Don't Stop Smoking at BrisketTown
It was a cold autumn evening, around 5:45 p.m., and the stretch of Bedford Avenue just north of the Williamsburg Bridge was calm and nearly pitch black, save for the occasional J or M train whizzing by overhead, ablaze with light. A ragged line of people extended from the door of a place with minimum signage—it seemed anonymous in the darkness. As the minutes wore on, the line grew. At precisely 6 p.m., ghostly arms could be seen flailing out the door, and an excited murmur rose from the crowd, who pocketed their cell phones and became animated as they began inching toward the entrance.
Once inside, the line wound past a liquor-less bar, through what looked like a cattle sluice, and up to a counter, where a guy with horn-rim specs wore a red visor with a volcano of unkempt hair shooting out the top. Using a giant fork, he pulled smoke-blackened briskets out of a warming cabinet, set them down on the cutting board, and sliced fatty and lean brisket with surgical precision. Between carvings, he leaned over to consult with the customers to find out exactly what their meat expectations were, more priest than deli man. Behind him blazed a red neon cow, while the rest of the high-ceilinged room was plunged in deep shadow.
That was the scene early on at BrisketTown, yet another of New York's Texas-style barbecues, where the amount of hardwood smoke absorbed by the meat is everything, and sauce is an afterthought. It joins Hill Country, Fette Sau, and, to a lesser extent, Mable's and John Brown Smokehouse in trying to reproduce the precise taste and texture of Lone Star 'cue, with brisket as its centerpiece. The man slicing the meat is Daniel Delaney, who as recently as a year ago worked in video production. He went to Texas, brought back a smoker capable of doing 200 pounds of meat at once, and fetched back a supply of post oak, too, the wood used in great barbecue towns like Lockhart and Elgin.
At first, Delaney started serving brisket to friends in his apartment, but soon he hatched the idea for Brisketlab, a pop-up feast that occurred 31 times from late spring to late summer at a variety of odd venues. I caught up with him in June at the cemetery behind the historic Dutch Reformed Church in Flatbush, where he doled out meat, coleslaw, and white bread as a band played old-timey music and customers wandered among the graves like gleeful mourners. The long-smoked brisket was splendid, crusted with a blackened spice rub that sealed in moisture, which wept as the meat was sliced. It was every bit as good as you get in Texas.
Inevitably, the successful pop-up yearns for brick and mortar, and Delaney recently moved into his Williamsburg storefront. He has preserved one of his earlier concepts: Brisket can be pre-ordered online, picked up at 6 p.m., and eaten in the overcrowded restaurant or taken away. But it turns out if you wait till 8 p.m. or so, you can just stroll right in and cop some ($25 per pound), along with a shifting roster of sides that can include coleslaw, cabbage stewed with apples, and German potato salad. Sliced onions and sweet pickles accompany the meat, plus a good stack of white bread for wrapping the brisket up with the condiments, Texas-style.
I talked to Delaney, an affable guy whose excitement is infectious, about the challenges of abandoning his nomad status. My first question: Where did he keep the smoker? "We put it in a 40-foot commercial shipping container and parked it on Flushing Avenue," he said, whipping out his iPhone and showing me pictures of a metal cylinder fitted into a rectangular space. "It's been really different smoking the briskets in autumn rather than summer. Briskets behave differently at various outdoor temperatures and humidities. A few days ago, we ruined some because they got too dry."
While most Texas barbecues smoke their brisket eight to 10 hours, Delaney leaves his in for 12 to 16 hours, starting at 7 p.m. the night before, and selling them out the following day—no leftovers. He's experimenting with pork ribs now, and on the occasions I visited, these were featured as a supplement with the brisket. The ribs ($22 per pound) are meatier than usual and coated with a rudimentary black pepper rub. But they have a touch of sweetness. "Honey and maple syrup," said Delaney with a wink. "Come back next week, and we'll be experimenting with pies."
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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