I used to wonder why anybody in their right mind would order pizza from the likes of Domino's, Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, etc. It’s all the same, and to me, it doesn’t even really taste like pizza. I remember a Papa Johns commercial where they advertised their sauce as “can fresh.” What does that even mean? If their idea of fresh is something that’s been sitting in a pressurized aluminum can for a few months, then what’s the less-fresh alternative? So why would anybody voluntarily eat chain pizza around here when you can’t walk in any direction for more than ten minutes without passing a better option?
The obvious answer, of course, is that those chain pizza restaurants don’t really thrive on our business. They’re around, sure. This is corporate America. But they’re making their bread and butter catering to other areas of the country, where a decent slice of pizza is as rare as a good taco is around here.
The point is, we take certain food for granted. We’re blessed with wonderful pizza and superb Italian hoagies. No Subway for us (unless you’re severely misguided.) But we, too, suffer certain travesties. As far as I know, there are very few places in South Jersey to get year-round, regional BBQ. That’s why, when an ambitious, independent BBQ joint opens in the neighborhood, eyebrows are raised and curiosity is piqued.
That place is on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood. The ambitious chef bringing delicious, smoked meats to we naïve South Jerseyans is Pitmaster Gerald Dougherty, who has run gourmet kitchens at various Center City Philadelphia hotels and the ship/restaurant Moshulu off Delaware Avenue.
I recently stopped by for lunch to see what Little Louie had to offer. Raised in South Jersey, I’m no BBQ expert, but I’ve gathered the basics from years of food-oriented television, and I know there are different schools of thought on how BBQ should be prepared, from the vinegary pork of the Carolinas to the sweet sauces of Kansas City and everywhere in between. That “everywhere in between” actually pretty aptly describes Little Louie’s approach, which features flavors from North Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. The menu is expansive, featuring BBQ staples like pulled pork, ribs, and rotisserie chicken, as well as non-staples such as smoked duck, buffalo sausage and salmon.
The décor is soft, inviting and playful, the walls dotted with Western movie posters and an old black-and-white John Wayne movie playing on the biggest television I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. That approach carries over to the plates, an odd mix of glass and plastic, and the silverware, which is metal (thank heaven) but wrapped in paper towels. I got the sense that Chef Dougherty, in addition to mashing his regional BBQ flavors, was caught in a similar predicament in mashing his gourmet instincts and the casual approach he was going for here. I liked it.
But what about the food? I started with a brisket empanada, The brisket was soft (it’s cooked for 20 hours) and surprisingly sweet, tucked into a deliciously flaky empanada shell. The house guacamole was good, but overpriced at nearly $7 for what amounted to a ramekin of guacamole, pico de gallo and some tortilla chips. The pico was laced with lemon, which was unique and not unsatisfying. The other appetizer I tried was the cherrywood smoked duck in a blanket, which consisted of two duck burritos served with cherry chipotle BBQ sauce. This was a nice surprise; the duck was soft and tasty and paired with a cucumber and red pepper slaw that provided a satisfying crunch. I liked the cherry chipotle sauce as well, which sits on the table with mild and hot house-made BBQ sauce.
Little Louie's offers a variety of entrée options. The house smoked meats consist of pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, chicken and beef brisket, and you can order one, two or three of them for $15-$20, along with two sides. A lot of those meats are available on a separate sandwich menu, more moderately priced and served with fries and slaw. There’s another list of separately prepared entrée items, which is where I got the sense that Chef Dougherty’s past instincts were kicking in again. From this menu, I ordered the buffalo sausage and grilled shrimp and grits. Some of these separate entrees come with predetermined sides, others allow for a choice from the list of sides. My shrimp and grits let me choose, so I went with the Carolina slaw and mac n cheese, with a slice of homemade cornbread to boot.
The shrimp and grits were quite tasty, with a nice kick added from the chorizo style buffalo sausage. The big, lumpy grits weren’t what I was expecting, but they were tasty and well cooked. I enjoyed the dish, especially the vinegary slaw and healthy slice of cornbread that came with it. The meal is NOT diet food, but shrimp and grits shouldn’t be, so they scored in that department.
I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Little Louie’s, and I’m sure I’ll return soon, probably on Tuesday or Wednesday, when they feature all you can eat BBQ (!) for $19.95 per person. Everything in house was made in house, the service was excellent, and good BBQ is a welcome addition to the South Jersey dining scene. I read on Yelp somebody complaining that Little Louie’s wasn’t as good as some of the BBQ they had in Austin, TX. There’s no shame in losing to the champ; drawing the comparison is an achievement on its own.
• In two weeks, I’ll be back with some suggestions on what area restaurants are doing to make your Valentine’s Day special. Stay tuned.
• Speaking of Valentine’s Day, Haddonfield is celebrating with their 5th Annual “Love is in the Air” Promotion, Feb. 1 to Feb. 14. Discounts on various goods will be offered town-wide. For a full list of specials, visit www.shophaddonfieldnj.com.
(Have some restaurant news from the Collingswood/Haddonfield area? Want to see your favorite restaurant profiled in this column? Email David Valiante at email@example.com.)