Led by a newcomer in Little Italy, BBQ is the latest culinary craze in New Castle County

From Facebook posts to newspaper articles to food blogs, the big buzz around Wilmington is all about barbecue. Credit the August debut of Locale BBQ Post in the old Sugarfoot Fine Foods & Gourmet Catering location on the edge of Little Italy. News of the soft opening, which went viral among local Facebook users, led to lines out the door and sold-out signs by early or mid-afternoon.

Locale BBQ isn’t the only eatery heating up the dining scene. Down in Elsmere, Philippine Smoked BBQ & Grill opened in June. The Road Hog food truck this summer pulled up at the rest stop on 95 near Newark. And if all goes as planned, 3 Doors Brewing, which will feature barbecue, will open in late winter or early spring next year.

What’s the appeal of BBQ? “It’s a great food,” says Chef Dan Sheridan, who owns Locale BBQ with Mike Gallucio and Justin Mason. “You can feed a lot of people and a lot of your friends, and it’s not fussy. I’ve always been a fan. I don’t know too many people who don’t like barbecue.”

Dan Sheridan owner of Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington, checks on brisket that is being smoked, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Dan Sheridan owner of Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington, checks on brisket that is being smoked, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

A Tasty Tradition

Real barbecue takes time. It’s not about burgers on the grill. It’s about cooking meat slowly over indirect heat, which is why Locale BBQ can’t just pop more meat in the smoker when supplies run out.

The approach has been around for hundreds of years. It’s thought that after landing in the Caribbean in the 15th century, the Spanish coined the word barbaoa to refer to the natives’ slow-cooking method. The technique spread to the American South, where pigs were so plentiful that they became a barbecue mainstay. In Texas, not surprisingly, it’s all about the brisket.

Because barbecue allows hosts to easily serve a large crowd with inexpensive cuts of meat, it became the dish of choice for large picnics and gatherings. Anyone who’s read or watched Gone with the Wind recalls Scarlett O’Hara charming her beaux at the Twelve Oaks barbecue, where she first met Rhett Butler.

Behind the Q Curve

Despite its longevity and popularity, barbecue as a culinary trend has been slow to catch fire in Wilmington. Sure, there are some solid mainstays, most notably Rick Betz of Fat Rick’s BBQ, who’s maintained that “nobody beats my meat” since 1989 in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant early on and, more recently, as a caterer.

New Castle County contenders that fly under the radar include Big D’s BBQ, David Deal’s counter in The Well Coffeehouse and Marketplace in Hockessin, and Russell’s Quality Food on Centreville Road, which has built a cult-like following for its barbecue, cooked onsite and served out of an unassuming shed-like building near Steve’s Liquors.

Farther south, Where Pigs Fly in Dover has been dishing up hickory-smoked pulled pig since 1993, and Bethany Blues’ two beach locations—in Lewes and Bethany—are smoking strong.

When Eppy’s Barb-B-Que on Philadelphia Pike opened in 2012, North Wilmington diners hoped that the BBQ restaurant might become more of a trend than a “hidden gem.” Unfortunately, Eppy’s quickly closed. (That Holly Oak location has witnessed a string of failed eateries.)

In Philadelphia, however, barbecue is plentiful and popular. Consider Percy Street Barbecue, opened in 2009 by celebrity Chef Michael Solomonov, Phoebe’s BBQ, which opened in 1994, Smokin’ Betty’s, Fette Sau, and Pig Daddy’s BBQ—to name just a few.

Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

As the Spit Turns

Locale BBQ’s popularity could indicate that barbecue in Wilmington is developing the same hip factor that it has in Philly. Recently, the mostly takeout shop offered garlic-peach sauce made with black garlic from Obis One in Pennsville, N.J., a destination for cutting-edge chefs seeking local, artisanal products.

Sheridan’s prior business, Wilmington Pickling Company, provides the pickles. In fact, it was Sheridan’s search for a kitchen where he could take the side business full time that helped spark the idea for a BBQ joint. “I needed to do something else besides just pickles, and I wanted to keep cooking,” says Sheridan, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Australia who’s worked at Bistro on the Brandywine, Cantwell’s Tavern, and La Fia. “Barbecue just kind of goes hand-in-hand with pickles.”

Locale BBQ also benefits from the talents of fellow Chef Christopher Baittinger, who’s worked at Ulysses American Gastropub, Chelsea Tavern, University & Whist Club, and, most recently, Ernest & Scott. Baittinger, who’s unabashedly passionate about all things pork, makes bacon to sell at Locale BBQ. (Culinary trend spotters could say that barbecue’s shining star is partially linked to the public’s continued appetite for pork, which was a common ingredient at the recent Farmer & the Chef benefit.)

Locale BBQ sticks to sweet tea for its signature libation. Barbecue, however, also goes well with craft brews and bourbon. The latter is a combination the new 3 Doors Brewery, located three doors away (thus the name) from sister restaurant Chelsea Tavern on Market Street, will promote. “I love barbecue; I love beer,” says Joe Van Horn, operating partner of both restaurants, as well as nearby Ernest & Scott Taproom. “This is the restaurant I’ve always wanted to do. This is going to be a little more of my baby.”

Although the full-service 3 Doors Brewery, which will brew Belgian-style ales in its seven-barrel system, will have a 500-pound smoker onsite, the restaurant won’t limit itself to barbecue. Other items will include burgers, soups and salads.

Ribs at Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Ribs at Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Deciding Differences

Even barbecue-centric restaurants, however, often go beyond the expected pork, chicken and brisket. Locale BBQ, for instance, has bratwurst. Russell’s offers jerk chicken, hot dogs, yams and fried fish. Fat Rick’s is also home to Miz Walt’s chicken, which was the star at the restaurant Rick and wife Tina opened in 1990 in what is now Eclipse Bistro.

Philippine Smoked BBQ & Grill takes the BBQ menu to a unique level in town. Here you’ll find the expected favorites: beef brisket, whole or half chicken, chicken leg quarters, pulled pork, and ribs. The shop offers smoked turkey legs and kielbasa as well. Then there are the dishes inspired by owners Romeo and Lalaine Balan’s Filipino heritage: chicken or pork kabobs, mini eggrolls, puto with cheese (sweet rice cake with cheese) and biko (sweet sticky rice).

Sides, made in house, include a Carolina-style vinegary slaw but also a macaroni salad with smoked chicken breast, raisins, and pineapples. Roast lechon (a Spanish term for roasted suckling pig) is available Saturday or Sunday. It’s particularly popular on the Filipino island resort of Cebu, where Lalaine grew up. The restaurant also does special orders for a whole pig or turkey. “We do everything,” she says. “Just think of it and we will do it for you.”

There are other differences among the area’s barbecue restaurants. Some serve the meat already sauced. Others dry rub the meat, then customers pick from the available sauces, which usually include sweet and spicy selections.

Betz sticks to the tried-and-true. “We are a classic American barbecue,” he says. He uses a dry rub and adds a touch of vinegar to the Carolina-style pork. Traditional sauces are on the side. “We do the classic barbecue that was served 100 years ago and will be the same barbecue that will be served 100 years from now.”

But in Delaware, even classic fare can go in and out of fashion. “Brisket sneaked up on us a few years ago,” Betz says. “I don’t know where that came from; we do a ton of brisket now.”

Betz, who had restaurants in the North Wilmington suburbs and in downtown Wilmington, closed his bricks-and-mortar operation 15 years ago to cater. He now has a location in an office plaza off Foulk Road mostly for its commercial kitchen, but he’s open during lunch for those who want to pop in. “You know how some restaurants do a little bit of catering? We’re a catering company that does a little bit of ‘restauranting.’”

Newcomers don’t threaten him. “Barbecue has been a tiny, tiny niche in the food segment” in Wilmington, he says. “That’s where I survived all by myself all those years.”

He might get a lot more company in the future. Along with the opening of 3 Doors Brewery, Sheridan and his partners would like to open additional locations with the same to-go-friendly model. “We’d like to do two or three down the line,” he says. “I’d like to get down to Main Street, Newark—anything with a lot of people driving by or walking by who need a quick bite to eat.”

All that will have to wait. At week three, Sheridan, who gets in no later than 6 a.m. to feed the smoker, was still busy meeting the current demand. The good news is that despite the hard work and long hours, he hasn’t lost his appetite for his menu. “I still eat it every day,” he says. “I ate a rack of ribs last night. And if we’re still eating it, we hope it’s also good for everybody else.”

Judging by the lines outside his door, “everybody else” agrees.

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.