Rack & Soul manages to squeeze a lot into a small space, both physically and with its cuisine. Upon entry you're greeted by a tall stack of wood, as is now customary at most New York City barbecue joints. Peek into the kitchen past the tiny 4-stool bar and the Ole Hickory smoker assures you that the wood isn't just for show. There are only a half dozen tables in the main dining area; additional seating is available in the back. The cozy decor includes a folk art painting of the legendary Charles Gabriel, who at Rack & Soul fries the chicken the slow way in cast iron pans. Assuaging any remaining fear that there may not be as much rack as soul at Rack & Soul is the fact that pitmaster John Wheeler won the 2008 grand championship at Memphis in May.
With a one-two combination of Gabriel's chicken and Wheeler's 'cue, it's surprising that Rack & Soul isn't as visible as the usual New York City barbecue suspects. Whether it's the borderline Harlem location or the lack of a PR juggernaut, I can't say. A long-overdue visit in early March 2009 let me find out for myself whether this was a soul food joint that happened to have barbecue or a barbecue joint with soul. It's both.
The Rack & Soul menu isn't long but it's quite versatile and flexible. Barbecue items include babyback pork ribs, beef short ribs, pulled pork, BBQ chicken and BBQ wings (not smoked). Soul fare includes the heralded fried chicken as well as ox tail, smothered chicken, smothered pork and fried catfish. Combinations are somewhat limited, with only two items and not all items available for inclusion. Appetizers are mostly from the sea: fried crawfish tails, sautéed crabcakes, fried oysters, shrimp and okra gumbo, sautéed chicken livers and four salads. A quartet of brunch menu items is available in addition to the standard fare on weekends. There are 16 different side dishes.
On a Sunday afternoon visit I was joined by a fellow food blogger known for his frequent posts on a nationally known food site. Rack & Soul was about half full and as far as I could tell, neither Wheeler nor Gabriel was onsite.
We decided to forego appetizers to instead enjoy an additional entree.
Ordering here was a breeze: three barbecue items (babybacks, pulled pork, short ribs) and fried chicken, dispersed among three plates with six sides.
As soon as the first round of plates hit the table, we knew this would be good. The babybacks ($17.95) were a half rack of meaty ribs that had a widespread but thin coating of sweet sauce on a light crust. The texture still had a little firmness but exemplified the inherent tenderness of the babybacks. The rub was a little lighter than I like, but the flavor overall was very pleasant: smoke was easily discernable and the moist meat was pleasantly porky.
Pulled pork shared a plate with fried chicken ($15.95 combo), but the huge mound of meat could have easily passed for a single meat platter. A generous drizzle of the same sweet sauce covered much of the meat but did not hide the fact that there was more bark per volume than any plate of pulled pork I have ever received. The chunks of pork were all fairly uniform, all moist with an almost fish-like flakiness. I've often used and heard comparisons to tuna fish when inferior pulled pork is being described, but this reminded me of tuna in a good way, with the moistness and consistency of tuna while it's still in the can, before it has a chance to be overmashed. The smoke level on the pork was a little lighter than on the ribs but still noticeable. The sauce, though sweet, worked well.
Fried chicken failed to move the earth beneath my feet, but it was nonetheless excellent: crisp, flaky, light, moist. I like a bit more seasoning, but who am I to complain when I have crisp, flaky, light and moist between my fingertips? I'd order it again in a heartbeat.
The beef short rib platter included two large ribs that combined provided as much meat as any of its counterparts further downtown, but with at least a 25% markdown ($14.95). The crust was less defined than the pork ribs but still evident; the saucing was also lighter. Also evident was the fat that's so typical of this cut, but there was far less of it here than is the norm. The meat had the faintest of smoke rings and a moist consistency with the characteristics of steak. Overall, this was nicely done, though cooked slightly past optimal and probably the least impressive of the four meats.
Sweet and hot barbecue sauces are available in plastic squeeze bottles on the table. Usually when these choices are offered I gravitate toward the spicy, but at Rack & Soul I prefer the sweet. Not an overpowering sweet, this one has some complexity and depth of flavor, with plenty of visible spices. It's also a little runnier, allowing a thin coating that avoids overwhelming whatever it's poured on. The hot seemed more like a kicked-up version of a typical (but good) thick commercial sauce.
A large scoop of potato salad was big on fresh flavors, with mustard, hard-boiled egg and herbs all standing out. Yams cranked up the sweetness quotient even higher while letting the vegetable shine instead of relying solely on pie ingredients as a crutch. Baked beans were soupy, slightly sweet and punched up with peppers, onions and plenty of pulled pork shreds. Collard greens were large of leaf and largely left unaltered flavorwise; I liked that they had a hint of firmness to them. Black-eyed peas were also unfussed with, cooked just past al dente with some grittiness to the texture. Mac and cheese typified the Southern/Soul style with a tight consistency and minimal cheese, but went outside the mainstream with surprising sweetness. Biscuits had a nice texture and were also oddly sweet.
The Bottom Line
Rack & Soul was a pleasant surprise, with the barbecue component every bit as satisfying as the fried chicken and soulful sides. I figured I'd like the place, but I wound up liking it a lot.
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