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A Guide to Eating Barbecued Brisket in New York

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[All photos by Nick Solares]
2013_brunch_heatmap_helo.jpegThere is no cut of barbecue more challenging to smoke than a whole beef brisket. The large piece of meat, typically weighing between eight and 16 pounds, is comprised of two distinctly different muscles, with very different levels of fat content. It poses similar challenges to roasting a whole chicken or grilling a porterhouse steak — cooking the fat part through will often render the leaner meat dry and overcooked. Unlike chicken and steaks, brisket needs a long, low, and slow cooking method to fully break down the tough connective tissue.

Brisket is fabricated from the chest muscles of beef cattle. It is comprised of the pectoralis profundus, also called the "flat" because of its shape, and the pectoralis superficialis, which is referred to as the "point" and is thinner, fatter, shorter, and rounder than the flat. The flat is often called the "first cut" by butchers and the "lean" by pitmasters, because it does not have a lot of fat.


The point is called the second cut, moist brisket, or the deckle, denoting the increased fat content of the muscle. The pectoral muscles support much of the animal's weight and are thus in constant use, making them tough and unyielding if not cooked correctly. Braising and smoking are the best ways to tenderize a brisket.

20131003-001-HT%20BBQ.jpg[Hometown Bar-B-Que]
Smoking brisket finds its highest expression in the barbecue pits of Central Texas and Kansas City, MO. Whereas pork is the main staple for most of the nation's barbecue regions, beef is king in Texas and many places in the Lone Star State cook little else. Brisket does not hold quite the esteemed position in Kansas City that it does in Central Texas — almost every conceivable meat makes its way into the smokers there. But that doesn't mean that KC brisket is any less inspired. In fact, the burnt end — cubed and extremely caramelized portions of the point — originated in Kansas City.

20120329-001-fire.jpg[Franklin Barbecue, Austin, TX]
Barbecued brisket is first covered in a dense layer of spices before smoking. This is called the rub. In Texas, this is usually just salt and black pepper, although various other spices can be applied. The meat is then smoked over wood for between 10 to 18 hours at low temperatures — typically between 225-275°. Post oak is the most common wood in Texas, and hickory is popular in Kansas City. As the meat smokes, the collagen within the muscle begins to melt and the fat renders, making a once tough cut tender and toothsome. After being smoked the brisket needs to rest in much the same way that a steak does, in order to let the meat relax and the fluids redistribute within the muscles. Once rested, it is important to slice brisket against the grain of the muscle fibers or it will become chewy.

The Hallmarks of Great Brisket

20140424-001-Brisket%20Anatomy.jpg
Whether you are in Texas, Kansas City, or Brooklyn, the hallmarks of a properly smoked brisket are the same. Here is what you should look for:

The Bark

As water evaporates from the exterior of the brisket during smoking, the rub begins to form into a dense crust that is called the "bark." The smoke particles darken the bark significantly, rendering it colors ranging from dark mahogany to almost pitch black. At best, this crust is crisp and crunchy, although most often, and especially if the brisket has been wrapped for significant periods, it can be flaccid.

The Smoke Ring

The pink band that lies between the bark and the interior meat is called the smoke ring. It is the result of gases from the cooking process interacting with liquids on the meat's surface causing the bright pink color. It is not unique to barbecuing — the effect can be replicated without smoke entirely — but all great barbecue has it.

"The Accordion Effect"

The best brisket will be lithe and supple, but not entirely flaccid. There should be some tension within the muscle — you want it to pull back just a little when you tug on both ends of a slice of brisket.

The Juice

Fat is flavor and the juices in meat are principally fat. You want your brisket juicy, which is why you should always go for the moist end, but even the flat should be moist and tender in a properly cooked brisket. The juices from a wrapped brisket from a Texas pit will soak through several layers of butcher paper.

20110325-001-City%20Market.jpg[Moist brisket from City Market Luling,TX]

Lean or Moist?

This comes down to personal taste but the brisket point, with its rich marbling, will be juicier, more flavorful, and generally more tender than the flat. It is what most barbecue aficionados opt for. Lean meat will often be a little cheaper per pound than moist.

The Rainbow

You sometimes will see "rainbows," or an iridescent green sheen in freshly sliced brisket (and other meats) this is not an indication of anything other than refraction occurring as light hits the meat surface at a particular angle.

20120329Brisket%20menu.jpg

Price

Brisket is generally sold by weight with prices varying wildly between regions costing anywhere from $8 to $28 a pound.

"Brisket Is Tough to Cook"

You might hear this as a carver saws on a desiccated brisket, sending splinters of dried bark in every direction. Yes, brisket is tough to cook. That's why you are charging $20 per pound. There is no excuse for selling dry brisket, it should be repurposed for sandwiches or baked beans.

Sauce?!?

If there is one principle difference between Texas and Kansas City, it is the use of sauce. In Texas, it is largely eschewed, but in Kansas City it is implicit to the style of barbecue. Freed from the parochial fetters of tradition, New Yorkers should feel free to eat their brisket any damn way they want.

Brisket in the City

20131005-001-slice.jpg

To be frank, barbecue in NYC has traditionally been dreadful, especially brisket. There have been some standouts over the years — Pearson's Stick To Your Ribs, which opened in the late 1980s, springs to mind immediately as an early pioneer — but by and large, NYC has not had any sort of barbecue culture worth discussing. That began to change in the early 2000s when we saw the emergence a number of restaurants that took barbecuing seriously such as Blue Smoke, Dinosaur Bar-B-Q and Daisy May's, which joined early pioneer Virgil's (1994). These places offered pan - regional menus drawing on barbecue influences from across America. This lack of specificity didn't necessarily produce the best brisket, but it laid a necessary foundation for what was to come. Certainly Adam Perry Lang's brisket at Daisy May's was the best brisket served to date. (Lang is no longer associated with Daisy May's.)

The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, founded in 2002 by Blue Smoke pitmaster Kenny Callaghan, helped introduce real pit barbecue to many New Yorkers. It also helped set the stage for the next leap forward, which saw narrowly defined, region specific barbecue come to NYC. The openings of RUB (2006) and Hill Country (2007) respectively brought the styles of Kansas City and Texas to the city.

The Barbecue Renaissance?

We are at a point where there is some truly world class barbecue being smoked in NYC. But perhaps more importantly, there is a distinct barbecue culture developing here. While it certainly draws on disparate regional elements and influences, there is something uniquely parochial about it. Whereas the big box corporate barbecue restaurants — Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Virgil's, Dinosaur Bar-B-Q, Wildwood (now closed) — are (or were) all located in Manhattan, the joints that define this new NYC style emanate from Brooklyn. BrisketTown, Hometown Bar-B-Que, Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue, Morgan's, and Beast of Bourbon have all opened within the last two years in Kings County, joining early pioneer Fette Sau. Even Mighty Quinn's Barbecue, which opened a brick and mortar location in Manhattan, started off at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. Brisket is significantly featured on the menus of all of these restaurants. It has become a staple of NYC style barbecue.

Time for Some Tough Love

With such a potentially high standard of meat being smoked here in the city, it is time for barbecue aficionados to become more critical. There is enough quality barbecue out there that we no longer need to settle for dry and leathery brisket or suffer cloyingly sweet sauces. Here is a list of the city's noteworthy briskets, with rankings based on recent visits to NYC barbecue restaurants. In barbecue, you are really only as good as your last smoke:

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Delaney Barbecue: BrisketTown

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359 Bedford Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 701-8909
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The almost singular focus on the eponymous dish at BrisketTown results in a world class product. The brisket here is as close to Central Texas style as you can get in NYC. On a recent visit, the brisket had a robust bark and a pronounced smoke ring with significant smoke penetration. It was ethereally tender with a supremely beefy flavor. The only letdown was the crust, which was on the flaccid side. $26 per pound.

2. Mighty Quinn's BBQ

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103 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10003
(212) 677-3733
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Mighty Quinn's serves up what pitmaster Hugh Mangum describes as "Texalina style," a fusion of the barbecue traditions of Texas and the Carolinas. But what really emerges is a uniquely NYC — and a decidedly new school incarnation — of barbecue. On a recent visit, the brisket had a superb bark with deep smoke penetration coupled with a pronounced succulence and a hearty beef flavor. Even the lean portion looked abundantly juicy. The only compliant was that the dusting of salt applied to the sliced brisket pushed the seasoning over the edge -- barbecue is implicitly seasoned before cooking. $22 per pound.

3. Hometown Bar-B-Que

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454 Van Brunt St
Brooklyn, NY 11231
(347) 294-4644
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Relative newcomer pitmaster Bill Durney is pumping out some serious barbecue at his Red Hook smokehouse. The brisket in particular has all the hallmarks of the best of Central Texas barbecue — a dense bark, pronounced pink ring, and corresponding smoky flavor. The crust yields to a tender, juicy interior. Kansas City barbecue fans will love the sauce here. $26 per pound.

4. Hill Country Barbecue Market

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30 W 26th St
New York, NY 10010
(212) 255-4544
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Hill Country turns out an almost completely faithful version of Central Texas barbecue, largely inspired by Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX. The brisket is smoked over post oak, sold by the pound, and served up on butcher paper -- just like in Texas. On a recent visit, the moist brisket was tender and smoky although there was not much bark and some of the fat had not completely rendered. Considering the high volume sold, Hill Country does a commendable job of maintaing a good level of consistency. $22.50 per pound lean / $24.40 per pound moist.

5. Blue Smoke

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116 E 27th St
New York, NY 10016
(212) 447-7733
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A pioneer of serious barbecue in NYC, Blue Smoke's brisket is rubbed with salt, pepper and secret spices and smoked over hickory wood. This renders it tender and succulent but on a recent visit it lacked a significant smoke ring and consequently did not have a lot of smoke penetration. But it was wonderfully tender with a pleasingly beefy flavor profile. The brisket here is somewhat pricey compared to the competition because Blue Smoke is a full service restaurant. $20, comes with mashed potatoes.

6. Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue

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433 Third Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215
(347) 763-2680
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Fletcher's serves up some inventive "new Brooklyn" style barbecue, incorporating culinary influences beyond smoked meat. On a recent visit, the brisket was generally serviceable with good smoke penetration and an admirable ring. But being so thinly sliced, it was far too dry, especially because this was mostly the lean portion. The moist end is cut into large cubes and sold as "burnt ends." These were far more succulent than the lean although they lacked significant bark. In other words, they were not really burnt. Brisket $24 per pound, Burnt ends $28 per pound.

7. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

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700 W 125th St
New York, NY 10027
(212) 694-1777
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Dinosaur is one of the more established barbecue restaurants in NYC and offers a pan-regional menu rather than concentrating on a single style. This lack of specific focus doesn't hurt the brisket, which is a solid effort. The brisket served during a recent meal had a pleasing bark and a prominent smoke ring, but it was hindered by a slight dryness and not enough penetration of smoke. A brisket plate is $17.95.

8. Fette Sau

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354 Metropolitan Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 963-3404
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Fette Sau is a pioneer of Brooklyn barbecue. The brisket here had a decent amount of moisture and was supremely tender. However, the rub was applied so densely that it allowed little smoke flavor to actually penetrate the meat. The beef tasted roasted, rather than smoked. $28 per pound.

9. Mable's Smokehouse & Banquet Hall

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44 Berry St
Brooklyn, NY 11249
(718) 218-6655
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Mabel's brisket had good tenderness and mild smoke penetration, but it exhibited a rather under-developed bark, with a pastrami-like spice blend. It was not abundantly juicy, and tended towards the dry at the out edges. A half pound platter with two sides is $15.99.

10. Beast of Bourbon

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710 Myrtle Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11205

A primetime visit revealed much potential but disappointments as well. The brisket had excellent structure — a robust bark, good smoke ring, and a pleasing tenderness. But the beef tasted more like pot roast than barbecue. It did not have enough smoke penetration and was a little on the dry side as well. Also, despite the impressively dark bark, the seasoning needed just a little more caramelization to fully render down. One to watch. $21 per pound.

11. Virgil's Real BBQ

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152 W 44th St.
New York, NY 10036
(212) 921-9669
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There is no doubt that Virgil's is a tourist trap with a pan-regional menu that also includes plenty of non-barbecue items. But the restaurant does smoke meat over real wood. A recent visit revealed both aspects of this dichotomy: brisket ordered moist was delivered lean and was dreadful — tough and leathery, but with a clear smoky flavor. The replacement was actually a very decent order of moist that was quite tender with a decent smoke ring and good smoke penetration. Not world beating, but decent. If the lean hadn't been revealed and Virgil's is judged only on the moist, then it would rank higher. $22.95 for half a pound, served with two sides.

12. Morgan's

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267 Flatbush Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 622-2224

The departure of the original pitmaster has put Morgan's future potential in question. Robert Sietsema was generally impressed on a visit last year. But more recently the brisket, even the point, was mercilessly dry. In its favor there was a healthy smoke ring and a nice bark, indicating that it might have been good at some point. But there is no excuse for serving dry deckle. $20 per pound for lean, $22 per pound for moist.

13. John Brown Smokehouse

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1043 44th Dr
Long Island City, NY 11101
(347) 617-1120
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John Brown Smokehouse serves up the most faithful incarnation of Kansas City style barbecue in the city. This includes burnt ends and brisket that is sliced pencil thin. Unfortunately, a recent visit found the burnt ends sold out and the brisket completely arid. It would have been find chopped and slathered in sauce, and probably should have been. Brisket $18 per pound / Burnt ends $20.

14. Butcher Bar

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37-08 30th Ave
Astoria, NY 11103
(718) 606-8140
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This Queens butcher shop and restaurant offers organic, all natural meats. The brisket and the burnt ends, sold together on the "Gimme the Beef Platter" (1/4 pound of each $19), proved to be on the dry side, with little smoke penetration and not much of a bark either. But the essential flavor of the meat itself was good, indicating that perhaps there is something to be said fo using such high quality beef for barbecue.

15. Daisy May's BBQ

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623 11th Ave
New York, NY 10036
(212) 977-1500
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How the mighty have fallen: Founded by world class pitmaster Adam Perry Lang (he sold the business a few years back) Daisy May's once peddled some of the best brisket in town. A recent visit revealed a pre sliced mix of moist and lean brisket that was completely dried out, served in an inelegant clump. Not even the sauce could salvage it.

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1. Delaney Barbecue: BrisketTown

359 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211

The almost singular focus on the eponymous dish at BrisketTown results in a world class product. The brisket here is as close to Central Texas style as you can get in NYC. On a recent visit, the brisket had a robust bark and a pronounced smoke ring with significant smoke penetration. It was ethereally tender with a supremely beefy flavor. The only letdown was the crust, which was on the flaccid side. $26 per pound.

359 Bedford Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211

2. Mighty Quinn's BBQ

103 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003

Mighty Quinn's serves up what pitmaster Hugh Mangum describes as "Texalina style," a fusion of the barbecue traditions of Texas and the Carolinas. But what really emerges is a uniquely NYC — and a decidedly new school incarnation — of barbecue. On a recent visit, the brisket had a superb bark with deep smoke penetration coupled with a pronounced succulence and a hearty beef flavor. Even the lean portion looked abundantly juicy. The only compliant was that the dusting of salt applied to the sliced brisket pushed the seasoning over the edge -- barbecue is implicitly seasoned before cooking. $22 per pound.

103 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10003

3. Hometown Bar-B-Que

454 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Relative newcomer pitmaster Bill Durney is pumping out some serious barbecue at his Red Hook smokehouse. The brisket in particular has all the hallmarks of the best of Central Texas barbecue — a dense bark, pronounced pink ring, and corresponding smoky flavor. The crust yields to a tender, juicy interior. Kansas City barbecue fans will love the sauce here. $26 per pound.

454 Van Brunt St
Brooklyn, NY 11231

4. Hill Country Barbecue Market

30 W 26th St, New York, NY 10010

Hill Country turns out an almost completely faithful version of Central Texas barbecue, largely inspired by Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX. The brisket is smoked over post oak, sold by the pound, and served up on butcher paper -- just like in Texas. On a recent visit, the moist brisket was tender and smoky although there was not much bark and some of the fat had not completely rendered. Considering the high volume sold, Hill Country does a commendable job of maintaing a good level of consistency. $22.50 per pound lean / $24.40 per pound moist.

30 W 26th St
New York, NY 10010

5. Blue Smoke

116 E 27th St, New York, NY 10016

A pioneer of serious barbecue in NYC, Blue Smoke's brisket is rubbed with salt, pepper and secret spices and smoked over hickory wood. This renders it tender and succulent but on a recent visit it lacked a significant smoke ring and consequently did not have a lot of smoke penetration. But it was wonderfully tender with a pleasingly beefy flavor profile. The brisket here is somewhat pricey compared to the competition because Blue Smoke is a full service restaurant. $20, comes with mashed potatoes.

116 E 27th St
New York, NY 10016

6. Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue

433 Third Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215

Fletcher's serves up some inventive "new Brooklyn" style barbecue, incorporating culinary influences beyond smoked meat. On a recent visit, the brisket was generally serviceable with good smoke penetration and an admirable ring. But being so thinly sliced, it was far too dry, especially because this was mostly the lean portion. The moist end is cut into large cubes and sold as "burnt ends." These were far more succulent than the lean although they lacked significant bark. In other words, they were not really burnt. Brisket $24 per pound, Burnt ends $28 per pound.

433 Third Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

7. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

700 W 125th St, New York, NY 10027

Dinosaur is one of the more established barbecue restaurants in NYC and offers a pan-regional menu rather than concentrating on a single style. This lack of specific focus doesn't hurt the brisket, which is a solid effort. The brisket served during a recent meal had a pleasing bark and a prominent smoke ring, but it was hindered by a slight dryness and not enough penetration of smoke. A brisket plate is $17.95.

700 W 125th St
New York, NY 10027

8. Fette Sau

354 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211

Fette Sau is a pioneer of Brooklyn barbecue. The brisket here had a decent amount of moisture and was supremely tender. However, the rub was applied so densely that it allowed little smoke flavor to actually penetrate the meat. The beef tasted roasted, rather than smoked. $28 per pound.

354 Metropolitan Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211

9. Mable's Smokehouse & Banquet Hall

44 Berry St, Brooklyn, NY 11249

Mabel's brisket had good tenderness and mild smoke penetration, but it exhibited a rather under-developed bark, with a pastrami-like spice blend. It was not abundantly juicy, and tended towards the dry at the out edges. A half pound platter with two sides is $15.99.

44 Berry St
Brooklyn, NY 11249

10. Beast of Bourbon

710 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205

A primetime visit revealed much potential but disappointments as well. The brisket had excellent structure — a robust bark, good smoke ring, and a pleasing tenderness. But the beef tasted more like pot roast than barbecue. It did not have enough smoke penetration and was a little on the dry side as well. Also, despite the impressively dark bark, the seasoning needed just a little more caramelization to fully render down. One to watch. $21 per pound.

710 Myrtle Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11205

11. Virgil's Real BBQ

152 W 44th St., New York, NY 10036

There is no doubt that Virgil's is a tourist trap with a pan-regional menu that also includes plenty of non-barbecue items. But the restaurant does smoke meat over real wood. A recent visit revealed both aspects of this dichotomy: brisket ordered moist was delivered lean and was dreadful — tough and leathery, but with a clear smoky flavor. The replacement was actually a very decent order of moist that was quite tender with a decent smoke ring and good smoke penetration. Not world beating, but decent. If the lean hadn't been revealed and Virgil's is judged only on the moist, then it would rank higher. $22.95 for half a pound, served with two sides.

152 W 44th St.
New York, NY 10036

12. Morgan's

267 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11217

The departure of the original pitmaster has put Morgan's future potential in question. Robert Sietsema was generally impressed on a visit last year. But more recently the brisket, even the point, was mercilessly dry. In its favor there was a healthy smoke ring and a nice bark, indicating that it might have been good at some point. But there is no excuse for serving dry deckle. $20 per pound for lean, $22 per pound for moist.

267 Flatbush Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217

13. John Brown Smokehouse

1043 44th Dr, Long Island City, NY 11101

John Brown Smokehouse serves up the most faithful incarnation of Kansas City style barbecue in the city. This includes burnt ends and brisket that is sliced pencil thin. Unfortunately, a recent visit found the burnt ends sold out and the brisket completely arid. It would have been find chopped and slathered in sauce, and probably should have been. Brisket $18 per pound / Burnt ends $20.

1043 44th Dr
Long Island City, NY 11101

14. Butcher Bar

37-08 30th Ave, Astoria, NY 11103

This Queens butcher shop and restaurant offers organic, all natural meats. The brisket and the burnt ends, sold together on the "Gimme the Beef Platter" (1/4 pound of each $19), proved to be on the dry side, with little smoke penetration and not much of a bark either. But the essential flavor of the meat itself was good, indicating that perhaps there is something to be said fo using such high quality beef for barbecue.

37-08 30th Ave
Astoria, NY 11103

15. Daisy May's BBQ

623 11th Ave, New York, NY 10036

How the mighty have fallen: Founded by world class pitmaster Adam Perry Lang (he sold the business a few years back) Daisy May's once peddled some of the best brisket in town. A recent visit revealed a pre sliced mix of moist and lean brisket that was completely dried out, served in an inelegant clump. Not even the sauce could salvage it.

623 11th Ave
New York, NY 10036

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