My barbecue-buddy in Philadelphia, Jim Arthur, is a Texas-reared ribs-and-brisket aficionado, and a geek for all things related to slow-smoking technology. But Jim, a real artisan, sneered at my suggestion I could get authentic American BBQ in New York; for that, he says, he'd have to take me through the back hills of Texas.
"Terroir is key," he insisted. "You need to ride around until you smell Pin Oak or Pecan burning and look for a place with a roughly equal distribution of beat-up old pickup trucks, late model family cars, and brand new Mercedes-Benz in the parking lot - the surest indicator of good local BBQ."
Around the same time, Thomas O. Ryder (the Louisiana-born board director of Amazon.com) and his son, Rob (founder of Connecticut's BBQ joint, The Cookhouse) asked me to join them as they "tested the tensile strength" of their shirts hitting five BBQ joints in New York City. I jumped at the invite, not least because I could finally ascertain if Arthur's dismissal of New York's BBQ scene was warranted. So, here's my take on the evening out in New York with the Ryder Boys.
Unusual-sounding dishes on the menu created great excitement before deep disappointment settled in. The most successful and creative ideas were the Szechwan Smoked Duck, a lacquered duck that was particularly good as a left-over the next day, and a bacon sandwich with fried green tomatoes. The fried pork bellies were so over salted they were inedible, and the dry ribs almost bland until I finally hit a clump of dry-rub. So great ideas badly executed. Tom had to get up and have a word with the bartender when they brought him a sissy-ass thimble of bourbon. The surprise: Tom made us eat the deep fried Oreo Cookie in batter, and I groaned at the thought, but the Ryder Boys must have been doing their voodoo on me, because I found it pasty and tasty and deliciously artery-clogging. rubbbq.net
Found it hard to figure the prices on the menu, and the tables in the back resembled the canteen of a sheet metal factory, but the BBQ was a blow-out. Big hits were the Oklahoma Jumbo Beef Rib and the Kansas City Sweet & Sticky Pork Ribs, both gooey and tender. The Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs was so-so, but sides like Golden Spicy Corn Bread and Collard Greens slid down the gullet real easy. For quality, down home BBQ, my top pick up the night. But do not go for the atmosphere. Non-existent. daisymaysbbq.com
Big and rowdy tables, nice staff. You eat your meat, Texas-style, off of butcher paper. I loved the roll of paper towels at the table - nice touch. Best of all was the center pit, where you had to get in line to order your food. The cook slicing the brisket was a big guy with a basso profundo laugh. Highly entertaining. Tom and him got into a thing where Tom would yell distracting "64″, "29″ during the placement of orders. The cook thought his was such a hoot he rewarded us with a row of fatty and lean brisket, and a pink-meat end-piece that Rob explained was the tail of the brisket, just as it slides into the Prime Rib. Loved that; very delicate flavor. The pork ribs and sides were, we decided, pretty second rate. So fun place and tasty brisket but stay away from most everything else. hillcountryny.com
Easily the best all-round BBQ joint in New York. Every little detail has been meticulously thought out and elevated into something East Coast urbane by fabled restaurateur Danny Meyer. The barbecue potato chips, for example, came with a blue-cheese and bacon dip, that was not nasty-mayonnaisy, but touched by sour cream and butter milk. We had fried pork bellies here, too, and it was the dusting of Asian Five Spices that took this simple dish somewhere else. My only quibble: on a previous visit the Texas Salt & Pepper dry-rub ribs arrived at my table a tad dried out. This evening's Kansas City ribs were undeniably juicy and delicious, but marred slightly by a last minute dip in sauce during the heating-up finish, which made them arrive at the table a little sick-gooey. bluesmoke.com
Must defer to my betters here. While I made it there, and liked the sophisticated ambiance, I had to leave before the food arrived to catch my train home. Tom said it was a let-down after Blue Smoke. His note to me the following morning: "Good idea of bacon app flawed by salt like Rub. Can't remember anything else." brguestrestaurants.com/restaurants/wildwood_bbq/
So, other than Daisy May's BBQ, which I think would have passed even Arthur's sniff-test, I had to generally confirm his worst suspicions about NY's BBQ scene. Still, purists who insist on eating only Texas-Memphis-Kansas will be missing a treat if they bypass New York's "terroir." At Blue Smoke, they certainly serve what is sneeringly called "East Coast BBQ," with every classic dish given an urbane twist, but it was no less tasty for that.
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