Smokin’ in the Empire State
We spent last weekend visiting friends who live near Ithaca, New York, and on the trip, I decided I’d do a little informal barbecue research along the way.
Being a Canadian boy, the only other Canuck I know to have ever owned an offset smoker is the guy I bought mine from. I know there must be a few others, but traditional BBQ doesn’t really have a visible presence in this country.
So as we drove through the semi-rural & small town neighbourhoods in the Finger Lakes region, I peaked into people’s yards to see what they were using to cook with outdoors.
To my delight, I saw lots of evidence of live fire cooking, with a surprisingly high number of offset smokers (some of them quite fancy, too). Sure, there were an awful lot of gas grills, as one would expect, but it seems as though the phenomenon of real barbecue – once thought to be limited strictly to the Southern states – is definitely making its way North.
More evidence came in the form of Smokin’ Mule, a fine, upstanding ’cue joint in the town of Cortland (just a little East of Ithaca, south of Syracuse) which was our dinner destination for Saturday night. There’s a gigantic trailer smoker right out on the front lawn of this relatively small, unassuming restaurant with its classic menu of all the standards that really hits the spot.
I went for the two-meat combo (me: ribs & brisket; my wife: ribs & pulled pork) which came with two sides (me: BBQ beans & red beans and rice; my wife: salt potatoes & red beans and rice) and cornbread (each individually packaged in a mini-cupcake wrapper). The kids got chicken tacos, which they pretty much devoured after a long day of activity. For the beer fanatics, Smokin’ Mule also serves a local micro brew, from the Cortland Brewing Company, on tap, and I do love me a good craft draft from time to time.
The meat was wonderfully tender. Though I typically prefer back ribs, I found myself virtually inhaling the Mule’s untrimmed side ribs without complaint. When I hit connective tissue, I just worked my way around to my next hit of tender meat. The brisket was equally tender, served thinly sliced with only a standard issue butter knife. I cut through it with ease and let it just melt on my tongue for a while before quickly making all-gone. Glutton that I am, I’m deeply indebted to my wife for offering me a forkful of her tasty, tasty pulled pork.
On the positive, I really like the quiet, friendly and laid back nature of the restaurant and its staff, and I’m really happy that the meat gets served relatively sauce-free. There’s an assortment of homemade sauces at every table so you can finish everything off to your individual taste. Plus, the BBQ beans were killer, with noticeable chunks of onion & bacon and a nice smoky finish to them. As soon as I was done with the beans, I dumped what was left of the sauce into my red beans and rice and carried on from there.
If I had to pick a negative, I guess it would be that the place calls itself a Tex-Mex joint, but the flavour profile screams Texas with only a little hint Mexico thrown into the mix. Sure, there are tacos on the kids menu, but I was hoping for some exotic chillies to be mixed into the spice rub to give the meat a darker, earthier taste with a slight bit of slow heat. If I didn’t get that, at least I got enough flavour & texture to make up for it.