Wide World of Meat: Baltimore barbecue goes way beyond the American South

Baltimore offers many international variations on barbecue, including Jamaican, Korean, and Brazilian.

Barbecue—the low-and-slow method of cooking meat until it easily comes apart at the touch—is a culinary point of pride for the American South. If you're looking to eat your way into a food coma with tender Carolina-style pulled pork, check out City Paper's meat bracket (page 18) for local barbecue joints. But barbecue didn't spring into existence in the Carolinas, nor is the American South the only place in the world to come up with slow, smoky methods of cooking meat. The world is full of variations on that theme, and thanks to Baltimore's highly international culinary scene, you can try many of them at restaurants around the city.

First, on the international origins of American 'cue: Smithsonian magazine reports that when Christopher Columbus' expedition first came to the Americas, they encountered the Arawak Indians, who cooked their meat on a rack made of green wood, called a barbacoa, that was high enough up to keep the meat away from the direct flame. Low and slow. Later, in the 1540s in what is now Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe and Spanish explorers shared a meal of pork brought from Spain that was prepared on the barbacoa, and that dish would eventually spread through the colonies from there. As culinary historian Michael W. Twitty recently argued in The Guardian, our modern conception of barbecue was also influenced by the culinary traditions of the slave chefs that usually were the ones cooking it. "West and Central Africans had always had their own versions of the barbacoa and spit roasting of meat," he writes. "While living in a tropical climate, salting, spicing and half-smoking meat upon butchering was key to ensuring game would make it back to the village with minimal spoilage."

Twitty also points out that jerk chicken in Jamaica grew out of the same culinary techniques after Maroons, people who escaped slavery in the Americas, on the island forged ties with indigenous populations. Jerk chicken uses the same slow-and-low cooking technique on chicken with a spice rub, resulting in a sweet, spicy, smoky flavor combination. For a taste of this Jamaican cousin to American barbecue, check out Caribbean Paradise (1818 N. Charles St., [410] 332-8422, caribbean-paradise.tripod.com) or Island Quizine (8128 Liberty Road, [410] 922-9221, islandquizine.com).

Farther down the Americas, Peru has its own slow-cooked spiced chicken, though its origins are far more modern. In the 1960s, two Swiss residents of Peru, Roger Shuler and Franz Ulrich, invented a machine to rotate and uniformly cook chicken over coal or wood fires, creating pollo a la brasa. The spice-rubbed skin of the chicken becomes crisp and full of flavor and keeps the chicken meat inside delectably moist. Though it was originally a dish mainly for the wealthy, consumption has become so widespread that the National Institute of Culture included the dish in 2004 in the country's cultural legacy. Peruvian chicken has recently popped up all over Baltimore: A downtown branch of Chicken Rico (55 Market Place, [410] 244-5734, chicken-rico.com) opened up recently, joining the local chain's more-modest location in Highlandtown (3728 Eastern Ave., [410] 522-2950). Up in Northwest Baltimore, in a surprisingly international shopping center on Reisterstown Road, there's El Gran Pollo II (6858 Reisterstown Road, [410] 764-2805, Elgranpollomd.com)—numero uno is located in Towson. Grille Twelve24 (1224 N. Charles St., [410] 617-8990, grilletwelve24.com) in Mount Vernon has a fairly scatterbrained menu that includes American burgers and sandwiches and Mediterranean falafel and gyros, but its highlight is its succulent Peruvian chicken.

To get a taste of the meat from Peru's larger neighbor, Brazil, you can head to Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse (600 E. Pratt St., [410] 528-9292, fogodechao.com) in the Inner Harbor. The steakhouse serves churrasco, a Portuguese term referring to beef but more specifically a barbecue tradition that originated in southern Brazil with the Brazilian equivalent of American cowboys, who cooked meat on skewers over a fire pit. Nowadays, at a churrascaria like Fogo de Chão, servers bring you an unlimited amount of meat skewers, including various cuts of beef, pork, and chicken, and continue to slice meat off the skewers for you until you're stuffed to the gills and have to quit.

And although we initially said that our criteria for international barbecue was slow and low, we're going to break that rule to include Korean barbecue on this list, because it's too delicious to be overlooked. Sorry not sorry. We're pretty sure you'll forgive us, though, once you get a taste of the barbecue at Jong Kak (18 W. 20th St., [410] 837-5231, facebook.com/pages/Jong-Kak/258454814189598). There's a small circular charcoal grill built into each table on one half of the restaurant, so that servers can cook bite-sized portions of pork belly, spicy chicken, pork bulgogi, kalbi (prime rib), brisket, and more right in front of you. Get one of the combos and gorge yourself on high-quality cuts of meat freshly cooked over charcoal, as well as the numerous small bowls of vegetable dishes that come with it. Though Jong Kak is our personal go-to, there's also Be-One Korean BBQ (2016 Maryland Ave., [410] 244-5600, facebook.com/BaltimoreBeOne) and Nak Won (12 W. 20th St., [410] 244-5501, facebook.com/baltimorenakwon) close by, giving you plenty of options for some delicious meat-induced food comas. Happy eating.

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