Ask any real New Yorkers about the biggest cons of living in the city, and a lack of space will surely make their list. Having access to a backyard is as rare as having a subway car to yourself. The subtext here could not be more obvious. Because what you really lose with not having a yard of your own is this: the ability to cook with open fire.
Fire—the original storytelling platform. Where we once gathered round to hear tales and myths. Before Netflix and chill, we had fire and heat. When we tamed it, fire distinguished us from our competing animal kingdom predators. It provided us warmth, protection, and the opportunity to cook food way more deliciously than ever before. I’m talking here, of course, about grilled meats. Fire gave us barbecue; we are forever in debt to the mighty blaze.
Luckily for all us yard-less folks, over the past decade NYC has gone through something of a barbecue boom. And because of my inability to secure shelter with enough room to fire up a grill—paired with my desire to scratch my primal itch—I’ve roamed and continue to roam the city as far as the D train will take me (and even beyond) in search of seared, smoky bliss. Here is what I’ve discovered along my saucy travels. If you follow in my hungry footsteps, be sure to pack a few moist towelettes.
The Original Smoke Shop
The guys at John Brown Smokehouse have been dishing out succulent barbecue in LIC since way before the Great NYC Barbecue Boom. They serve Kansas City–style barbecue, which is known for its dry-rubbed, slow-cooked meats and spicy sauce kissed with molasses. But what really stands out are their burnt ends. The burnt ends were the discarded parts of the brisket because of their outer dryness and toughness and usually kept for staff, given away, or repurposed. Calvin Trillin, genius eater that he is, realized that the ends would act as a sponge for the smoky flavor. And a delicacy was born. John Brown Smokehouse pays proper homage to that Kansas City gift. 10-43 44th Drive, Long Island City
The Backyard Oasis
If you’re looking for the backyard barbecue feeling minus all the backbreaking schlepping, pop over to Pig Beach. Don’t worry, it’s not an actual beach, so no one will look at you askance as the sweet sauce dribbles down your chin. And part of me believes barbecue tastes better outside, where the wind wafts mouthwatering smoke aromas across your face. I usually order the burger, which comes with the option of a single, double, or triple patty. And if you’re feeling extra ambitious, make it a “biggie” by adding pulled pork. The melted white American cheese mingles with the secret sauce and, together, they cascade down the burger mountain in blissful harmony. This, in turn, causes Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction to moan, “Mmm, this is a tasty burger” inside my head with every bite. 480 Union Street, Gowanus
The Jewish Deli–Barbecue Baby
The winner of most creative barbecue sandwich goes to…Salt and Bone. Its Reuben is a glistening union of everything’s-bigger-in-Texas-ness crossed with a heroic NYC sandwich. The Colossus comes in two sizes: the Little or Giant Reuben. The little ain’t too little. It packs half a pound of brisket, velvety cheese sauce (American for queso), Thousand Island dressing, and tart sauerkraut, all on thick-cut Russian rye. When you are having a “sin is in” day, you’ll experience gluttony on a biblical level. 32-07 30th Avenue, Astoria
The Whole Hog
In North Carolina, barbecue is all about the pig—and nothing else. There is even an in-state divide over what should be considered true hog barbecue. In eastern North Carolina, the law is whole hog barbecue. West of U.S. Highway 1, barbecue gets defined as strictly pork shoulder, cooked with an aggressive smoking strategy that allows the flavors to seep deep. Lucky for us, the grungy Bushwick garage–turned–barbecue joint Arrogant Swine delivers both options. It is the only spot in NYC that does the daily whole hog barbecue. It even sources its hogs from the Piedmont region of North Carolina to keeps it superofficial. I like the smoked shoulder, which is cut into chunks and smoked into what the restaurant calls “bark.” The bark has a kind of football-like outer layer (think: tasty pigskin) that masterfully captures the hours of smoke within. 173 Morgan Avenue, Bushwick
The One With Dessert for Dinner
Speaking of burnt ends, Butcher Bar in Astoria has been serving up some of the best burnt ends in all of NYC (it has a résumé stuffed with awards to prove it). It sources all its meat locally from ethically raising, grass-feeding farms and diligently butchers everything in-house. BB has its burnt ends marked as Meat Candy, which is as spot-on as you can get for a burnt end. The outer shell of the candy has the consistency of dark chocolate brownies. But these little meat morsels attack your taste buds like tiny prizefighters landing combinations on your tongue. In a good way! I could eat this dish like a bowl of Skittles. 37-10 30th Avenue, Astoria
The Chain That’s Worth It
Mighty Quinns are popping up everywhere. Same with Dallas BBQs and Dinosaurs. The one local chain that works for me, though, is Hill Country BBQ. The Manhattan spot is great for groups and families. It even has live-band karaoke one night a week. I am quite fond of much of its menu, but am especially into the pork ribs. Especially on its all-you-can-eat Mondays. They are served naked—the slathering of sauce is optional. The seasoning and smoke provide the right amount of flavor, and the ribs are tender but firm. A miracle of science, really. It’s impossible to eat them without making Homer Simpson sounds. Multiple locations
The Surprise Pick
Let’s take a tasty left turn here. So one of my favorite forms of barbecue has no allegiance to any region of the United States and is all about the chicken: yakitori. I can hear pit masters from all over the country right now screaming: That’s not real barbecue! Well, guess what, pit masters? It is! Yakitori chefs, like meticulous samurais, carve up and prepare almost every part of the chicken and serve it on skewers cooked over slow-burning charcoal. Tell me that’s not barbecue.
For those who are new to yakitori, I would suggest the newly opened Yakitori Nonono, a stylish spot in NoMad offering an array of robata grilled items and yakitori. However, my favorite place would have to be Yakitori Torishin. It offers a yakitori omakase experience during which I suggest you try all the chef’s picks, particularly the organs. You wouldn’t refuse items from a sushi chef’s omakase, now would you? So show the same respect to the yakitori chef. Foodie bonus: Torishin is one of the few eateries in NYC that sources white charcoal. This allows the outside of the meat to cook to crispy perfection while allowing the inside to bask gloriously, and slowly, in its simple yet impactful seasonings—a brilliant combo of salt, Japanese black pepper, and the Japanese version of Old Bay, Shimichi.
Not to cliché it up, but I had to save the best for last. Now is the time when we must praise Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook. This place is truly the King of the New York ’Cue, the Sultan of Smoke, the Master of Meaty Meats. I could freestyle nicknames for days. It’s not often you find a barbecue spot, let alone any dining establishment anywhere, wherein every single item on the menu is close-your-eyes good.
Hometown makes traditional Texas-style classics such as a gorgeous smoke halo’d brisket and a beef rib that would make Fred Flintstone cry with joy. The beef rib is so masterfully tender and juicy that even with a plastic fork it just slivers right off the bone. A 4-year-old could use his nondominant hand with the plastic fork and easily eat it. Hometown also mixes in tributes to other great barbecue from all over the world: Korean-style deep-fried sticky ribs, Jamaican jerk baby-back ribs, Vietnamese hot wings, wood-fired Oaxacan chicken, and even tacos. I know—it’s a lot. And it all must be tasted as soon as you possibly can.
Note: Do what you can to arrive early in the day and order the lamb belly. It’s easily the most decadent barbecue I’ve ever had and it runs out rather quickly. It can be ordered as is or in a delicious banh mi. Don’t let the lines here scare you—once inside, the sights, smells, and tender, tender tastes will make it all worth the effort.