When I wrote in January that New York ‘cue is now among the best in the country, I meant it. But the backlash was swift. And harsh. @Underexposure tweeted: “. . . pit masters and BBQ devotees across Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City & Memphis all roll their eyes in unison.” Barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn groused to the Houston Press, “They get a few joints with a decent brisket, and now NYC is a BBQ capital?” Even New Yorkers didn’t believe me. Meat man Josh Ozersky snorted on Twitter, “What that dope doesn’t know about barbecue could fill volumes.”
Ever since my college days in Texas, I’ve obsessed over tracking down the country’s greatest barbecues, logging thousands of miles to check out obscure pits in places like Paducah, Kentucky, and Hemingway, South Carolina. I’ve published maybe 75,000 words on the subject, including an eight-part series titled “Great Barbecues of Texas” for the Voice‘s food blog, Fork in the Road. I may have been born in Michigan, but when it comes to barbecue, I know what the hell I’m talking about.
And while it’s taken a quarter century to get our act together, New York isn’t playing either: We have developed a fantastic collection of pits. These tend to be inspired by Texas barbecue, which arose from the black-dirt farm country east of Austin—German immigrant towns where barbecue first bloomed around 1900; we even have one place (Hill Country Barbecue Market) trying to replicate the output of a single pit, the one at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. What we lack in regional DNA, we make up for in our range—and the fact that we are finally starting to get it right. New York can offer up the full gamut of ‘cue, from the St. Louis style at Blue Smoke (and the now-defunct R.U.B.) to Oklahoma (Mable’s Smokehouse), Kansas City (John Brown Smokehouse), Memphis (Neely’s Barbecue Parlor, Virgil’s Real Barbecue), North Carolina (Brother Jimmy’s BBQ), and even Syracuse, New York, an unlikely barbecue destination if ever there was one (Dinosaur Bar-B-Que).
True, barbecue doesn’t come naturally to New Yorkers, and our relationship with it has always been a bit rocky. It began, improbably, with a hairdresser from London. Robert Pearson went to the Texas capital to teach mod hairstyles to beauticians in the 1980s, and came back inspired enough to found Stick to Your Ribs in Connecticut, moving to Long Island City in 1992. With its emphasis on smoking slowly over real hardwoods with low, indirect heat, Stick to Your Ribs became the city’s first serious BBQ. In his former warehouse near the mouth of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, Pearson de-emphasized sauce—though he offered four, with heat levels ranging from mild to “mean”—to highlight the smoky taste of the meat. As he told The New York Times in 1988, “People miss the point. They ask for extra sauce. Sauce is the accompaniment, not the thing of interest.”
Much more recently, Daniel Delaney was similarly transported at a 2010 food festival in New Orleans by the brisket of Wayne Mueller (pitmaster of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas). “It redefined barbecue for me,” he wrote later. “I had no clue anything smoked for so long could taste so good.” Delaney made his own pilgrimage to central Texas, and returned dragging an 18-foot smoker behind a U-Haul. He first used it to barbecue beef for Brisket Lab, a series of 31 pop-up feasts in the summer of 2012, which materialized, among other places, in a church in Greenpoint, on the roof of the Gizmodo headquarters on the Lower East Side, and in a Dutch cemetery in Flatbush. Now, he peddles his way-smoky brisket at BrisketTown, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge.
Danny Meyer had a hand in our BBQ surge, too, when he opened Blue Smoke 11 years ago—splicing a barbecue joint to a jazz club for what might be the first time outside Memphis. Now he’s selling authentic Kansas City ribs at the Citi Field home of the Mets and in Battery Park City, too, which is something of a culinary miracle. And his pitmaster and founding partner Kenny Callaghan has shown unswerving fidelity to using real hardwood in his smokers.
Meyer and Callaghan also started the popular Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, an annual summer event that brings prominent maestros from all over the country to Madison Square, where they play to legions of meat lovers. And just last year, Hill Country hosted modern Austin barbecue auteur Aaron Franklin. He imported the technique of smoking brisket longer than even old-time Texas places do it—a whopping 15 hours or more. Gotham ‘cue-masters have imitated the practice, and now our briskets couldn’t get any smokier. I asked Franklin if he’d ever thought of opening a place in New York City. “No, it’s way too much trouble up here,” he replied with a laugh. “You’ve got to import the wood, and do things on such a big scale.”
Barbecue never sleeps. It is continually evolving. And the country’s greatest pits have always been defined by their quirks. In our innocence of ‘cue—in the absence of our own traditions—New York was able to absorb the outside influences, helped along by a small cadre of tong-wielding fanatics. We bow to no one. Even if our black dirt is just rat shit.
Here are 10 things that give our (emerging) tradition its character:
1. Beyond baby back. Mighty Quinn’s does a beef rib as big as an Irish shillelagh in Gangs of New York. Fatty and blackened, it sails in still on the bone. In Texas, only Louie Mueller’s and the County Line chain do a rib that approaches it in size, while most barbecue joints use pork ribs. Blue Smoke, Fette Sau, Wildwood Barbeque, and Daisy May’s BBQ do giant beef ribs, too. Everything’s bigger in New York.
2. Leaning in to Lamb. With the exception of places in Llano, Texas, and Owensboro, Kentucky, where joints smoke lamb and mutton, respectively, most barbecues stick to pork and beef, with an occasional nod to chicken. Inspired by the Middle Eastern presence in its Long Island City neighborhood, John Brown Smokehouse tosses slender lamb sausages into the pit, tapping the real Queens terroir.
3. Brisket-obsessed. Daniel Delaney isn’t the only one in New York to elevate brisket to his No. 1 meat, as he does at BrisketTown. Robert Pearson did it long ago at Stick to Your Ribs, and the tradition continues at Ranger Texas Barbecue. Born into a Texas family, Hugh Mangum has made it the centerpiece of his menu at Mighty Quinn’s, and brisket is front and center on about half the menus in town.
4. Link bait. New York barbecues have long realized the importance of sausages. Hill Country actually imports its beef sausages from its Lockhart mentor, Kreuz Market. For a time, Mable’s Smokehouse imported their bright red hot links from Oklahoma, and it’s been known to do the occasional alligator-venison number. But most NYC barbecues have stayed local: Pearson used kielbasa at Stick to Your Ribs and hot Italian is the link of choice at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue. “We tried Texas hot links,” says pitmaster Matt Fisher, “and thought about kielbasa, but spicy Italian sausage just fit much better with our Brooklyn-barbecue theme.”
5. Fearless about Chicken. Hill Country is the first barbecue to offer beer-can chicken, not normally a barbecue option in Lockhart or anywhere else, while Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue and the Smoke Joint do wings with a nice smoky flavor—all attempts to solve the rubber-skin chicken problem that makes many venerable pits avoid poultry. Channeling the great Jamaican jerk parlors of Flatbush, Wildwood Barbeque does crisp-skinned jerk chicken wings with a lingering burn.
6. Embracing our french side. Slices of white bread, spongy and anemic, are still served in Texas barbecues. Pearson kicked it up a notch with torpedo-shaped Portuguese rolls at Stick to Your Ribs. But Mighty Quinn’s went to the gloriously effete extreme of laying out their sandwiches on brioche rolls. “The combination of the buttery bread and the fatty brisket really worked for me,” Mangum told me recently. Other parlors in town freestyle tiny potato rolls (Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue), thick Texas toasts (John Brown Smokehouse), or no bread at all.
7. Less god, more beer. You’re lucky if you can get a beer in some Texas barbecues, which are often located in dry counties. Many North Carolina barbecues don’t sell beer for religious reasons. New Yorkers, unsurprisingly, don’t let God interfere with their drinking, and places like Fette Sau and John Brown Smokehouse deliver lots of craft beers on tap.
8. And whiskey. If mere beer won’t get you where you need to go, Astoria newcomer Strand Smokehouse offers whiskey drawn from giant kegs. Fette Sau champions American whiskeys, too, while Neely’s Barbecue Parlor and Fort Reno Provisions offer fancy mixed drinks. Hill Country hosts karaoke with a live band in the basement.
9. Nose-to-tail smokin’. New York pitmasters are experimentalists in a way that Kansas City’s, say, are not. Fette Sau toys with pig cheeks, chops, and belly; at one time it even played around with pig tails. John Brown Smokehouse does pork belly, too, jamming it into a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and mayo and calling it the PBLT. Fletcher’s smokes Chinese char siu pork, and produces an amazing facsimile of a North Carolina pulled pork sandwich, complete with vinegar slaw. Brother Jimmy’s does great Brunswick stew, the thick leftover barbecue soup from North Carolina and Virginia. Fort Reno Povisions layers BBQ and sides into a parfait called a “hot mess.”
10. ‘Cue meets jew. The proximity of great delis like Katz’s and Second Avenue Deli has been an irresistible force for NYC barbecuers. Fette Sau was the first place to attempt pastrami, but John Brown Smokehouse and Strand Smokehouse have followed suit.
Yes, Gotham has the most varied collection of barbecues in the country—something we can be very proud of. And now if we could get more Carolina ‘cue (lots of places here attempt it, but with little success), and maybe some from northern Kentucky, we’d be completely happy. And if it came with a nice Barolo, we’d be in heaven.