Note: This venue is now closed.
Back of Legends Bar, 71-04 35th Avenue, Jackson Heights, NY, 11372 (at 71st; map); 718-803-8244; facebook.com/AlchemyTexasBBQ
Setting: No-frills back room of an old man bar, more deserving of the title "barbecue joint" than anywhere in NYC
Service: Counter service; friendly
Compare To: John Brown Smokehouse, BrisketTown
Must-Haves: Beef in most forms, pork ribs
Cost: About $20 a head, plus or minus $5
Hours: 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. Barbecue is hit or miss but best early in the night.
The first thing to notice in your average New York barbecue joint is the design. Earth tones. Distressed wood. Painstaking efforts to make the place feel more casual than its position in the ruthless New York restaurant world would suggest.
That's not the case at Alchemy, Texas, a barbecue joint in the back of an old man sports bar in Jackson Heights. The wood's been there for a while. So have the balding men drinking at the bar. I get the impression that the plastic red-checker tablecloths were bought to fancy up the place.
And the 'cue? On a good day, it's up there with some of New York's great smoked meat. On other days it disappoints. As the two-month-old spot settles into a groove with its customers and works through the quirks of its smoker, that success seems likely to improve. In the meantime, go early in the evening. And spring for the beef.
The counter currently occupied by Alchemy isn't new. It used to be the home of Ranger Texas Barbecue, and legendary Pearson before that. Now it's in the hands of Josh Bowen, owner of Queens barbecue leader John Brown Smokehouse. As with John Brown, the best meat is beef. But with a mighty J & R smoker spacious enough to rent out as a room, the meat is more brawny and smoky than anything I've had at the Long Island City restaurant.
Take Alchemy's brisket ($22/pound, all meats available by the 1/4 pound), a fixture on the rotating menu. It boasts an impressive bark and aggressive rub. When it's good, it's exquisite: meltingly tender, with creamy fat, assertively beefy and rich with smoke. The rub on the brisket has a good 20 ingredients, including far-reaching ones like pasilla chili, garam masala, and dried basil. But the brunt of the flavor is all Texas: salt and coarse peppercorns, beef and smoke. Do yourself a favor and ask for the fatty sections. The lean can get dry (more on that below), and as Alchemy doesn't do burnt ends, your fatty brisket will come with a few especially choice bites.
The sames goes for the buttery short ribs ($28/pound), Flintstonian beef ribs ($12/pound), and steak-like prime rib ($28/pound). Each is distinct: the short rib is dense and finely marbled; the beef rib has just the right bite to encourage bone-gnawing; the prime rib is mildly minerally. It's nice to see a New York barbecue joint give beef such a thorough and complementary treatment, and I've found these cuts even more moist than the brisket.
This is the good news. The bad comes down to supply and demand. Alchemy's meat is inconsistent, and there's a wide gap between its best and worst efforts. My first meal, early one night, was my introduction to that brisket looking its very best. On a second trip, later into the night, I ordered all the meat on the menu; it arrived dry as jerky, including some especially cottony chicken ($9/pound) and sausage ($6/pound). A third trip, arriving promptly at 6:30 p.m. (Alchemy opens at 6, closes at 10, and sells out of meat along the way), yielded much better results, such as incredibly porky pork ribs ($12/pound) and peppery chicken wings ($10/pound) that showed just how good smoked chicken can be. Sides ($3) are also mixed: coleslaw is refreshing, crunchy, and sprinkled with chili and celery seeds, but creamed spinach is overcooked and potato salad is over-mayoed.
The successes and failures conform to a pattern; for best results, arrive early when the meat has just come out of the smoker. Andrew Marcus, the honest man who runs the the counter, admits that his meat dries out over the course of the night. He can't cut into a new brisket until he finishes the first one, and the moderate stream of customers isn't fast enough to keep up with the meat overcooking. He's expecting the delivery of a food warmer, which should keep the meat at its best for longer. I'm told credit card processing is also along the way.
So if we want Alchemy to improve its quality and consistency, we owe it our patronage. For Queens residents like me who don't want to wait on long lines in the East Village or Brooklyn just for some barbecue, Alchemy is nothing less than a gift. For everyone else, Alchemy's meat has the potential to grow beyond "good for Queens" to join the city's barbecue dream team.
While it gets there, I'm appreciating its creativity and capacity for invention. Marcus is smoking everything from goat ribs to burgers to avocadoes; they meet mixed results, but signal an enthusiasm for the growth and experimentation John Brown's Bowen envisions. I'm looking forward to that growth, as well as basic improvements like meat that doesn't overcook or sell out halfway through the night. The more we show faith, the better the barbecue has the potential to become.