Undiscerning New Yorkers?
Here's an interesting take on New York's BBQ scene by my friend Paul Lukas a the New York Sun. I haven't been to any of the barbeque restaurants he mentions except for Blue Smoke, so I can't comment on the article. Damn, I've got to get out there!
An Undiscerning Palate
By PAUL LUKAS
August 29, 2007
It's been a little more than five years now since Blue Smoke opened, giving New Yorkers their first taste in decades of authentic pit-smoked barbecue. Since then, a seemingly endless stream of barbecue outlets has followed, including at least a dozen in the past year, and four in the past six weeks. The city's appetite for smoked meat, it would appear, is endless.
But five years of unstinting demand have not yet produced a discerning palate among the city's barbecue enthusiasts Many venues in this new wave of "'cueries" have managed to do a booming business, even if the food is mediocre at best. This category includes the popular Blue Smoke itself, where the food is wildly inconsistent. And recent visits to the city's four newest smokehouses found all of them packed , -- granted, one of them has only two tables, but still -- despite widely varying levels of quality. It's as if putting the letters "B-B-Q" in your window is enough to draw throngs, even if you're serving pizza and sushi.
So when a truly great barbecue outlet comes along, such as Hill Country (30 W. 26th St., between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, 212-255-4544), it can get lost in the shuffle. Let's be as clear as possible: This is what barbecue is supposed to be. Pitmaster Robbie Richter has produced by far the best marriage of smoke and meat to hit the city in the Blue Smoke era. In fact, his Texas-style barbecue is so good that it rivals the fare at the Lone Star State's most renowned smokehouses. If you've ever eaten down that way, you know how good the barbecue is; if you haven't, here's your chance to discover what you've been missing.
Texas barbecue isn't sauce-driven. The idea is that if you've got really good meat, plenty of smoke, and a good spice rub (in Mr. Richter's case, a fairly simple mix of salt, pepper, and cayenne), sauce just gets in the way. Most of Hill Country's offerings provide ample validation to this approach, from the spectacularly juicy brisket (available either lean or moist -- go for the latter) and the massive beef ribs to the succulent pork spareribs, the excellent boneless ribeye, and the crispy little Cornish game hens. All are infused with a smoky aura that lingers but never overpowers, along with a lip-smacking spice kick that supplies a slow, smoldering burn. It's the quintessence of classic barbecue.
The second-best entry in the latest crop of 'cueries is, surprisingly enough, Southern Hospitality (1460 Second Ave., between 76th and 77th streets, 212-249-1001), which is co-owned by that, um, renowned barbecue expert Justin Timberlake. Despite a horrible vibe (imagine a celebrity-spotting scene at TGI Friday's) and some sadly predictable moments of ineptitude ("No, you have to order both side dishes, because the computer won't let me exit the ordering screen unless I punch in two sides"), a decent percentage of the food actually acquits itself quite respectably. Memphis-style spare ribs are tender and fairly tasty, if not quite smoky enough, baby back ribs are sweet and juicy, and the macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and green beans are all perfectly adequate.
There are also some major missteps: Pulled pork is so dry as to be inedible, and the brisket is utterly bland, but with careful ordering it's possible to have a decent meal here. Still, why put up with an assaultive atmosphere just to have a merely decent meal?
The situation is reversed up at Oklahoma Smoke (231 W. 145th St., between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards, 212-862-5335), a tiny two-table storefront that recently opened in Harlem. The vibe is warm, the staff treats you like family, and co-owner Paul Packard will happily tell you how he, his dry rub recipe, and his smoker all hail from the Sooner State. Unfortunately, all this love doesn't yet come through in the food. Pork ribs and beef ribs are both far too bland. Smoked shrimp are a tasty surprise (who cooks shrimp in landlocked Oklahoma?), but the dish is overcooked, and the smoky flavor can't rescue the rubbery texture.
Oklahoma Smoke does have one magnificent saving grace, however: world-class collard greens. Unlike so many other collards around town, which have been stewed into mush, Oklahoma Smoke's version has some heft, along with a pork-infused smokiness. It's like a warm, savory salad, and it ranks among the city's top side dishes.
Unfortunately, there's not even a standout side order to recommend at Georgia's Eastside BBQ (192 Orchard St., between E. Houston and Stanton streets, 212-253-6280). The small-ish room is pleasant enough, but the food barely qualifies as barbecue. Instead of smoking the meat, owner Alan Natkiel oven-steams it over a beer bath, finishes it on the grill, and drowns it in sauce. The resulting pulled pork is so stringy and dry, and the sauce is so ketchup-driven, that the dish comes off like day-old spaghetti. Pork ribs are moister but tasteless. The best thing on the menu is fried chicken, but there's no shortage of that in this town.
Despite the food's seemingly obvious shortcomings, Georgia's Eastside had a line out the door on a recent Saturday evening, underscoring the point that, for now, New Yorkers still like the idea of barbecue more than they appreciate the nuances of the form. One hopes that will change as more people find their way to Hill Country, the first smokehouse we can truly be proud to call our own.