There once was a time, not so long ago, when barbecue meant burnt sausage, raw chicken and appalling weather. Then the Food Channel introduced us to the likes of Man vs Food and Drive Ins, Diners and Dives… and barbecue (as opposed to ‘a barbecue’) would never be the same again; and rightfully so, because the whole raw chicken thing is a) lethal and b) vile. No, barbecue became a thing of wonder, involving great hunks of flesh cooked for aeons over the equivalent of a hickory flavoured light bulb, making for meat so tender and juicy that it would turn into a cloud of meat vapour if you so much as looked at it. Okay, that’s a bit histrionic, but we are talking seriously tender. Not only that, but the sides… pickle fritters, BBQ pit beans, grits (more on that later) and ‘slaw’. And craft beers. And bourbon. It’s all a bit of a different experience. And Red’s True Barbecue wants to turn into a religious one.
The Headingley Chapter (that sounds suitably religious – they can have that for free) is only the third Red’s to be opened, one being in Leeds’ city centre and the other (clearly the missionary position) in Manchester. When I arrive, the smokers are out (that’s the cookers, not the nicotiners) and a stage has been built on the roof for a night of live music and free barbecue – yes, you are gutted now. It is relatively quiet though, allowing for the extremely fortunate to get a preview of the promised land prior to the rib-fed rapture. Let there be meat!
Inside, the décor is functional and minimal, all knowingly so. The pipes are exposed, corrugated iron shores up the walls and the bar and cooking area are merely cages and panels. Diners/worshipers eat from paper lined pie tins set on rough wooden tables, sat on basic mismatched chairs. But like a certain country and western star once said, ‘it takes a lot of money to look this cheap’. Besides, too much décor detracts from the important things.
After being told the most wonderful words in the English language by our lovely waitress: ‘order what you like, everything is free!’ (with Pink Floyds ‘Wish You Were Here’ playing in the background – apt), I decide to treat myself to a double helping of brisket and pulled pork, served with slaw and grits and accompanied by a root beer float. My eating companion (my five year old son) goes for the cheese slider and chips, with an orange Tango – I only mention this because he is in paroxysms of joy because it comes in a beer mug, so he can be like daddy and have beer (not the best advertisement for my validity as a role model). The float is tall, refreshing, creamily indulgent… and necessary as I am driving/parenting and can’t hit the craft beers or the picklebacks (bourbon and pickle or jerky juice – something that sounds so potentially revolting has to be tried).
The meal is epic. I am advised to eat the grits quickly, as the cornmeal will set otherwise, so I set about this American indelicacy with a timid enthusiasm. They are very curious, the mix of sage and polenta creating an eating experience somewhere between mash and stuffing. I’m not entirely sure about it, but it had to be tried (see picklebacks) and makes a change to chips (I do have some sweet potato chips later, which are hot, crispy, squishy-sweet and delicious). The slaw is crisp, fresh and infused with dill, giving it a pickle bite. And then there’s the meat; oh, the meat. Two big heaps of pork and brisket that is a challenge to even the biggest appetite, but by god you’ll rise to the challenge. The pork is juicy and sweet, maybe even a bit too juicy, melts in the mouth and is topped by the crunchiest of crackling, acting in juxtaposition to the pulled pork. I’d be happy with that, but there is also a big pile of brisket. Cooked slow and low, it has a real smoky, jerky flavour and is, as expected, chewier and more substantial than the disappearing (but endless) pork. Amidst the chunks are two thick slices, smoked to rich perfection, though the Sunday dinner fanatic in me pleads for some gravy. No gravy, but a wide selection of sauces, from a feisty habanero sauce to a barbecue vinaigrette: my personal favourite is the South Carolina sauce, which has a dill tang and is a perfect accompanying flavour to the smoky rich beef. For fear of terminal meatsweats, I save some for later (you will be so glad that you can doggy bag up anything you don’t finish… because you won’t), though it is not for want of trying. Meanwhile, my trainee foodie is making inroads on his burger, a veritable slab of ground steak that is pink at its heart and also very tender. That together with the glazed bun makes for a very pretty burger, but I don’t think that is the important thing here. The combination of proper burger and homemade Judas ketchup overrides the aesthetic. I would say the chips are good… but I don’t get a look in.
I can’t leave without having a go at the desserts, but am pulled between the Red’s Banana Pie and the chocolate peanut butter cheesecake. After a quick discussion, we go for both, which turns out to be a divinely inspired choice. The cheesecake is a like a slice taken from a giant Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and is as decadent as expected. The chocolate and biscuit base is rich and crunchy in that order whereas the filling is creamy, sweet, nutty and delicious. The balance makes it incredibly scoffable. The banana pie, toasted meringue on top of banana, custard and sponge, is like a hot trifle or a crème catalana pie and probably one of the greatest dessert creations ever. I resist the temptation to order another but… it was oh so close.
And with that, we have to go… the hordes are yet to gather, but the aroma of ribs cooking geologically slow is irresistible. It’s gonna get messy, but it’s utterly deserved. The food is delicious and very good value, the setting is homely and unassuming… but not too unassuming and the staff are receptive, effective and friendly. I admit it, I’m a convert, and I can’t wait worship again… though I daresay this holy place is going to have no problems with dwindling congregations…
Filed under: Food