A Hamburger Today
Hometown Barbecue Sings the Ballad of Beef Ribs
454 Van Brunt Street (at Reed), Brooklyn, NY 11231 (map); 347-294-4644; hometownbarbque.com
Setting: Massive meatery with a good balance of honky tonk kitsch and genuinely warm design
Service: Order at the counter from a genial meat cutter
Price: About $25 a head for food
Must-Haves: Beef rib, sausage, brisket, lamb belly
Compare To: Mighty Qunn's, BrisketTown, Hill Country
Recommendation: Recommended, editor's pick. Some of the barbecue is better than others, but Hometown's best offerings and generally fun dining experience make it a destination.
One day, Billy Durney decided that beef ribs, the brontosaurs of the barbecue world, weren't big enough. So he made them bigger.
Now he buys them in three-bone sections, removes the middle bone "so no one gets stuck with a small piece," and portions the hunks into two bricks, each weighing more than a pound. He rubs them with salt and pepper, smokes them for 12 to 14 hours, and serves them to customers who realize, with a touch of fear, that their eyes were bigger than their stomachs.
Eating a whole barbecued beef rib is always a hearty challenge, but at Hometown Barbecue, Durney's massive restaurant on the Red Hook waterfront, it's an event unto itself. Should you and your party make your way through an entire rib, you'll have room for little else. Should you give up halfway, you'll be blessed with the makings of a hash of champions.
The rib is a fitting metaphor for Durney's beast of a restaurant. Both are ambitious and daring, a little inconvenient, and entirely rewarding.
Hometown was supposed to open in late 2012, but its location, at the tail end of Van Brunt street where the land fast turns into water, set it square in the sights of Hurricane Sandy. When the sun rose on a devastated Red Hook, Durney could have thrown in the towel. But he and his business partner drained the flood waters, made repairs, and finally opened in the fall of last year. As if daring another storm to cross its path, Hometown remains in its waterfront location, across a parking lot from Fairway.
We paid a visit in its early days and found promise but also some flaws—a lovable down-home setting serving beautiful meat that was short on the seasoning to make it shine. This happens; barbecue restaurants don't so much open as they slowly unfold, and the wait for Hometown has, by and large, paid off.
That Beef Rib ($22/pound) is the single best thing you'll eat there; its thick coat of cracked peppercorns gives way to delicately smoky meat that barely holds itself together, just enough to cling loosely to its bone. The flesh is resoundingly rich, as short ribs always are, but it eats more like a tender steak than a piece of stew meat. It has substance and a point of view on how short ribs should be enjoyed.
Texas-style Brisket ($26/pound) doesn't lag far behind. It's juicy, well-marbled, and seasoned no more than it needs to be, juggling smoke, salt, and pepper but never forgetting its beefy foundation. On one visit it was merely good; on another, it was as delicious as any in New York.
For all of Hometown's bigness—the restaurant sprawls 4,500 square feet over two dining rooms—it's not about bluster. Durney avoids the mistakes of many New York pit masters and doesn't kill his meat with smoke. "Smoke should only be one flavor of barbecue," he points out, and despite his range of rubs and selection of sauces, I get the sense that he prefers his meat to speak for itself.
Perhaps that's why pulled Lamb Belly ($24/pound), washed in its own fat, smacks of a precisely calibrated gaminess, and why the pork Sausage ($16/pound) has such a measured heat beneath its snappy casing. Durney's Jerk Chicken ($8 quarter, $14 half) manages to be subtle but not boring. It plays second fiddle to the red meat, but it's lightly spicy, tender, and—I say this is a compliment—it really does taste like chicken.
Some cuts are better than others—like most New York barbecue joints, the Pulled Pork ($20/pound) and Pork Belly ($26/pound) fall well behind the beef. On repeated visits my shoulder came out dry, with too much fat rendered out to properly lubricate the meat. And experimental dishes like sweet wings and barbecue tacos are only distractions from the smoked meat.
There are forgettable Baby Back Ribs ($15 half rack, $29 whole) too, but fortunately, they're on the way out. They'll be replaced by two options: full spare ribs, which weren't around for me to try, and jerk-rubbed baby backs. The latter are coated in a spicy, ginger-speckled seasoning, smoked for three hours, and then charred under a broiler to blacken the crust. Traditional ribs? No, but they're some tasty hunks of pork.
Hometown's Sides ($4 to $8) stay traditional: there are candy-sweet baked beans, heavily stewed collards, and gooey queso-inflected mac and cheese. I'm most partial to the sweet cornbread and lightly pickled cucumbers, which complement the meat the best and remind you that it's the star of the show.
Well, that's partially true. Hometown's meat can be great, but so is the house it lives in, perhaps the most pleasant barbecue dining room in New York. For all the honky tonk kitsch—a super-sized American flag mural, some meat-themed door handles—it avoids the impersonal persona of a barbecue theme park, instead capturing the roomy splendor of what restaurants must feel like outside of New York's real estate bubble. This is all a crafty illusion, but when Aerosmith hits the stereo, it just feels right.
It better, because Hometown is a schlep to get to. It's as far as possible from the nearest subway and a few blocks south of Van Brunt's restaurant row. But even on a Tuesday night, green cabs circled around the Smith and 9th Street station, and by car, the restaurant is a short metered fare away. Once you're there, its grand scale and friendly counter servers make it feel like a destination worth reaching. Locals look happy too, especially when live music plays on Friday and Saturday nights. Even better, the restaurant is so damn big you can still carry on a conversation while the band goes on.
Should you pay a visit, do so early, especially on prime nights, as the best cuts sell out well before closing. Hometown opens for dinner at 5 p.m. (note: closed Mondays) and may run out of food by 9, though the bar, with solid beer and skippable cocktails, stays open later. Currently the restaurant sells a limited menu of sandwiches during weekend afternoons, but it will soon switch to its full menu from noon onward.
Come busy nights, a line snakes from the meat counter all the way out towards the front door. At first I was worried about getting crowded out, but the restaurant's big enough to take all comers. Like Red Hook itself, Hometown feels like a well-loved, terribly-kept secret, counting down the seconds until the rest of the city realizes it's there.