Brooklyn Barbecue: On a Brisket Safari to Morgans, Beast of Bourbon and G. Lee's Smokin' BBQ
Morgans' ribs add a line to the 'cue conversation. See more photos from Morgans on Fork in the Road.
We sallied forth in search of smoke. Brooklyn's dining landscape is a vast, concrete savannah, and lately, one species of restaurant has enjoyed startling population growth: the barbecue joint. In the last several months, at least seven new meat shacks have sprouted across the borough.
Some, like Morgans, have received a fair amount of press, but others, like G. Lee's Smokin' BBQ and Beast of Bourbon, have scarcely registered on the restaurant Richter scale, and no one has reported on how the new places stack up against each other.
To do so bids meaty adventure. Aside from cursory verdicts (this is better, that is fattier) who can really taste the subtle differences in briskets consumed weeks apart? But if making one's way through steaming mounds of meat, tubs of heart-flogging mac and cheese, collards and ribs, bean casseroles, potato salads, and Frito pies sounds like a stroke in waiting, it had to happen.
The expedition commences at the Beast of Bourbon (710 Myrtle Avenue, 718-456-7890) in Bed-Stuy, where pitmaster Frank Davis has been smoking the fat since September in a whiskey-soaked space that reveres the rock 'n' roll redneck. Here, bastard plates like "hillbilly nachos" ($5), potato chips topped with cheddar and pickled jalapeños, smothered in hearty, three-meat "trashcan chili," are a study in gritty excellence. "I was hungover one day, and all I wanted was salt," Davis says, "so I made this, and I was like, 'Oh, this is going on the menu.'" If that's what happens when he imbibes irresponsibly, let's all buy that dude a drink.
The brisket ($21 per pound) at Beast isn't super smoky, but it is airy and fall-apart tender, with a fluffy, pink fat rind and crisp black crust, and Davis's wide, meaty ribs ($3 per rib) are all subtle soot and spice.
Many plates had me wanting more salt, though the sauces — a peppery Hellraiser or a thick bourbon slather — are groovy ways to add sodium, and Davis's turkey ($14 per pound), rubbed in sweet spices and smoked tender, clucks well with pungent Mean Mr. Mustard sauce. Take it down with happy-hour two-for-one drafts (more than 40 on tap) before 8 p.m., or the restaurant's namesake whiskey.
If Beast of Bourbon drives hard and nasty, G. Lee's Smokin' BBQ (813 Nostrand Avenue, 347-413-8680, gleessmokinbbq.com), opened in December in Crown Heights, serenades with the sweet songs of soul food. Brooklyn native Gary Lee left a career in finance in pursuit of the pit, and his 'cue tastes like home cooking. Unpretentious and unfettered by chefly hang-ups, his menu delivers proper meals in protein-with-sides format rather than pieces by the pound.
Lee's pulled pork sandwich ($12.50) is a smoky heap of meat, lightly dressed in peppy sweet vinegar, in an airy brioche bun. His blackened catfish po' boy ($14) — a firm, fragrant fillet cradled in soft bread and slathered with spicy mayo and slaw — reeks of the bayou, and Lee's collards are certifiably Southern.
"I look at every plate that comes back to see where I can improve," Lee says, emerging from the kitchen. He thinks we don't like the greens, but having just devoured more than my fair share of his glorious long-cut St. Louis–style ribs ($11.50 for four bones), lustily lardy and crusted black with spice, I'm teetering on the edge of a food coma, collards be damned.
Nothing soothes a hangover like thousands of smoke-soaked, meaty calories, and so, a day later, we're at Morgans (267 Flatbush Avenue, 718-622-2224, morgansbrooklynbarbecue.com) for lunch, eating comely plates with a thick Texas accent. Pitmaster John Avila's tender brisket, even the "fatty cut" ($22 per pound), is denser and leaner than Davis's beef and benefits from a salty layer of rub and strong chimney flavor. And pulled pork ($18 per pound) unspools in fatty, savory, deep-seasoned strings. This pig is so moist and rich, it feels unjust to add sauce.
The Frito pie ($6), like Davis's hillbilly nachos, is a winning Southern holdover. Avila's comes in its native Frito bag with shredded cheese and chopped brisket chili, sour cream, and scallions. And don't miss the creamy, gooey, super-simple mac & cheese ($4/$7.50). Just don't.
Though Avila recently said he'd like to set a standard for Texas barbecue in Brooklyn, his restaurant feels rooted in the diverse culture of Flatbush Avenue — a singular voice in a larger conversation, writing the story of Yankee 'cue in fumey wafts far from the hot, dirty South. Any way you smoke it, it's a fine time for carnivores in Kings.
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