Jewish BBQ is thriving in New Jersey

Most of these kosher barbecue establishments are slinging largely traditional Southern barbecue, just forgoing the pork and perfecting beef, turkey and chicken dishes. There is some time-honored Jewish food on the menus, namely brisket and pastrami in many, many forms.

If you swing by Dougie’s BBQ in Deal or in Teaneck, Sender’s Smoke Joint, Smokey Hill, or The Southside Smokehouse for a bite, you’ll find an array of ribs, brisket, fried chicken, smoked turkey, burnt ends—normal barbecue stuff. However, there’s one conspicuous exclusion: pork in any form whatsoever. All of these restaurants are kosher, and pork is treyf, or forbidden under kosher law. 

Because traditional Southern barbecue is so heavily associated with pork, kosher barbecue joints are rare. But New Jersey has at least those five, along with Hackensack-based The Wandering Que (which operates a food truck, interstate delivery service and catering business) and Highland Park-based Kosher Southern Comfort, which supplies barbecue to kosher groceries in Highland Park and Elizabeth. Between all of these venues, you can get a chili dog or an upscale dinner, get your wedding catered or just pick up some burnt ends on your grocery run. This historically very off-limits food is not a novelty but integrated into New Jersey’s kosher dining scene. 

There isn’t always a one-to-one relationship between food being certified kosher and being “Jewish” in the sense that it’s tied to a Jewish cultural tradition. I paid Dougie’s BBQ in Teaneck a visit on a recent beautiful fall day. For all of the eyebrows raised at the concept of kosher barbecue, the dishes didn’t look all that different from non-kosher barbecue. I ordered a classic dish, a barbecue chicken sandwich, along with jalapeño slammers. Jalapeño poppers stuffed with jalapeño sauce and pastrami, the slammers represent a little more of a barbecue-Ashkenazi food fusion. It took me some time to decide, though—the menu was quite extensive. It includes plenty of barbecue dishes, along with burgers, soups, salads and deli sandwiches. Pastrami abounds, from pastrami egg rolls with a side of horseradish mustard to the monster chicken sandwich (grilled chicken topped with pastrami and “mounds” of coleslaw).

If you’re looking for the absolute best barbecue or the absolute best pastrami in New Jersey, I wouldn’t send you to Dougie’s, but it was all delicious. It’s a great option for people who don’t keep kosher at all. And for Jews who keep kosher or eat kosher-style, having a classic barbecue joint at which to dine is a definite boon.

Dougie’s is not alone in this. Most of these kosher barbecue establishments are slinging largely traditional Southern barbecue, just forgoing the pork and perfecting beef, turkey and chicken dishes. There is some time-honored Jewish food on the menus, namely brisket and pastrami in many, many forms. However, none of the Jersey restaurants operate like, say, not-actually-kosher Pulkies in Brooklyn, which serves a more pointed fusion of Southern barbecue and traditional Ashkenazi Jewish fare. If anything, they highlight the existing overlap between barbecue and Jewish cuisine, as when Kosher Southern Comfort describes smoked pastrami as “Texas meets Lower East Side.”

What is it about New Jersey that fosters a growing kosher barbecue scene, when kosher barbecue is impossible to come by in most of the rest of the country? First and foremost, there are a lot of Jews in New Jersey. New Jersey is just over 6% Jewish, trailing only New York and Washington, D.C., for proportion of Jews. What’s more, there are a lot of observant Jews in New Jersey. (There are varying levels of religious observance among Jews, and many don’t keep kosher at all.) New Jersey’s more Orthodox Jewish areas—where virtually all of these restaurants are located—are growing rapidly. For example, majority-Orthodox Lakewood was the second-fastest-growing city in New Jersey over the past decade, increasing its population by 45%. Lakewood is the largest and most well-established, but the Jersey Shore is home to a number of Orthodox enclaves whose populations have grown significantly in recent years. Fundamentally, New Jersey has a lot of kosher barbecue for the same reason that New Jersey has a lot of kosher Chinese, sushi and pizza, even though none of those cuisines are traditionally Jewish: there are a lot of people who want to eat it.

The broader growth of barbecue in the state undoubtedly plays a role as well. While New Jersey is still holding onto its longtime reputation for mediocre ‘cue, the scene is undeniably expanding. The kosher options in any particular location are always going to be influenced by the larger food culture. Fittingly, Southern states have longer kosher barbecue histories. The World Kosher Barbecue Festival began in Memphis in 1988, for example; since then, festivals have also been established in Atlanta in 2012 and Charlotte in 2013. Meanwhile, Northern states have been missing out. Even Brooklyn, the most Jewish place in America, didn’t get a kosher barbecue joint until 2015 (Izzy’s, if you’re interested). Such a restaurant in the mid-Atlantic represents a kind of dual evolution, of American barbecue away from its origins in the South and again to kashrut.

On some level, it makes perfect sense that Jewish pitmasters are part of the growth of Jersey barbecue. There’s plenty of overlap between traditional barbecue and dishes associated with Jewish dining. The venerable pastrami, the quintessential Jewish deli sandwich filling, is a smoked meat. Texas-style BBQ brisket has Ashkenazi Jewish origins, and braised brisket is still a popular holiday dish for many American Ashkenazis. Even though the preparation has diverged as different foodways influenced Texas and Ashkenazi cuisines, it’s not a tremendous leap from one preparation to the other.

As Ari White, the owner of The Wandering Que, told me, “I think it’s all about things coming full circle.” White, who is originally from Texas, pointed out that, “Texas-style barbecue brisket as we know it has its earliest roots in the Jewish community that was existing as my family arrived here in the early 1900s. The Portuguese link Wiese, which is our best selling sausage, has its roots in the Jewish Marano community that lived hiding in plain sight after 1492. These foods have always been part of our heritage and tradition.”

Both Jewish food and barbecue are culinary traditions with long, complex histories that aren’t always obvious or intuitive. New Jersey has an incredible ethnic foodscape, with all kinds of cuisines borrowing from the local setting. When we categorize foods rigidly, we risk unintentionally flattening their histories.

We also risk missing out on some good food. I left Dougie’s laden with leftovers (I had over-ordered to a perilous degree). A woman walked past as I was waiting at an intersection and said, “Man, that smells good.”

“Oh yeah, I got it at Dougie’s, down the block,” I said. She nodded and walked on. As she was getting into her car, she stopped and got my attention again. “That’s the kosher place?” she asked. 

“Sure is,” I responded. Maybe I was projecting, but I thought she looked a little surprised.