Twenty-six years after tasty and reasonably authentic wood-burning barbecue hit the city for the first time at Robert Pearson’s Stick To Your Ribs, the cuisine is still going strong. We’ve developed and maintained a collection of solid and dependable pits, about 10 by my estimate, plus lots more middling and mediocre places, while new barbecues continue to pop up. Some of these offer wild innovations, as if barbecue were invented in New York City, while others just try to get by exploiting the popularity.
And now, three new restaurants have debuted almost simultaneously, at three distinct price points. Dickey’s, a chain based in Dallas, has opened a fast-food spot convenient to Barclays Center at the low end, while Randall’s has planted itself in the middle price range on the fertile plain of Lower East Side restaurants. Finally, Holy Ground is not only using premium meats at its subterranean Tribeca cocktail lounge, but charging plenty for them.
Is the extra cash worth it? Or should you simply go to the cheapest place? To find out, I visited all three new barbecues. Here are my thumbnail early reviews.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
What do Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Maricopa, Arizona; and Brooklyn have in common? Each has its own branch of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, that’s what. Founded in 1941, this Dallas-based chain claims to be the largest in the world, with almost 600 locations in 43 states. With our barbecue boom in full swing and Brooklyn the epicenter, it’s not surprising that Dickey’s would look enviously at the borough and pick Barclays Center as the perfect location.
The exterior is unprepossessing and the inside narrow, with a chalkboard mural featuring founder Travis Dickey that suggests a venerable history for the chain — though a big-screen monitor tuned to sports dominates the room. In addition to seven kinds of meat, the menu offers barbecue tacos, Frito pie, fried okra, and creamed spinach, all demonstrating Texas roots. Platters and sandwiches are the main focus; offering ‘cue by the pound seemed like it was mainly a cred-building affection to make the place seem more like a venerable, old-fashioned Texas barbecue than the fast food spot that it is.
Priced at $20, a three-meat platter lays little hand-sliced piles of meat almost on top of one another, dribbled with dark sauce that further obscures the appearance of the barbecue. Dickey’s is about 30 percent cheaper, by my estimate, than your typical Brooklyn barbecue. Some friends and I tried six meats in that way but had to order the pork ribs separately, since they’re not included in the platters.
Though hand sliced in a precise fashion, the chicken and turkey were indistinguishable, the sausage (described as Polish kielbasa) proved watery and gritty, but the pulled pork went nicely with the sauce and had a smoky flavor. The brisket slices were small and resolutely unfatty. The ribs were the pride of the place, painted with sauce and not bad tasting but on the mushy side. My advice: If you eat barbecue at Dickey’s, go for a pulled pork sandwich ($7.50).
The sides didn’t fare much better — the creamed spinach too salty, the biscuits small and chalky — though the sweet and not-sweet ice tea, which came in a comically small glass by Texas standards, was praiseworthy. The free ice cream offered at other Dickey’s locations, according to the website, was not in evidence. 196 Flatbush Ave., between Dean and Bergen streets, Park Slope
Founded by Jared Male, a veteran of Hill Country and Dinosaur, Randall’s might be described as a stunt barbecue that tries to infuse solid barbecue traditions with the terroir of its Lower East Side neighborhood, while incorporating elements of other cuisines from around the city, like Indian and Chinese. Wainscoted with bright wood paneling, the room is boxy and square and set with picnic tables. A full bar runs along one side and a food prep area and pit room is visible across a counter at the back.
Some of the stunts don’t work. An Indian lamb shank comes sopping in a doctored BBQ sauce that overwhelms the subtlety of the masala; it would have been better smoked with a dry spice rub, tandoori style. The experiment is a noble one, though. While I can’t remember ever eating a good pastrami made from scratch in a barbecue (they never ending up tasting much like pastrami), here, it tastes like a conventional pastrami has been thrust in the smoker. The result is a memorable pastrami on rye ($16).
On a first visit, the brisket was only so-so, tasting dull and reheated, but on a second occasion, it was totally on the money and nicely fatty. Exercising one of two bread options, I had it put on a bialy, which sounds like a bad idea, since bialys rapidly become stale and cardboard-y. But the proximity of Randall’s to Kossar’s a few storefronts down is a boon that apparently guarantees fresh bialys, making this sandwich ($15) a triumph worth trying.
The chopped smoked chicken liver was a fail, a thin puree rather than the chunky dish prized by New Yorkers. If they somehow bolster it, maybe it could be improved in the future. The mac and cheese was fine, but the Israeli salad proved underdressed, which is a shame, because it’s not a bad addition to the local barbecue canon.
The beer-battered and fried pork ribs were an awful idea, sodden with grease, while the regular ribs were way smoky but perhaps a little tough. On the other hand, the smoked turkey was perfect in every way, slightly pink, moist, and possessing an edge of Thanksgiving stuffing that added a novel herby flavor to the meat. Lots of barbecues have been experimenting with turkey lately for its supposedly healthier properties.
Randall’s is an exciting new barbecue in spite of a few early failures and has some developing to do as it weeds out what works and what doesn’t. It will be a process worth watching. 359 Grand St., between Essex and Norfolk streets, Lower East Side
To reach Holy Ground, enter a door on Reade Street and trip down a dim paneled stairway that takes plenty of darkly carpeted twists and turns as it heads for the dank basement, past a display of aged cleavers that will have thoughts of the Bates Motel dancing in your head. Downstairs, find a trio of themed rooms with faded wallpaper, red brocade, and names like Foxy’s Lair and Bunny’s Hideaway. Where are we, inside Hugh Hefner’s mausoleum?
In an era trying to break the mold where restaurant concepts are concerned, this is one of the oddest. The kitsch-encrusted interior suggests a cocktail lounge from the 40s or 50s, serving elaborately conceived drinks, some of them historic. But the menu is that of a barbecue gone upscale. The broken-back nature of this concept will become instantly apparent.
The smoked brisket — via pitmaster, model, and DJ Franco Vlasic, aka Franco V. — is made with wagyu beef (1/2 pound, $24), which somehow turns gray and glistening with none of the smoky richness one might hope for. (Aaron Franklin out of Austin uses prime-grade beef in his smoked brisket, proving that the luxury meats can work.) Holy Ground’s brisket comes in a modest pool of a barbecue sauce that’s a cross between a French demiglace and a Chinese sweet-and-sour; it’s a little too tart but overall pleasing as a barbecue sauce variation.
That same sauce comes surrounding a modest lump of kurobuta pork shoulder, which costs $35. It’s crusty, admirably smoky, modestly fatty, and annealed with a dark coating, similar to that found on the St. Louis pork ribs. Those two entrees are the best barbecue in the place and fit to compete with other barbecue in the city, though you might quail at the expense. Made with pork belly, the hot links sausages (two for $18) are only adequate, and, as with the brisket and pork shoulder, you’ll wish you had some bread. Carbs are apparently largely forbidden at Holy Ground.
Good as some of the barbecue is, the sides ($11 to $16) more than keep up. So-called “crispy potatoes” are just that, laved with an aioli studded with yellow mustard seeds that give the dish a tangy glow. Collards are served in a small cast iron pot and topped with crushed Marcona almonds to good effect, while a radicchio salad finds the red leaves kissed by the grill. That’s also the case with a summer squash salad, proving that you can toss nearly anything on the barbecue grill if you choose.
Ultimately, the atmosphere of the place — with its endless display of cutesy framed pictures from the Victorian era to the Jazz Age to the Age of Keen, and its looming soundtrack of Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, and big band favorites — may drive you a little nuts. On the other hand, maybe you’re tired of eating your barbecue off pieces of butcher paper with pickles, onions, and white bread and washing it down with beer. 112 Reade Street, between Broadway and Church Street, Tribeca