Andy Nelson's is still the best barbecue in town
Published: December 1, 2010
Andy Nelson's Southern Pit Barbecue
11007 York Road, Cockeysville,  527-1226, andynelsonsbbq.com
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You smell Andy Nelson’s Southern Pit Barbecue before you see it. A whiff of woodsmoke, sweet and lingering, like the smell of burning leaves in the late autumn air, pulls you along York Road to the barbecue joint so familiar that even the big pig on the roof no longer stands out in the commercial landscape. It just belongs there.
Andy Nelson’s has been smoking meats in the neighborhood since 1981, beginning as a seasonal stand at neighboring Valley View Farms and branching out to its current location about 10 years ago. This is more than enough time to cultivate perfection. The spot is habitually voted Best Barbecue by City Paper staff and readers, and Andy Nelson’s name comes up over and over on discussion boards like Chowhound when a Baltimore newbie asks where to find the best barbecue. A recent visit to check up on the small restaurant proves that the folks at Andy Nelson’s are not resting on their laurels (or their woodpile).
Though it may just be personal experience, my feeling is that unless you live or work near Andy Nelson’s, you know it mostly as a carryout spot. But there’s something about eating in that makes the experience more authentic, more delicious. Maybe it’s the way the smell of barbecue can’t help but permeate the small, box-like dining rooms, enveloping you like a savory blanket. Maybe it’s the modest hominess of brown paneled walls and window curtains out of Grandma’s kitchen, or the loop of oldies that plays throughout dinner (it’s no small coincidence to hear Smokey Robinson, no?). Or the fact that you eat on paper plates with plastic utensils at wooden tables with benches. You’re in Cockeysville, sure, but what’s to say that you couldn’t be in former Colt Andy Nelson’s native Alabama, or even in Memphis, Nelson’s barbecue training ground?
The routine here is easy; the staff, pleasant. You scan the chalkboard menus above the counter and decide that you want your pulled pork or brisket sandwich “express” style (oh yes you do), which means it comes with two sides (such as greens, beans, potato salad, or killer cornbread) and a drink (Andy Nelson’s is alcohol-free, though tolerant of bringing your own if you must). Or maybe you can’t decide what you want. Then you go for Grandpa Guy’s Trifecta ($19.83), a half slab of Memphis-style ribs and two barbecue meats, including turkey “Q” or a quarter Dixie chicken, plus two sides, plus cornbread. (Grandpa Guy knew what he was doing.) After placing your order, you wait, pumping barbecue sauce into plastic cups, pulling paper towels from dispensers (you’ll need a handful), and wondering if you should have tried beef barbecue instead of pulled pork, or pit beef instead of brisket. Next time, bring four people and you can just about try it all. We did.
I’ve always been a pulled pork kind of gal, and Andy Nelson’s pork sandwich ($8.50 express style) doesn’t disappoint. The meat is pale, the color of milky tea, until you reach the end bits, all brown and caramelized. It’s über rich too, and it has always been my favorite thing on the menu—that is, until I tried the beef barbecue ($8.50 express style), a revelation of deep brown-black sweetness and smoke, as tender as the pork but without the silky fattiness. Andy Nelson’s also does a respectable brisket, the sliced meat flexible and held together by accordion-pleats of fat, and a tender pit beef that seems tame compared to other offerings, but is quality all the same.
For some folks, however, barbecue can only mean ribs ($13.83 half slab, $20.83 full slab), and Andy Nelson’s offers them Memphis style, either wet- or dry-rubbed. Wet means messy, especially when the meat is so tender it wants to come off the bone in large clumps. A generously sized half chicken ($10.37) is more manageable, with both dark and white meat cooked until firm but not dry.
Platters and express versions of sandwiches come with sides that are clearly not just carbohydrate afterthoughts. Andy Nelson’s has some of the best cornbread around, moist inside, crusty out, and with a pronounced sweetness. Collard greens boast an arch sourness, a welcome foil to the sweetness of barbecue, and beans smolder with heat. Even the mayonnaise-based redskin potato salad and Grandma’s cole slaw have a touch of the burn in them, making for a weird sensation that both cools and kicks the palate. Only the barbecue tater wedges were limp and unnecessary, but really, who needs potatoes with everything else available?
Thirty years is a long time to be smoking barbecue. It’s an investment in wood, meat, and muscle. But we’re damn glad the Nelson family persists in this calling. Long live the pig.
Andy Nelson’s Southern Pit Barbecue is open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
> Email Mary K. Zajac