There are many theories about the origin of barbecue, but Mothership Meat Company seems to believe it arrived via aliens from outer space. The outside of the former factory northeast of downtown Long Island City is emblazoned with a flying saucer and a space creature that looks suspiciously like R2-D2. On the opposite side of the building, located at 27-20 40th Ave., on 28th Street, lies a glorious, fenced-in side yard set with picnic tables and colorful umbrellas. There are further rocket ships and space creatures in the yard, done in graffiti style. The vibe similar to that of perpetually busy Gowanus barbecue Pig Beach; it’s a great place to bring kids.
The high-ceilinged dining room provides additional seating, a prominent bar that specializes in craft beer, and a counter for ordering where meat offerings are listed on an overhead chalkboard. The meats are sliced, weighed, deposited on butcher paper, and charged by the pound, as it’s done at historic pits in Texas like Kreuz Market, Cooper’s, and Mueller’s.
Josh Bowen, co-owner and pitmaster, also dabbles in politics and claims Austin area barbecue as his inspiration. His first barbecue was John Brown Smokehouse, founded in 2012 not far away in the same Queens neighborhood, partly offering meats smoked in the style of Kansas City, Bowen’s hometown. He later established the short-lived Alchemy, Texas, in Jackson Heights, which opened in 2013 and promptly closed.
John Brown Smokehouse, with its unusual theme commemorating a Kansas civil rights activist of the 1850s, is still open. It has been a maverick operation from the start, turning out some pretty good ‘cue but also being uneven in its output. Perhaps the flaw lies in offering too many meats, so that on any given day, some taste fresh while others are a little tired.
A friend and I hit up Mothership on its opening weekend, on Easter Sunday. The atmosphere was chill when we arrived at 6:30 p.m., but it was as if a cyclone had been through the place. A sign at the end of the serving line warned of the items that had run out during an afternoon rush: beef shoulder, pork belly, sausage, prime rib, spare ribs, and even pickles. Fair enough. Texas barbecues sell out, too, and it’s incumbent for the most enthusiastic customers to get to the pit soon after it opens for the day.
Nevertheless, we did get some brisket and some ham ($26 and $22 per pound, respectively), with the latter being a nice pink reminder of Easter. The brisket was totally on the money, fatty and delicious. Pickles cost extra, but the white bread or soda crackers were free. Eat your carbs!
The ribs were almost gone by the time we got there, but we talked the counter guy into giving us a couple of small ones from the end of the rack; they were very good. Later, a member of the staff — which is organized like a small army, dressed in solid white and black — brought out a couple of fresh ribs pulled right from the pit, and they were expertly cooked but subdued in flavor.
One rule of great barbecue, I don’t care which tradition, is forgettable sides, and Mothership lives up to this imperative. The so-called German potato salad lacked bacon, and the spuds were undercooked, though it was appropriately vinegary. The so-called cheesy corn ($5) was a few kernels mired in melted cheese; it was like chowing down on clotted fondue. The corn and black bean salad ($8) — the only vaguely green thing on the menu — tasted like something pulled from the refrigerator case at a fast-casual chain. Maybe that’s good in your book.
Anyway, all is forgiven for the crappy sides. The exception to the bad side rule was the chili con carne ($5), served without beans in the Texas fashion. It was spectacular, tasting of chili powder and featuring meat scraps. It was so good that it practically jumps down your throat.
We went for a second visit at lunch a few days later, to get our ‘cue right from the pit. The brisket was tasty, though way fattier than it should have been. Even in Lockhart at, say, Black’s, they trim the fat off the edges and extract the fat from the crevices in the meat. Your brisket is still plenty fatty, but there are no big naked gobs of it. I felt like both the brisket and the prime rib (the latter nicely rare and wobbly) were fattier than they should have been.
Which brings us to the beef shoulder. Known as “lean” or “clod” in Lockhart, it was actually a very good choice at Mothership. In Texas, it’s sometimes too lean to pick up enough smoke. We got a sausage this time, enthusiastically recommended by one of the staff as “being made by a German sausage maker who comes in once a week and will make whatever we want.” Composed of beef and pork and dotted with pepper, it was very plain tasting.
In line with other NYC barbecues, Mothership has its inexplicable quirks. One of those is tendering two oddball barbecue sauces, neither like what you would find in Texas. The plum seems to have East Asian roots, while the mustard is like what’s found in South Carolina. The mustard is the better choice if you must have sauce, but I’d recommend eating your barbecue without it.
Not a bad record for a barbecue in its opening days. Add a beer list that might make you linger, and you’ve got a fine spot in a neighborhood that otherwise doesn’t have much outdoor dining — a real summer asset. Hopefully, the shortcomings will be remedied as Mothership evolves. Till then, stick with the chili, brisket, and shoulder. Chicken and turkey are also sometimes available, though we didn’t try them.