The truth about Brooklyn barbecue

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If you’re gonna take a picture of a tray of meat, THEN ORDER A TRAY OF MEAT. (Photo courtesy of Izzy’s Smokehouse, Brooklyn.)

The article was headlined “Why Is Brooklyn Barbecue Taking Over the World?” I’m not even going to link to it. But it was a perfect example of a certain sort of food writing: provocative clickbait written by someone seemingly ignorant about barbecue and journalism.

It also gave Brooklyn way too much credit while trying to champion something that didn’t need his damn help—which seems to be a particularly Brooklyn thing to do (and by that, I mean a particularly Williamsburg thing to do).

As a certified barbecue judge who’s eaten his way through Austin, Lockhart, Memphis, and Kansas City, with a couple of stops in the Carolinas, I can tell you this: Brooklyn barbecue isn’t taking over the world, but it is good and doesn’t need this trend-setting bullshit.

The piece featured a handful of places, including one Brooklyn barbecue restaurant that’s been closed for over a year. The only thing remotely supporting a claim that Brooklyn barbecue was taking over the world was that people in other locations are using the same sort of decor (which, to be honest, is generic Brooklyn hipster and not remotely unique to Brooklyn barbecue joints).

And there was the photo. On an oversized metal tray lined with butcher paper, five slices of gray brisket, two pickles, what appear to be two Kings Hawaiian rolls, and beer served in a Mason jar (of course). There had to be two inches of real estate between each item.

In other words, you couldn’t have designed a better photo to subject Brooklyn barbecue to ridicule. Maybe that was the point. Because the website used that photo for social-media sharing, which in turn led to the inevitable and extremely predictable social-media firestorm (a phrase that kills my soul every time I read it, much less write it).

It’s been a month and I’m still mad at all parties involved. I’m pissed at the publication and its writer/photographer. I’m no food photographer, but I know enough that if I’m trying to share a photo of something I enjoy, I take a half decent picture. If you’re going to a barbecue restaurant that serves by weight and plan to take pictures for publication, maybe you order more than a quarter pound of brisket. Maybe you order two or three meats. And an actual side or two.

But I was also more than annoyed with the so-called barbecue experts who always come out of the woodwork in these cases.

I have a special hatred for Mr. Smoke Ring. “THERE’S NO SMOKE RING ON THE MEAT! WHAT A NEWB!”  The smoke ring is, to a certain extent, bullshit and is never an indicator of quality. I’ll let Amazing Ribs drop the science on you, but speaking from experience, some of my better-looking efforts were the least smoky.

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Not a bad smoke ring. But that’s about all that brisket had going for it.

 

And don’t even get me started on folks who think ribs should fall off the bone (not according to the judging criteria of the Kansas City Barbecue Society). Or that everything should be dripping in some sort of sauce.

Of course, you can’t go more than five minutes into a barbecue fight without it breaking down into regional rivalries. Texas vs. Memphis vs. Kansas City vs. the Carolinas. And these days we like to pretend that Alabama and Georgia are unique styles (see how easy it is to be a barbecue troll). Beef is the only true barbecue. No, pork is. No, it’s whole hog. No, it’s pork shoulder.

But for a shining day or so, Brooklyn barbecue gave them a common target upon which they could pour their scorn (like some of them pour their crappy sauces designed to cover up their own substandard barbecue).

Many of these guys had another thing in common: They’ve never tried Brooklyn barbecue. I’d guess that the louder and more certain they sounded, they also hadn’t tried any barbecue beyond their own particular region. Which is a shame. Because the truth is, done right, ALL BARBECUE IS GOOD. (And done wrong, it isn’t.)

I prefer west Texas style. That’s simply my preference. But I’m not going to turn my nose up at Memphis ribs, or Carolina pulled pork (or whole hog), or Kansas City sauced meats. I’ve had them all. I urge everyone else to do it, too. A meat tour makes for a good vacation and a bonding opportunity.

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Time well-spent. (P.S. Arthur Bryant’s is good; Joe’s is better.)

And you could pull one off in New York these days. Because New York, believe it or not, has decent to excellent barbecue. Even as recently as 10 years ago, New York was a barbecue wasteland. Now it’s not.

Hometown Bar B Que is generally considered to be the best. It’s where I spent two hours listening to a panel discussion about brisket last year. Hill Country is the most consistent (and the biggest, so therefore the easiest at which to get a table). I like Morgan’s when it’s on. Izzy’s is really, really good (also, pretty pricey). I’m bummed that BrisketTown closed because during his Brisket Lab experiments, Delaney’s brisket was some of the best I’ve ever had. And there are places like Dinosaur and Pig Beach that I’d put in the Salt Lick BBQ camp—it’s not the best barbecue you’ll ever eat, but it’s pretty good and the atmosphere is great.  

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—or the point of the brisket. Mighty Quinn. Fletchers. Fete Sau. Blue Smoke.  If you’re in the neighborhood and the lines aren’t too long, give them a shot. (Do not go to anything called Dallas BBQ. And I haven’t been to Virgil’s, so I can’t tell you anything about it. Just as there are garbage barbecue places in Texas and Memphis and K.C., there is garbage-cue in New York.)

The only thing truly New York about any of these places are the crowds, wait times and, compared to barbecue places in the rest of the country, high to ridiculously high prices.

Because while Mr. Brooklyn Barbecue Is Taking Over the World tried to make the claim that these places are experimenting with their own special New York style, the fact is they’re all heavily indebted to established regional styles. And with the exception of Dinosaur (Syracuse with a mish-mash of all the styles), Pig Beach (another mish-mash, with a dash of California tri-tip thrown in), Blue Smoke, and a KC-influenced place called John Brown Smokehouse (which I haven’t been to yet), the dominant influence on the good New York barbecue at this stage in the game is … Texas. Yes, there are fun and delicious experiments at many of these joints, but brisket is king at most of them. And the hand of Aaron Franklin can be felt all the way from Austin.  

Which means, ironically, that even if foreigners were actually taking cooking cues (see what I did there) from Brooklyn barbecue restaurants and bringing them home, Texas barbecue would be taking over the world.

But the Tyranny of Texas Barbecue is a subject for another day.  

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