(10/27/13) (01/05/14) (03/22/14)
Not much more than a stone's throw from the Barclays Center on busy Flatbush Avenue is Morgan's BBQ, a Texas style barbecue joint with a small bar, an open kitchen, a tight but comfortable interior and minimalist decor. The opening pitmaster was John Avila, who previously worked at the nationally recognized Franklin Barbecue in Austin, but based on social media monitoring and a recent inquiry, I learned that he is no longer involved. The smoker is a J&R.
Outdoor dining is an option in warmer months. Meats are available mostly by the pound, presented mostly unsauced with a strong black pepper component in the simple rub.
Barbecue meats include pork ribs, a beef shortrib, lean and fatty brisket, pulled pork, full and half chickens, beef sausages, pork sausages, sliced turkey and smoked-then-fried turkey tails. Other meat options include chili, soft tacos, Frito pie, loaded baked potatoes and sandwiches made with the boneless meats. Also available are several combinations of smoked meats with macaroni and cheese from The Elbow Room (the mac and cheese joint next door).
I spaced three visits at roughly two month intervals, starting and ending with Saturday lunches, squeezing a Sunday dinner in between, all accompanied by two to four barbecue accomplices.
Chili: More of a beef soup with interesting garlicky chivey broth and a beefy cream of mushroom feel (in addition to chile flavor), the chili ($5/cup) is refreshingly different here. It boasted little steaky chunks on the first visit and a broader assortment of meats on the third visit, with both bowls bean-free and relatively light on meat. Again, not a standard chili but not bad at all.
Sausage: Tried simultaneously on visit 1, both varieties ($5/link) were pale with nary a
hint of snap to the casing. To make matters worse, the pork link—also a
little dry and very light on flavor—had a stringy, floss-like casing
making it nearly inedible. The superior beef link was legit juicy, with
bolder smoke flavor, more beefiness and more noticeable spices. This one
was at least doable even with soggy casing, but didn't really distinguish
itself as something special the way many Texas style examples do. I
planned to revisit the links on visit 3 but learned they'll be changing
recipes and soon made in house, so I deferred until after the
switch. Based on other improvements from visit 1 (one of the joint's
earliest Saturday lunches) to visit 3, I'm guessing that future sausage
improvement (pretty hard not to, considering where they're starting from) might have as much to do with execution as recipe.
Brisket: On the first visit we tried both the lean ($20/lb) and the fatty ($22/lb). Lean was mostly dry and mostly flavorless. Fatty had better soft texture along with moisture and some (roast) beefy flavor along with unrendered fat. Smoke was in short supply. A pitmaster hailing not only from Texas but the highest regarded barbecue joint in the state brings high expectations, yet this brisket was nothing to write home about.
The second visit took a big step up with fatty brisket that had crunchy edges, a caramel-textured interior and an elevated moisture level that reached full fledged juiciness. Smoke was still light, but this batch was much more lively, also benefitting from night visit freshness and a heavier dose of coarse black pepper.
The third crack at the fatty brisket came on a Saturday afternoon, finding it not so fresh but still enjoyable. Crust was softened but still there, as was moistness, though steamy. Flavor had the familiar black pepper that not only tweaked the surface but permeated the meat fully with light heat. It certainly succeeded from a flavor standpoint and might have excelled if smoker-fresh.
Pork ribs: Sold by the pound ($12) as long St Louis cut spares, the ribs carry a
simple, heavy rub that's more pepper than salt. The first visit's batch
was a gross disappointment, coming in overcooked and more than a little steamy,
with hardly any color or smoke. It's not that I'm questioning whether
they were smoked, but rather that it was a brutally obvious reheat whose holding
and/or refrigeration probably washed away whatever smokiness and color
may have been there originally. More salt and cayenne might have rounded things out,
though that's just a personal preference; overall flavor was good.
The second visit's ribs showed more color and brought more structure while maintaining the same pleasantly potent pork perking pepperiness. While the steaminess evaporated this time, so did moisture. Though I'd hesitate to call them dry, they lacked the pork nectar that makes a great rib great. That aside, the doneness was just right. A second round of ribs had better moisture but still fell short of flowing.
Visit 3—oddly enough, a Saturday afternoon visit—fulfilled the previous one's potential with very fresh product that combined flavor and texture in the same bite. About that flavor: again mostly black pepper, a little smoke and less porkiness than last time. A little less crisp on the crust too, but interior tenderness compensated nicely. Overall, impressive.
Knowing how many ribs you need but having to guess how much weight to order—half pound versus three-quarters versus a full pound—is a little annoying. If they charge by the pound why not just let me say how many ribs I want, weigh them, and charge me however much the weight times the per-pound price is.
Pulled pork: Far and away best item of the meal, the first visit's pulled pork
($18/lb) boasted high bark content, a velvety texture, tenderness that would
never be mistaken for mushiness, free flowing juices similarly not to be
mistaken for steam, and a very fresh feel. But the most noticeable
attribute? An aggressive pepper rub not expected with pork but very
invigorating and very much at home in this setting. Although less of a
standout on visit 2 due to improvements elsewhere, the pulled pork
maintained the flavor potency and duplicated the freshness. On visit 3
(Saturday mid afternoon), freshness took a slight hit, as it felt like a
reheat, but flavor was still strong. Overall, some unique and
surprisingly good pork that I'd place somewhere among the better ones in
Beef ribs: The giant beef short rib (about $26 at $13 per pound) was the only real
disappointment on visit 2. Unlike the rest of the menu, this beast
arrived fully sauced. Though much of it was tender and moist, much of it
was rubbery and not so moist, and much more of it was blubbery unrendered fat. Flavor was okay, with less of the black pepper and more straight beef under the sauce. Though roughly only half the cost as the brisket per pound, it wound up being much more expensive when considering how much was inedible and discarded. Better to just get brisket, which has proven superior 2 out of 3 times. On visit 3 the beef rib was not available for mid afternoon service, but I did see a few pass by on their way to a private party. These were unsauced and looked much better.
Turkey: This is not an item I get at barbecue joints with any frequency, but on
visit 3 the opportunity arose. A quarter pound ($4) brought thin
white slices with very peppery edges and very moist interiors—especially for breast meat. The saturated meat was extremely tender, delicate and not
at all brittle. Smoke was light but there. I'd love to try a thick stack
of it in a sandwich, but taken in small nibbles with no condiments
needed, it did just fine and was a surprise hit of the meal.
Turkey tails: This one ($12) is the exception to the meats-by-the-pound, a la carte
menu treatment. On a bed of collard greens sided with a block of
cornbread, you get three plump rumps (literally) of turkey—smoked,
deep fried without batter and lightly coated with a vinegary sauce
thicker than Tabasco but thinner than Buffalo. On visit 2 this was
fresh, juicy and supremely tender; on visit 3 it was a little stiffer
and closer to moist than juicy but still enjoyable. On both tries the smoke penetrated
nicely. If you're ever there with three or more people to share, this is a must-order for diversity alone, and on a good night it's truly a treat.
There's just one bottled sauce on the table and it's similar to if not the same as what's used on the turkey tails: a vinegary tomato-based sauce
thicker than Tabasco but thinner than Buffalo.
I'm not going to lie: because all of the visits came on crawls of up to four joints, side dishes have been de-emphasized in both the ordering and tasting to sample as many meats as possible. Since the few I've tried have not had a lasting impression, I'll keep it brief.
Cole slaw: A simple home style version that's not too sweet, creamy or tangy.
Mac and cheese: This is a one-size-fits-all approach: not too tight, not too creamy, not too sharp, just enough moisture and more than enough crumbage on top.
Collard greens: Another simple and basic version, tried only with the turkey tails. Theirs is cooked well past wilting and served without broth.
Cornbread: A coarse, spongey block with corny flavor, Play-Doh consistency and jalapeno inclusion.
Service has been a strong suit. All of the servers I've had have been friendly and knowledgeable, and the rest have made table appearances helping out in their team-first concept.
The menu itself is the star here, as the pricing and flexibility make it very easy to get what you want, and how much you want, without breaking the bank.
The Bottom Line
Morgan's has had some ups (more of them recently) and downs (more at the outset). And there's been just enough quality
to suggest that the early lunch visit was an aberration and just enough recent near misses to convince that there's still some room for improvement. All things considered, Morgan's is an easy, cost-friendly Texas style barbecue option that's not quite in NYC's upper echelon but a possible contender for that second tier—on the right night.
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