The impetus was the NYC visit of a long-time virtual friend, Paul, who happens to be a chef in London. Though we have been acquainted on-line since the early days of eGullet, we had never formally met in person. Fortunately, my schedule was such that I was able to pop down to the city from upstate for a quick weekend visit to remedy that history. When we were thinking of what to do, I got the idea of knocking off a few birds with one stone. I had been wanting to experience directly for myself the burgeoning NYC barbecue scene and the one growing in my native borough of Brooklyn, in particular. This would have the added benefit of showing Paul a wide area and a varied taste of the city’s largest borough. The best part of it, though, was the opportunity to bring together some additional old friends from the days of eGullet, Joe and Sam, as well as my son, L.J., who as it fortuitously turned out, actually had the Saturday off from work and Howard, a more recent friend, who was a perfect last-minute substitute for my son, Andrew, who couldn’t make it.
While not quite as ubiquitous as pizza, the number of barbecue places in Brooklyn appears to have had a steady growth in recent years, fueled by pitmasters who have emigrated from barbecue centers, but perhaps even more interestingly, a number of homegrown, native New Yorkers who have taken the plunge and who are developing, intentionally or not, a New York or even, Brooklyn, style of barbecue. As such, I chose three spots I had been longing to visit with a fourth possible depending on the time and our satiety.
Most of us met on the Upper West Side, where Joe had an SUV available to take our small group around. We picked up Paul on our way to Brooklyn.
Our first stop was the renowned, Hometown Bar-B-Que, perhaps the most well known and widely regarded barbecue pit in Brooklyn and certainly one of the places putting NYC on the national barbecue map. It was also the only one who’s barbecue I had previously tried, having had it at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Still, I had never actually been to the Bar-B-Que before.
Set in a developing area near the Red Hook waterfront just off the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Home Town was, by far, the biggest and most spacious spot of the day. It had the ambiance of a Texas barbecue joint, but it appeared to come naturally, without pretense. There was an ordering stand in the room with the main entrance, a number of tables and a bar set-up. There was an additional large room just off this one, that had more tables and an additional bar.
Knowing what lay in front of us for the afternoon, though we were all hungry, we had grand plans of pacing ourselves and limiting ourselves to “tastes.” The problem was that we ordered a lot of things to taste. I stood in the line to order food with Sam, while Howard and LJ ordered drinks and Joe and Paul secured a table.
L.J. brought me a Negroni, a cocktail he knows that I like. At first, I was a bit perplexed that he would have chosen that in a barbecue place, but it was, Brooklyn, after all, and it happened to be quite good. More surprising yet, was how well it went with the barbecue. The sweet, bitter and aromatic elements played quite nicely with the rich, fatty and spicy flavors of the meat. This surprising pairing of amari and barbecue would be amplified further, later in the day.
Beef ribs, pork ribs, lamb belly, brisket, collard greens with bacon, and pickles were the items that we felt that we simply had to try. There were plenty of other temptations too, and if we were doing one-stop shopping, probably would have gone wild on them as well.
While I doubt that we could have ordered poorly, we had indeed ordered quite well. The beef rib, ordered by the pound with a minimum order of a pound and a half, is probably the single most famous product of this pit and rightfully so. I had tasted it right out of the smoker at the Big Apple BBQ. It was peppery, smoky, luxuriantly fatty and moist then and it no less so here, though not quite as hot, as the rib had had time to cool. This should be a centerpiece for any meal at Home Town, but certainly not the only thing.
The brisket was wonderfully moist with a nice, crisp, peppery crust. It’s no surprise that Billy Durney, the owner and pitmaster of Hometown, has a way with beef barbecue, as he was mentored in Texas by one of the best that beef-heavy state has to offer, Wayne Mueller, the grandson of the legendary Texas Cue-master, Louie Mueller.
The pork spare ribs were large and good, though not transcendent. We ordered a whole rack, which meant two each. This was probably more than we bargained for as, given the size of the rack, half a rack would have been more than sufficient for our purposes.
Sides of Whiskey Sour pickles and, especially, the porky collard greens were very good. Perhaps the very best bite of this outstanding meat meet, however, was the barbecued lamb belly. This was meltingly meaty with a nice ovine tang and a similarly wonderful crust as the brisket. It is with barbecue like this as well as some of the other less traditional menu items that we didn’t try, where a unique barbecue identity appears to be in the forge. The beef had clear Texas influence, but the other items appear to reflect the multicultural nature of Brooklyn and NYC.
That unique barbecue identity was amplified at our next location, Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue on the lower edges of Park Slope, now known as the Gowanus area, after the nearby canal, was close enough to where I grew up, that I could have walked there. Brooklyn is a multicultural city and that is certainly reflected in the style of barbecue put forth by pitmaster and Brooklyn native, Matt Fisher, who includes a variety of influences in his cooking beyond the usual American barbecue styles. Unlike the other two places that we visited, Fisher does all of his smoking from within special smokers right inside the restaurant.
Fisher includes all the usual barbecue suspects in his pit including pork ribs and brisket, but he gives each a personal spin, while reflecting the cooking traditions of the genre such as “low and slow.” The ribs were good and had the benefit of an extra kick from some Szechuan chile-garlic sauce that was brought out with our platter to augment the Q as we deemed fit. The burnt ends were also quite good, moist with cooked in fat. His hot links, influenced by the Texas German tradition of smoked sausages, bore a local stamp by using hot, Italian style sausages, reflecting one of the major ethnic traditions of this particular neighborhood. The biggest standout amongst the sides was the chili-mac, a semi-conventional (nothing here is entirely conventional) mac and cheese suffused with a meaty chili. Fisher used 2 different cheddars for this, but he makes his own “Velveeta” -style cheese as well, which he smokes and uses in a variety of ways. It makes for an old style “comfort” dish that requires several different statins as chasers.
Where Fisher and Fletcher’s really stand out is in pushing the barbecue envelope to extend the range of the genre and make it their and the borough’s own. This was somewhat apparent with the use of Chinese Szechuan chile-garlic sauce as a hot sauce and the use of the Italian sausage. Our favorite meat on the platter was Fisher’s Char siu pork, hardly a staple of most American BBQ joints, but here done with both Chinese and Western influences, as well as an appropriate and delicious soy and scallion based dipping sauce. The new wave style of Brooklyn Barbecue really stands out with Fisher’s culinary explorations, which often find their way onto the menu as specials. He offered us two examples. The first was based on the trimmings from making his char siu pork. He rolled this out, stuffed it with spicy, Italian sausage and some of his “Velveeta,” wrapped it in cheese cloth and smoked it for several hours, adding a few drops of the vinegar from his hot and sweet jalapeños at the end.
Fisher even added a signature touch to bacon. He cured and smoked a large belly slab, cut it into thick, strips or “steaks” which he smoked again. Towards the end of the second smoking, he raised the temperature a bit to add crispness to the meat. Sassy, sweet, salty, smoky and savory this kickass, pick-up piece of meat had all of the s’s covered.
While it didn’t have a separate bar like Hometown, Fletcher’s offered some whiskeys and a small selection of cocktails.
This one, the Fletcher’s Tea, sweet, sour and bitter was a well balanced and flavorful quaff. Made with Jack Daniel’s, St. Germaine, house-made sour mix, apricot, lemon and actual tea, like an Arnold Palmer, but with a punch, this cocktail went down quite easily, complementing all of the barbecue quite nicely.
It’s a good thing we had a designated driver (and it wasn’t me). Our next stop was Delaney Barbecue’s Brisket Town located on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. By this time, we were all pretty full and happily so. Still, they were expecting us and like at the other places, I had asked that they serve us what they considered their highlights. Had it not been for the fact that I had set this up in advance, we might have simply called it a day at this point. Instead, we went inside.
Knowing our plight, Brisket Town’s manager, Tanya, sent us each a digestivo, a delightfully chilled glass of Cardamaro. It really did hit the spot and re-opened our appetites just enough to explore the wonders of Brisket Town.
Tanya didn’t immediately kill us with more meat. Instead, she read our needs and sent out an iceberg wedge salad with pickled red onions, chives and blue cheese dressing. Crisp and cool, it was perfect for the moment and extremely refreshing.
Corn bread was classic and good, but with extremely limited room in my belly and a low-carb bent, I limited myself to just a taste.
Deviled eggs made with mayo, house made pickle, cayenne, paprika, smoked salt, bacon and chive were good, but not extraordinary as deviled eggs go, but they were there as side and not a primary focus. Had I been less full, they might have had a greater impact.
A side element that DID have a great impact and was indeed extraordinary was the mac and cheese, as outstanding a an example of the genre as I can recall having. This rich and creamy version featured Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar cheese and house smoked and dehydrated jalapeño infused mornay topped with a crunchy panko. The jalapeño was what put this wonder over the top with it’s sweet, smoky and spicy flavors melded into the tangy cheese. The soft creamy textures of the sauce and the pasta benefited by the touch of crisp from the panko. I no longer routinely indulge in high carb dishes, but I made an exception for this one, which was by far my favorite side of the day (on a day with many excellent sides).
Brisket Town has a limited liquor license and unlike its Brooklyn BBQ brethren doesn’t offer high alcohol options from it’s bar, but that was not even an issue as their amaro and Soju based cocktail program proved ideal accompaniments to their food. This delicious, Pimm’s-like Hogeye Cup was composed of Cardamaro, tonic, simple syrup, lemon, mint, and cucumber. Named after the former NY Met, the Nolan Ryan, a boozy take on an Arnold Palmer, made with fresh brewed tea, house made lemonade, Soju, honey syrup and garnished with mint, proved another refreshing winner.
As great as the Mac and Cheese and the other sides were and despite our struggling appetites, the reason we came was to eat meat and that we did – in abundance! We loved Hometown and we loved Fletcher’s, but from top to bottom, the meat at Brisket Town was other worldly good. Served without any sauces (didn’t need any), all of the meats were juicy, perfectly executed and stuffed with utter deliciousness. The centerpiece brisket that started the whole thing is justly renowned and as good an example as I’ve had (disclaimer: I tasted Aaron Franklin’s brisket at Meatopia in NYC a few years ago, but haven’t yet been to the source). The fabulous Texas style sausage was entirely from brisket trimmings. The Memphis style rubbed pork ribs were moist, smoky and delicious and underneath was a nice pile of fantastic pulled pork that justifiably relied upon its essential porkiness for its effect. The meat that impressed me the most, however, was the smoked turkey. I must admit, that would have been just about the last thing I would have ordered myself from the menu, but that would have been my loss. The turkey was juicy perfection with a subtle, light smoke reminiscent of the kind of layered smoke that Bitor Arguinzoniz applies to many of his dishes at his legendary grill-based Basque restaurant, Etxebarri. The turkey wasn’t necessarily more delicious than the other meats on the platter, but particularly stood out as an example of the quality of the craft employed by Daniel Delaney, his pitmaster Spiro Kouridis, and the entire staff of Delaney Barbecue. It was a sensational example of its genre.
The food at Brisket Town was more classic, based on regional styles than the other two restaurants we visited, but the restaurant as a whole still embodied a Brooklyn sensibility and style, especially through its side dishes, bar program and table service restaurant. The restaurant felt like it belonged in Williamsburg (in a good way) as did the other two Fletcher’s in Gowanus and Hometown in Red Hook. Each of them invoked very personal styles of restaurateurship amidst extremely high quality barbecuing. I had high hopes of being able to extend our crawl on this occasion, as there remain a number of other high profile brooklyn barbecue spots, but we were all simply too full to even think about eating more. The three restaurants that we visited are emblematic of the continued evolution of food in Brooklyn and New York City, especially as examples of a resurgent meat culture. Barbecue is certainly alive and well throughout the city. Blue Smoke remains a bastion of fine regional barbecue representation, while places like The Cannibal, Duck’s Eatery and Harry and Ida’s, amongst others, continue to push the meat-centric boundaries in Manhattan. All things considered, I cannot recall a better time to be a carnivore in New York City in my lifetime and these three outstanding Brooklyn Barbecue spots are prime reasons why.