When I spotted McWhorter Barbecue in Newark’s Yellow Pages, I expected an African-American joint. But Google Maps placed it in the Portuguese Ironbound district, which runs along the banks of the Passaic River, where no one would ever think of going waterskiing.
McWhorter Barbecue is named after McWhorter Street, which is named after Reverend Alexander McWhorter, a prominent 19th-century Newark clergyman and Hebrew scholar. The place might be more properly termed a churrascaria—a type of Portuguese restaurant specializing in grilled meats and poultry. Using mountains of lump charcoal, the Portuguese barbecue their meat hotter and faster than Texans do, while achieving a similar smokiness. There are a dozen churrascarias in Ironbound, mostly hidden along the back roads, where they also function as neighborhood taverns.
Inside McWhorter, the front room sported an oak bar of great antiquity, with brown Naugahyde stools, stacked-up plastic cups, and a serious-looking espresso setup. A second look failed to identify any actual alcohol. Through a wooden arch we could see a dining room with white stucco walls and red-checked curtains. Most of the tables were full of big, beefy guys, who looked up quizzically as we entered, then pushed their faces back into their plates of meat.
The focal point of the room was a rectangular brick pit, like the kind used in Central Texas barbecues. Several dozen chickens were splayed over the pit, as an attendant in a baseball cap and a red McWhorter T-shirt vigorously turned a crank. The birds flipped backward and forward as the charcoal hissed and smoked and shot up flames.
Our fivesome—which included a florist from Vancouver, a hip-hop artist from Clinton Hill, and a Native-American chef from Massachusetts—developed a big appetite. So, in addition to the whole chicken, rack of ribs, and chourico hero ($10, $11, and $6, respectively), we also ordered the Tuesday/Wednesday special of picanha (sirloin steak, $24), the priciest thing on the menu. All entrées came on a king-size bed of excellent yellow rice, with McDonald’s-style fries blanketing the top, for a double-carb whammy. Garnishes included black olives and cauliflower pickles.
Chicken barbecue is rarely astonishing. Either the skin is too rubbery, or the flesh too dry. But McWhorter pulls a hat trick by periodically splashing the skin with an oily spice mixture, and keeping the cooking time to a minimum—hence the frenetic spinning of the hand crank to keep the birds from burning. The chicken turns out juicy and slightly spicy, with a crisp, well-salted skin. The pork spareribs were great, too. Again reminiscent of Texas barbecue, they flaunted a pink smoke ring. And the sausage sandwich was bliss: a thick hunk of Portuguese chourico thrust among sautéed onions and peppers, clearly inspired by Italian street-festival heroes.
Only the picanha proved disappointing. The slight, curly-haired waiter had asked us how we wanted it done, offering only “medium” and “well-done” as our options. To our infinite regret, we asked to have the steak cooked the same way our fellow patrons around us were having it: “Well-done” turned the eight small sirloins into smoky shoe leather.
Since McWhorter is a goal-directed place (that goal being meat, meat, and more meat), the menu is appropriately spare. There’s a decent starter of sautéed shrimp in garlic oil ($10), but your best appetizer is the free breadbasket, filled with excellent Portuguese bread and rolls, and little metallic packets of butter that will keep your hands busy till the flesh arrives. And beer is indeed available, but surreptitiously served in the plastic cups we’d seen behind the bar.
As we ate, the tables around us emptied. We’d noted a couple of tables of uniformed Newark cops, but gradually, as other tables got up and left, we spotted handcuffs and canisters of mace dangling under paunches on many other belts, too. The place had been filled with plainclothes cops! Maybe that was the reason for the beer being served on the sly.