On a busy stretch of Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights sits G. Lee's, a new barbecue joint with an old look and feel. By old, I'm talking 1980s Irish bar converted into a country western theme, the way barbecue joints used to do: wagon wheels, tin silhouettes of a cowboy and (anatomically correct) cowgirl, kitschy signage, mounted cowboy hats, a revolver on a shelf. You get the idea. Cowboy hats are also a required part part of the server uniform.
The narrow room is dark and mostly dominated by the long bar at the entry that you pass on the way to 2- and 4-top seating. Drinks also seem to be a menu focus, with a separate menu and numerous specials.
There's a Southern Pride smoker in the kitchen.
G. Lee's compact menu focuses almost exclusively on barbecue. The two appetizers are rib tip and smoked wings. Ribs are full cut spares available by the half rack, full rack or a pair, all served (as are all entrees) with a cup of cole slaw. There's also smoked chicken and pulled pork, available as individual platters or together with a trio of ribs on the Meat Lovers Combo. Sides are offered a la carte. The three sandwiches are a pulled pork po' boy, a catfish po' boy and a smoked burger.
I visited G. Lee's on Easter Sunday for an early dinner kick-off to a Brooklyn crawl, joined by my young bride and three well versed barbecue aficionados.
Rib Tips: A boatful of trimmed meaty sections ($9.95) from the ends of would-be spare ribs brought a strong rub presence and recognizable smoke, both making their way through a generous saucing that added some sweetness. Most of the moisture came from the sauce. The meat was tender, though it had a little of that sitting-around feel. Bold multidimensional flavor made these rib tips serviceable even if not at the peak of freshness.
Wings: Eight pieces ($9.95) are smoked, deep fried, then glazed with barbecue sauce, a close approximation of what went on the rib tips but a little thinner and a little more tart. The saucing—lighter here than on the rib tips—didn't obscure the smoky flavor (light) or the rub flavor (more predominant and very pleasant) but did affect the crispness of the skins, which were right on the border of crisp and uncrisp. The inner meat was tender, somewhat juicy and fully flavored from either the rub and smoke or perhaps an additional brine. Nothing really to hang your hat on here, and a boost in crispness would go along way, but thanks to flavor I'd say these wings were still above average.
Pork ribs: Ordered on the Meat
Lovers combo ($19.95), these unsauced lengthy spares impressed with high rub content and strong, balanced flavor in that rub. It felt like a reheat, but at least the rub felt crisped by it, which is not always the case with a dense rub topping. That appealing rub worked its way deep into the meat, as did light smoke, giving the ribs a nice flavor that would have really shined had they been a little juicier and fresher. Like the wings and rib tips, still above average, with the potential to be very good on a busier night.
Chicken: Served unsauced by default, what seemed like all white meat had a nicely speckled surface. But the rub that proved successful in the previous meats didn't have much effect on the chicken, and the smoke level here didn't match what was in the wings. Less-than-crisp skin and lack of moisture—some bites were extremely dry—didn't help. With no redeeming qualities, a below average item for sure.
Pulled pork: A generous boat of pulled pork (probably enough for two sandwiches) on the Meat
Lovers combo was another below average item. On the plus side, the meat was served as good sized chunks that weren't overmashed. On the other side of the ledger, moisture was again fleeting, the rub was again a letdown, overall flavor was AWOL, and it felt like another not-so-heartfelt reheat. Most of it sat uneaten.
There are two sauces: a barbecue saucee (thick, brown, sweet, tangy) and a hot sauce (thin, vinegary, tangy, spicy).
Cole slaw: I like that the cabbage is crisp and that a cup of cole slaw is included with all the meat platters. I don't like that the condiment does little more than moisten it—there's no creaminess, tartness, spice or flavor elevation of any kind—and that it's so small.
Fries: These appeared to be hand-cut, with skins on and dusted with enough barbecue rub to liven them significantly. The exteriors were crisp, the interiors tender overall flavor good. A highlight for sure.
Mac and cheese: It's described as having a jalapeño component, but the heat really didn't come through. Some bites were very creamy, others were only slightly creamy, but as regular mac and cheese, even though there wasn't much fanfare, it got the job done.
Communication between the front of the house and the back of the house was out of synch. It took long stretches of time after ordering some items to find out that they were out of them. Just let the servers know what you're out of, so they can tell us what not to order before we order it and wait for it.
One of those items was the burger, which they were out of at first, then they had it, then they didn't have it, then we saw two burgers make their way to other tables. On the plus side, the burgers at least looked very good.
Even the items they had took long stretches of time to prepare. Obtaining plates to share our bounty took a full 10 minutes, and this with only one other table occupied.
The Bottom Line
The Easter night visit probably didn't catch G. Lee's at their best, but some of the items—wings, ribs and rib tips—showed good promise. Off night or not, some kinks need to be worked out, both in the kitchen and out front. With a little tweaking, more turnover and as much emphasis on food as drink, this under-the-radar hideaway could be a nice neighborhood joint. For now, a mixed bag that I'm rooting for and one I'd return to if not right away.
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