Laugh if You Like, Texas, but New York is Now a BBQ Capital

Fat and Happy

Laugh if You Like, Texas, but New York is Now a BBQ Capital

When I wrote in January that New York 'cue is now among the best in the country, I meant it. But the backlash was swift. And harsh. @Underexposure tweeted: ". . . pit masters and BBQ devotees across Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City & Memphis all roll their eyes in unison." Barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn groused to the Houston Press, "They get a few joints with a decent brisket, and now NYC is a BBQ capital?" Even New Yorkers didn't believe me. Meat man Josh Ozersky snorted on Twitter, "What that dope doesn't know about barbecue could fill volumes."

Ever since my college days in Texas, I've obsessed over tracking down the country's greatest barbecues, logging thousands of miles to check out obscure pits in places like Paducah, Kentucky, and Hemingway, South Carolina. I've published maybe 75,000 words on the subject, including an eight-part series titled "Great Barbecues of Texas" for the Voice's food blog, Fork in the Road. I may have been born in Michigan, but when it comes to barbecue, I know what the hell I'm talking about.

And while it's taken a quarter century to get our act together, New York isn't playing either: We have developed a fantastic collection of pits. These tend to be inspired by Texas barbecue, which arose from the black-dirt farm country east of Austin—German immigrant towns where barbecue first bloomed around 1900; we even have one place (Hill Country Barbecue Market) trying to replicate the output of a single pit, the one at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. What we lack in regional DNA, we make up for in our range—and the fact that we are finally starting to get it right. New York can offer up the full gamut of 'cue, from the St. Louis style at Blue Smoke (and the now-defunct R.U.B.) to Oklahoma (Mable's Smokehouse), Kansas City (John Brown Smokehouse), Memphis (Neely's Barbecue Parlor, Virgil's Real Barbecue), North Carolina (Brother Jimmy's BBQ), and even Syracuse, New York, an unlikely barbecue destination if ever there was one (Dinosaur Bar-B-Que).

At Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, your brisket sandwich sails in on a brioche.
James Worrell
At Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, your brisket sandwich sails in on a brioche.
Thank you for smoking: BrisketTown’s Daniel Delaney hauled his 18-foot smoker back from Texas.
Mark Hewko
Thank you for smoking: BrisketTown’s Daniel Delaney hauled his 18-foot smoker back from Texas.

True, barbecue doesn't come naturally to New Yorkers, and our relationship with it has always been a bit rocky. It began, improbably, with a hairdresser from London. Robert Pearson went to the Texas capital to teach mod hairstyles to beauticians in the 1980s, and came back inspired enough to found Stick to Your Ribs in Connecticut, moving to Long Island City in 1992. With its emphasis on smoking slowly over real hardwoods with low, indirect heat, Stick to Your Ribs became the city's first serious BBQ. In his former warehouse near the mouth of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, Pearson de-emphasized sauce—though he offered four, with heat levels ranging from mild to "mean"—to highlight the smoky taste of the meat. As he told The New York Times in 1988, "People miss the point. They ask for extra sauce. Sauce is the accompaniment, not the thing of interest."

Much more recently, Daniel Delaney was similarly transported at a 2010 food festival in New Orleans by the brisket of Wayne Mueller (pitmaster of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas). "It redefined barbecue for me," he wrote later. "I had no clue anything smoked for so long could taste so good." Delaney made his own pilgrimage to central Texas, and returned dragging an 18-foot smoker behind a U-Haul. He first used it to barbecue beef for Brisket Lab, a series of 31 pop-up feasts in the summer of 2012, which materialized, among other places, in a church in Greenpoint, on the roof of the Gizmodo headquarters on the Lower East Side, and in a Dutch cemetery in Flatbush. Now, he peddles his way-smoky brisket at BrisketTown, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Danny Meyer had a hand in our BBQ surge, too, when he opened Blue Smoke 11 years ago—splicing a barbecue joint to a jazz club for what might be the first time outside Memphis. Now he's selling authentic Kansas City ribs at the Citi Field home of the Mets and in Battery Park City, too, which is something of a culinary miracle. And his pitmaster and founding partner Kenny Callaghan has shown unswerving fidelity to using real hardwood in his smokers.

Meyer and Callaghan also started the popular Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, an annual summer event that brings prominent maestros from all over the country to Madison Square, where they play to legions of meat lovers. And just last year, Hill Country hosted modern Austin barbecue auteur Aaron Franklin. He imported the technique of smoking brisket longer than even old-time Texas places do it—a whopping 15 hours or more. Gotham 'cue-masters have imitated the practice, and now our briskets couldn't get any smokier. I asked Franklin if he'd ever thought of opening a place in New York City. "No, it's way too much trouble up here," he replied with a laugh. "You've got to import the wood, and do things on such a big scale."

Barbecue never sleeps. It is continually evolving. And the country's greatest pits have always been defined by their quirks. In our innocence of 'cue—in the absence of our own traditions—New York was able to absorb the outside influences, helped along by a small cadre of tong-wielding fanatics. We bow to no one. Even if our black dirt is just rat shit.

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