If someone had told me five years ago that Williamsburg would become the city’s foremost barbecue destination, I would have guffawed. After all, most of the BBQ joints in town then—which numbered about a dozen—were located in Manhattan, whining that they couldn’t do the job properly because of city regulations against airborne emissions. The “smoke scrubbers” required to meet environmental guidelines were prohibitively expensive, the owners maintained. Turns out they were full of crap, saving themselves money by brushing baked meats with cloying sauces and calling it ‘cue, figuring nobody in New York could tell the difference. They were wrong.
Then Fette Sau opened four years ago on Metropolitan Avenue. This former garage offered meats long smoked over hardwood, Texas-style, with an agenda that included sustainable sourcing, craft beers, and a frankly strange catalog of raw materials that ran to pig tails, flank steaks, and pork belly, in addition to the usual brisket and ribs. Let’s call it hipster BBQ. Just last year, Fatty ‘Cue flung open the doors of its ramshackle premises under the Williamsburg Bridge. Robbie Richter—the pitmaster who’d set Manhattan’s Hill Country on the right track—turned out doctrinaire Texas barbecue, to which are added Southeast Asian flourishes like palm sugar, sesame oil, brined bird chilies, and fish sauce. The formula somehow worked, making for an experience unique in the entire world.
Now up flares Mable’s Smokehouse, promisingly located down the block from the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg’s northwest corner. The restaurant looks like a Lone Star barbecue, its trestle tables flanked by mismatched chairs in a big box of a room clad in salvaged woods, with little in the way of fakey signage or other annoying décor. Take one glance at the counter for dispensing meat, and you know this place means business. Chalked on a board above the counter, the menu is refreshingly slender, with only four meats, a list of sides that sometimes don’t suck (at most great barbecues, they do), and a scatter of bar snacks consistent with the smoked-meat ethos. How is the ‘cue, you wonder? Well, it’s often great.
The sliced brisket, in particular, is superb—rimmed with fat, smoke-ringed, and nicely chewy. A platter of sliced brisket and two sides will set you back $14.95, served in the east-of-Austin manner with the sauce—of which Mable’s is inordinately proud—in a cup on the side. There’s also a brisket sandwich made with coarsely chopped meat and a drizzle of sauce on a hamburger bun. While Central Texas barbecues offer sliced brisket exclusively, around Dallas, where I went to high school, cheaper chopped brisket was the favorite of budget-conscious students and working-class cowboys.
Another favorite you can get in North Texas, but not in Lockhart or Luling, are fiery sausages called “hot links.” Spicy as hell, these invariably have an artificial, painfully red casing. (By contrast, Central Texas sausages are usually a bit drab-looking and loose in their natural casings.) Nicely crisp and almost blackened from the pit, Mable’s hot links ($5 each) have the scrumptious and salty taste that I remember. The menu calls them “Oklahoma Sausages,” providing a clue that the style of barbecue at Mable’s originated in the Sooner State.
Now for the less satisfactory stuff. With the same price tab, the pulled pork arrives as a massive wad of shredded meat already mixed with the aforementioned sauce, making it as sticky as an armpit on a summer day. And I’m still on the fence about the pork ribs: Though nicely cooked and tender, they’ve been brushed with barbecue sauce prior to serving, depriving you of your barbecue Free Will. Still, the brushing is often done sparingly, so the sauce’s negative effects are partly neutralized. And that’s the extent of the barbecue menu. All meats come generously furnished with sliced white bread, pickles, raw onions, jalapeños, and a soupy coleslaw. Gosh, I love this place!
At a real barbecue, only vegetarians should care about the sides. Lucky for them, there are some good choices here, plus a meatless sloppy joe that’s OK, but a little too sweet. Mixed with what looks like farina, the corn off the cob is good, and so are the mashed potatoes, especially if you ask them to forgo the ghostly white gravy. The borracho beans (pintos, simply stewed) are the best side, but skip the potato salad, which arrives overburdened with mayo. The bland mac-and-cheese is strictly elbows and Velveeta. Well, maybe that isn’t so bad—this is a barbecue joint, after all.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 13, 2011