A Hamburger Today
Mighty Quinn's: Has NYC Barbecue Come of Age?
103 2nd Avenue New York, NY 10003 (b/n 6th and 7th; map); 212-677-3733; mightyquinnsbbq.com
Service: Extremely friendly and accommodating
Setting: Clean, bright space with counter service, devoid of the typical barbecue artifacts
Must-Haves: Brisket, Beef Rib, Pulled Pork, Beans with Burnt Ends
Cost: About $15 per person for food; a smart beer list hovers around $6 or $7 per drink
Until Mighty Quinn's opened its doors, here are the words I would use to describe the better barbecue joints in town: sincere, well-meaning, tasty, digitally derived from copious sampling across the country, deferential, and stylistically derivative. Most people would come out of any one of a half-dozen cue joints in town and say, "Hey, that was good barbecue, for New York." It'd be the culinary equivalent of damning with faint praise.
I first tasted Hugh Mangum's barbecue at Smorgasburg, where he invariably has the longest line. I arrived when the market opened, so there was no line yet. I walked up to the table where Mangum had placed a pork butt and a whole brisket. I could tell from just looking at the meat, and seeing the look in Mangum's eyes, that his barbecue was going to be serious.
And it was. Smoky, but not overly so, with a lovely black bark and a quarter inch red smoke ring underneath. Both the brisket and the pork, I noted back then, were probably the best being made in the five boroughs. (I later found out that at that time he was smoking all his meat in Pennsylvania.)
I could tell then that I was in the presence of a barbecue and food obsessive, and one with chops to boot. I later found out that Mangum was a 2001 FCI grad who cooked in serious restaurants here (Nougatine and Union Pacific) and in Bucks County for ten years. Before that he was a rock drummer for ten years (in bands like Maypole and Enemy, who toured with bands like the Wallflowers) living in Los Angeles who made barbecue on the weekends with his Texas-born father. Now that's what I call a serious Serious Eats pedigree.
Mangum told me back then he was looking for a space for a bricks and mortar restaurant in NYC, and he found one in the old Vandaag space. I wondered if he could keep up his high standards under the pressure of a larger restaurant, and based on five visits, the answer is yes. With one or two exceptions, Mangum's barbecue* will now be the standard by which all other barbecue here is judged.
* Which you can also find through the end of the month at Whole Foods' Smorgasburg section at their Bowery location.
Mangum and his partners did not barbecueify the space too much: there are no filling station artifacts, no pictures of famous barbecue joints, no signature visuals at all.
It's a simple space painted black with a few small tables and a longer one. To the side is the ordering line, and to the left is the all-wood smoker Mangum used. If you walk all the way to the back, you'll see many raw cuts of meat waiting for Mangum's minimalist treatment: just a salt and pepper rub before entering the smoker. Upstairs is an office where Mangum spends at least three nights a week tending to the meat (the briskets cook for 16-22 hours). As he told me, "There's always a high ratio of masochism to good food."
When you get on that line, you will of course want to get the brisket ($8.50/sandwich; $22/pound) for all the reasons I outlined above. This is sustainably raised smoked whole brisket with character and carriage and soul, rubbed with salt, pepper, and a little paprika. Maybe that's because, according to Mangum, his briskets talk to him. "I touch them, and they say '30 minutes more.'" Do request the fattier half of the brisket, which the polite cutters are happy to do, because the leaner, first-cut of the brisket can on occasion be dry.
But you should not stop there when it comes to beef. Perhaps even better than the brisket is his whole beef rib ($23/rib), which looks like it must have come from the dinosaur collection of Museum of Natural History. It is tender and juicy with just enough chew to require a knife. It might become Mangum's contribution to the canon of great pieces of barbecue. Just a few pitmasters make beef ribs, and Mangum does them so very well. It is not cheap, but take one bite and you'll stop worrying about the price.
There are ribs ($8.71/three-four ribs; $23/rack), which are merely very, very good, with great porky flavor. The pulled pork ($7.25/sandwich; $18.75/pound) is phenomenal. Be bold and ask for as much outside meat as possible. The flavor in that bark is irresistible. In general this is pork that tastes like pork, which is not surprising given that it comes from Berkshire hogs.
The two weakest links among the meats were the half chicken ($8.50), which Mangum mentioned is a work in progress, and the sausage ($7.25/sandwich; $12/pound). The chicken meat is tender and juicy and moist (even the breast), but it doesn't have much smoky flavor, and the flaccid skin lacks crunch. Mangum says he needs a grill to crisp the skin, and he hopes the community board will approve a grill's installation.
The sausage tastes like a solid sweet fennel sausage that you could get at your local pork store and grill in the summer. May I be so bold to suggest that Mangum get the good folks at Southside Market to ship up their beef and pork Elgin-style sausage, which is so juicy that it spurts with every bite. They have a federally inspected plant, so it would be possible, and if it were to happen, I would dance a barbecue jig.
The sides ($3 small, $5.75 medium, $11.25 large) are where you see Mangum's chef chops. The three bean salad, made with al dente edamame, sweet peas, and sugar snap peas, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and mint, in just acidic enough Sherry lemon vinaigrette, could be served in the front room at Gramercy Tavern. That's how complex and balanced the flavors are. The beans with burnt ends, made with white beans, black-eyed peas, Nueske's bacon, and a whole lot of burnt ends, could be a meal in themselves. The sweet potatoes with a brown sugar pecan topping are unsurprisingly sweet but kind of addictive as well. Two kinds of cole slaw, one made with vinegar, the other made with vinegar and mayo, are both very solid but definitely not revelatory.
Even with the chicken-in-progess, Mighty Quinn's is setting a new standard for barbecue in this city. Briskettown in Williamsburg is also helping to raise that bar, but Daniel Delaney's very good brisket is less consistent and over-smoked to my taste. Hugh Mangum is serving seriously delicious meat born of passion, knowledge, experience, and chops, that would be considered first-rate anywhere it's served, in Texas or NC or Kansas City. It's the first barbecue joint that doesn't require the "for New York" qualifier. It's real barbecue from New York, of New York, and by New Yorkers. That's cause for celebration.