Barbecue is not a traditional harbinger of gentrification, but the news that Whiskey Sunday Bar-BQ, a new spot from prolific Brooklyn restaurateur Jim Mamary, would be coming to Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn prompted excited Internet chatter. Much of the enthusiasm centered around the notion that, until now, the neighborhood has lacked restaurants: Bloggers, apparently, don’t frequent all the wonderful roti shops—the Caribbean and West Indian joints that line Flatbush. Of course, what was meant is that the area lacks restaurants catering to the gentrifiers—exactly the sort of restaurant that Mamary specializes in, for better or worse. The odd result is a barbecue spot designed to look fashionably down-at-the-heels in a neighborhood that is getting richer.
In 1997, Mamary and his partner, Alan Harding, started opening Brooklyn restaurants in Cobble Hill, which was not the affluent neighborhood it is now. The duo has a way of identifying neighborhoods where a gentrified population is just about to have critical mass—and opening up restaurants there. They specialize in mid-priced spots that have a carefully crafted (and effective) appeal, and they’ve collaborated on such divergent experiments as a critically acclaimed haute-barnyard bistro, a tiki cocktail bar, and a faux seafood shack.
Enter Whiskey Sunday, decorated in meticulous high kitsch—cattle brands burned into the wood by the door; Formica tables; weathered, beaten-up wooden walls; and kerosene lanterns above the well-stocked bar.
As for the food, a barbecue joint that serves blueberry-chile sauce is trying to tell you something. Don’t bring your cherished memories of Texas Hill Country brisket, Kansas City burnt ends, or Carolina pulled pork to Whiskey Sunday Bar-BQ. A sauce like that tells you that this restaurant is not putting itself in the running for authentic barbecue status. I reeled in horror at the notion of such a sauce, which had me experiencing PTSD flashbacks of the sickly chipotle-raspberry sauce at Union Square’s Wildwood Barbeque. But here, the sauce is shockingly good—very hot, not too sweet—if also shockingly inauthentic.
The meat is hickory-smoked on the premises, and the menu cherry-picks styles from around the country, making a few up along the way. There are St. Louis ribs, pulled pork shoulders, beef ribs, and brisket, along with odd ducks like peppered pork belly and beef cheeks. The ‘cue is priced at a reasonable $7 to $9 per half-pound. Befitting the barbecue genre, there are nine sides, ranging from baked beans to sauerkraut to fried macaroni and cheese. The results are a mixed bag—we saw nary a smoke ring—but if you pick the right dishes and avail yourself of the great beer list (Lagunitas, Sixpoints, and Gruut on draft), you can have a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
The best of the meaty bunch is the beef short rib. It’s so big that it looks like a femur, a one-pound behemoth with large-grained meat that pulls off the bone in moist shreds and tastes richly bovine and faintly of hickory smoke. The “well-peppered” pork belly is an oddly likable thing: I expected it to come thickly cut and goopy with fat, as usual, but this is more like well-done bacon (which it basically is, having been smoked), very crispy and even a little bit tough, but well-peppered as advertised—it would be great in a BLT.
If you like your brisket so fatty that it wobbles, this brisket’s for you. (I don’t, but some do.) The thick slices are lined with an appetizing, seasoned crust on the outside. The St. Louis cut ribs (a distinctive style of cutting the rib tips and membrane off a slab of spare ribs before smoking them) are well-smoked—tender, but not mushy—although they are a bit underseasoned and benefit from one of the three sauces available.
I’ll admit to liking sauce on my barbecue (yes, go ahead and send the hate mail; I know that many barbecue purists consider sauce the sign of a weak mind). Sauce can’t save bad barbecue, but it can make good barbecue better. Whiskey Sunday offers a very tasty Kansas City–style molasses sauce, the chile-blueberry concoction, and a middling yellow mustard–based sauce. The molasses goes well on the St. Louis ribs, which should be basted with sauce at the end, anyway, if they were true St. Louis ribs. See what I mean about leaving the barbecue baggage at home?
No sauce in the world can save the chicken, though. Why do barbecue places persist in smoking chicken? Almost invariably, it results in horrid, flaccid skin and dry meat. This one is no different, although this time, the goose-bumped skin was a particularly unappetizing shade of pale yellow.
Sides are also a group of winners and losers. The sauerkraut provides a tart antidote to all that fat, and the cheddar biscuits are immoderately good—crumbed and buttery. Silky mashed sweet potatoes are also very worthwhile. The fried macaroni and cheese sounds promising—pasta and cheese plus breading, what could go wrong?—but turns out to be craggy, bland spheres of a gluey yellow substance. The most iconic side of all, baked beans, are also a missed opportunity, an uncared-for, wan concoction.
The only dessert is a jokey rendition of banana pudding—a big bowl of (instant) vanilla pudding, banana slices, and ‘Nilla Wafers, crowned with an exuberant amount of Reddi-Whip and more ‘Nilla Wafers. (You might want to have another beer before you order it.)
One night, a shaved-headed, goateed guy at the booth next to us asked the server, “Do you have anything that’s vegan?” Surprisingly, this is not the first time I’ve heard this in a barbecue restaurant. Here is a tip, vegans: If it’s a barbecue restaurant, there will be nothing for you to eat. I don’t go into your vegan restaurants and ask for the pulled pork. I’m sure the vegan restaurant will be coming soon, but the neighborhood isn’t that gentrified yet.