I was introduced to Bill Durney at this year'ss Big Apple Barbecue Block Party by Wayne Mueller (pit master of the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX) and Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn—an impressive introduction to be sure.
Durney, a former bodyguard to the stars, decided to trade in life under the spotlight for long hours spent nurturing a lonely barbecue pit. To this end he sought out the mentorship of some of the country's most accomplished smokers. He learned the fundamental of Texas-style brisket from the aforementioned Mueller Durney. Time spent with Mike Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in Illinois taught him the way of the pork rib, and Sam Jones of Skylight Inn converted him to the religion of whole hog barbecue.
These disparate styles each find expression at Hometown Barbecue, Durney's newly opened joint in Red Hook Brooklyn. The restaurant was supposed to open last year but was drastically impacted by hurricane Sandy. Nearly 12 months later, it's finally arrived. The restaurant just opened, so we're holding off on final judgments, but here's our impressions from our first visit.
I think I would find the decor at Hometown irksome and pretentious if it was located in Manhattan—the distressed barnyard / juke joint motif doesn't fit the steel and stone of the island—but out here in Red Hook it feels appropriate.
A look at the brisket ($25/pound) suggested all the hallmarks of the best of the Lone Star State: a thick, craggily bark, yielding to succulent ribbons of flesh. A whole brisket from the holding pit displays just the right amount of jiggle promising a juicy, tender experience. The meat had a pronounced beefiness, and some of the more marbled bites evoked prime steak. But it wasn't perfect.
Despite an impressively dark and dense crust, our beef wasn't very smoky. Also, as with all the barbecue I tried on this visit, it was under-salted. This brisket had plenty going for it; it just needed to amped up with more salt and more smoke.
As with the brisket, the structural fundamentals of the short ribs ($19/lb) were solid in terms of crust, juicines,s and tenderness. The meat did not fall off the bone under its own weight but did come away easily when tugged at with a fork or fingers—a positive trait in the context of competition barbecue. And the essential flavor of beef was there, just muted slightly by the lack of seasoning.
The short rib did exhibit slightly more smoke penetration than the brisket, possibly due to its smaller size, but it could have used more.
If the brisket is a homage to Texas, the baby back ribs (half rack $14, full $27) betray Mike Mills' influence on Durney—they have the right amount of firmness, a lovely pink smoke ring, and the inherent sweetness of intercostal meat. it is obvious that Mills taught Durney how to pick the right rack—the ribs had a very generous amount of meat on them, which considering the price is a good thing.
There were some disappointments. The sausage—a custom recipe made for the restaurant, allegedly stuffed with jalapeño and cheddar—had anemic flavor and a flaccid exterior. They'd do better to import the Kreuz sausage you'll find at Hill Country. Sides were also hit and miss: the pickles had a pleasing snap and a subtle spice, and the coleslaw had plenty of crunch and vibrancy. But the potato salad veered towards the stogie and the beans towards the soupy.
It is early days for Hometown Barbecue, and if it seems as if I have been somewhat critical for such a young operation, it is because I sense real potential here. The challenge is the scope of the operation—even at this nascent stage there are long lines forming. My fear is that the menu is a little ambitious, trying to do too much all at once—do we really need seven to eight sides, for example?
That said, the brisket and short ribs, with only some minor tweaking, could hold their own against the best in the city—which I currently think is a toss up between Mighty Quinn's and Brisket Town. And it may be a minor point to many but the sauce, a straight-up Kansas City-style tomato-based affair, is superb, maybe the best I have had in the city.
Note: It was announced today that Hometown will be closed through Thursday to repair yet more flooding damage related to Sandy. Please call ahead to check if they are open.