Had John Brown Smokehouse been located in a more suburban setting, it would look more like a typical brick wall pizzeria, but the auto body shop next door gives it a gritty edge. Inside, there are two rows of four-tops and an ordering counter with meats displayed in a case a la Fette Sau. An antique Victrola in one corner plays scratchy LPs that are nearly as old. The adjacent corner has a poster of namesake John Brown (which I instantly recognized from my junior high school books as one of the coolest looking lunatic historical figures ever, but would never be able to rattle off his name).
The actual brains behind the operation is another JB: Josh Bowen, a Kansas City native who previously manned the pits at Hill Country. All meats are smoked over pecan and peach wood in a Southern Pride electric smoker.
The menu at John Brown Smokehouse is very barbecue focused and seemingly narrow, but one that goes well outside the box and with great flexibility. Pork offerings include St Louis cut spare ribs, rib tips, pulled pork and pork belly. Beef options include brisket, burnt ends, a Baltimore style pit beef sandwich (smoked and grilled bottom round) and a smoked-then-grilled burger made with fresh ground beef. Lamb sausages and smoked chickens round out the basic meats. Flexibility reigns supreme here. Ribs are sold by the quarter, half and whole slab; chickens can be had as quarter, half and whole birds. All boneless meats are available in sandwiches or by the pound. Combo plates are available with up to three meats, with one or two sides.
I spaced two visits about a month apart, hitting John Brown Smokehouse for a Monday lunch a week into the operation and a Saturday lunch for the follow-up.
A disclosure: on my second visit, I dined with a group of 16 in a scheduled event of the NY BBQ Lovers Meetup Group. So while the restaurant knew that a group of barbecue aficionados was attending, my own attendance was not known ahead of time. The restaurant may have been putting its best foot forward for the group, but the large party size and my own late meat picks after everyone else took theirs offset any unfair advantage they might have had from a not-so-random sampling. It also explains why the photos from the second visit are a little less complete than the first.
A second disclosure: before complimenting me on my gentlemanliness in letting the other guests take their meats before I served myself, know that the real reason I chose last was that I was in line at the counter ordering a smoked burger.
Lamb sausage: The first thing I tasted at John Brown Smokehouse was a 3/4-inch sample of the lamb sausage, offered up by affable pit dude John as a means of making sure that the medium-rare doneness was acceptable. I like that. Why serve it only one way—whether medium rare or more done—when you can please both ends of the spectrum and develop some goodwill at the same time? I liked it as is, with its slightly squishy (though still fully cooked) and more than slightly moist texture, but my young bride preferred it done a little more. After a quick grilling, it was more done but still very moist, with red coloring typical of lamb sausage regardless of doneness. Flavor was mostly lamb, which was sufficiently satisfying on its own that only the slight boost from a mere kiss of smoke and spice was needed. The casing wasn't so crisp, but it was a fair tradeoff for the good inner moistness. There's some good sausage elsewhere in the city, so I liked that this offering is different from the rest and executed well. The second visit's lamb sausage was identical, with a delicate consistency, strong lamb flavor and more subtle smoke flavor.
Burnt ends: Since they're a Kansas City delicacy, the pitmaster's KC roots gave me high hopes and high curiosity as to style, but the burnt ends wound up a bit disappointing on both fronts. Stylistically, they were the same as RUB's, so the novelty provided by the sausage wasn't matched here. Execution took a hit due to high fattiness, low crispness and only moderate juiciness, but all three characteristics were remedied on the second visit. Smoke and rub levels on both visits were excellent, and I like the flavor of the rub as much as I do the quantity. With a little less salt and a little more sugar than are typically used on beef, this rub made the burnt ends taste a little porky, to which I have no objection whatsoever.
Rib tips: The best looking item in the display case beckoned like a meaty beacon on the first visit, and the rub that I liked on the burnt ends was applied a little heavier here—coming out more crisp and more lively, infusing the meat with flavor all the way down to the center. Unquestionably moist, the tips didn't gush juices, but the flavor was so intoxicatingly captivating that it didn't matter. I got into the caramel-like chewiness and polished off nearly all of it. I often speak of that undescribable "magic" that happens when pork, rub and smoke mix in the right amounts to create something very special. It doesn't happen often, but it happened with the rib tips at John Brown Smokehouse.
Chicken: Rubbery skin was well seasoned, but the rub didn't reach down below the skin. The inner meat was extremely moist and downright juicy, with a restrained but noticeable smokiness. I didn't like the texture with the skin on, and the flavor was too muted with the skin off.
Ribs: The first thing I liked about these ribs on the first visit was the cut, whose thickness reached into the belly. The thin fat layer between the two meaty layers created the perfect composition for moisture and flavor. Color was more brown than pink, but there was no doubt these were smoked. The crust was well formed, probably a little more from the cooking process than from a rub as liberally applied as on the other meats. That crust looked attractive but was a little shy of crisp. Doneness was just about perfect, yielding a below-the-crust texture that was dead on perfect: the bite was clean and tender, the rest of the meat stayed put and a torrent of slurpy juices was unleashed. Rub penetration wasn't the same as with the tips, so the overall flavor was more porky than rubby, but more than satisfying. To add sauce to these ribs would be sacrilege.
Pulled Pork: Easily the best thing I tried on the first visit, the pulled pork presented the complete package, adding the pink color and crispness that the ribs lacked and the juiciness that the rib tips lacked. The pork-smoke-rub flavor magic was again fully in play, with just the right amount of warm liquid fat to elevate things even higher. Each piece was delicate and tender while still maintaining the right resistance to the bite. The second visit brought the same high qualities, with maybe a little less resistance and a little more silky moistness, but just as good. I'd rank the pulled pork at John Brown Smokehouse right up there with the best I've had at a restaurant.
Pork belly: Cut on the first visit into long strips with the thin band of fat matched even up with a band of meat, the pork belly had a nice porky flavor that wasn't matched with enough smoke, rub or complementary surface crispness. On the return visit, the belly arrived as thicker slabs with less droop, more smoke and a better meat-to-fat ratio.
Brisket: Tried only on the second visit, the brisket arrived in fairly thin slices that had decent crusting, minimal fat, minimal pink color, decent flavor and borderline moistness. Overall, pretty average.
Burger: A thick smoked-then-grilled burger arrived on a puffy sesame seed bun with bread and butter pickles, lettuce and tomato. Cheese was absent but certainly not missing, as this burger was all about the unmitigated beefiness. Aggressively seasoned and punctuated with just enough smoke to enhance, this burger brought a sturdy outer surface that gave way to a voluminously pink interior steadily erupting meat juices. It's already one of my favorite barbecue joint burgers, and I'd be disappointed if the stated plans to discontinue it become a reality.
A single full-bodied, full-flavored sauce in squeeze bottles is unlike any I've tried, with the possible exception of the chocolate barbecue sauce at Ember Room in Manhattan. I have a few ideas of what may be in it, but I'm still not sure. I really liked the flavor of it, but I didn't have much opportunity to put it to use, as most of the meats were either fine with no additional assistance or so delicate that such a bold sauce would be overwhelming.
Cole slaw: Whether by expert hand or machine, the cabbage both times was sliced perfectly thin, hit with a refreshing and not overpowering vinegar and invigorated with thin rings of jalapeno. This was a nice complement to the 'cue, and if I lived in the area, I'd stop by almost as often for this as for the meats. This is one of my favorite three cole slaws of all time.
Mac and cheese: A tight Southern style with a flap of cheese over the top didn't have enough over the top flavor for me.
Rice and beans: A little plain, but I liked the texture that wasn't dry and wasn't flooded as if it were trying to be paella or risotto. I'm not sure that these are still on the menu.
Baked beans: I liked the texture here, centered halfway between al dente and mushy. I also liked the liberal addition of beefy meat scraps. I even liked the gentle sour notes. I'd really like more smoke though, because somehow even with the meat, the beans were a little on the plain side.
Fries: Dark, crisp crinklecuts were probably frozen but cooked and seasoned properly.
The Bottom Line
After trying eight barbecue meats (nine if you count the burger) and five sides at John Brown Smokehouse, I can say without a doubt that it will be a part of my regular New York City barbecue rotation. Some of the meats would (and probably will) benefit from improvements in texture, but I have no quibble at all with the pleasing barbecue flavors or the overall direction of the joint. That they were mostly good with some very high highs on a Monday lunch just a week into their operation speaks volumes about the place. The Saturday lunch follow-up had fewer home runs but more hits. John Brown Smokehouse still has a very high upside, but even right now, I'll take their pork troika of ribs, rib tips and pulled pork over just about anyone's, with the burnt ends an additional must-order.
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