Barbecue in Manhattan? Why not? I’ve found great barbecue in Amsterdam, of all places, at the amazing Pendergast, so why not Manhattan?
Here’s what you need to know about Blue Smoke: You should
- Definitely go there.
- Order the chicken wings. Order a lot. After 8:00 they are 50 cents each. They are sensational. Perhaps the best wings on earth.
- Or order the Brisket dinner and share it between two people. It is pretty good — better than anything here in DC. I’d match it with, say, The Beast in Paris, and I rate it a cut above Vitek’s in Waco or Stubb’s in Austin. And I mean that: share it.
If you don’t follow my advice, you could make a costly error. Look —
(I hasten to add that Jackie’s Fry Bread actually was pimiento cheese, which normally comes with Navajo fry bread, a sort of savory funnel cake. I had the pimiento cheese with saltines instead of fry bread. I don’t want you to think I would eat unhealthy foods.)
Now, $128 with tip (with no drinks for Nancy) is not bad for dinner for two in Manhattan, but that’s quite a bill for two people at a barbecue place — more than 10 times what I’ve paid for great barbecue in North Carolina. I stress, though, that the bill was only that stratospheric because I made some serious mistakes: $69 of the pre-tax/tip bill was just for me, and the food that I ordered for myself ended up being far more than we both could eat. Lesson learned.
Here’s how it happened:
We were in Manhattan for three nights, so I decided to go to Blue Smoke on east 27th, the one in the Flatiron district. (There’s another Blue Smoke in Battery Park City. They have somewhat different menus, but the barbecue offerings seem to be the same at each.) I was skeptical on going in because I saw on the online menu that a plate of meat and two vegetables is $30, which seemed ridiculous. Once we sat down, I was further startled to see two guys next to us eating ribs with … a knife and fork! It makes me sad to think that people actually grow right up here in America without learning how to eat ribs. And I saw people drinking cocktails with umbrellas! In a barbecue place! Where were they raised?
I was so distraught that I failed really to register the fact that two pretty-big guys were sharing one order.
The waitress, Katie, was very nice. She asked if we had been there before (no) and if we were familiar with smoked meats. I allowed that we were, and asked what kind of smoker they used. She enthusiastically said it was custom-built and asked if we would like a tour when the manager was available. We would love a tour!
We ordered. Katie let us know that you can order smaller portions of their meats to add to a platter for only five dollars each if we wanted a broader sample of menu items. So I ordered a pork plate with green beans and potato salad, and samples of brisket and turkey. Nancy had the stuffed shrimp appetizer and the cucumber and onion side dish. And we got some deviled eggs, of course, and some pimiento cheese — also of course. I noticed that a lot of people were ordering the cornbread madeleines, but I didn’t want to make a pig of myself.
No sooner did my beer arrive (in a wine glass!) that the manager, Seth Frankle, came by to show us their operation. Seth showed us their large smoker, the Pig Pit,
and the rotating racks with pork and brisket.
Note that they have tin foil underneath the pork butts. This stops the pork fat from dripping down on the coals to create that delicious pork smoke flavor — and stops the pork fat from dripping onto the brisket, with perhaps discordant, perhaps enchanting effect. Let’s take a look at the brisket.
Those are some good looking briskets. At Blue Smoke they are proud of their brisket — justifiably as it turns out. Blue Smoke cooks entirely with oak. They have a gas hookup for emergencies, but they never use it. Seth showed us a pile of wood in a narrow walkway out back, and the burn box where they turn the logs into coals that are then shoveled into the smoker. We also saw their exhaust system — a pipe that by law runs up 15 stories, apparently so that no one in New York will be able to smell barbecue That’s just the sort of requirement that Stalin would have imposed. Blue Smoke starts (for brisket) with a relatively hot fire — 300 degrees — to start the crust, and then they lower it for long cooking, I think for 16 hours. Someone is on hand to watch the meat 20 hours a day.
Our food began to arrive. The deviled eggs were salty, even by my standards, and I add salt to potato chips: I suspect that was a one-time error in a single batch. The pimiento cheese, however, was very good, with a good taste and texture, free of the usual excess of dressing.
I would get the pimiento cheese again — with saltines. Nancy’s creole stuffed shrimp appetizer was good, very buttery,
and the side of cucumbers and onions was fresh and tasty, and large enough to share.
My platter arrived, and I was taken aback. I saw why two guys were sharing a plate. There was a good pound of pork on the platter, far too much for one person — plus about a third of a pound each of brisket and turkey.
The brisket was good, and came exclusively from the moist end of the brisket — there was nothing from the less flavorful lean end. It was moist, tender, and with that light oak flavor. The bark was very tasty — maybe a little heavy on the pepper for some people, but I like pepper. As you can see, though, the brisket was about 40 percent fat. It should have been trimmed.
The pork was a disappointment. I should know by now not to order pork in a brisket-centric place. The pork was roughly pulled, so that the long strands tended to dry out a bit, and it really didn’t have much taste. The pork did come with cracklins, which were very tasty, and which I picked out of the huge mass of pork. They have a house jalapeño relish that is really good, and that enlivened the pork a lot. They have a vinegar-based sauce for the pork, but it has enough sugar to counter the bite of the vinegar and pepper. Go with the jalapeño relish.
The turkey was okay. Nice and tender, but turkey really should be smoked with hickory. It gives so much more flavor and, face it, turkey needs flavor.
The potato salad was good — order is as one of the two sides with your plate. The green beans had a lot of taste, but they had been julienned and lost a lot of texture in the long cooking.
Seth was also proud of their chicken wings, and comp’ed us a portion. Nancy had eaten one (maybe two) before I could get my camera out.
God Bless Seth. The wings were delicious — tender and smoky and covered in a delicious white sauce — mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, miso, aleppo peppers, and I forget what else. Sensational. Best wings in the world.
There are a couple of winning strategies for Blue Smoke. One is to share a brisket plate — $15 each, which is certainly reasonable for a Manhattan entree. With a beer each, …ok two beers each … and an order of pimiento cheese, you’re still getting out under $50 each, including tip. That’s a bargain in Manhattan, and a good meal.
Or you can go at 8:00 and just have wings. OK, and a beer of two. Say there are maybe 10 wings in a pound, which is a normal size serving. The wings are larger than average at Blue Smoke, but then they taste so good. You’ll eat more than 10 each, but that could be a good place to start. You’re unlikely to go over 20 each. That’s $10. Add a couple of beers and perhaps a dry cleaning bill, and that’s a truly great bargain in Manhattan.