The scene: Sometimes eating out is about great food, and sometimes it is about having fun. At Hot Rods Real Pit BBQ in Wharton, N.J., it's both. Hod Rods has all the elements of a true road-food destination: It's a joint, with a divey pub-meets-picnic feel; it's kitschy with classic car posters, bbq and music signage everywhere; it's affordable, the food is great and it has as vibrant and welcoming an atmosphere as any place I have dined.
Hot Rods occupies an in-town street corner location that looks just like hundreds of local taverns across America, but inside is a fantasy world of BBQ and joie de vivre. Even before my first bite, I already admired how Hot Rods manages to be a real locals place, buzzing with loyal repeat guests, yet the first-time visitor feels just as welcome. There is live music every weekend, frequent cheap beer deals ($1 on Sundays) and fantastically creative food specials daily. The litany of events and specials goes on and on: St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras, Retro 70s parties, charity parties - if there is an excuse to throw a party they take advantage - and redecorate the whole place.
Reason to visit: Smoked chicken wings, BBQ Clams (Summer), smoked meatloaf, Elvis sundae, and daily specials.
The food: When my first friend in N.J. told me about Hot Rods I was highly skeptical. Even when they were voted Best BBQ in the state by readers of New Jersey Monthly magazine, I thought, "so what?" I fancy myself a barbecue expert and have been a judge at the Jack Daniels World Championship and other noteworthy competitions. But I just kept hearing great things, and dispatched another friend and fellow 'cue lover (who had road-tripped with me from Memphis to Kansas City) to case the joint. His breathless 3-word report? "Best wings ever!" So I had to see for myself.
This is real barbecue, slow cooked with wood in a massive ton-and-a-half revolving shelf smoker, the same kind found in some of the best places in Kansas City. Owner Tony Sibona, who runs Hot Rods with his wife Toby, was inspired by his uncle's pig farm - always a good sign in BBQ circles - and started out catering, developing his own "secret" 14-ingredient dry rub. The staples, ribs (babyback and St. Louis) and pulled pork, are solid and would satisfy even the most discriminating BBQ palates. They do brisket, but only serve it as sandwiches. But where Hot Rods excels is with their non-traditional uses of smoke, fire and low temperatures.
The signature dish is the Sweet & Spicy BBQ Wings, which just about everyone I spoke to agrees are the best wings they have ever tried. They are so uniquely delicious it is hard to describe, but here goes: Hot Rods uses a larger than industry-standard sized wing, coats it in their dry rub, slow smokes it at 210?, then finishes it by glazing on a homemade wing sauce. The sauce is not a Buffalo-style hot sauce, but rather made from adding honey, jalapeno, chili powder and other spices to their house barbecue sauce. The meaty wings retain moisture inside and outside are not dripping so much as coated. They are incredible.