Move over Memphis. Good bye Kansas City.
It looks like America is getting a new region for Barbecue - New York City. It's about time. I'm tired of hearing from all the good ol' boys about how superior Southern barbeque is. New York is kicking ass and taking names!
From today's New York Times...
The Big Apple May Never Be Known as the Big Sparerib, but It’s Smokin’
AMOR was what she called me. Not honey, not sugar, not sir. Amor — as in Spanish for love — was what the counter woman tacked onto “thank you” when I paid my tab at the Ranger Texas Barbecue, which operates out of the back of a locals’ bar called Legends in Jackson Heights, Queens.
New York’s barbecue scene may be missing a lot of things — like dirt roads and screen doors and decades of deep-seated tradition — but love for barbecue in the city is strong. And in the past couple of years the product has caught up to the passion. Restaurants that hobbled out of the gate have hit their strides. The best pits in and around the city have gotten better.
That doesn’t mean you can walk into any haunt with a neon pig outside and expect smoked bliss from every corner of the menu. An awful lot of stuff around town still has no right calling itself barbecue, though the ratio has improved considerably. Some places dabble in too many styles. Out there where barbecue comes from, that doesn’t happen: the top places in Texas don’t dress up their pork shoulder in Carolina drag, and no one in Memphis is trying to outgun Texans at their own game.
To sort it all out, it seemed like a good idea to hit the road and see what’s where now. So I took advantage of a friend’s generous offer to drive — we packed six adults into his modest-size Mitsubishi for a 90-minute Saturday afternoon jaunt from Brooklyn to Big W’s in Wingdale, N.Y. Warren Norstein — the Big W — started dishing barbecue out of a truck parked on the side of Route 22 in Pawling, N.Y., in 2003. He moved the operation into a gently renovated convenience store up the road a few months ago.
One of the meats listed on Big W’s chalkboard is slow chickens. My friend puzzled aloud about this. “Slow chickens are easier to catch,” shot back Mr. Norstein, a burly Brooklyn-born bear of man with a borscht belt sense of humor. The chickens are smoked over apple and hickory wood for five or six hours, after being seasoned with a spicy rub that does wonders for their skin.
The one we got was gigantic, insanely moist and tremblingly tender, and it quickly proved to be the most compelling meat on the table, although it faced serious competition from a super-smoky slab of brisket so tender that I’m sure it would have shredded itself if I had stared at it long enough.
Fifty-four dollars bought us a “For the table” sampler that also included a full rack of pork ribs and a pound of pulled pork. It was a perverse amount of meat — enough to slay a tableful of hungry eaters and send everyone home with a to-go pack of smoky ’cue — and even with gas money figured in it was wildly cheaper than anything in the city.
There’s not a bird back in town that approaches Big W’s slow chicken, but if pulled pork is what you’re after, then make your way to Pies ’n’ Thighs, a closet of a kitchen in the back of a grungy bar in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Settling in with the best pulled-pork sandwich in the city and a side of greens (also the best in the city, at least in the realm of barbecue joints) might first require you to kick broken beer bottles and cigarette butts out of the way to get a berth at the bar, as it did for me on a recent Saturday morning.
If you do you’ll find that smoky meat, which spends eight hours over hickory chunks in an offset smoker and is then pulled into ropy strands, sauced with a North Carolina-style vinegar sauce and served on a white bread bun that does its very best to dissolve and get out the way of the pork. A minced cabbage slaw and a couple of crinkle-cut slices of neon green pickles add texture.
Pies ’n’ Thighs devotees may notice that the aggressiveness of the vinegar sauce has been tempered since the restaurant opened last summer, an adjustment attributable to the departure of one of the partners, Stephen Tanner, who sold his share in the restaurant to Carolyn Bane. Ms. Bane left the Spotted Pig to join forces with Sarah Buck, who still oversees the restaurant’s top-notch selection of pies, cookies and more.
For my money Daisy May’s BBQ USA is the most consistent and distinctive of all New York barbecue spots. Adam Perry Lang, the pit master and a partner, has a talent for concocting alluring but unusual riffs on classic sauces and rubs for his “production” barbecue (as some folks who have spent too much time inhaling around the pit call the smoked meat that’s available all day, as opposed to the made-to-order or “competition” barbecue).
There’s nothing Carolina about Daisy May’s Carolina Pulled Pork, other than how it takes a South Carolina template — a little chili heat, some mustard — and affectionately stands it on its head, adding molasses to the mix and a portion of Sriracha hot sauce in addition to cayenne pepper. But just because it’s not traditional doesn’t mean it’s not cravable. It most definitely is.
There is a significant step up between the good-to-very-good production barbecue and the excellent barbecue made to order for the reservations-only 8 p.m. seating, called the Big Pig Gig. Mr. Perry Lang eases up on the sauce and spice and turns out a roster of gently seasoned and perfectly smoked meat. Half and whole pigs are the most impressive offerings, served with a Chimayo chili powder and honey-based sauce that nimbly adds sweet, sour and spicy notes to the sweet flesh without getting in the way of its porcine goodness (though if he crisped the skin, those pigs would be even better).
If the untraditional barbecue at Daisy May’s doesn’t resonate with you and super-smoky barbecue does, Righteous Urban Barbecue, in Chelsea, is your place. R.U.B. has gone from a neighborhood asset to a contender in less than two short years. Its burnt ends — twice-cooked nuggets of the fattiest part of the brisket — offer the most deliciousness, ounce for ounce, of any meat the restaurant smokes.
A load of burnt ends goes into each batch of barbecued beans, pushing the beans out in front of the competition elsewhere. Each bite delivers an uppercut of deep, soulful smokiness that washes over you like a gauzy burst of smoke rushing out of a grill at a summer cookout.
If the combo of burnt ends with a side of burnt-end-spiked beans strikes you as overkill, the go-to dish at R.U.B. has to be the Baron’s Sampler, a $45.75 platter that includes eight smoked meats and two sides. (Beans and more beans would be my choice.) Though the menu says it feeds any number of people from “one to a gang,” in my experience it’s better when you’re not alone and it’s better earlier in the day, when a greater selection of meats is available. (When R.U.B. runs out of something, it doesn’t come back until the next day.)
I tried the sampler with only one friend to help me and, for the first time in my life, felt some kinship with those titans on the World’s Strongest Man competition. (Meals at R.U.B. come with a free side order of televised sports, particularly of the ESPN2 variety.) I imagined that there was a close parallel between my gluttonous flailing and ultimate failure to finish the platter and the strong man’s struggle to drag keg after keg out of the ocean, each trip more labored until, finally, he grimaced in surrender.
But barbecue tastes better the next day than the bitterness of defeat. Sampling the sampler — a tactic I’ve employed everywhere one was offered — didn’t always pay off, as when I visited Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a popular place tucked under a stretch of the West Side Highway in Harlem. Dinosaur is definitely the barbecue place to take the kids to: a waitress was infinitely patient when I visited with a friend, his wife and their two rambunctious youngsters.
As for the eating, there’s no question that the pork spareribs at Dinosaur are significantly better than everything else (and certainly good enough to warrant a visit). Order them by the rack and skip the menu’s other distractions.
The most refined of New York’s barbecue emporiums is Blue Smoke, but don’t let the fresh-faced servers and comfortable dining room fool you. Serious barbecue is practiced here. I found my sticky fingers most eagerly reaching for the Texas-style salt-and-pepper beef ribs and the smoky sweet Kansas City spareribs. Blue Smoke’s beef ribs are a little bit beef jerky, a little bit corned beef. How much more elemental does it get than meat, salt, pepper and smoke?
Though the beef ribs will be the ones that lure me back to the restaurant, the Kansas City pork ribs, glazed with a slick of the restaurant’s Kansas City-style sauce, are no mere consolation prize. Both styles outshone the St. Louis variety that rounds out the rib sampler, rendering that platter a waste of time: order the other ribs by the rack, skimp on the lackluster sides, have a nice bottle of wine and be done with it.
If you want your rib fix in less dandified settings — and sometimes that’s just the case — the city isn’t short on places to get it. For pork ribs cut in the St. Louis style, dusted with spice rub and grill-crisped with a touch of sweet, dark sauce, there’s Mo Gridder’s BBQ in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, where the dining room doubles as the office for an auto body shop that looks like the place cars go to die. The pit is outdoors, tacked to the back end of a competition-ready barbecue trailer.
The owner, Fred Donnelly, an avid amateur pit master before he opened Mo Gridder’s, drew up plans for a modest 10-foot-long trailer, but somewhere along the way it stretched out another 25 feet, big enough to house a fully equipped kitchen and a massive smoker. Though a rig of that size is wild overkill for the light foot traffic it attracts in Hunts Point, Mr. Donnelly said it handled its maiden voyage — catering a party for “800 hungry Teamsters” — without a hitch.
For beef ribs, there’s Ranger Texas Barbecue in Jackson Heights. The Stars and Stripes and a P.O.W.-M.I.A. flag dominate the front of the room. On a recent weekend a group of regulars were talking back to the televisions and loudly making fun of a hockey player’s last name for, I think, having too many consonants. In the back, Angel Dominguez and a small cooking crew turn out the only real pit-cooked commercial barbecue in Queens.
I can’t help thinking that the place’s odd locale and low profile contribute to some of the shortcomings of the meat: there’s clearly not enough turnover. But the beef short rib — a fantastically fatty and flavorful cut that almost no place in the city has found a way to mishandle — was absolutely spot on.
The Smoke Joint, a modest restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, also does a very respectable short rib. Judging by the early going (it opened this past fall), with care and time it is bound to get better and better.
And if it does, and as the barbecue scene in New York continues to improve, will the other places that have opened in the past couple of years do the same? Barbecue being the slow-cook business it is, time will tell the answer to that question and more.
Will Fette Sau, a long-delayed barbecue spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, be as compelling as the bar Spuyten Duyvil, its bottled-beer sibling across the street? Will Joe Mizrahi finally convert his Smokin’ Joe’s True-Blue Texas Barbecue catering service into a pit stop and give Staten Island its first real pit-cooked meat?
We know that Justin Timberlake, who is putting his name on a barbecue-theme restaurant that will open in Manhattan this year, managed to get up close to Scarlett Johansson in his last video, a feat that I can’t imagine many pit masters pulling off. But can he ’cue?
And the last one: What’s the best? Barbecue is all about blue ribbons, and it would feel like a cop-out not to slap one on something. Something like the improbably amazing whole rack of lamb that’s part of Daisy May’s Big Pig Gig.
Over a dinner of three of those meaty whole racks of lamb (that four of us came within two ribs of finishing), a friend related a story of visiting Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Tex., one of the high holy shrines of Texas barbecue. He tried to describe the vibe in the room while he was eating: a low, throbbing, violent, ready-to-rumble hum that he felt and felt part of. (As he’s a long-haired Southern boy with a peacenik streak, he didn’t indulge it.)
I had never made that connection: when a barbecue place proclaims that its product is good enough to make you “slap yo’ pappy” or some other hokum, it’s alluding to a visceral reaction that only truly great barbecue can elicit. I have never had ruckus-worthy barbecue at any of the places that brandished that kind of sentiment.
After we’d finished the lamb, we headed back to my friend’s room at the Mercer hotel to digest in front of a Kenneth Anger DVD. Once we were in the elevator, he confessed that he had been struck by an urge to tackle someone, anyone, when we were walking through the lobby.
Sure, it could have just been the weekend crowd at the Mercer. But I knew better, because I felt the urge, too. It was the lamb, rubbed with a simple chili-inflected and mustard-based paste, cooked to a perfect tenderness, gently flavored with smoke.
Seeing things for the first time, I knew I had found the real deal: great barbecue in New York. And though in my mind that lamb has run away with the crown for the single best barbecue in the greater metropolitan area, it sits atop a heap of great ’cue the likes of which New York has never known before.
These were the best barbecue places in a sampling in and near New York City:
BIG W’S ROADSIDE BAR-B-Q 1475 Route 22, Wingdale, N.Y.; (845) 832-6200.
BLUE SMOKE 116 East 27th Street; (212) 447-7733.
DAISY MAY’S BBQ USA 623 11th Avenue (46th Street); (212) 977-1500.
DINOSAUR BAR-B-QUE 646 West 131st Street; (212) 694-1777.
MO GRIDDER’S BBQ 565 Hunts Point Avenue (Randall Avenue), Hunts Point, Bronx; (718) 991-3046.
PIES ’N’ THIGHS 351 Kent Avenue (South Fifth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; (347) 282-6005.
RANGER TEXAS BARBECUE at Legends, 71-04 35th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens; (718) 803-8244.
R.U.B. 208 West 23rd Street; (212) 524-4300.
SMOKE JOINT 87 South Elliott Place (Fulton Street), Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 797-1011.