The next stop was Surf BBQ, which is about 12 minutes east, down River Road into Rumson. The building had been McGuire’s before Surf, and Briody’s before that. Back in high school, I had taken a girlfriend to Briody’s, but before we could order, we were asked to leave because we were too young to be in a place that served alcohol. Briody’s was now gone, but I was returning to the exact location where that embarrassing moment occurred. The outside looked the same except for the pig on the surfboard logos, but once you walked in that door, nothing was the same. First impressions are everything, an opportunity to germinate the feelings and ideas you want your customers to have throughout the experience. Walking through the entrance, you are met with the brick, timber, and rough, communal picnic tables that transport you to barbeque places that have been around for generations. Just not in New Jersey that is.
Owner, Victor Rallo, a successful local restaurateur , clearly wanted to create something different from anything else in the state. The menu, developed with the help of renowned pitmaster Bill Durney of Hometown Bar-B-Que, is posted on blackboards on the wall, and follows the mantra of other successful restaurants: Do one thing and do it well. It is not expansive, but it’s not boring either. The line moves quickly, but sometimes you don’t want it to. There is something to be said for having a rocks glass in hand, looking up and drooling over the possibilities, and talking with your line neighbor, who you just met. Once the decision is made, the meat is ordered and served by the half pound at the counter to the right. While we in New Jersey may not be used to this way of ordering in finer restaurants, it follows many of the authentic experiences in the South. If that still doesn’t satisfy you, here are some other advantages: the bar which is within reach to the left is stocked with great beers and whiskeys, you can see the chefs at the window pull and prepare your meal, you know exactly when you are going to get your meal, and you can socialize and share with others your anticipation of the feast you will soon be having. Barbeque is a social experience. Enjoy sharing it!
Although having the right atmosphere and the right menu is important, if you don’t have a passionate and conscientious pitmaster to see it carried out successfully, and, perhaps even more importantly, help it evolve, you will not get repeat customers. Victor has found that pitmaster in Alex Smith, formerly of Mighty Quinn Barbeque. A young, but experienced chef, he has traveled extensively around the country to speak with and learn from numerous other well-known pitmasters. I was given the opportunity to speak with Alex and was very impressed about his knowledge, attention to detail, and attitude towards the art. He knows the products as they come in the door and treats the quality of the meat respectfully when he cooks. Alex understands that this genre of food is a community, and that pitmasters and chefs from around the state need to share and communicate with each other in order to help grow the industry. He said that it takes time for New Jersey to develop its own barbeque identity. The barbeque community of New Jersey needs to see itself as a family in order to share cooking techniques and recipes, and advocate for what New Jersey has to offer.
Once at the counter, you get a good look into the kitchen. Everything is wood-burning, from the 3000 lb custom-made smoker to the adjustable grill, using a mixture of oak and fruit woods such as cherry and crab apple, at a rate about two cords per week. No gas is used at all. A new 6000 lb. smoker is in the back and was currently being seasoned by weeks of smoke and fat, getting ready for an inaugural load of brisket. Surf currently cooks about 30-40 brisket per night, a load that bogarts the small smoker for long periods of time. Not only will the new, larger smoker increase capacity, but will allow Alex to cook each meat separately, minimizing the disturbances that occur from having different cooking times. This is an example of how the attention to detail and the ongoing effort to improve the product drives this place.
At the counter, I turned around to find myself alone. The crew, after helping decide what to order, had bellied on up to the bar. Mike K. and Chris “Fly Boy” Flynn, his friend, had met up with us and were soon catching up over beers. This allowed me to order and watch the prep without any disturbances. Watching the young chefs select and slice the meat in front of you is part of the overall experience, and everyone was watching each other’s order being prepared. With Alex overseeing everything, one grabbed a brisket and showed it to Alex. After a getting a nod, the chef began to slice it and the juice flowed. Dish after dish, with scrutiny, they placed the prepared order on steel trays lined with butcher paper, until it was complete. We wanted to try everything, and ordered quite a bit, and yes, I was the only one there to carry everything over to the table. Everything was great. EVERYTHING!
Here are some of the dishes that we ordered and some of the comments from the Boys:
Brisket: A fine, uniform layer of black pepper in the Texas style completely covering the brisket, sliced thick with a nice fat cap. Joe said, “It’s so tender, you could eat it with a spoon.”
Pulled Pork: Smoky and moist with chunks of nice bark
Beef Short Ribs: Only Mike and Chris ate it, as they didn’t leave any for anyone else! Said it was their favorite dish.
Smoked Chicken Wings: The drizzled peanuts were a hit. Naked, allowed you to really appreciate the smoke. When I had them for left overs the next day, the kitchen smelled so good!
Axaca Style Chicken: Marinated in a brine for hours and hours. I want the recipe of that brine! The chicken was moist, tender and melted in my mouth.
Spare Ribs: Sweet with lots of meat on the bone, tender but not fall off the bone (which is right!)
Smoked Bacon: Cut thick and smoked. Like candy.
Italian Sausage: Smoking it makes all the difference! Flavorful sausage only made better by the smoke.
Mac n cheese: “Like eating a grilled cheese sandwich” (forgot who said that)
We were a week early and missed the special of the decade: smoked pastrami! I gotta get down for that.
For those that are expecting an expedient “Part 3: Jersey Shore BBQ”, unfortunately you’ll have wait just a little bit longer. All of us were so full from not being able to control ourselves, and from the wonderful hospitality of Victor and Alex, we were unable to continue on with the tour. We had reached our capacity for great food, drink, and company and so decided to postpone the third and final leg of the Shore BBQ Tour and decided instead to visit one of our favorite bars of all time, Murphy’s Tavern, which is in walking distance.
More than any other place yet that I have visited in New Jersey, I have never been to a place whose goal is to have you love barbeque, as a food and a culture, more than Surf BBQ. Everything, including the atmosphere, the menu, the attention of the owners, the pitmaster pedigrees, the cooking equipment and yes, even the line to order your food, seems to lend itself to this very important and all-encompassing goal. I want you to walk away with that understanding. The experience at the Surf is legit. The food is extraordinary. And New Jersey is better for it!