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Big Barlow's BBQ is a legit player in a world of amateurs
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Big Barlow's BBQ is a legit player in a world of amateurs

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BBQ is not hard to find in South Jersey. You can find it on bridges, roadside stands, delis, bars and even supermarkets.

Good BBQ, however, is very hard to find.

That’s why it’s worth the 30- to 45-minute ride from Atlantic County to head to Big Barlow’s BBQ in Barnegat. Not only does it have good BBQ, it has great BBQ.

Everything we tried — from the brisket to the ribs to the chicken wings to the sides — were made with love, patience and a bit of attitude, all courtesy of its owner Chris Barlow.

“There was definitely a need for good BBQ around here,” Barlow says. “You have your typical Chinese, pizza, seafood … but good BBQ was missing. I will never forget our first day with the food truck at ManaFirkin Brewery. It was all of 10 degrees and freezing rain and people stood in line for an hour to get their BBQ. After that, we never looked back.”

Getting to this point, however, was not easy. Barlow, who now lives in Manahawkin, “grew up pretty poor” in Hillside, where he learned to cook around 5 years old and eventually began to dabble in BBQ as a teen, devising a charcoal grill in his back yard out of an old electric water heater.

“I would cook for my family sometimes, but mostly my friends, who told me I should make this my career,” Barlow says. “So I did.”

He learned quickly at 14 years old that working for Burger King — despite the flame-broiled burgers — wasn’t for him. He moved on to other restaurants, eventually landing at Manhattan’s Blue Smoke, the renowned BBQ joint from Danny Meyer of Shake Shack fame that closed recently.

“By the time I worked there, I knew most of the stuff I use today when making BBQ,” Barlow says. “But of course I picked up little tips and tricks there, just like I do everywhere I go. But one of the cool things was that working there gave me access behind the scenes to the BBQ in the park events in Madison Square Park, where I would talk to BBQ legends like Big Bob Gibson and Myron Nixon. I loved to pick their brains.”

Barlow eventually accomplished his dream of owning his own BBQ joint in February 2019, when he purchased a food truck and loaded it with awesome equipment.

“The success really exploded quickly,” Barlow says. “It even caught me a little by surprise.”

Seven months later, Barlow opened his first brick-and-mortar location in Barnegat before moving again into his bigger — and current — location, which features an open kitchen and seating area filled with picnic tables where you will occasionally hear live music being performed.

“It’s at the point where I could probably even use more space,” Barlow says. “But I am good where I’m at. I’m staying put.”

The first chance you get to go to Big Barlow’s BBQ, take it.

The main attractions — barbecued pulled pork, brisket, ribs, sliced smoked chicken and chicken wings — are available in platters or by the pound, or in the wings’ case, by the piece, with sides. But I strongly recommend the Barlow ‘Que Platter, where $40 will net you four baby back ribs, a half pound of pulled pork, a half pound of brisket and four chicken wings with three sides.

You can go bigger with the Family ’Cue Platter, which basically doubles the quantity of all of the meats for $80 and adds a pound of sliced chicken breast and includes a dozen wings.

Barlow’s meats are all cooked in a giant smoker that can handle 1,000 pounds of meat at a time. Barlow uses wood for the main source of heat — it’s always right around 250 degrees — but it is propane assisted to keep temperature. Barlow’s ribs cook about four hours, his pulled pork about 13 to 15 hours, his brisket for 16 hours and about two hours for the smoked chicken.

All of the meats are dry-rubbed with Barlow’s signature concoction, and all of his recipes were developed years ago … except his brisket.

“In the summer of 2019, Black Six Coffee from New York asked me if I would use their coffee for my brisket,” Barlow remembers. “I told them I would experiment but no way was I going to change my recipe. It turned out so much better, I had to change it.”

Although you won’t find any wet rubs or sauces on any of Big Barlow’s meats when they are presented to the table, Barlow offers a slew of sauces that all should be bottled. They are that good. They include the original, spicy, North Carolina Kick, South Carolina Tang and Alabama White. But the one that gets the most buzz is the Peanut Butter BBQ. Yeah, it sounds nasty, but it’s amazing.

“My guys have all of the sauce recipes except that one,” Barlow says. “Because that one is unique and has to be made exactly right. So I make that myself. If it’s not exactly right — and it’s tricky — then it could be awful. As far as bottling, people tell me that all of the time. Maybe after the pandemic.”

The BBQ meats will undoubtedly suffice for your first visit. But when you peruse the rest of the menu, you will have many reasons to return.

Starters include quesadillas ($10) loaded with cheddar cheese and choice of brisket, pulled pork or smoked chicken; the Barlow Fries ($15) are fresh cut and topped with craft beer cheese, chopped bacon, pulled pork and BBQ sauce; the slider variety pack ($14) includes a pulled pork slider, a cheeseburger slider, a brisket slider and a smoked chicken slider; and other items like loaded potato skins ($8) and fried pickle chips ($8) are hard to pass up.

All of the BBQ meats are also available in sandwiches, but the heart attack waiting to happen is the McFat Wrap ($15), a BBQ lover’s dream featuring a 12-inch tortilla stuffed with homemade mac and cheese, brisket, and pit beans.

As good as the BBQ was, our favorite item was the ribeye cheesesteak ($17). On the day we were there, they ran out of ribeye so they used filet mignon instead. Perfect flavored, amazingly tender, the filet was sliced thin and loaded with American cheese and some peppers for additional flavor on a toasted Liscio’s roll. Wow!

There are also brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken cheesesteaks, but you would be a fool to not get the ribeye … or the filet!

For those who like burgers, Barlow’s has those, too, in a variety of offerings ranging from a bacon cheeseburger to a Mushroom Swiss. But the $40 Mighty Memphis Burger is pure ridiculousness with two half-pound, custom-blend beef patties, a half pound of brisket, a half pound of pulled pork, a half pound of bacon, frizzled onions, BBQ sauce and craft beer cheese sauce. Towering at what seems to be a foot high — the impossible-to-fit-in-your-mouth monstrosity is actually outdone by the Zebulon Burger ($60).

Named after the last person who finished it in 10 minutes, 10 seconds, the Zebulon Burger features double the meats and adds a pound of fries for good measure.

“If you come in and finish one and beat the last time, then the burger is renamed for you,” Barlow laughs.

Barlow’s does not take the easy way out with its sides either, making made-from-scratch mac and cheese, Southern cole slaw, collard greens, pit beans, mashed potatoes, an awesome dirty slaw made with a vinegar base and some hot sauce and red pepper flake, mashed potatoes, potato salad, macaroni salad, sweet potato fries and cornbread. Even the french fries are fresh cut.

You may also find some specials, depending on Barlow’s mood, including BBQ pizza, a salmon dinner, or maybe even some scallops. And on Fridays, check out steak night, when Barlow offers items straight from a Nebraska farm like a 3-pound tomahawk with two sides for just $75.

“I don’t want to beat people up with prices,” Barlow says. “I want people to keep coming back. This place is about people coming here long-term. It’s not about one sale.”

As for the future, Barlow would like to see Big Barlow BBQ signs up and down the East Coast.

“I set the branding so I could eventually franchise or take on a partner and open more,” Barlow says. “I know my next move will be a location in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But the whole plan was always for multiple locations. I had people ask me to come to Orlando, Virginia, even Alaska. But I am not going there!”

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