People got excited, maybe even a little envious, when I told them I was escaping Austin for New York City in September.
Then they got confused.
“You’re going to New York City … to eat barbecue?”
I understand it’s kind of like going to Lockhart for pizza or Taylor for a bagel, but I needed to see what was going on for myself. I’d seen various headlines over the last couple years championing the burgeoning New York City barbecue scene, but this spring, the Wall Street Journal stoked my curiosity, inciting me to action with its bold declaration: “Move Over, Texas — N.Y. Is Rustling Up Some Top-Notch Barbecue.”
It didn’t seem entirely blasphemous. New York City does everything, and does it well: Italian (Roberta’s), French (Le Coucou), Japanese (Masa), Scandinavian (Agern) … you name it. Heck, I’ll even head up there for a knockout Mexican meal (Cosme, Empellón). So, exceptional barbecue? If I squinted hard, I could almost see it. But I needed to find out for myself.
It turns out, with one beautiful, bold and eclectic exception named Hometown Bar B Que in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Texas doesn’t need to make room in its trophy case for any of our well-intentioned friends from the north. It’s not that the barbecue we tried at the seven places not named Hometown was bad, it just doesn’t deserve a place among elite Central Texas names like Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, Louie Mueller Barbecue, Snow’s BBQ, Luling City Market, et al. Catchy headline, though, Wall Street Journal.
That statement shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. What makes Central Texas barbecue great? The post oak, the technique, the people, the history, the culture. You can learn technique, but the others can’t be imported. You can’t fire up a gas-assist smoker, drop your meat on a tray lined with butcher paper and hope to pass it off as Texas barbecue.
One of the first things you notice when entering (or getting within 100 feet of) a barbecue joint in Central Texas is the smell of smoke. Not the case in New York City. Whether it’s the gas-assist smokers or the rooftop smoke scrubbers most restaurants in New York City are mandated to use, that perfumed air is almost completely absent.
My crew of five Austinites entered each restaurant, sniffers perked, like eager hounds. But it was usually our eyes, not noses, that were brought to attention. Say this about the barbecue restaurants in New York City: some of their employees may look at you like you’re speaking French when you ask about wood selection or smoker brands, but these restaurants know how to package and sell a vibe and create a space where you want to eat barbecue (and drink alcohol).
From the wagon-wheel and tin-bucket light fixtures to the wood paneling by the vintage communal sink near the bathroom and the cross-stitched portrait of a horse, Mable’s Smokehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, feels like it could have been plucked from a small town in flyover country. Throw in family photos of co-owner Jeff Lutonsky’s family from Oklahoma and a 1974 Sooners national champions pennant and the scene is complete. Though I don’t know how Willie Nelson, whose picture hangs on the wall, would feel about being tossed into all that Okie-abilia.
The meat, which apparently came off a gas-assist Southern Pride fed with a stick or two of hickory wood, would have felt at home at any run-of-the-mill joint in Texas. The brisket was lined with a nice bark, but there was no accordion pull to the dry meat, and the sauce-slathered ribs were aggressively sweet. At least they didn’t need any of the accompanying sauce that tasted mostly of liquid smoke.
“Compared to New York City barbecue 10 years ago, this place is good,” my buddy and 15-year Brooklyn resident Clay Mallow said. “If you think this place is bad, you’re in for a long weekend.”
Mallow, a native Texan who owns a bar, taco spot and pizza place (Dram Shop, Gueros Brooklyn and Rosco’s), long considered getting into the barbecue game in Brooklyn. He devised a menu and exhaustively researched opening his own place. But, between paying engineers, complying with city ordinances and eschewing traditional Texas smoking methods, he eventually saw the hurdles to success either odious or insurmountable.
“The main problem is that you have neighbors within close proximity in almost every situation that would lend itself to a successful restaurant,” Mallow said. “Cooking proper barbecue requires using wood and wood alone as your heat source. That process produces smoke that will get 311 called on you and eventually get you shuttered for being a nuisance.”
That proliferation of wood-fired smoke wouldn’t be a big problem for us during our three-day barbecue ramble.
“I like the bar,” one friend said of Mable’s as we headed out toward our next destination.
The New York City barbecue scene has exploded over the last decade, and there are now more than a dozen barbecue spots in Brooklyn alone. One of the first was Fette Sau, which opened in 2007, before Austin’s own barbecue Renaissance had ignited.
I don’t know if the televised fireplace in the small industrial space was meant as an ironic statement, but we were again disappointed in the lack of smoke flavor in the meats cooked with cherrywood, according to an employee. The black angus brisket needed pepper in addition to smoke; the pork belly was a jangle of unrendered fat; and the pork ribs, pulled from warming pans like the rest, had a spackled layer of seasoning. The biggest hits? The plump half-sour pickles, the impressive selection of 50 whiskeys, and about a dozen local beers lined on the subway-tiled wall behind the bar and marked with tap handles fashioned from rusty old cleavers.
Arrogant Swine sits in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn about 1.5 miles away from Fette Sau. Besides having a great name, the warehouse-style restaurant also features some incredible and vibrant mural work outside. You won’t find that at most Texas barbecue restaurants, or at those in North Carolina, the state to which Tyson Ho pays homage with his pig-centric menu.
You can order East Carolina-style whole hog, the tender meat shredded and tossed in a tangy and peppery sauce (though we found the need to add more) or the “outside brown” style of western North Carolina, the hunks of shoulder steak smoked and crisped to a crunchy finish like burnt ends. A tamarind glaze and shower of fried shallots layered sweet and crunchy balance across fatty nubs of slow-smoked pork belly, but the pork ribs didn’t stand a chance beneath their heavy cloak of mustard sauce.
While the previous three restaurants we visited were all independently owned one-offs, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is a regional chain that started in Syracuse, N.Y. The Brooklyn location opened in 2013, and though the large restaurant has a generic brick-and-wood aesthetic that makes for easy replication and the kind of jazzed-up bottled barbecue sauces (garlic-chipotle and habanero-hot) you’d expect from a chain, we found the St. Louis-style ribs, slicked with a judicious amount of sauce, tender and even smoky.
A gentleman named Earl who ran the kitchen was one of the few people during our tour of Brooklyn joints eager to show off his pits and process. He walked us into the bowels of the building in the Gowanus neighborhood, gave us a peek at his Oyler pits and discussed with the passion of a true Texans how he tended the fire fueled by hickory wood.
Earl’s dedication and precision sounded like pitmasters I’ve talked to in Austin, and up the street at Pig Beach, we got a glimpse of a scene that would be the envy of Rainey Street or East Sixth Street. The massive restaurant features a line near the entrance where you order food and multiple bar areas both inside and out. With a multitude of screens showing football games, a large selection of beer and booze and a crowd-pleasing, backyard-party-style menu, it makes a great case for wiling away all of your Saturday.
The menu is divided into true, slow-smoked barbecue items as well as grilled favorites. They pass on brisket here, instead checking the red-meat box with a velvety rosemary-and-garlic-rubbed tri tip smoked to a ruby finish, and put an Italian spin on pickled pepper-studded pork sausages that are smoked and then grilled and ooze provolone.
A provolone-and-pepper sausage also appears on native New Yorker Billy Durney’s menu at the aforementioned Hometown Bar B Que, a unique spot tucked among the piers and warehouses of Red Hook, the neighborhood Durney’s Norwegian grandmother called home after immigrating in the 1930s. While some of Brooklyn’s barbecue restaurants make meager attempts to copy Central Texas brisket and others borrow from the North Carolina playbook, Durney decided to tap his own roots for this restaurant that you can actually smell as you approach it.
The burly former bodyguard first fell in love with Central Texas barbecue when he visited Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor almost a decade ago. While Durney pays homage to the legends and modern masters of Central Texas with a giant beef rib rippling with slow-rendered fat and a brisket that jiggles when it hits the cutting board before spitting to reveal a crimson smoke ring, Durney never wanted to create a copycat version of his Texas favorites.
“I love what they’re doing in Texas, but I don’t want to do anything like what anybody else is doing,” Durney said. “I’m a street kid from Brooklyn; I wanna tap into the multi-ethnic and multicultural flavors I grew up around.”
Durney was raised in Flatbush, a multicultural neighborhood in the heart of Brooklyn that he likens more to a village than a big city. The smells of the push carts serving Jamaican jerk chicken wafted through the streets; a late-night snack meant sticky ribs from Chinese takeout spots like Kam Fung Kitchen; and provisions were purchased at the Korean grocery.
You see those influences all over the menu at his Edison-bulb-lit warehouse restaurant filled with long wooden tables and touches of Americana and Texana, like a menu scrawled in marker on butcher paper. The aromatic garlic, ginger and all-spice of the jerk rub on baby back ribs invigorate your senses. Sticky ribs that take cues from Korea hit you like a garlic-laced umami bomb, and that gooey sausage with peppers and cheese is a nod to trips over the bridge into Manhattan for the annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy. Vietnam finds voice in spicy chicken wings, and grilled pastrami bacon weds two of Durney’s New York City favorites: Katz’s Delicatessen and Peter Luger Steak House. And then there are the happy accidents of exploration like a lamb belly banh mi, the fatty and gamey meat cut by the acid of a sweet-and-hot sauce, the crunch of pickled daikon and carrots and the florality of cilantro.
“No one has a higher respect for the lineage of barbecue than me. We are certainly not trying to replicate what’s happening in Texas barbecue,” Durney said.
So, while he does his best with white oak to approximate the post-oak-fired creations of Central Texas, Durney was smart enough to develop his own vernacular of smoking meats instead of trying to take a tradition from one place and drop it into a foreign context. But Durney is quick to correct the record:
“It wasn’t smart; it’s who I am.”
Only in New York.