Commentary

Brooklyn BBQ Got Burned. Here’s What It’s Really Like

The barbecue scene is full of great joints that walk the line between tradition and experimentation

A platter of sausage, pulled pork, pork ribs, pastrami, baked beans, cole slaw, and potato rolls at Fette Sau in Williamsburg, a far cry from the awful Munchies photo below (Photo by Sean Ludwig/NYCBBQ)

It was hard to ignore all the burns the Internet made this week regarding “Brooklyn BBQ” after a republished 2014 article on the Vice Media site Munchies went viral. The story featured a bombastic headline (‘Why Is Brooklyn Barbecue Taking Over the World?’) and a photo from Williamsburg BBQ joint Fette Sau showing the saddest, sparsest BBQ platter ever.

Articles from Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City, and just about anywhere that has a BBQ scene derided the entirety of Brooklyn BBQ based almost exclusively on a single photo and headline. A few of the memes based on the photo were genuinely funny, but the jeers were deafening and even national politicians weighed in.

There were two primary reasons the story and the photo took off like it did: regional BBQ pride and a lack of knowledge of what makes Brooklyn BBQ special.

When it comes to pride, BBQ fans get passionate about the style and region their barbecue comes from because either they grew up with it or have spent a lot of time around it. For example, I grew up in Kansas City and have spent ten years in New York, so I’m inclined to show a little passion for KC and NYC BBQ. Some of my best memories involve eating amazing BBQ with friends and family. So when someone claims another region’s BBQ is better than yours in some way, it’s easy to go on the defensive. Think of rooting for local BBQ like you root for a local sports team and it starts to make sense.

But even bigger than regional BBQ pride, what really got the BBQ commentariat in a tizzy is that most of the people writing stories and making nasty comments actually know little or nothing about the Brooklyn BBQ scene. They saw one bad photo  and, without any research, they dismissed one of the most exciting and inventive places to eat barbecue in the U.S.

Brooklyn BBQ

The much-maligned photo that was recirculated by the Munchies social media team this week made Fette Sau look lame, when it’s not (Photo via Munchies/Twitter)

Let’s start with Fette Sau, which got the rawest deal in all of this because the terrible photo was from their establishment. The image features a mostly barren platter with four slices of brisket, two scrunched potato rolls, two bleh pickles, and a craft beer. In the BBQ world, platters are typically filled to the brim of several types of meats and sides, so this photo drove people mad.

But Fette Sau has been around since 2007 and is one of the best-liked staples in Brooklyn BBQ. Owner Joe Carroll brought many of the oldest traditions in barbecue under one roof (check out his excellent book if you want to know more) and the part-country, part-hipster aesthetic has been copied in New York and around the world. Four North Carolina reporters even visited Fette Sau this week and loved their experience. “Not one minute after we walked into the garage-turned-barbecue joint, we realized just how wrong the world had gotten it about Fette Sau and the meats our neighbors to the north are pulling out of the smoker daily,” one of them wrote.

Brooklyn BBQ

The Jamaican Jerk baby back ribs from Hometown Bar-B-Que show off Brooklyn BBQ’s willingness to combine tradition and experimentation (Photo by Sean Ludwig/NYCBBQ)

If naysayers aren’t convinced and want to see the pinnacle of what Brooklyn BBQ can be, look no further than Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook. Since it opened in September 2013 by pitmaster Billy Durney, it has attracted high praise from tough food critics and it even has fans from Texas. Just about anything you order on the menu is highly satisfying, whether its brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, pulled pork–you name it. Hometown also embraces bold new menu items you normally won’t see on a BBQ menu, like Jamaican Jerk baby back ribs, Korean sticky ribs, and Vietnamese hot wings.

While Hometown has in many ways become the de facto example of how good Brooklyn BBQ can be, there are many other honest-to-goodness real barbecue joints in Brooklyn that are sincerely worth your time, including Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse, Pig Beach, Arrogant Swine, Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue, Morgan’s Barbecue, and Mable’s Smokehouse. All of these BBQ joints make up a marvelous tapestry of BBQ, with nearly every regional style of barbecue from around the U.S. represented.

Brooklyn BBQ

Pig Beach in Gowanus has great food but also features one of the most inviting outdoor spaces in Brooklyn (Photo by Sean Ludwig/NYCBBQ)

Similar to Hometown’s philosophy, what sets Brooklyn apart is its embrace of American BBQ traditions while also experimenting with new ideas. Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse in Crown Heights is a kosher barbecue joint that impresses discerning non-kosher meat eaters with its beef ribs and brisket while also featuring  specials like lamb and pastrami that sell out fast.

Arrogant Swine in Bushwick makes you feel like you’re in the Carolinas with its chopped whole hog and mustard-slathered ribs, while also offering smoked chicken wings covered in Vietnamese caramel sauce. Pig Beach in Gowanus takes BBQ cues from around the U.S. but also offers standout burgers and tri-tip steak.

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Brooklyn BBQ joints also excel with creative spaces. Pig Beach, Arrogant Swine, and Hometown all have large seating areas—some indoor and some outdoor—that can comfortably fit huge crowds and make BBQ into a family or friends event. Almost every joint in Brooklyn also has a well-stocked bar full of craft beer and fun cocktails, meaning you could spend a whole day of drinking and eating in the same spot.

To be fair, the author of the Munchies piece says he never intended to slight Brooklyn, or provoke such a backlash. “[Nicholas] Gill found it intriguing that a barbecue joint in Brooklyn had become influential in faraway places, and he reported on it. He wasn’t aiming for controversy, or even offering an opinion,” wrote Texas Monthly this week. “Gill felt some guilt. They’re getting dragged into it because of my silly photo,’ he said. He shot the paltry serving of brisket on a mostly empty tray almost as an afterthought on his iPhone.”

Still, it’s too bad the Munchies episode went and made a joke out of Brooklyn BBQ. The real joke is on any serious barbecue fan who never makes it to Brooklyn to see how great our BBQ is.

Brooklyn BBQ

The author enjoying a proper plate of Brooklyn BBQ

Sean Ludwig is the editor of NYCBBQ, a guide to the best barbecue in NYC. You can follow him as eats his way through the city (and the world) on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. When he’s not eating, you’ll find him promoting startups in NYC through his work at Tech:NYC

  • James Lola

    yeah, sorry, I have travelled extensively throughout the country trying BBQ all over. And though places like Hometown and Fette can compete on flavor, they are just Too Damn Stingy when it comes to volume. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/87866a1b3449dfcc764727e33fee963d17ac82d21e49089c9abdb085f09fbdfb.jpg

    • I’ve also traveled extensively and different BBQ places have different philosophies on how you get your food. In most Texas joints and some in NYC, you order your food precisely. Usually by the quarter pound or half pound. In a more casual restaurant like Famous Dave’s, you simply order a platter and you get meat and sides. It’s a different ball game, but I will say this, I will take quality over quantity any day.