Mable's Smokehouse and Banquet Hall
44 Berry Street, Brooklyn NY 11211 (map); 718-218-6655; mablessmokehouse.com
Service: Prompt and friendly
Setting: Large, casual barbecue and bar
Must-Haves: Brisket sandwich
Cost: $10-15/person is plenty of food
This didn't start as a battle of Brooklyn barbecue; this started as a review of Mable's Smokehouse and Banquet Hall, the newest barbecue joint to grace Williamsburg. But after a meal at Mable's, we had to see how its closest competitor, Fette Sau, stacked up.
Mable's Smokehouse is the work of Jeff Lutonsky, formerly an artist, and his wife Meghan Love; she's from Kentucky, he's from Oklahoma, and their barbecue joint is not only named for his grandmother, but working from some of her recipes (including her barbecue sauce). From their Southern Pride smoker, Mable's is serving a short but classic 'cue menu: pulled pork and brisket and ribs, baked beans and potato salad and collards. (Plus Queso Dip and Frito Pie.)
Everything we tasted at Mable's was homey, sweet, and reverential; absolutely satisfying in that barbecue joint way. The food was earnest and well-meaning, and some of it quite tasty. Lutonsky wants you like his food, and you probably will, in spite of several shortcomings.
We tried out two bar snacks, starting with a Frito pie ($5.00) with the Fritos served spilling out of their bag (as they do in Texas), smothered in a spicy, sloppy joe-like mixture. The queso dip ($5.00) was tasty enough, but certainly not revelatory in any way. Both items are perfectly satisfying in drinking-beer-and-hanging-out-with-friends sense. (It helps that Mable's has an impressively cheap happy hour. $9 for a Frito pie, a can of beer, and a shot is a great use of $9, as far as we're concerned.)
The smoked meats and sandwiches are slathered in a sweet sauce that obscured the meaty, smoky taste of the meat. I have been to a few barbecue joints in Tulsa, and they too emphasized the sauce, way more than central Texas barbecue joints do. The best thing we ate was the cubed barbecue brisket sandwich ($9.95), made with the fatty end of the brisket. Served on a hamburger bun, the brisket was tender, moist, and smoky, although it could have done with less sauce.
The same sauce dominated the pulled pork and the BBQ beans (3 meats, 3 sides and slaw, $27.95). Ribs were tough and decidedly hammy in the way that pork ribs are in Texas and Oklahoma. Sliced brisket made with the first cut, the leaner part, was a little dry and tough; we're not sure that lean brisket should be the default option on a brisket platter. This is the kind of barbecue that, were it served to you at someone's house, you would reflexively ooh and ahh because someone went to a lot of trouble to make the meal. Served at barbecue joint, you wonder about how much of the pitmaster's craft the chef still has to learn.
We found the service efficient and friendly at Mable's (I'm sure it helped that it wasn't very crowded)—in fact, we were served and fed so quickly we had time for a second dinner. That's a logical response to a quick first dinner, right?
The question in our minds was how Mable's Smokehouse compared to its real neighborhood competition: Fette Sau. (The third member of the Williamsburg triumverate, Fatty Cue, is something a bit different; it takes a much more global approach to barbecue, such that a direct comparison wouldn't have made sense.)
So we walked off a few Fritos on our stroll over to Fette Sau.
354 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (map); 718-963-3404; fettesaubbq.com
Service: Great once you get there, but slow
Setting: Open-air space (often packed) with picnic tables for seating
Must-Haves: Lamb belly
Cost: $15 or so per person
Fette Sau was mobbed, its picnic tables overflowing with pork and people, in direct contrast to Mable's relative emptiness, with families and hipsters who all seemed in a celebratory, meat-eating mood.
Twenty minutes after joining the line, we got up front; we ordered the pulled pork and the brisket for direct comparison purposes, along with the best-looking meats and sides: a link of pork sausage, some lamb, belly and loin, and some beans with burnt ends.
The brisket ($16/lb) was properly marbled and nicely smoked, but it was tougher than I would've liked; I don't think it had been smoked long enough. The pulled pork ($16/lb) was really tasty and not as dry as I remembered it, but neither meat would have satisfied me in a good barbecue joint outside New York. The best thing we ate at Fette Sau was the lamb belly. Surrounded by fat, the meat itself was so good, so lamby and smoky and tender enough, we all fought over the quarter pound we ordered. We obviously ordered wrong. Lamb loin tasted like overcooked leg of lamb, the sausage ($4/link) was reasonably juicy, with big cubes of pork fat. Burnt End Baked Beans ($5.25, small) were too sweet.
What conclusions can we draw from our mini-Williamsburg barbecue taste off? Go to Mable's, order a couple of brisket sandwiches, the Frito pie, and some cheap drinks at happy hour, and you will be very happy. At Fette Sau, stick with the specials, the lamb belly in particular; if you're craving pork, the pulled pork will do you fine. And the bar's worth a visit, too.
That said, I do wish there were a barbecue doctor that made house calls—some experienced pitmaster from Elgin or Lockhart. Or really, I have a better idea. Carey Jones recently brought back some sensationally good brisket from a new-ish barbecue joint in Austin, Franklin Barbecue (more on that to come). Let's chip in and have Aaron Franklin fly up here and make some house calls. Barbecue lovers in NYC would be so grateful.