Henry Dreams of Barbecue (A Brooklyn Day)
Posted on January 21st, 2013
I am the Brooklyn guy. Just ask my friends. If I don’t have to leave Brooklyn, good luck getting me into Manhattan. Sometimes, I’ll visit friends in Queens and try a new restaurant there, but since life often requires New Yorkers to go into “The City” for business, school, and birthdays, I get more than my fill of that borough on those occasions. Besides, in a classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better,” Brooklyn has stuck its tongue out at its more densely populated neighbor to the west – and proven herself to be more than a mere braggart. Restaurants, museums, live music of every kind, huge parks – Brooklyn has all of that, plus pubs where the bartender will actually remember your name.
You would think that, as someone who is so attached to the borough where he resides, I would have tried every restaurant by now. But Brooklyn is huge – it’s as big as the entirety of Helsinki. And given that one needs to work, keep up a household, and nurture relationships at one’s favorite haunts that eventually earn a patron the title of a regular, there isn’t enough time, energy, or money to try every place that opens.
So here is my resolution for 2013: I will visit a handful of restaurants where I’ve always wanted to dine, but for some reason, despite their popularity, have missed out on thus far. This resolution can be broken down into a list of mini-resolutions, where each one represents a restaurant. One thing you’ll notice is that many of these are barbecue places. I have no idea why I’ve waited to visit them this long. Maybe it’s the New York obsession with healthy eating. Maybe it’s the fact that they can get pricey. Maybe it’s the crowds swarming these eateries, and me so wait-averse. (What is this, Manhattan?!) Either way, I plan to cut the excuses this year and finally get my fill of delicious barbecue (and/or other culinary pleasures) at the following joints.
Vinegar Hill House– “This place is just full of Henrys. A bunch of bearded guys in beanies and plaid shirts, kinda sitting around, going ‘Hey. How are ya?’” That’s how one friend described this place to me, while another one nodded in agreement. The restaurant is located in the strange little Vinegar Hill neighborhood behind the hulking warehouses of DUMBO, flanked by electrical and sewage treatment facilities, consisting of everything from charming three-story brick buildings to modern condos to – I kid you not – gated mansions. Vinegar Hill House was the first restaurant to serve the tiny nabe. Its modern rustic dining room is where things like chicken liver mousse, wild boar shank, maple and mustard glazed brussels sprouts, and cocktails with names like Dixie Sling and Any Major Dude Will Tell You are served. This may not be a barbecue joint, but it’s at the top of my resolutions list.
Pork Slope– The name gives away a lot: this is a Park Slope bar that serves comfort bar food and various American whiskeys. The bar gets pretty crowded, so it’s advisable to go early. The food menu is basic and reliable: buffalo and bbq wings, brisket sandwich, bbq ribs, grilled cheese, and other staples. The whiskey selection does not disappoint. (Order a Pappy Van Winkle, just to hear yourself say it.) Another plus: this is one of the Talde/Massoni/Bush restaurant super team babies. (More on that later.)
Fette Sau– The line at this popular barbecue joint is usually long, and much of the seating is communal (never my favorite kind of dinner setup), so there’s a reason I haven’t gotten to it yet. I would like to change that. There is plenty of craft beer and American whiskey to be had, but it’s the meat, proudly sourced from small farms and dry rubbed (they encourage the clientele not to apply any sauce) that’s the main attraction.
Pok Pok NY– Ms. Sarah Kanabay, our editor-in-chief herself, wrote me an email when she found out that this offshoot of a Portland, OR, restaurant opened last year. Like its parent, the Brooklyn leg is committed to serving the most authentic kind of Southeast Asian (specifically, Thai) cuisine. That means no Pad Thai, but with dishes like wild prawns baked in a clay pot with pork belly and noodle, I don’t think the Big Mac of Americanized Thai food will be missed. No reservations are accepted, so once again, come early.
I started writing this piece in early January. The retailers have barely had time to strap Russell Stover’s definition of “candy” to unsuspecting teddy bears in preparation for the inevitable Valentine’s Day, but by the time this article was due, I was able to cross the two following entries off the list. So far so good on the resolutions!
Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue– This relative newcomer to the Brooklyn barbecue scene is a formidable contender. Located on a quickly gentrifying stretch of Gowanus, the restaurant smokes its fare over maple and red oak, and sources its high quality organic meats from local farm collectives. The seating is communal, but if you get there early, you might snag a seat by the “bar,” affording the view of the kitchen, wherein amazing things happen. The duck and hot links are all flavor, but the real reasons to come here are burnt ends, lean brisket, and honey barbecue pork steak. The beer selection is good, but I washed down my meal with Boylan’s ginger ale, a guilty pleasure. Disobeying my gluttonous impulses and not going for seconds was the hard part.
Talde– This Asian/American bistro and bar is owned and run by the Pork Slope team (Dale Talde is the chef), and it took a visit from a couple of Finnish friends for me to finally visit this Park Slope staple. Casual environment and friendly staff are a nice supplement to the relatively small but expertly prepared menu. Pretzel pork and chive dumplings make for a great starter, and both smoked char pork shoulder and wok charred black angus ribeye (separated from the bone for easy consumption and shareability) are a must. On the drinks front, Nine Roses, a cocktail made with bourbon of the same name, was so good that I had two.
Bonus resolution: This one has zero to do with barbecue, or restaurants. This one has to do with baking. Throughout 2012, I’ve baked many cookies and muffins – from a box. Trader Joe’s, how easy you make it! Everything is already there for you; all you have to do is add a thing or two, mix it all vigorously, pop the whole deal in the oven, and check back in 20 minutes. Anyone – even me – can be a generically decent “baker.” But this year, I will bow my head to laziness no more. I will bake a batch of cookies, and one of muffins, from scratch. (Quick, get the women and children out of here.) Maybe they’ll come out tasting like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Vomit; maybe not even the hobos, or my drunk, munchie-starved friends will take more than one bite before spitting the masterpiece back in my face; but I will make the time, and the attempt. Stay tuned.