On our journey to together forever, my Kim and I have shared meals at thousands of restaurants. Even when we haven’t enjoyed those meals, without exception we’ve enjoyed our times together. We share everything…almost. Maybe the only thing we don’t completely share is the extent, breadth and depth of my passion for food. You probably won’t believe this, but I’m one of those “live to eat” types who’s certifiably obsessed with food–to the point of looking forward my next culinary adventure before my current meal is even done. I self gloss as a gastronome, but foodie, gourmand or bon viveur fit, too.
In describing my Kim as “insouciant” about food, my thoughts immediately wandered to souffles and sous, two food-related words that sort of rhyme with insouciant. Talk about being hung-up. Some of my friends and frequent dining companions would also describe themselves as foodies, but their behavior belies that contention. Perhaps because of the rarity with which I break bread with someone as preoccupied with the enjoyment of food, fate decreed that the brilliant Linda Johansen would become my boss. Like me, Linda is a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) judge. She’s also served several times as judge at the National Pie Championships and at the world’s largest matanza in Belen among other culinary competitions.
I had thought Linda and I were unique among our peers at the University of New Mexico’s Information Technologies staff in our passion for great food. Then, after nearly three months of trying to sync calendars, we were finally able to join our friends and colleagues Mark Orgeron, Tim Johnson and Tuan Bui for lunch at Greg’s BBQ in Belen some 32 miles from campus. (Considering the frequency with which the five of us work through lunch, a two-hour lunch is a rare indulgence; we’re all conscientious stewards of your tax dollars.)
Sure, we talked shop, but most of our conversation–going and coming–centered around barbecue. It became obvious all five of us could be starters on UNM’s varsity foodie team. So lustful was our discussion of the barbecue we were about to enjoy that it made me wish my Hyundai was equipped with interior windshield wipers. Mark and Tim discovered Greg’s BBQ several months ago and have made so many barbecue runs to The Hub City that their vehicles are permanently imbued with the aroma of smoked meats. They’ve got an intimate familiarity with the menu, having tried everything at least once. Listening to them describe what we were about to enjoy was akin to the skies opening up and a chorus of angels singing the glory of barbecue.
Because Linda and I are both certified KCBS judges, Mark and Tim had some trepidation as to whether the barbecue they love so much would measure up. They needn’t have worried…but I digress. Greg’s BBQ is the brainchild of Greg Spragg, a North Carolina native and former United States Marine who loves the Dallas Cowboys. After leaving the Marine Corps in 1992, Greg traveled throughout his home state, participating in pig cooking competitions and mastering the fine art of low-and-slow cooking. In 2013, Greg launched a mobile kitchen (that’s food truck to you, Bob) with which he competed in local fairs and festivals. Three years later, he set up shop in a brick and mortar complex within the Cattleman’s Sale Barn. He remained there until September, 2019 when he relocated to the former site of Carlos Cantina, home of the famous “Cantina With No Pity.”
It would be easy to assume that because Greg is from North Carolina, he would strictly subscribe to the Tar Heel State’s template for barbecue–pork: served pulled, shredded, chopped, sliced and topped with a vinegar based sauce sporting a peppery bite. While Greg’s menu does offer pulled pork, the menu doesn’t entirely follow any of the four recognized major regional barbecue styles: Carolinas, Texas, Kansas City and Memphis. Your taste buds, however, might–during the heat of ardor–swear the brisket is all Texas while the pork ribs are reminiscent of those you may have had in Memphis. Regional influences, not withstanding, this is barbecue Greg style. He’s got a smoker “out back” that burns a combination of hickory and pecan woods, oak on occasion. He’s also got a line-up of unique (call them “Belen-style”) sides.
Barbecue plates and combos–single meat plate, two meat plate and sampler plate (three meats)–are the way to go, especially if you’ve got a dining partner like Linda who orders the meats you don’t and happily shares. Carnivorous cravings will be sated with your choice of pulled pork, green chile sausage, smoked brisket and on Friday, pork ribs. Sides range from very good to spectacular: mac and cheese, coleslaw and potato salad among the former, beans and hand-cut fries in the latter. Three appetizers, including a very unique deep fried pickles starter, will start you off on the right foot. A phalanx of burger and sandwich options, all certified as outstanding by Mark and Tim, are also available.
Forget any preconceptions you may have about fried pickles. You know–sliced dill pickles breaded in seasoned flour and fried crispy then typically served with a boring ranch dressing. Greg’s deep-fried pickles are unlike any others you’ve had. First, they’re sliced length-wise to just about the size of a French fry. Then, they’ve actually got personality and not the typical lip-pursing tanginess born of an intense vinegar brine. These pickles have a fiery flavor, not napalm-heat, but a pleasant, oh-so-good burn. Texturally, they’re crispy, not flaccid and they’re lightly breaded to allow the pickles to shine. Because in New Mexico you just can’t get enough heat, the accompanying sauce has a delightful burn that works very well with the pickles. Not even in the Deep South have we had deep-fried pickles this good.
You might think that because Linda and I are KCBS certified judges, we always apply KCBS criteria–taste, texture and appearance–to assess each meat. Indicative that being bona fide foodies trumps being judges, our focus was solely on enjoyment…and there was plenty of that. Tim observed that there were more yummy sounds emanating from our table than you hear on a Rachael Ray cooking show. Our foodie five group all raved about the brisket (not pictured because your humble blogger was so anxious to attack the ribs that he didn’t “pose” his sampler plate), quarter-inch thick planks of beefy deliciousness. As with all Texas-style brisket, it’s tender without falling apart, and has a thick layer of smoky-peppery bark surrounding each slice. There’s a good amount of fat for flavor; brisket should never be lean.
Unlike the brisket, the pulled pork is fall-apart tender, tendrils of moist porcine shards imbued with a light smoky flavor. It pairs best with Greg’s sweet sauce, one of the three uniquely delicious sauces (along with a spicy sauce and one called “magic” that’s a combination of the sweet and spicy sauces). Greg understands that pork ribs are meant to have a little “give” to them. They should never be “fall of the bone” tender, a sign they’re overcooked. As with all smoked meats, apply just a little bit of sauce so that the focus is on the pork. There’s a reason Fridays are the day rib aficionados look forward to.
Greg’s housemade green chile sausage is every bit as good as the sausage you’ll find at Elgin, Texas, the recognized sausage capital of the Lone Star State. As with all great sausage, it’s got a nice snap when you bite into it. A natural casing gives way to tender, slightly coarse sausage flecked with green chile that lends a pleasant piquancy. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the thinly sliced smoked turkey. Turkey as thin as offered at Greg’s is the most difficult to prepare well. Too much smoke and you risk entirely obfuscating the savory-sweet turkey meat. Not enough smoke and you may as well not smoke it. Greg’s smoked turkey has just enough smoke. A single rasher of smoked bacon shared with Linda convinced me to buy a pound of it next time. Cured with a kosher salt, brown sugar and maple syrup, it’s got a nice balance of savory and sweet flavors.
Hand-cut French fries are a must-have. A thin, delicate crust on the outside belies pure soft creaminess on the inside. Sure they’re flaccid and withering, but they’re salty and delicious. Ketchup need not apply for a place on these fries. Dip them instead into the magic sauce. This is probably not an admission a barbecue judge should make, but there have been competitions in which the highlight was the baked beans. Thankfully Greg’s barbecue is even better than Greg’s beans and that’s saying a lot. These beans are competition worthy themselves. They’re sweet, savory and replete with personality. Only the peach cobbler, a bit doughy, was a bit of a disappointment.
The wait staff at Greg’s BBQ wear shirts emblazoned with a logo depicting a wild boar over the words “have a smokin’ good day.” Five food fanatics certainly did have a good day one Friday in March–all of us unabashed about our passion, gleefully expressing our joie de manger with every bite of bodacious barbecue.
629 South Main Street
Belen, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 March 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Deep Fried Pickles, Smoked Turkey, Green Chile Sausage, Pulled Pork, Brisket, Pork Ribs, Beans