-fired Southern Pride going in the back. And he’s right about his machinery: It’s the best there is, save certain hand-made pits and smokers of antiquity.

After reading his note, I called him last week, and he explained that he’s well aware of the fact that “the best marketing there is is that smell from a mile away” — but at the Evans location, he’s limited by technology. Apparently the fire department made him put a huge, aftermarket hood and Ansel system in after the smoker had been installed, and the vents on it are heavily baffled — more or less designed to eat all that delicious smoke and keep it out of the noses and lungs of would-be customers. But at the second Big Papa’s location, at 12652 West Ken Caryl Avenue in Littleton, no such venting system was required, and Alfonso says you can smell that place from far off.

Alfonso is a man who knows his Q, who did time and learned his lessons in a very competitive barbecue universe: North Florida, where all the styles of the Deep South and Midwest collide in a kind of porky death match for ultimate smoked-meat supremacy. He and I are in absolute agreement on Liquid Smoke (weird that he knew I’d had a traumatic Liquid Smoke experience in my youth…) and about the best texture of a proper rib.

And while I don’t exactly get the “democrat on an earmark” joke, I do want to apologize to Big Mama — I didn’t mean to imply that your potato salad recipe is bad, ma’am, but that perhaps the staff might endeavor to follow it more closely and add to it something other than potatoes and mayonnaise. A little salt would be nice, maybe some white pepper, a touch of mustard. Anything. But not to worry, because if the recipes for the house banana pudding and cobbler are yours as well, there’s already a place waiting for you in Hogtown. -- Jason Sheehan

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