It’s something of an urban miracle how quickly NYC has gone from being a barbecue wasteland to a national ‘cue capital. The phenomenon began 20 years ago with the founding of Stick to Your Ribs by Brit hairdresser Robert Pearson in a haunted corner of Queens and proceeded through the establishment of Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Fette Sau, and Mable’s Smokehouse, among a dozen others not quite as good but no less enthusiastic. Danny Meyer’s annual Barbecue Block Party stoked the flames. Although generally tilting at Texas barbecue, our pits have also dabbled in styles as diverse as those of Memphis, Oklahoma, and the Carolinas. But never before has a place focused on Kansas City. Until now.
Queens’s John Brown Smokehouse channels the leader of a Civil War–era slave uprising—who presumably still lies a-molderin’ in his grave, as the song goes. Kansas City might seem like an improbable place for great ‘cue, but it is great, as immortalized by Calvin Trillin in American Fried. With tongue partly in cheek, he calls Arthur Bryant’s the country’s greatest restaurant, smoking spare ribs, brisket, and ham over hickory. He reserves particular praise for the charred edges of the brisket: “The counterman just pushes them over to the side as he slices the beef, and anyone who wants them helps himself. I dream about those burned edges.”
John Brown Smokehouse also prominently features those little blackened pyramids of juicy flavor. This being New York, the ends aren’t free, but rather cost $21 per pound. They’re so rich, a half-pound is plenty for two people. The storefront is located in a working-class neighborhood in Long Island City, in which it’s not unusual to see women dressed head to toe in black burkas propelling down the street. Sandwiched between a used-car lot and an auto-repair shop, the place has only a few tables and is already wildly popular with locals and destination diners on weekend afternoons.
The counter lies in the rear, and behind that a chalkboard with the meats, sides, sandwiches, meat salads, and desserts scrawled upon it. (John Brown is BYOB, so bring your own six-pack of Bud.) How can pit master Josh Brown—Kansas City–born, formerly of Hill Country—smoke so many things at once? From a dizzying array that includes the usual spare ribs, brisket, pulled pork, and chicken, you might also spot turkey, ham, pork belly, lamb sausage, hamburgers, strip steak, pastrami, short ribs, and foie gras.
But let’s stick with the basics first. ‘Cue is available by the pound ($15 to $22) or in generous platters with sides ($12 to $19). Smaller than usual, the pork spare ribs are thinly glossed with a sweet barbecue sauce and fairly smoky. The brisket is a bit leaner than you might like, but tasty nonetheless and rubbed with a spice mixture that surely contains celery seed. Though contrary to the Kansas City style, the pulled pork is the thing to get, a shoulder dragged steaming from the pit and roughly broken up. Add a serving of the no-mayo vinegar slaw and slices of white bread, and you’ve got a perfect Carolina-style pig sandwich.
Among the oddities, the lamb sausage—in a tip of the hat to the sheep-loving neighborhood—is beyond great, and a friend’s toddler daughter went crazy for it one Saturday afternoon. The pastrami is beautiful but dry, while the turkey verges on the subtly wonderful. One afternoon, duck was a disaster—smoked less than an hour, as a French chef might do, and still bloody in the middle. The chicken is much better than smoked chickens usually are, with creamy flesh and a skin not too rubbery. There’s also a selection of sandwiches that substitute barbecue for the usual meats—a BLT featuring smoked pork belly, for example.
Unlike most barbecues, the sides don’t suck. The French fries ($3) are perfect in every way, thin with little swatches of skin; the beans sweet and studded with meat; and the collards flavorful. There’s even a roster of decent desserts, of which the bread pudding is memorable. Like all great barbecues, John Brown tends to be quirky and uneven; you wouldn’t want it any other way and will quickly zone in on the things you like best. For me, it’s the brisket tips, pulled pork, lamb sausage, French fries, and coleslaw. For you, it might be completely different.
Is it time to start talking about the city having its own regional styles of barbecue based on borough? That lamb sausage tells me it is!
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.