It’s hard to believe, but before the 1980s there was no real barbecue in New York City. Sure, we had places that served chicken and ribs cooked in gas rotisseries slathered with sweet, tomato-based sauces. Sometimes called "oven barbecue," it was only a beat or two better than something you cooked in your kitchen at home. But though the surface of the product could be crisp and the flesh flavorful, this treatment lacked the smoky savor associated with "real" barbecue. The majority of those gas-fired places are now gone, but half-century-old Royal Rib House in Bed-Stuy is one of the venerable old-timers that still practices this style, and does it well.
The 1980s saw the advent of several new barbecue restaurants that actually slow-cooked their product over hardwood or charcoal for hours on end, imbuing the meat with an intense smokiness. Located in a Soho frame house, Tennessee Mountain specialized in ribs; Brothers Barbecue, a honky-tonk way west on Houston Street, offered multiple meats and barbecue styles; the Upper East Side’s Brother Jimmy’s focused on North Carolina ‘cue; and best of all was Smokey’s, run by two University of Texas alums at 24th and 9th in Chelsea. At Smokey’s you could get great Texas-style pork ribs, though, disappointingly, the beef brisket was only available chopped rather than sliced.
But the real breakthrough came in 1992, when Mod British hairdresser Robert Pearson moved a barbecue that he’d founded in Connecticut down to Long Island City. Soon, the first stop into Queens on the 7 train was disgorging rabid barbecue fans to his place, successively called Stick to Your Ribs, Pearson’s Texas Barbecue, and, when he left the business to his pitmaster and it moved to Jackson Heights, Ranger Texas Barbecue. It persisted there until 2009 — quite a run! Like Brothers Barbecue, Pearson’s menu was eclectic, doing pulled pork barbecue with a vinegary sauce for those who favored the Carolina style, as well as the sliced brisket and beef ribs characteristic of Texas pits. There was no doubt, though, that Texas barbecue was his favorite.
Pearson also believed that a barbecue should reflect its terroir, so he made a few modest improvements of his own, cementing his place in barbecue history. Instead of importing North Texas hot links, Kreuz Market beef sausage, or Georgia sage sausage, he got kielbasy from a Greenpoint butcher. Instead of using hamburger buns or sliced white bread for sandwiches, he deployed tapered rolls from a Portuguese baker in Newark. And these tweaks, plus his fanatic use of hardwood to cook the meat "low and slow," made Stick to Your Ribs the best barbecue the city had yet seen. He eventually spun off a larger branch on the east side of Manhattan, but it soon burned down.
Once Pearson gained a toehold and showed New Yorkers how great barbecue could be, others followed suit. Danny Meyer was early on the bandwagon with his Blue Smoke (2001), pairing his restaurant with a jazz club and showcasing pork ribs in such Midwestern styles as St. Louis and Kansas City. His place definitely had Manhattan attitude: smoked foie gras served with jalapeno jelly was one of the appetizers. It wasn’t bad. About the same time, Meyer and pitmaster Kenny Callaghan originated the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, an annual celebration attracting representatives of 17 or so establishments from around the country, doing much to kindle New York enthusiasm for more and better barbecue.
In the last decade, inspired by all the great barbecue that had gone before, local interest in smoked meat accelerated. Another milestone occurred in 2007, when Hill Country Barbecue Market was founded just off Madison Square by Marc Glosserman, whose grandfather had been mayor of Lockhart, arguably the greatest barbecue town in Texas. His novel goal was to recreate a Lone Star barbecue joint from the ground up, using post oak to smoke the meat, selling it by the pound right at the chopping block, and using butcher paper to wrap it up. The decor of the place made you feel like you were in Texas. And the meat — including cudgel-size beef ribs, fatty brisket, and beef sausages imported from Kreuz Market in Lockhart — often achieved excellence.
But had the city reached barbecue nirvana yet? Not by a long shot. In the last five years, we’ve seen our ‘cue collection improve even further, and not just with the Texas-style, smoke-instead-of-sauce school that largely provided its inspiration. In 2012, videographer Daniel Delaney was doing pop-up brisket feasts in — among other frankly weird places — a graveyard. Later that year he established BrisketTown under the Williamsburg Bridge. Former bodyguard Billy Durney made a pilgrimage to Taylor, Texas, to study smoking under pitmaster Wayne Mueller before starting Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook.
There were a half dozen other seminal barbecue figures during this era, including Houstonian Hugh Mangum, who established Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, then went on to found a barbecue empire that includes a branch in Clifton, New Jersey. Meanwhile Josh Bowen started the politically themed John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City, eventually spinning off another place (now closed) called Alchemy, Texas in the old Ranger Texas Barbecue space in Jackson Heights. His express intention was to smoke things that had never been smoked before. Flying in the face of the city’s mainly Texas-oriented barbecue scene, Texas Tech grad Tyson Ho decided to do the Carolina whole-hog-and-hardwood tradition proud by establishing Arrogant Swine in an obscure corner of Bushwick in 2014.
As our horizons have expanded, New York has become one of the country’s leading barbecue centers, and we can pat ourselves on the back for blazing new barbecue trails on a national stage. While places like Williamsburg’s Fette Sau first astonished us when first opened in 2007 by smoking things like flank steak, pig tails, and the odd cut of lamb, now such wizardry is common. In fact, New York’s own pastrami frequently receives the barbecue treatment these days, and is all the better for it. And the time has long since passed when folks could say "New York City barbecue" with a cynical snicker.
Sietsema’s Five Favorite Barbecue Spots
Mable’s Smokehouse — Texas-style barbecue with a Sooner (Oklahoman) twist; don’t miss the hot links, which are the spicy sausages I enjoyed as a high school student in Dallas. 44 Berry St, Brooklyn, (718) 218-6655
Hill Country Barbecue Market — If I’m homesick for the Austin area, this is where I go. There are pictures of Lockhart all over the walls, and the sausages are imported from Kreuz Market. Don’t miss the fatty brisket. The Brooklyn branch is every bit as good. 30 W 26th St, (212) 255-4544
Hometown Bar-B-Que — The premises channels the spirit of a BBQ in Texas, and the smoked meat (especially the prodigal beef rib) is damn good. As one does in the Lone Star State, go as early as possible for the freshest food. 454 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, (347) 294-4644
Mighty Quinn’s — I love this place, even though it perversely doesn’t offer any potato salad, and the pickles are sweet instead of sour. Never you mind, the brisket sandwich is one of the best barbecue deals on the planet. 103 2nd Ave, (212) 677-3733; other locations
Arrogant Swine —Not without its nutty side (waffles are served instead of bread), the whole-hog ‘cue in the Carolina style is totally solid, and real personality pervades the place. 173 Morgan Ave, Brooklyn, (347) 328-5595