It’s only been a few days since Boots & Bones opened across the street from the Grove Street PATH station, which sits in the middle of Jersey City’s most prominent public square. The front windows are flung open to spring breezes, and guys nursing beers sit on barstools leaning out the windows as my editor and I arrived for a First Look.
This honky-tonk seats around 120 at a long bar, in booths, and at raised tables in a cavernous darkened room plastered with cowboy stuff and TVs tuned to sports channels; a speakeasy will eventually be opening downstairs, of course (under the slightly fascist-sounding name, Under the Boot).
We’d gone because the online menu offered barbecue, in addition to various other Southern specialties like pimento cheese, pork rinds, and shrimp ‘n grits, along with burgers, tofu kebabs, cheesesteak sandwiches, and panini. Four varieties of ‘cue were listed, but as we stepped inside the greeter informed us that a special limited menu was in place that offered nine snacks and three types of barbecue slightly different from those promised on its website.
Fine with us. We were excited that the chef and pitmaster was Kenny Callaghan, the original pitmaster of Blue Smoke from 2001 to 2013. On the other hand, we were apprehensive that this place would become a defining and possibly raucous feature of Jersey City’s historic Grove Street neighborhood, the first thing you see upon exiting the subway. Owners are Kenny Caulfield, with a couple of other restaurant projects nearby, and Jeff Lam, who co-founded Chinese Tuxedo.
We were happy with the free cayenne-dusted pork rinds that hit the table first, and ordered four of the nine snacks offered ($6 to $16), which were of wildly varying size. The pimento cheese was a meal in itself, a big cold scoop of the usual cheese admixture with a phalanx of soda crackers neatly arrange and a welcome handful of pickled jalapeno slices. The cole slaw was of the vinegar type, a bit blah and served with many of the other dishes, so we needn’t have ordered it. The deviled eggs were expertly turned out, cut crosswise according to the modern practice so they sat perkily upright on the plate, with a sliver of bacon sticking out as if they were waving at us.
Best of all was a wonderful serving of pulled pork mounted on slices of white bread. The shreds were stout and dribbled with red barbecue sauce — contrary to the Carolina practice, which is to use just a douse of vinegar, but damn good nonetheless, and all the better because the sauce delivered a slight burn. There were tidbits of skin, too.
On to the barbecue. We were offered pork ribs, beef ribs, and smoked chicken, and since we’d already tried the pulled pork, we ordered the latter two. I asked our server as we ordered, “you mean one big beef rib, right?” Thinking of the gargantuan beef ribs sold for $50 apiece at many Texas-style barbecues. When it arrived there were three bones of moderate size, making me wonder where they got such a diminutive cow.
The ribs ($25) were spectacular — with a slightly sweet bark, smoky as hell, and oozing a moderate amount of tasty grease. Once again, they were served Texas style with white bread that soaked up the juices, with no barbecue sauce provided or necessary. I was on the fence about the smoked chicken ($18), but my editor loved it. The bird had been brined with something like sweet tea, so that even the breast was plump and flavorful. And the dill pickles that came alongside were a boon.
Boots & Bones joins three other barbecues that I know of in Jersey City and Hoboken, both exceedingly easy to get to from NYC. Two of the three (Hamilton Pork and Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque) are well worth visiting, meaning these NYC-adjacent Hudson River towns are becoming a bonafide barbecue destination. And we’ll be returning to Boots & Bones to see how the barbecue evolves — I, for one, can’t wait to try the brisket.