New Hampshire native and Georgia transplant Alan Natkiel caused somewhat of a stir in the summer of 2007 when he announced that his new Manhattan BBQ joint would be cooking ribs the authentic Georgia way: steamed then grilled. Among the city's growing legion of BBQ purists, who insist that true barbecue can only be cooked over wood using a smoker or similar aparatus, that put Georgia's Eastside BBQ at a distinct disadvantage. Add the more media-friendly openings at Hill Country and Southern Hospitality during the same time period and you have a BBQ restaurant south of Houston Street that was largely overlooked.
Still, Georgia's has its fans, who like the charm of the small 3-table, 5- stool joint that plays funky music, allows BYOB and has its menu carved into a huge slab of wood on the wall. That the barbecue itself is not produced in a smoker is a matter of fact. Whether the barbecue is authentic is a matter of opinion. You could argue that many of the smokers that have yielded trophies on the competition trail use water as well as wood, so there's a steaming component along with the smoke. You could argue that the intimacy of the Georgia's space and the personal attention to both the food preparation and service make it every bit as authentic as the rib factories with multiple smokers further uptown. Whether the barbecue is good is what I set out to determine on my first visit, a little less than a year after their opening.
The minimalist menu features a small subset of the barbecue staples available at most other Manhattan BBQ joints, and that's fine as long as the execution is there. Georgia's offers one type of rib—babybacks—as full and half rack dinners (with two sides), and as a sandwich with four bones. Chicken is available as a "BBQ" half bird or fried chicken dinner, with chopped BBQ chicken and fried chicken also offered in sandwiches. Pulled pork can also be ordered as a dinner or a sandwich any day of the week. Brisket is a Tuesday special. The menu would benefit from the addition of a two-meat or three-meat combo.
Grilled chicken wings are offered in two varieties: BBQ (sauced then grilled) and Sampson (spicy dry rub only). Hamburgers and hotdogs add a backyard barbecue (1960s definition) presence.
Sides are equally minimalist, with just three hot and three cold sides to choose from.
On Sundays they have an all-you-can-eat ribs deal (with two sides, $28.00).
I visited Georgia's solo on an early Sunday afternoon, arriving with an open mind. I was surprised that a place so small had table service.
I didn't try any appetizers on my visit, but the wings sounded good in theory despite not being smoked. If they were smoked I'd have ordered them in a heartbeat.
Not having a dining companion that day required some creativity, so I ordered a rib sandwich ($7.00), a pulled pork sandwich ($6.00) and two sides ($3.00 each).
I really like the idea of the rib sandwich option, because it's an easy and affordable add-on to another sandwich or entree. The quarter rack is served between two slices of white bread, but it's obviously not meant to be eaten as a sandwich. The average size ribs were lightly sauced (much lighter than I expcted), with a heavy, noticeable rub beneath the sauce that reminded me of Shake 'n Bake. The meat wasn't pink, but it was very juicy and pulled easily from the bone. If you like Shake 'n Bake and don't require any smoky flavor, you'll like these ribs, which are done in the style of a chain restaurant rib but with much better execution. That's not my cup of tea, but for what it was, it was pretty good.
I can't say the same for the pulled pork, supplied in large chunks of (very) white and brown meat whose flavor and texture were very close to chicken breast. Like the ribs, there was no smoky flavor. Unlike the ribs, there was no noticeable rub or spice component to enhance the fairly bland meat. That probably explains the generous helping of cole slaw and barbecue sauce on the sandwich to add moisture and flavor. With the ribs, you could "squint" your taste buds and try to talk yourself into believing you're eating real barbecue. With the pork, there's no escaping the obvious: this is oven-cooked pork and not very moist.
The mildly spicy sauce that topped my ribs bore a much stronger resemblance to ketchup than any barbecue sauce I'd expect to see in Georgia. It's also provided in small ramekins with each order, though I'd prefer to see multiple sauces available on the table.
Cole slaw was thin sliced, crisp and very light on condiment. Ordinarily I'd say its flavor was much too subtle for my liking, but I thought it worked as a foil to the sweet meats. Collard greens were presented with jumbo leaves, firmness intact. The broth beneath was just sweet enough to cut the bitterness without upstaging the natural vegetable flavor. I really enjoyed them. Fries on an adjacent table looked good.
The bottom line: I think of Georgia's the same way I think of old school take out Chinese joints: it's not a place I'd head to often, but with expectations set accordingly, every once in a while it can be a nice change of pace from its more serious competition.
NYC Food Guy on Georgia's Eastside BBQ
Thrillist review of Georgia's Eastside BBQ
Roadfood's review of Georgia's Eastside BBQ
Yelp reviews of Georgia's Eastside BBQ
Urban Spoon reviews of Georgia's Eastside BBQ