With barbecue joints seemingly sprouting up on every corner these days in New York, it's easy to forget what a barbecue wilderness Gotham was for so many years.
When I arrived in New York in 1973, there was precious little real barbecue, slow-smoked meat cooked with indirect heat. Even by the late '80s our barbecue options here were limited to Smokey's on Ninth Avenue (for North Carolina barbecue), Stick to Your Ribs in Queens, and Tennessee Mountain Home in SoHo.
225 Park Avenue South, New York NY 10003 (at 18th Street; map)
Must-Haves: Brisket, short ribs, beans, cornbread, salt and vinegar potato chips
What You'll Spend: $30 and up (not including alcohol) for dinner
The barbecue game-changers in our town were Virgil's in Times Square and Blue Smoke in the Flatiron District, both opened by respected restaurateurs (the late Artie Cutler, and Danny Meyer, respectively). Following those in short order were Daisy May's, the first chef-driven barbecue joint in New York (Daniel and Le Cirque veteran Adam Perry Lang), R.U.B. (Paul Kirk), with its Kansas City–influenced style; and Hill Country, which harkened to Smokey's with its dedication to a single regional barbecue style (in its case, central Texas's German butcher–derived 'cue). Hill Country (Robbie Richter and Big Lou Elrose) and Daisy May's were also the first barbecue joints manned by competition pit masters who honed their barbecue skills on the national 'cue competition circuit.
Now comes Wildwood BBQ, which brings together the talents of an interesting trio: megasuccessful, commercially oriented restaurateur Steve Hanson, the aforementioned pit master Elrose, and uber restaurant designer David Rockwell. Hanson has made it clear that he hopes to roll out Wildwood nationally in the next year, bringing his pan-regional, urbane-but-not-fancy-pants barbecue concept to a city near you. But barbecue is tricky business, serious eaters, and does not easily translate to multiple locations, so I was curious as to what I would find at Wildwood.
Wildwood is in a post-modern industrialized space that Rockwell has transformed into a comfortable, welcoming restaurant that is simultaneously futuristic and rooted in barbecue-joint tradition. An extremely friendly waitstaff takes your order.
Starters, which are not really necessary from your stomach's point of view, include a smokey, meaty chili made with shards of smoked brisket ($8.25), which is a tad too sweet; two kinds of wings ($8.95; get the dry-rubbed); and "bottle caps" ($5.25), beer-battered jalapeño poppers, which were tasty-enough generic puffs of fried matter.
Big Lou's brisket is phenomenal, as good as, if not better than, Hill Country's incredibly delicious moist brisket. Here the meat is a little drier, a little less fatty, but still plenty moist, and it literally explodes with beefy, smokey flavor. You should get the brisket as a platter ($11.50) or in an incredibly messy but delicious creation called the Wild Park Brisket Sandwich ($10.95), which has provolone, onion rings, and coleslaw on top of the brisket. It sounds like it would be awful; rest assured, it is not.
What might be even better is the Beef Short Rib ($19.95), which the kitchen will slice at your request. (Do so.) This beef is even more deeply flavored than the brisket because it's so ridiculously marbled that it tastes like Kobe beef.
Wildwood's three kinds of ribs range from the surprising Denver lamb ribs ($21.50), very lamby and progressively leaner each time I ordered them, to the predictable "wet" baby backs, which have a sweet--maybe too sweet--baked-on and not-very-spicy chipotle raspberry barbecue sauce, to the regular-sized pork ribs, which are certainly meaty and have the same German butcher–derived taste as Hill Country's.
All-natural smoked chicken (all the meats at Wildwood are all-natural) was mildly smoked but not all that interesting, and the smoked sausage ($8.25) is a surprising kielbasa-like all-pork sausage made by Salumeria Biellese. It tastes fine but nothing like Texas barbecued beef sausage is supposed to taste (order some from Southside Market to discover how great this sausage can be). Pulled-pork shoulder ($9.95) was lackluster, as it is at every barbecue joint in New York.
The sides to get are the cast-iron skillet cornbread ($4.95), sweetened and moistened by creamed corn; the very fine kettle-cooked burnt ends–and-bacon baked beans ($6.95); the addictive housemade salt and vinegar potato chips ($4.95); and the solid old-fashioned creamy cole slaw ($4.95). Mac and cheese ($6.95), described as "crusty," was a pallid crock topped by breadcrumbs.
Desserts ($7) include homemade fluffernutter s'mores with a layer of peanut butter and a slab of moist, rich chocolate layer cake that was a just a touch too sweet.
At its best (brisket, short ribs, beans, chili, wings) Wildwood is as good as barbecue gets in this town, but it lacks consistency. As Big Lou knows, making great barbecue is much harder than it looks, especially in an environmentally sensitive burg like ours, where smoking meat properly is often met with stiff resistance by community boards. But before Hanson takes this show on the road, he owes it to serious eaters everywhere to get the concept down right here at home first.