As a guy obsessed with barbecue, whose vacations trace barbecue trails through sacred locales like Lexington, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; and, especially, the black-dirt farmland east of Austin, Texas, I feel compelled to blow the whistle on Blue Smoke. This new pit has lately sprung up on the southern outskirts of Murray Hill, which is just the kind of rural backwater where good ‘cue flourishes. But when I rounded the corner of bucolic East 27th, I couldn’t help but be disappointed—no trucks laden with hardwood lined up out front, and no immense woodpile towered by the entranceway.
Once inside, there was suspiciously little smell of smoke, either, though the rollicking barroom and expansive main dining room—where families sat, the children’s faces smeared with red sauce—seemed very barbecue-like. And in front of the swinging kitchen doors did stand a pile of wood, but only a few cubic feet. Recall that hallowed places like Wilber’s in Goldsboro, North Carolina, go through a cord or two per day (120-240 cubic feet). While I couldn’t actually see how much wood was being fed into Blue Smoke’s pair of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, smokers, my hunch was that it was a fraction of what you’d need to do real barbecue.
But while I was prepared to be disappointed on a grand scale, some of the food was quite good. Best of all was an appetizer of smoked foie gras ($12.50)—proving this is Manhattan, after all, and not Memphis—served with a timid jalapeño “jelly.” It shares an appetizer list with agreeable deviled eggs ($5.50), a Midwestern favorite that’s never been on a barbecue menu as far as I know, and something called “Kenny’s Burnt-Ends Chili” ($6.95). The fussy punctuation fails to improve this bean-heavy morass. But why not stick with meat? The starter of good and greasy pork sausage ($8.95) comes with just the sort of dill pickle chips that are pulled from the big jars at City Market in Luling, Texas.
Among the barbecue entrées, the ribs fare best. The St. Louis spare ribs ($11.95 half rack, $19.95 full rack) are thickly coated with a spice rub, perfectly cooked, moist, and tasty. If you didn’t expect a smoky flavor, the lack of it might not be bothersome. More delicate, the sauce-smeared baby back ribs hearken to Kansas City joints like Arthur Bryant’s, with less success. The biggest bust is the Texas favorite—brisket (sandwich $11.95, platter $14.50), rendered oily and hyper-salty. On one of three occasions, it had a chemical-tasting flavor that reminded me of Liquid Smoke. The pulled pork butt fares better, though the barbecue sauce on the table is too lacking in vinegar to give it real Carolina flavor. Chicken, however, is the authentic product—the flesh alarmingly pink, the skin turned rubbery. More importantly, the bird manages to taste smoky. And I’m sure you’ll be relieved to learn that the chicken is organic.
Vegetarians can have a field day at Blue Smoke, because the sides are often splendid. Once again, the mayo potato salad is very Midwestern (rumor has it that the recipe came from a Hellmann’s jar), while the cole slaw sports the peppery tang that the barbecue sauce lacks. There’s also a list of vegetables that have never been spotted in a barbecue before: broccoli, mushrooms, creamed spinach, and a cauliflower-and-potatoes au gratin that tastes like St. Louis, circa 1965. The oddest note is struck by the mac and cheese—the macaroni is cooked al dente, in clear violation of the rules.
If you want long-smoked barbecue, go to Pearson’s in Jackson Heights; if you want well-executed Midwestern food, turn your horse toward Blue Smoke.