Archive - February 2011
This site is done. I'll leave all the existing content up for posterity and reference, but the updates are no more.
Thanks for reading, thanks for the leads on new barbecue joints and thanks for the feedback. Thanks to those who've joined me on barbecue crawls. They'll continue, just a little less frequently.
I still love barbecue.
Boston Burgers: The Back Bay Social Club Burger Reviewed
Here's the latest of my occasional departures from my usual review of barbecue joints throughout New England and New York. For the first time, I wanted two tries at a burger before posting a review, and the Social Burger both times at Back Bay Social Club (Boston MA) was fantastic.
See my review of Back Bay Social Club
Long Island BBQ: Smokin' Al's Revisited
A few weeks ago I hit Long Island for a weekend barbecue crawl. The biggest name in Long Island BBQ is Smokin' Al's, with wildly successful joints in Bay Shore (the original) and Massapequa Park (the expansion a few years ago). My second visit to the latter got a decent sampling of their barbecue menu. Here's my take:
Ribs: "St Louie Grand Backs" is the name Smokin' Al uses for his alternative to babybacks. These ribs, trimmed lengthwise but as thick as you'll find in a St Louis rib, are cut from the spares closer to the belly than the back. Ordered unsauced, these arrived with a well developed and well charred crust. That crust didn't show much rub, and the cross sections didn't show any pink, but visible moistness and good fat content (neither too much nor too little) made them appetizing. Flavor was equal parts char and pork fat, with as-expected low levels of rub and smoke flavor. Meatiness and moistness carried the day here. Sauce was hardly necessary for moisture but went a long way toward adding some much needed flavor and counteracting the bitterness of the char. With sauce added, these ribs were solid and clearly above average for the area.
Brisket: The Ribs-and-Meat combo ($20.99 with two sides) packed about a dozen slices of brisket on the plate. Color was monotone, with only the faintest of outer crusting, no smoke ring and little to no visible moisture. Tenderness was adequate without being noteworthy. Flavor was pleasant enough, with a slight sweetness to the beef profile, but nothing really compelling. Smoke here was noticeable, but as with the ribs, it took a back seat to the char grilled flavor that added some bitterness to the equation. The meat was painfully dry. This brisket might have worked a little better in a sandwich, where sauce could remedy the dryness and a thick bun could provide a good vessel for the tender, charry meat. But on its own, this brisket was barely average overall.
Pulled pork: The "Carolina" pulled pork sandwich ($10.99 with fries and slaw) supplied a super generous portion of pork and a nearly as generous amount of thick, sweet sauce, pushing the already tender meat toward liquid territory. If there was any smokiness in the meat, I failed to detect it. This was a soggier style (from both the oversaucing and overcooking) than I prefer, but if you like a sloppy sandwich that's as much about the sauce as about the meat, this one is a good example.
Sides: Creamy cole slaw expertly balanced a heavy dosage of mayo with an equally heavy dosage of black pepper, making it a very enjoyable complement to the sweet and charry meats. Sweet potato fries—a free upgrade from the standard fries that come with the sandwich—had a rare combination of crunchy exterior, tender interior, autumnal flavors (cinnamon, maybe nutmeg) and a homemade feel. I really liked the texture of the fusilli pasta in the mac and cheese, but thought the cheese was on the bland side. Baked beans didn't make any impression. Cornbread was a typical but competent Twinkie derivative.
Outlook: I have mixed feelings about Smokin' Al's, which I liked much more at the time of my original review in 2006. At that time, I had only tried their pork ribs, which are much more of a strength than the pulled and sliced meats. I still like Smokin' Al's, and still rank them in my top three or four for Long Island, but their barbecue stock has dropped somewhat.
New York City BBQ: A Return to Blue Smoke
As I mentioned again recently, in my original 2006 review of Blue Smoke (NYC) I called them "the Bert Blyleven of barbecue: closer to all-star caliber (if that) than hall of famer, but worthy of a spot in your rotation." Now that Blyleven himself has finally made the hall of fame, I figured another visit—make that a nighttime visit—to Blue Smoke was in order to see if time would be equally kind to the restaurant. But first, an explanation of the metaphor: Blyleven was a very capable 1970-1990 pitcher who was often the ace of his team, but never among the best in the game. Similarly, Blue Smoke is a good barbecue joint, one that deserves props for its high levels of atmosphere and service, and for being the restaurant that ignited the barbecue renaissance in New York City that continued with Daisy May's, Dinosaur, RUB, Hill Country and Wildwood. Unfortunately, just as Blyleven—though very good—was overshadowed by Seaver, Gibson, Palmer, Hunter, Perry, Jenkins, Saberhagen, Clemens and countless others, Blue Smoke is overshadowed by many of the New York barbecue joints that followed.
Here's a run-down of the visit:
Visit: I visited two Sunday nights ago, when restaurant week was in effect. There were a few choices each in the appetizer, entree and dessert categories, but my guest and I were there to survey the full spectrum of 'cue, so we ignored those offerings and ordered off the regular menu. Actually I was the guest, collecting on a dinner bet thanks to the New York Jets' loss to Pittsburgh a week earlier.
Service: Our friendly server cheerfully handled our request to receive brisket instead of ribs on the Rhapsody in 'Cue platter (to try everything and avoid duplication from the Rib Sampler, which we also ordered). While I'm glad that the kitchen was just as accommodating, I wasn't thrilled with the $2.50 substitution charge. If it were the other way around, asking for ribs instead of brisket, that would be more than fair, but charging more for a cheaper cut of meat didn't seem cool. That said, I don't expect restaurants to maintain a detailed list of what substitutions cost what amount, so I'm more than cool with a blanket $2.50 charge that keeps things simple while discouraging rampant substitutions. After that, we never saw our server again, and had to get drink refills from the hostess. But I did like that the runner explained the different rib cuts and sauces while presenting the two platters, similar to the way it's done at high end restaurants.
Beef ribs: Historically, the back cut beef rib has been my favorite item at Blue Smoke. Not only has it never disappointed, but it's at least in the same league as the ones at Hill Country and Wildwood, and arguably the best of the three. Sunday's version kept the streak going, with an amazingly appetizing bright red smoke ring, good crispness on the exterior, plenty of smoke and rub flavor from surface to bone, and good moistness. Back to the flavor: this one had less salt in the rub than usual, a little less pepper than usual, more coriander and extremely little if any sugar. I remember the earliest versions having a salt-pepper-sugar harmony, then a transition to a sugarless pepper-happy rub, and now this one. I like all three, but I miss the salt. Regardless, this was a very satisfying beef rib that could be eaten with gusto, as there was no membrane or fat to interfere.
Babyback ribs: These were also cooked to the perfect doneness, allowing a clean bite with a little snap. Moistness was slight. Flavor? Well, I like the lightly sweetened mustardy kick of the "Original" (sweet mustardy) sauce when used as a dip, but something gets lost when it's cooked into the meat. So, just as on my last visit in November when I only had the babybacks, these had an odd flavor that just didn't do it for me. The meat beneath was hammy, closer to ham hammy than rib hammy. So despite a good cut and a good smoking job, these babybacks let me down strictly on flavor.
Spare ribs: Appearance was fine thanks to a maroon crust. Moistness was more than fine, presenting a profusion of juices. Flavor, though less intense all around than the beef ribs, was fine too. But the cut was a departure from my most recent spares sampling about 15 months before this visit. Instead of the thick cut that gets even meatier at the rib tips, these were long, flat and thin, with much more fat and gristle throughout. Overall this was okay, but a dropoff from previous spares here and a bigger dropoff from the spares at Wildwood, which targets a similar demographic.
Sausage: Though far more Italian than barbecue, this one had a lot to like: crisped up skin, decent juiciness and a light coating of sweet Kansas City (molassesy) sauce that contrasted the heat of the meat nicely. So what's not to like? Volume. On the Rhapsody in Cue platter, you don't get a whole sausage. You don't get a half sausage, bisecting it halfway along the length or against the length. You don't even get a quarter sausage after both bisections. You get a subset of that, about the length of a Band-Aid with a semicircle cross-section. At least all the cutting had no adverse impact on moistness. Quantity and "authenticity" aside, I think I liked this sausage more than Wildwood's, though not as much as RUB's or Hill Country's.
Brisket: I was looking forward to my first tasting of Blue Smoke's brisket. We asked if our brisket portion could be divided evenly between the "lean" and the "marbled" choices, and again, the kitchen accommodated, so that further mitigated the surcharge. The quantity was much more generous than the sausage (which may explain the lack of generosity with the sausage), supplying two lengthy slices from the flat and two separate chunks from the deckle. The slices had a prominent smoke ring, good tenderness, very good moisture, nice flavor with hints of sweetness mingling with the beef, with a tasty spice rub crust. The marbled brisket was more tender, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and not too much fat. Its flavor beefwise was superior to the sliced but lacked the rub treatment that I enjoy more. Both were very competently prepared, very enjoyable and easily among the top third of brisket I've sampled across New England and New York. Unfortunately, a comparison to three notable barbecue houses within a 10-block walk yields the same result as a comparison of Blyleven to the top pitchers of his era.
Pork: A burger-sized pile was topped with a light coating of the Original sauce. Although the meat wasn't pink like I like, I liked this pork, which at first was intimidating due to the higher-than-expected fat content and overcooked ("pre-chewed" comes to mind) consistency. Eventually I acquired a taste for it, and the memory improved after a few days of reflection. The pork had that appealing "piggy" flavor (possibly from parts of the animal beyond the shoulder) that a pig-loving friend of mine seeks. Of all the meats I tried, the beef rib is the one I'd most like to have again based on excellence, but the pork is the one I'm most looking forward to revisit based on pure curiosity. I think I'd prefer it in a sandwich though.
Chicken: A leg/thick quarter had extremely crisp skin, extremely tender meat, good moistness and a simple, straightforward chickeny flavor. As chicken goes, it was beyond reproach. I just wish it had more of a barbecue flavor profile. Although clearly smoked, it didn't have a smoky flavor or much of a barbecuey rub.
Summary/Outlook: I was looking forward to my dinner visit to Blue Smoke with hopes of being wowed or disappointed, so I could come back with tales of glory or horror, but neither happened. My opinion of Blue Smoke remains unchanged: they're good, but aside from the beef ribs, you can do better at other barbecue joints around town.
New York City BBQ: A Visit to Daisy May's
My recent New York BBQ trip included a quick stop at Daisy May's to see if their ribs had improved from last time. They did, slightly.
Ribs: A Saturday late lunch visit found both the sweet/sticky and dry rubbed varieties a little fresher tasting than last time, without losing that deep flavor intensity that hits you from bark to bone. I generally prefer the dry rubbed version, but the sweet and sticky for the second visit in a row proved superior, hitting each rib with just enough lubricant and flavor boost without giving the slightest idea that it was a crutch. The problem with the dry rub was that there was so much of it on the surface that it once again wound up being under-heated and chalky. Moisture was merely adequate on both. Smoke was more than noticeable on both, and rub brought a really pleasing, slightly sweet spiciness to both. Overall, these were good ribs that have been better than good in the past.
Cole slaw: This was outstanding, served refreshingly colder than room temperature but not ridiculously cold like usual. Flavor here was just as intense as in the ribs, with a hint of mustard collaborating with the mayo to provide a creamy kick.
Baked beans with burnt ends: These brought a nice smoky-molassesy fusion and a fresh texture, but New York's finest should put out an APB on the promised burnt ends. In five years of Daisy May's visits, some beans portions bring more burnt ends than others, but these had absolutely none.
Joints Directory Madness
Here's the latest batch of barbecue Joints directory activity, spanning four states. This time there are four new joints, two closings and one new website.
Mable's Smokehouse and Banquet Hall (Brooklyn NY) is yet another Williamsburg barbecuery that doesn't open 'til 5:00PM. The pre-opening photos on Thrillist have me digging the place just on their look and feel. I'd post one here, but stealing other people's photos isn't my thing. The menu looks pretty interesting, with a rotating assortment of late night snacks, including Velveeta/Ro-Tel queso dip, Frito pie and pulled pork and brisket tamales. Thanks to Chuck for the lead. www.mablessmokehouse.com
Great Brook Farms (Bolton MA) is a country style eatery currently on their winter schedule, which includes breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday. The barbecue lunch specials include pulled pork, brisket and ribs; more mainstream fare includes deli sandwiches, a Cuban and a couple of salads. Thanks to Steve for the lead. www.greatbrookfarms.com
The Dancing Pig (Cumberland RI) is a new 2-story joint that offers "American Comfort Food with a barbecue influence." Their menu already had me planning a couple of visits; this weekend's Platinum Plate review from TV Diner has accelerated that first visit. Thanks to owner Kyle for the heads-up. www.thedancingpigri.com
Route 22 Restaurant (Stamford CT) is now closed. For anyone interested in lame sudsy faux 'cue at nearly twice the price of real 'cue, their Armonk NY location is still open. www.rt22restaurant.com
Marfa (NYC) is now closed, ending the all you can eat specials that made visiting them such an enticement. Who knows whether it was those deals or the fact that they had to have them in the first place that drive them out of business.
Ember Room (NYC) is a new (opening Monday) Asian fusion barbecue restaurant that's a collaboration between Todd English and Ian Chalermkittichai. According to the menuless restaurant website, these "culinary geniuses" have created "a totally unique dining experience that blends Asian sensibilities with the American palate." A menu on Grub Street lists chocolate babyback ribs, two-textured shortribs, a pulled pork sandwich and whole suckling pig. Thanks to Robert for the lead. www.emberroom.com
Little Red Smokehouse (Carver MA) was listed as a back-from-the-dead reopening a while ago, but now their website is now finally working. The menu has even more new items than promised. www.littleredsmokehouse.com
New York City BBQ: Rodeo Bar Reviewed
The site's 206th barbecue review is posted for Rodeo Bar & Grill (NYC), a joint that bills itself as New York City's "premier Southern roadhouse." Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
My weekend visit to Rodeo Bar came within hours of a return visit to Blue Smoke, located just two and a half blocks west on 27th Street. I'll post my thoughts on that visit within a week.
Connecticut BBQ: Joey C's Reviewed
The site's 205th barbecue review is posted for Joey C's Roadhouse (Milford CT). Close to the halfway point between New York and Boston, Joey C's is easy to get to off the highway and close enough to the fast food alternatives that you could grab a takeout order and bring it somewhere else. How's the food? Find out in the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
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