Apps Only: Char No. 4

Apps Only

Seeking out the best bites for under $15 a head.

Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget. He blogs at Ben Cooks Everything.

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Smoked brisket sandwich with pickled cabbage and beer cheese, side of borracho beans. [Photo: Robyn Lee]

Char No. 4 is a restaurant and bar on Smith Street that specializes in barbecue. But don't go to expecting enormous piles of meat served at picnic tables—the sleek dining room looks more fine dining than down home, and the menu is full of thoughtful revisions of barbecue classics. The bar features literally hundreds of whiskeys by the glass, and that menu is stacked with snacks and appetizers.

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Smoked and fried pork nuggets.

We had no choice but to start with the Smoked and Fried Pork Nuggets ($4), five bite-sized balls of finely ground pork served with Char No. 4's own hot sauce. The nuggets were fatty and smokey sweet, and while I could have eaten more of them, they were rich enough that I was glad I hadn't. We followed them with the Crispy Cheddar Curds ($7), rubbery bits of cheddar battered and deep-fried until soft and melty. They were served with a slightly spicy mayo-based pimento sauce, bursting with roasted pepper flavor. These were certainly a step up from your run-of-the-mill mozzarella sticks; by using curds, the kitchen at Char No. 4 makes sure that the cheese can get melty without getting messy, and as the dish cools at the table the cheese bits begin to take on a more toothsome quality that I liked even better than when they were piping hot.

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Crispy cheese curds with pimento sauce.

The Thick Cut Bacon ($11), two slices of practically half-inch thick bacon, is smoked in-house, served over marinated mushrooms and sprinkled with thyme. The mushrooms were delicious, almost pickled, and the thyme added an earthy flavor to the bacon, which, let's not kid ourselves, was the star of the show. While the bacon was good, I'm not sure I'd recommend this dish for those dining on a budget; when you're trying to keep the bill down, eleven bucks is pretty steep for two slices of bacon, even bacon cut this thick.

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Thick cut bacon.

We also dipped into the sides menu. Wanting to remember what a vegetable tasted like, we ordered the Baby Beets with Arugula Walnut Pesto ($8). This dish was very good, refreshing and served at room temperature. I was hoping for more punch from the arugula pesto, which was surprisingly mild.

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Baby beets with arugula walnut pesto.

The Bacon Jalapeno Cornbread ($4) was one of the best cornbreads I've had in the city. We could see the flecks of jalapeno but barely tasted them. That was fine, because the bacony flavor was spread throughout and present in every bite. This came served with honey butter, which was sweet and salty and added another layer of flavor to the cornbread. That honey butter could be spread on a sock and enjoyed as a fine breakfast.

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Jalapeno bacon cornbread.

Still wanting to try some of Char No. 4's barbecued meat offerings, we decided to split the House Smoked Brisket Sandwich ($12), paper thin slices of tender beef piled on a kaiser roll with pickled cabbage and beer cheese. The meat was smoky, with crispy bits around the edges of the sandwich adding a bit of crunch to the gravy soaked bread. I couldn't really taste the beer cheese, but as a whole, the sandwich worked. It came with a side of borracho beans, red beans cooked with beer and bacon—probably the best value of our meal.

Everything we ate at Char No. 4 was mighty tasty, and the pork nuggets are one of the best bar snacks this city has to offer. When you think barbecue, you may think overflowing plates of meat and heavy vegetable sides, but the kitchen here eschews that style in favor of modest serving sizes and simple preparations that pay homage to classic American barbecue rather than trying to recreate it. It was a bit of a challenge to put together a whole meal at our $15/person target price, and we did not leave stuffed. But for $46 between the three of us before tax and tip, we weren't disappointed by any stretch.

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Char No. 4

196 Smith Street, New York NY 11201 (map) 718-643-2106
charno4.com