Barbecue in this city has come a long way—just ask Ed, who's lived through it all. These days, even if New York isn't on the level of the country's storied barbecue capitals, it's easier and easier to find a decent plate of smoked meat.
Note that we say decent. Some of that selection is good. But only a small set is what we'd call great. The problem isn't the number of barbecue restaurants we have. It's that the ones we have do too much.
In the absence of any native barbecue culture,* New York's pit masters have had to adapt, drawing from multiple regional styles and offering more cuts of meat than they know what to do with. If we were to point to a problem in New York's nascent barbecue culture, it's that too many restaurants think they need to be one-stop barbecue shops. They overextend themselves beyond their specialties, producing one or two cuts of very good 'cue and a lot more middling meat.
* We're talking barbecue in the slow-smoked meat sense here, hailing from Southern and Midwestern traditions. Caribbean jerk and Chinese char siu—your day will come soon!
For some time now, we've been tossing around the idea of a New York barbecue all star team. What if we could take the best brisket, ribs, and pulled pork from around the city and combine them at one magic meat palace of a restaurant? What would such at team look like? Who'd be there?
After plenty of research, beer-soaked debate, and antacids, we think we have our answer.
The 20-odd cuts below have been selected solely for their inherent and consistent quality—they speak for themselves, not the restaurants from whence they came. Our magical barbecue restaurant leans heavily towards brisket and ribs—pork and beef—with a little pulled pork and some impressive specialty items that speak to the core of New York's potential for barbecue innovation. Do they add up to something we can call a real barbecue culture? Maybe not. And it's entirely possible New York will never develop one like you'll find in the South and Midwest. But hey, with offerings like these? We won't be going hungry.
If New York has claimed one cut of barbecue as its own, it's brisket. It's the centerpiece of many new menus, and for plenty of New Yorkers it's served as their introduction to barbecue.
Hill Country: For a long time, Hill Country was the sole brisket king in town, with its superbly moist, subtly seasoned point cut. The leaner flat has always been too dry for our tastes; be sure to ask for your brisket "moist." Hill Country's brisket ($23.50/pound) still holds up to some of its newer competition.
Mighty Quinn's: In the words of our man Ed, Mighty Quinn's brisket ($22/pound) is "sustainably raised smoked whole brisket with character and carriage and soul, rubbed with salt, pepper, and a little paprika." As smoked meat goes, it's clean-tasting, not too smoky or overly salted. The fatty cuts are deeply tender, but they hold up to inspection (and sandwiches) without falling apart; the lean end is occasionally dry, so make your requests at the counter accordingly.
BrisketTown: The brisket ($25/pound) at this busy Brooklyn spot is more brash and smoky than what you'll find at Mighty Quinn's. Cracked black pepper is hallmark of the rub, thick and pronounced to develop a substantial, highly seasoned bark. The fall-apart tender meat is deeply, powerfully smoky, but it doesn't carry the sooty aftertaste that mars some of the city's less successful briskets.
Fatty 'Cue (West Village/Brooklyn): The signature aspect of Fatty 'Cue's brisket is its deep and pronounced marbling. An order ($26) comes in heaping slices that are deeply juicy with a fish sauce-tinged bark. The meat has a moderate smokiness, and is the only brisket on this list that's improved by going into a sandwich.
Compared to brisket, ribs in New York have fewer new champions claiming it as their specialty. Most ribs in this city tend towards dry or overly chewy, with an oversalted or oversauced bark that obscures pork's natural sweetness. These don't.
Dinosaur Barbecue (Harlem/Brooklyn): The meaty, porky, saucy-but-not-sauce-slathered St. Louis-style ribs ($26.95/rack) at Dinosaur remain an icon of New York's barbecue scene, and we still love their dense meatiness and mild, restrained glaze. They're more tangy than peppery or hot; crowd-pleasers every barbecue fan can get behind.
BrisketTown: We like the ribs ($36/rack) at BrisketTown even more than the namesake brisket. They have a coarse black pepper rub similar to the brisket which makes for a pronounced bark, and the meat's thick smoke ring shows off its deep flavor. Give a gentle tug and the meat slips off the bone—tender, but not slumpy or overcooked.
Mighty Quinn's: Though pork plays second fiddle to beef at Mighty Quinn's, the ribs ($23/rack) are still among the best in the city. We love them for their honest porky flavor—the flesh of Berkshire hogs enhanced, not overwhelmed, by smoke.
Here is where New York barbecue comes into its own. Several of New York's pit masters have embraced beef ribs to make some of the tastiest barbecue bites in town. You'll find them in two styles: massive Flintstones-style lengths of rib, meal and trophy all in one, and short ribs, cut across the bone into smaller, but still Herculean chunks.
Blue Smoke: With little more than salt, pepper, and smoke, these majestically beefy short ribs ($28/pound) are a benchmark for barbecued beef in New York. Short ribs have some of the greatest concentrations of connective tissue on the cow, and pit master Kenny Callahan turns every last ounce of it into a lipsmacking piece of beef.
Alchemy, Texas: This Jackson Heights newcomer has a way with beef thanks to its peppery, spicy rubs and massive J & R smoker. Though consistency is still an issue here, if you arrive close to opening around 6 p.m. you can treat yourself to some of the best beef in Queens. The short ribs ($28/pound) are thick, dense, and impressively buttery. The long beef rib ($12/pound) has less meaty yield and a little more chewiness for those who like a firmer rib.
Mighty Quinn's: Like at Alchemy, the beef rib ($23) at Mighty Quinn's delivers even more beefy flavor than the brisket. It's firm but not tough: a knife makes short work of things. Mighty Quinn's makes a number of showings on this list, but this item may be the restaurant's single greatest takeaway.
Wildwood Barbecue: We can't say we're overall fans of this Union Square/Flatiron spot, but their beef rib ($25) is a fine piece of work. It's rich with marbled fat, well seasoned, and has a pleasantly crusty bark that picks up nutty notes from the smoke. You shouldn't order beef ribs without expecting something rich; if you do, this delivers.
We wish it weren't so, but New York is just not a pulled pork town. But there's one commendable rendition we're consistently happy with. You guessed it, it comes from...
Mighty Quinn's: This is the fall-apart tender stuff ($18.75/pound) we'd like to see more of in New York. These shoulders are juicy like porky water balloons, and their thick, crisply seasoned bark is worth the line for entry alone. So don't be afraid to ask for plenty of bark in your portion.
Chicken is a hard meat to smoke under the best of circumstances, and only a small handful of New York restaurants get it right at all. For the most part: think small—go for wings.
Dinosaur Barbecue (Harlem/Brooklyn): The "wango tango" hot wings ($13.95 for 13) at Dinosaur are dry rubbed, then smoked for two hours, imbuing them with deep smoky and spicy flavors. They're large enough to consider pieces of barbecue chicken, but they keep to the skin-fat-meat ratio that makes for great wings. A light glaze-like sauce doesn't sog up the skin.
Hill Country: Hill country's small game hens ($9.50/pound) are a bright spot in this barbecue chicken-deprived city. They're small enough to stay tender and juicy even after their long smoke, and the subtle peppery dry rub contributes considerable flavor. But perhaps even better is a special order (only available Wednesdays after 5 p.m.) of wings ($9 for 10) that spend a leisurely afternoon in Hill Country's smoker. They're smaller than Dinosaur's wings so you get more of that rub in each bite, and they're one of the better things you could do with a chicken.
Though New York is lacking in credible mainstays like sausage, it's taken well to other specialties: burnt ends, bellies, heads, and more.
Burnt Ends at John Brown Smokehouse: John Brown's big claim to fame is their Kansas City-style burnt ends ($24/pound), the fatty parts of the smoked brisket that are tossed with additional spices and smoked again. Here they spend about 15 hours in the smoker turning into crunchy-tender nuggets of sweet, beefy candy. They're incredibly rich—fatty pork belly rich—but also habit-forming. If you're seeking burnt ends at the actual John Brown, not our fantasy restaurant, get there early in the day—these sell out fast.
Half Pig's Head at Fatty 'Cue (Brooklyn Only): You'd be wise to reserve this item ($32) in advance, as it's the closest you can get to small-format whole hog in this city. The burnished, crunchy skin is best mixed in with the tender, gelatin-rich meat. Accompanying steamed buns strictly optional.
Specials at Fette Sau: Fette Sau may not wow us, but we've had some great luck with their specials. Lamb belly and pork cheeks have both been impressively fatty and flavorful with a clean smokiness that shuns the need for barbecue sauce. Call ahead to see if the specials are to your liking.
Anything We Missed?
In our quest to assemble this all star barbecue team, we tried to be as comprehensive possible. But there's always more out there, so if there's something we overlooked, or an item that should go on our checklist, let us know.