Dan, the bartender at Fort Reno in Park Slope, has a curled-up mustache and a knowledge of bourbon that sits somewhere between impressive and intimidating. “A guy came in here the other night and goes, ‘So you specialize in stuff no one’s ever heard of?’ and it’s like, pretty much, yeah,” he told me while dropping bitters onto a sugar cube. And this procurement of specialty flavors only starts at the bar (that patron wanted “something smoother,” and wound up with a glass of Berkshire Bourbon from Southwestern Massachusetts). As a BBQ venture, there’s no pretense about bringing Memphis or Kansas City to Kings County. When I asked about influence, the manager Akil shook his head. “This is Brooklyn barbeque.”
In some respects, what makes it Brooklyn barbeque is the same thing that gives any food that “Brooklyn” prefix—the cows and pigs are grass-fed, the meat’s organic (Fort Reno gets theirs from Pat LaFrieda in New Jersey, among others), and greens don’t grow out of the ground, they grow out of a rooftop. I had just missed Goat-tober, where males past their procreation dates go to local restaurants interested in the “subtle sweetness” of their meat. Fort Reno made stew out of it. They’ve also gained notoriety for their seven dollar “Hot Mess,” sort of a KFC bowl for Vassar grads with beans, mac, pork shoulder, cornbread, slaw, and hot pickles layered in a—wait for it, Tyler Coates—mason jar. My bartender over at Halyards says it’s the neighborhood’s favorite drunk food, though it’s worth seeing with clear vision. In Park Slope, pretty don’t stop for drunk.
Down the street at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue, things are slightly less eclectic (the bartender’s mustache doesn’t curl), but the sentiment’s still there. “We call it Brooklyn barbecue first and foremost because we’re in Brooklyn, and we’re not trying to replicate any of the amazing regional styles of barbecue that have come before us,” Bill Fletcher, the owner, told me. There are staples, no doubt—pork shoulder, brisket, St. Louis ribs. But the real gems here are the char siu pork (shoulder with a Cantonese marinade) and coriander-rubbed baby-backs with pineapple-lime chutney sauce. At a point where Brooklyn is also synonymous with fusion (“I think this juxtaposition is at the root of what it means to be making barbeque here,” says Bill), it’s high time for an incredibly old and distinctly American food to get an international kick. That said, I don’t know what other country would tolerate the chili-topped mac and cheese—radiatori noodles (so much better!) covered with melted white cheddar, brisket and BBQ sauce. Talk about drunk food.
And now over in Williamsburg, Dan Delaney of Brisketlab fame has opened his brick and mortar joint, Briskettown. The style doesn’t exactly jibe with the South Brooklyn spots—Delaney’s settled on perfecting Texas style barbeque (“there will be no innovation,” he contends). Though sans pineapple-lime braising, the meat doesn’t exactly lack for flavor, especially if you ask for a fatty cut. BBQ sauce isn’t part of the equation, so I guess if you get a lean piece that’s dry, take a sip of beer or something. But while the meat takes from Texas, the Brooklyn seeps in elsewhere. The place is something of a minimalist little hall with shoulder-to-shoulder seating. The two fellows next to me went a good fifteen minutes playing the “Have You Been To?” game, before one of them concluded that the food was tasty but the place was too crowded (“If they move these tables—see, these are the things I notice now that I’m in business school.”). They left. Two other guys sat down and started talking lying about blowjobs. Williamsburg is as Williamsburg does.
Brooklyn does not lay claim to any barbeque crown. I can attest, from watching copious amounts of Travel Channel specials as an adolescent, that folks in North Carolina and Texas take this stuff very seriously. I’ve made my pilgrimage to Arthur Bryant’s, and K.C. is indeed proud. But if there’s something this borough is consistently good at, it’s taking something wonderfully simple—a chocolate bar, a bowl of ramen—and getting just the right amount of precious with it. And so far as barbeque’s concerned, I’d say it’s working.