It wasn’t that many years ago that the Philadelphia region was virtually a barren wasteland when it came to barbecue that could pass for authentic in the South. The situation has shown signs of slow improvement over the past decade or so. But the pace seems to be picking up based on my experiences in the far northern suburbs of Bucks and Montgomery Counties since late 2021.
The last meal I reported on that year was the barbecue I ate at Holy Que Smokehouse in Lahaska, PA. I enjoyed their brisket and ribs so much that I picked my lunch there as the best meal I ate in ‘21.
Close to a year later – and just a little over two months ago – I headed to Jesse’s Barbecue & Local Market of Souderton, PA, to see how their ‘Q stacked up. The brisket I sampled there was wonderfully moist and flavorful – reminding me of some of the versions I sampled while visiting Texas in 2017.
Fortunately, I didn’t need to wait until late in the year for a jolt of the real thing in 2023. A friend of mine mentioned Meat Wagon of Hatfield, PA, to me after reading my post on Jesse’s. The two restaurants are less than 10 minutes from each other and about a half-hour west of Holy Que. All three are roughly an hour north of central Philadelphia.
Meat Wagon has a second location a little further north, in Quakertown, but Hatfield is a shorter ride for me. My friend, George, and I met there at their noon opening time Thursday. They had a nice little crowd of customers – a mix of dine-in and takeout – pretty quickly. We were eating on-site and grabbed stools at one of their long tables after placing our orders at the counter.
While I saw the smokers at Holy Que and Jesse’s and know that they barbecue their meats with wood as the only cooking fuel – just like it’s done at the best southern places – I didn’t get a look at Meat Wagon’s smoker.
Their menu has most of the standards – brisket, pork ribs, sausage, chicken, pulled pork and an array of sides. My interest was primarily in trying their brisket and ribs, so I ordered a two-meat platter with baked beans and cornbread on the side. George went with brisket-only and sides of collard greens and potato salad.
They had four types of sauce for self-service on a shelf off to the side. I squeezed out a little of the sweet and sweet-hot to sample. The meats were served un-sauced.
My initial reaction when seeing the tray that was placed in front of me was mixed. There were beautiful smoke rings and bark on both meats. But the rib meat was torn apart in places during carving and the brisket looked a little dry.
Whether or not they use only wood at Meat Market, their brisket has a stronger essence of smoke than the versions I had at Holy Que and Jesse’s. Whether that’s a good thing depends on how smoky one likes his or her brisket. Some of the best known barbecue joints in Texas – Louie Mueller, for instance – are very subtle with their smoke, and that’s the direction in which the other two places from the triangle go.
But putting aside that subjective factor, the brisket I had at Meat Market was, as I initially sensed, a little on the dry side; certainly not as moist as what I had at Holy Que and Jesse’s. I can say from personal experience in my backyard that brisket is a difficult meat to smoke and keep moist. It’s possible I either caught Meat Wagon’s on a bad day or just didn’t get slices from the best part of what was probably a 15-20 pound piece of meat. Hopefully I’ll get to give it another shot at some point.
The ribs, on the other hand, turned out to be perfectly done. The only issue with them was poor carving when they were separated. I mentioned in my post on Jesse’s that I prefer rib meat to be a little shy of the point where it falls off the bone at the slightest touch. And the ribs at Meat Wagon met that standard beautifully. They were moist, nicely pink and had a flavor that struck me as more balanced between smoke and the natural flavor of the meat than what I experienced while eating the brisket.
I ate some of each meat with sauce and some without and would probably do the same if I go back there, as I like the change of pace from bite to bite. Although I didn’t notice much difference between the two sauces I tried.
George seemed to enjoy his sides, especially the collard greens. I considered ordering that, but they are made with vinegar, which I tend to shy away from. It turned out the vinegar was used sparingly, as it was just slightly noticeable when I tasted George’s.
There was something about the flavor of my baked beans that I wasn’t nuts about. I couldn’t place what the offending ingredient was, but the sauce definitely had a very distinct flavor in addition to being sweet. I did enjoy the extremely moist and flavorful cornbread though.
As great as it is to have three restaurants serving quality barbecue in Philly’s far northern suburbs, I happen to live in the southwestern ‘burbs. But while it’s a hike for me to get to these places, they are all more than good enough to justify the drive. It’s not quite like having our own Texas Hill Country, but it will more than do after not having even a single option to compare to any of the three in the entire region for much of my life.
4 thoughts on “The Barbecue Triangle of Philly’s Northern ‘Burbs”
Brisket is so variable I’ve pretty much quit ordering it. If you can’t see the meat ahead of time you are likely to get dry. So I’ve become a sausage or rib order, lol. You are smart to get a two meat order!
I agree with you, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to get brisket that was moist at the first two places.
I wonder if you could’ve specified which part of the brisket you were getting. I don’t see burnt ends on the menu so you might’ve been happier with some slices from the point (unless you really prefer the flat).
Do most barbecue places in your region serve sweet baked beans as opposed to a more savory version? That’s the way it seems to be around here, much to my dismay.
I like sweet baked beans, but there was something about the flavor of these that turned me off. I think sweet are much more common, but I’m thinking Holy Que may serve savory beans.
That’s a good thought on requesting brisket from the point if I go back there. I didn’t make a special request at either of the other places and it came out very moist both times. But if I go back to Meat Wagon, I’ll probably do that.