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Despite #BrooklynBBQ becoming the laughing stock of food Twitter earlier this year, New York City’s appetite for the wood-fired traditions of the Southern United States continues unabated. Smoldering for more than two decades, these cravings have steadily intensified like the gritty outer bark and ombre smoke ring of a low-and-slow-cooked beef rib, growing to encompass an ever-expanding variety of regional styles.
Poke around town and you’ll encounter Kansas City-inspired offerings at Harlem’s Blujeen and John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City, North Carolina whole hog wizardry from Bushwick’s Arrogant Swine, kosher Texas style ‘cue at Izzy’s Smokehouse in Hasidic Crown Heights, and a damn fine smoked cantaloupe sandwich care of the preservation perverts (watermelon ham, anyone?) over at Ducks Eatery in the East Village. Hashtags be damned, Brooklyn barbecue is alive and well at places like Hometown (Red Hook) and Fletcher’s (Gowanus), home to, respectively, some of the best lamb ribs and burnt ends in the city.
First, a primer: It was ex-Vogue hairdresser-turned-pitmaster Robert Pearson who most notably sparked the dining public’s initial interest in true ‘cue. Like so many before him, the British expat fell under the spell of Texas barbecue on gustatory field trips throughout the state, bringing the Lone Star techniques he’d absorbed back east and eventually moving his restaurant – first called Stick to Your Ribs, then Pearson’s Texas Barbecue – from suburban Connecticut to Long Island City in 1992. (His story is told in exhilarating detail by Robert Sietsema in the critic’s essential 2015 tome New York in a Dozen Dishes.)
Stalwart tourist trough Virgil’s Real Barbecue showed up in 1994 and has been doling out Memphis-style dry rub ribs ever since. Danny Meyer played another key role in getting New Yorkers hooked, opening the original Blue Smoke in 2001 and launching the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party a year later, luring pitmasters from near and far to Madison Square Park for sixteen consecutive summers. And in the last decade, especially, there’s been something of a barbecue boom, spawning niche events like Brisket King and breakout successes like Hill Country and Mighty Quinn’s – all further proof of barbecue’s reign.
So where is the city’s ‘cue culture headed? One possibility is Holy Ground, the subterranean barbecue joint masquerading as an old-school chophouse, which opened in Tribeca this summer. The restaurant sits at the bottom of a steep, winding staircase leading to a series of intimate, low-ceilinged chambers outfitted with plush red banquettes, low lights, and plenty of dark wood that look like they were built for the revelry of Prohibition-era rule-breakers. It’s a far cry from the faux-rural design favored by many other urban smokehouses.
Pitmaster Franco Vlasic, a DJ and model who also goes by Franco V., used to sling fantastic pulled pork and chicken sandwiches doused with fruity, mustardy North Carolina-style sauce in a Meatpacking District courtyard. In this infinitely more refined setting, his menu turns out to be a curious mix of Southern staples like macaroni and cheese and collard greens cooked in smoked ham stock; gussied-up barbecue ranging from conventional spare ribs to a fancy beef rib carved and fanned out alongside the cleaned bone in steakhouse fashion; and New American bistro fare including beef tartare, broccoli seasoned with the Japanese citrus-pepper condiment yuzukosho, and steamed mussels in a sherry-fortified broth decorated with nuggets of pork belly hot links. Although somewhat less seamlessly, Holy Ground approaches Southern barbecue in the way that Cote does Korean barbecue, merging two time-honored, meaty rituals into something entirely its own.
Randall’s, another summer arrival, is more recognizable as a barbecue restaurant. Stationed on Grand Street, it’s the work of Jared Male, a veteran of popular spots like Hill Country and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que who also took his smoking talents to the U.K. before going solo. Picnic tables fill the brief dining room, which is cocooned in wood-paneling that gives off a vintage suburban rec room aesthetic – fitting, since the restaurant is named for the pitmaster’s grandfather and the space is meant to evoke family visits to his grandparents’ Connecticut home.
Like Billy Durney of Hometown, Male has devised a lineup that picks and chooses from New York City’s vast cultural tapestry, convening straightforward Texas-style turkey and brisket with fatty, Chinese five-spice-rubbed duck and a smoked “Indian lamb shank” smothered in thick barbecue sauce that gets its tartness from tamarind.
Compellingly, Randall’s also pays homage to its Lower East Side location with traditionally Jewish foods like smoked chopped chicken liver and a pickle selection from The Pickle Guys next door. Longstanding bakery Kossar’s is another neighbor, and they supply the soft, yeasty bialys that the kitchen piles generously with slices of pastrami for sandwiches, and which give Katz’s a run for its money (you can also order the meat on rye). With any luck, Male will come up with a tribute to legendary LES knishery Yonah Schimmel next. After all, Upper East Side deli Pastrami Queen, a favorite of Anthony Bourdain, has been stuffing knishes with finely chopped smoked meat for decades.
Randall's Barbecue, 359 Grand St, New York, NY. (646) 692-9980.
Holy Ground, 112 Reade St, New York, NY. (646) 882-0666.