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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sorry, Cookie, but Virgil's Barbecue Road Trip Cookbook may not be for you

As I sit to write this review of the new cookbook, “Virgil’s Barbecue Road Trip Cookbook,” I am reminded of the old Pace Picante television commercials.

In the memorable ad, a group of cowboys is gathered around a camp dinner. A cowboy finishes off the last of the Pace sauce and the camp cook, “Cookie,” hands him a jar of another brand of salsa. The cowboy looks at the contents of the other salsa and angrily says, “This stuff’s made in New York City!”

Soon, someone’s asking for a rope, and an announcer says, “Pick up the original.”

By using this comparison, I am not suggesting that Virgil’sReal Barbecue, a fixture near Times Square in New York City, is that bad. The restaurant, founded by Artie Cutler in 1994, was started as an attempt to bring barbecue to the Big Apple.

As discussed in the book’s introduction, Cutler realized that that “authentic barbecue is like a big old tree that grows from four different regional roots: Memphis, the Carolinas, Kansas City and Texas.” 

He, his wife Alice and his business partners went on a road trip that many of us would covet, driving across the South, tasting everyone’s pulled pork, spare ribs, chicken, beef brisket and “just about everything else that’s ever found its way onto a grill.”

According to the book, they ate at eight barbecue restaurants or roadhouses in one day.

The intelligence they gathered was then used to open Virgil’s at 152 West 44th Street (there also are locations at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas and the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut).

In the interests of full disclosure, I have never eaten at Virgil’s. Many reviewers at sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, OpenTable and Urbanspoon will attest to its quality. But many others question whether it can be “bonified,” as some Southerners might put it. 

That’s kind of where I am when I review “Virgil’s Barbecue Road Trip Cookbook (St. Martin’s Press).”

There never was a “Virgil.” When he started the restaurant, Cutler was looking to expand his restaurant empire beyond the success of his Carmine's Italian Family Style restaurants (Who was Carmine?). Cutler has passed away. Jeffrey Bank, chief executive officer of Alicart Restaurant Group, and Neal Corman, corporate executive chief of the group since 2010, oversee the restaurant today.

This book, authored by Corman with fellow New Yorker ChrisPeterson, does an alright job of presenting a review of Virgil’s many offerings, but you’ll find more depth and more useful recipes in other cookbooks.

It probably was written in order to provide additional revenue from the many tourists who walk through the doors of Virgil’s everyday – “Hey, honey, they have a cookbook …”

Last year, Corman told Thrillist's Andrew Zimmer that he doesn't believe New York barbecue is a "real thing," for which I give him a lot of credit.

“It’s great that there are different places, and I love it, but I don’t know if I’d consider it New York barbecue," Corman told Zimmer. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, it’s just that I see it as barbecue originated somewhere else and I know we can appropriate things and change stuff around, but I just don’t see it as being an original specialty." 

Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that you can't get good barbecue in New York City, as evidenced by Virgil's and Adam Perry Lang's first restaurant Daisy May's BBQ USA, for example.

I hate to give this book a Bronx cheer, but it lacks the soul of real barbecue. It tries to be all things for everyone, but comes up short, a mere imitation.

Inside the front cover of the book is a map of the southeastern United States, with references to barbecue restaurants, including many iconic spots. The people behind Virgil’s pay homage, but they should have stopped there.

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