Review Date: 10/29/17
Visit Date: (10/08/17)
In a quiet, predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Crown Heights, Izzy's Brooklyn Smokehouse has a nondescript facade with the windows virtually covered. It's kosher barbecue, served Sunday through Thursday; they're closed Friday/Saturday in observance of the sabbath.
There's no pork, obviously, but the menu is hardly sparse. Beef and chicken appear as wings, half smoked chickens, smoked-then-fried chicken sandwiches, smoked brisket, sausages, pulled beef empanadas and tacos, beef back ribs and beef short ribs. There's also smoked turkey, smoked lamb ribs and a burger.
I made three visits over a year ago and one very recently, so although I'll allude to the previous visits, this is mostly a report on the 2017 pilgrimage. I hit them with a carniverous cousin on a Sunday afternoon, with Young Bride in tow (she ate four fries and got full). Interestingly, on the first three visits the joint was packed; this time it was mostly empty after opening with a slow trickle later.
Wings were part of the meal, but ordered in a later round, so I'll go in chronological order to best tell the story in the next section.
Chicken: This is my fourth visit to Izzy's and the fourth time I tried the smoked half chicken ($20). The first time turned in one of the best examples I've ever had: big bird, lots of speckles on the crust from rub and heat, and lots of juiciness inside with an aromatic flavor. Successive tries have been less successful. This one had a large breast but very petite dark meat section, and to make matters worse, it wasn't dark at all: the skin was as pale and flabby as something that was boiled, not smoked. Inside, the meat was both a little tough and tough to cut. Flavor was okay. Moisture was there, but a small dose. Ditto smoke. In short, a disappointment, especially at $20 for half a bird.
Brisket: A simple presentation on a lined metal tray with slices at one corner and pickles and onions at the other, the brisket ($20 for a half pound) showed very light crust and light grayish cross sections with hints of a smoke ring. Despite more than hints of unrendered fat, they looked a little dry but didn't feel dry at all to the tongue. These were surprisingly juicy slices that were completely giving without breaking apart. Beef flavor was strong and pleasant, with rub at mid strength and smoke more mild. Certainly not groundbreaking brisket (save for the refreshing lightness almost never felt with beef), and not among the very best, but solid (certainly better than it looked) and well above average. Previous visits were stronger on the brisket front.
Wings: Petite wings ($9 for about eight pieces) arrive in a boat, smoked first, then deep-fried, then lightly glazed with a sticky sauce that strikes a midpoint between honey and Asian chilli. They're crisp outside, moist inside, starting out sweet with the heat catching up as you go along. A good one, and nearly identical to my first try a yar earlier.
Lamb Ribs: When I ordered these ribs (by the rack; $25 per pound), the counter man warned that they're 50% fat, but that's how lamb is, so we went for it. The standard prep here is for the lamb ribs to be covered with onions, but I opted for them on the side. The foot-long rack of about eight carved bones had wide and narrow ends, just like pork ribs, and the crust showcased a beautiful mahogany finish with a profusion of rub. Fat, which can sometimes be a problem with lamb ribs, wasn't a problem at all (and nowhere near even half the quoted 50%): it was melted almost fully into the meat, which slid off the bone like two tectonic plates. Every bite was fully juicy and strongly lamby. The rub had crunch and a complementary flavor (slightly sweet, mostly savory) that let the lambiness sing loudest. Smoke was in there too, but light. These were among the best lamb ribs I ever had, and easily in the same league as the ones once sold at Wildwood. Maybe even better. With these ribs, the meal that started in the red pulled comfortably into the black. And I'm not going to drop any "bah bah black sheep" references.
Beef Back Ribs: These are the smaller beef ribs, similar to the ones sold on Thurdays (and previously full time) at Blue Smoke, that are sized for someone to eat a few of in a single sitting. Izzy's was out of them on this visit, but I did see another table receive them before we concluded, and they looked pretty good. Note that there's barbecue sauce drizzled over them unless you request otherwise. I wish the counter man gave us a heads up that they'd be out shortly, because I would have preferred those over the short rib solely because I hadn't tried their back ribs yet.
Beef Short Rib: Also called a "Dino" bone ($25 per pound), this is a large hunk of meat (typically two pounds) on a long bone best ordered for sharing among a group. As with all entree items, it's served on a tray with cole slaw and pickles. This monstrosity had a glistening cross section with an attractive smoke ring; its thick black crust bore a moderate dusting of peppery rub. That hardened crust belied an jiggly feel that made cutting a breeze. The meat tore easily, revealing pink to ruby shreds that were fully moist and borderline juicy. Smoke played a part, but this was mostly about the strong beef flavor and its varying textures from soft to wilting to stringy to crunchy.
There's one barbecue sauce and it's yourbasic generic sweet brown and tangy. Nothing noteworthy. None of the meats needed it.
Cole Slaw: It comes with every entree, so there's no need to order on its own. It's as simple as it gets, with very crisp red cabbage, tart vinegar, and that's about it.
Mashed Potatoes: Not only are all mashed potatoes not created alike; gravies can vary greatly also. Here, even though a poultry-based gravy would still be kosher, it's nixed in favor of caramelized onions, which elevate the potato even better. They mix well with the fluffy potato and the oniony juices make the dish fragrant and unique. I can't imagine not getting this again next time.
Baked Beans: A few different kinds of beans, cooked just past al dente, with beef scraps and a sweet condiment more similar to barbecue sauce than the more savory earlier version. More enjoyable than most, but I enjoyed the unique version from last year, with its addictive secret ingredient, a little more.
Fries: These were as ordinary as the mashed potatoes were extraordinary. Most likely frozen.
Lunch with five items (chicken, brisket, wings, lamb ribs, beef rib) and tip came to $200 on the nose, which is a testament (Old Testament) to both our aggressive ordering and the high cost of kosher foods. Whether that's a filling lunch for two at $100 each or a tasting for four at $50 each, that's paying a lot for the quantiy received. Some might call the pricing here gouging, but the sourcing of kosher meats brings a higher cost to the establishment. If your diet requires kosher meat, that's part of the deal. If not, it might not be such a deal, especially when receiving an item—like the chicken on this visit—that's not near their best. But overall, the quality makes it worth an occasional splurge, best done with a sharing-among-the-crowd strategy. Just know it's going to be a splurge, even by New York standards.
Whether it's the meat or the methodology, the proteins here aren't as heavy as most, and won't leave you with that weighed-down feeling when you're done. That's a good thing.
The Bottom Line
Some highs and lows, but overall, a solid meal, with the lamb ribs among the best I've ever had. You can do very well here and not miss the pork. Are they ready to join NYC's barbecue elite? Not yet, but based on a combination of this and previous visits, I'd probably put Izzy's in that next tier or two.
Yelp reviews of Izzy's Brooklyn Smokehouse
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