Barbecue Smackdown: Norwegian Bliss vs. Carnival Horizon
Over the past few years, barbecue has become one of the hottest trends around. From upscale New York City venues like Blue Smoke to the backyard where your uncle grills slabs of beef slathered with his secret sauce, we’ve given in to our inner carnivore with a vengeance. So it was inevitable that sooner or later, a cruise line would jump on the bandwagon. What we couldn’t have predicted was that both Carnival and Norwegian would come out with dueling BBQ venues at practically the exact same time.
In the summer of 2017, details began emerging about what cruisers could expect to find on two of the mega ships under construction. Norwegian Cruise Line was first out of the gate with word that Norwegian Bliss would introduce to the line the Q Texas Smokehouse, which promised “authentic Texas barbecue in a sleek urban setting.” Soon after, Carnival Cruise Line revealed that, as a result of their ongoing partnership with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, Carnival Horizon would replace the popular RedFrog Pub with Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse|Brewhouse. Unlike the versions which had been offered on several previous Carnival ships, Horizon’s Pig & Anchor would offer not only a complimentary lunch but a for-fee dinner with an expanded menu served in a space featuring live entertainment and freshly brewed beers.
We recently had the opportunity to see what both had to offer. When all was said and done, which restaurant walked away with bragging rights?
Both restaurants offer barbecue favorites that you’d find on land. At Horizon’s Pig & Anchor, servers present guests with a multi-page menu book they can flip through, whereas Bliss’ Q has a more straightforward, single-page menu.
The menus are practically indistinguishable when it comes to the meats, although Norwegian’s sets itself apart with its smoked turkey, which isn’t found at the Pig & Anchor. Carnival’s smokehouse does, however, feature a couple of meat-piled flatbreads, as well as their signature sandwich, the Pig & Anchor Melt.
The real difference is in the appetizers. While Q has a larger selection of starters (including Pulled Pork Loaded Fries and that southern staple, Fried Green Tomatoes), the Pig & Anchor scores points for creativity with items like the Trash Can Nachos and Dragon Chili Fries.
Winner: Pig & Anchor
Both cruise lines use authentic smokers to cook their meats, so you know you’re getting the real deal. For some people, this might actually be their first experience with genuine, smoked barbecue (as opposed to simply grilled), and they’ll be surprised how big a difference it makes. Both restaurants serve up an excellent platter of food. But when you take into account taste, presentation, and serving size, Pig & Anchor comes up just a hair short.
Winner: Q Smokehouse
Let’s face it: If you’re eating really good barbecue, you don’t need sauces. In fact, using too much — or a sauce whose flavor profile clashes with the spices used in preparing the meat — can completely ruin the taste. We found that at both Q and Pig & Anchor, the sauces were interesting to try, but not necessary. However, each offers four choices. At Pig & Anchor, they are Smoky Chipotle, Black Pepper, Gold Coast Yellow Mustard, and Burning Tomato. (They also offer over a dozen different hot sauces.) At Q, the sauces are Mustard, Carolina, Sweet, and Smoky.
Both restaurants offer a decent selection of sides, with Pig & Anchor’s costing $2 each and Q’s ringing up at $1.99. While both serve cornbread, the honey butter glaze topping at Pig & Anchor takes things to the next level. Other standouts on the sides menu here are the bourbon mashed sweet potatoes and the buttermilk broccoli salad.
Q’s sides are, for the most part, very traditional. There are baked beans, and of course both a coleslaw and a chunky potato salad. The jalapeno cheese grits were particularly nice (and had a little kick to them), but the corn on the cob was overdone and chewy.
Winner: Pig & Anchor
Serve a southerner barbecue without offering them a glass of sweet iced tea, and you might have a riot on your hands. So Pig & Anchor lost points for not having any available. Q served up not only iced tea, but several premium cocktails on tap as part of a new program being rolled out at several bars around the ship. And while the Moscow Mule they had on tap was tasty, it was not served in the traditional copper mug, which is almost as big a sin as not serving iced tea in a barbecue joint.
Where Pig & Anchor hits a home run is at the bar. Since this is also a brewhouse, they offer four different beers which are brewed on the ship. They also have an extensive and creative selection of cocktails, including a bacon-infused Manhattan which is all but guaranteed to knock your socks off.
Winner: Pig & Anchor
Ambiance and Entertainment
While Pig & Anchor feels and looks like a barbecue joint you might wander into while in Texas, Q’s rather bland decor and almost stadium-style seating makes it feel more like a theater than a restaurant. (This isn’t surprising, as on other Norwegian ships, the same space is used as a dinner theater venue.) Plus, Pig & Anchor has an outdoor seating area.
On the other hand, Pig & Anchor’s bands get pretty loud, and start playing around 7:30 p.m., which can make it hard to have a conversation over dinner. At Q, the acts generally don’t start until later in the evening, making it easier to enjoy your dinner companions before the music kicks in.
Both restaurants have a la carte pricing, and for the most part, meals at Pig & Anchor cost less than those featured on Bliss. Both venues offer a “sampler platter” featuring a selection of meats and sides, with Carnival’s running $16 while Norwegian’s will cost you $24.99. If you go with a single-meat plate, the same holds true. For example, the beef brisket (served with several sides and cornbread) costs $14.99 at Q and $8 at the Pig & Anchor.
In the sandwich category, Q has the larger selection with pulled pork, turkey, beef, and brisket sandwiches, all served with potato chips and ranging from $6.99 to $8.99. Carnival’s lone sandwich is Fieri's signature Pig & Anchor Melt, served with fries for $6. Pig & Anchor’s flatbreads are also priced at $6 each.
One of the real bargains on both menus is the desserts, which ring in at $3 for a banana cream pie, apple cobbler or pecan pie from Pig & Anchor; $4.50 will get you a warm chocolate brownie, bread pudding, pecan pie or the mason jar banana pudding at Q.
Keep in mind, these prices could change without notice, and it’s not at all uncommon for adjustments to be made over time.
Winner: Pig & Anchor
Both restaurants serve darn good barbecue and are great additions to their respective ships. Pig & Anchor’s meats aren’t quite as good as Q’s, although their sides and beverage options more than make up for it. At the end of the day, if you’re looking at the experience as a whole, Pig & Anchor is our winner… barely. Both are excellent options, and welcome additions to the dining lineups of Bliss and Horizon.