It was 21 years ago that former London hairdresser Robert Pearson opened Stick to Your Ribs in Long Island City, changing the face of New York barbecue forever. Previously, barbecue here had meant oven-roasted short ribs or pork shoulder coated with gooey red sauce. Restaurateurs claimed clean-air laws prevented them from using real hardwood smoke. Well, by installing a “scrubber” to neutralize the exhaust from his barbecue pit, Pearson proved them wrong. He went on to smoke beef briskets, kielbasas, and pork ribs for eight to 12 hours, Texas-style, with a coating of kosher salt and crushed peppercorns. Sauce—if you felt like you needed it—could be applied afterward.
Gradually, at least a dozen other good or great barbecues followed suit, so that now the city must be accounted one of the country’s ‘cue capitals, up there with Kansas City; Memphis; Lockhart, Texas; Owensboro, Kentucky; and Lexington, North Carolina. And just when we thought we had a solid collection, new pits began popping up. Several have appeared in the past few months, three of them among the best in the city. Counter Culture has reported on Daniel Delaney’s BrisketTown (359 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-701-8909), which obsesses on beef brisket smoked in a trailer located just off Flushing Avenue. Little else is served besides sides, pies, and the occasional pork rib, though Delaney has recently started selling brisket tacos ($4) during daylight hours.
The same fixation on Texas-style brisket is found at Mighty Quinn’s (103 Second Avenue, 212-677-3733), which occupies the former Vandaag space in the East Village and is named after a Bob Dylan song about a charismatic Inuit. If anyone thought you couldn’t open a real barbecue in such a densely populated neighborhood, Quinn’s shows you can. A giant black smoker thrusts into the dining room like an ancient angry god, and you can see the minions of pit master and Houston native Hugh Mangum juggling briskets in the back room. Quinn’s smokes its briskets a whopping 16 to 20 hours, and the fatty meat ($22 per pound) is ceremoniously sliced right in front of you. Meats are finished with a sprinkle of flaky Maldon sea salt—not a bad idea.
The barnlike place also does decent pulled pork, Carolina-style; small, meaty spare ribs with a touch of cumin in the glaze; and beef ribs so big that one easily feeds two people on its morass of blackened meat and jiggly fat. The bone itself will remind you of something Fred tossed to Dino on The Flintstones. The sides? As always with barbecue, who needs ’em? But note that the place serves both mayo- and vinegar-driven coleslaw; each has its advantages in the fat-cutting department. Skip the edamame salad, which belongs at one of the sushi joints up the street. Not only does Mighty Quinn’s sell meats by the pound, it also offers modest single servings of ‘cue in recyclable paper trays at $6.50 to $8.50, with cucumber pickles, pickled peppers, pickled purple onions, and brioche rolls. This is discount barbecue par excellence.
Located near the Gowanus Canal just north of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, in an industrial neighborhood that seems exactly where a great smokehouse ought to be, Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue (433 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-763-2680) is eclectic in its smoky barbecue stylings, a combination it calls Brooklyn Barbecue. The utilitarian space is filled with trestle tables, and wan art lines the walls. The beef brisket is the unfatty half of the cut, so too dry, but the fatty part is coarsely chopped into wonderful and supremely rich burnt ends ($28 per pound). Another selection you can’t live without is chopped pork. It shines in a killer Carolina-style sandwich made on a potato roll ($10). You’ll be asked if you want coleslaw on top as you move past the sides toward the register. The compulsory answer: yes! This classic has never been done so well in the city before.
America’s most ambitious barbecues each enjoy their own quirks, and Fletcher’s is no exception. While many spots avoid poultry due to the rubbery nature of the skin, Fletcher’s embraces it, doing admirable chicken wings (10 for $10). Somehow, flamboyant pit master Matt Fisher has found a way to make the skin taut, if not crisp. Less felicitous is his adaptation of Chinese char siu, the kind of pork found in Chinatown rice shops. It turns out tough, and the accompanying sweet soy sauce doesn’t help. But what the hell—a barbecue without a dud or two is like a great beauty with no birthmark.