Not so long ago, the generic Coney Island hot dog was this town’s preferred summer snack. But these days in the big city, summer means barbecued ribs and smoked brisket, just as it does in the hills of North Carolina, say, or the backwoods of Tennessee. In June and July, the local food calendar is filled with pig cook-offs and rib festivals, and every week, it seems, a new joint opens for the growing rabble of big-city barbecue hounds to inspect. I spent last week shuttling between two of the prominent new barbecue houses in town, each of which attempts to profit from this unlikely phenomenon in its own way. One is located in a stark, modish space in the West Village, the other in a faux-honky-tonk barn on Park Avenue South. One is a nakedly commercial venture, replete with stacks of dry-rubbed ribs and greasy brisket and a pit boss named “Big Lou.” The other is a small, gourmet Asian-fusion operation, and not very traditional at all.
Let’s begin with the untraditional operation, called Bar Q, which recently opened among the boutiques and fancy food shops along west Bleecker Street. Anita Lo is a talented fusion chef who is fond of lacing Chinese-style dumplings with luxe ingredients like foie gras (at her flagship restaurant, Annisa) and Peking duck (at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar). At Bar Q, her theme is Asian barbecue, and she approaches it in a characteristically stylized way. The boxy, whitewashed space looks more like a boutique beauty salon than a rib joint, and if you perch at the tiny marble-topped bar, you can sip juleps spiked with shiso or a $13 “pickletini,” made with Japanese pickles. The elf-size tables are set with chopsticks, and a few of the hulking, barbecue-ready gentlemen at my table considered some of the portions to be elf-size, too. “This place is so Sex and the City,” said one as he gnawed without conviction on a baby back rib swathed in hoisin sauce.
Predictably, my wife had a different reaction to Ms. Lo’s Carrie Bradshaw–meets–David Chang experiment. “I like this place,” she said as she tasted a sophisticated, un-barbecue-like trio of fish tartares mingled in a refreshingly cool avocado soup. She liked the unagi fritters, too, which are made with delicate chunks of freshwater eel, and the strips of crunchy pork belly, which are designed to be folded, Chang style, with housemade kimchee into a steamed taco-shaped Chinese bun. As more of these careful little dishes hit the table, it’s clear that Bar Q isn’t really a barbecue joint at all. There’s a lobster-roll riff—steamed lobster with shiitake mushrooms, leeks, and spinach, wrapped in a flat rice noodle—that Chang might well be proud of. If you’ve never had tuna ribs, you’ll find that they can be quite palatable when soaked in yuzu. And even the sticky, Applebee’s-like hoisin ribs are salvaged by Lo’s ingenious topping of kimchee and Japanese pickles, all sealed in a tempura crust.
Many of the entrées at Bar Q have a similar compulsively tasty quality, although the stilted tone of the room can cut into the pleasure of eating them. Lo’s pork wings (pork shanks in a spicy Korean hoisin equivalent) beg to be devoured with greasy fingers and a bib, and so does the tea-smoked chicken, stuffed with a messy assemblage of sticky rice and sweet sausage. My wife was very happy to eat her chile-rubbed, tea-smoked duck breast with a knife and fork, however, and dainty eaters will enjoy the lamb as well, which is also marinated in tangy chile and served with stacks of fresh bok choy. None of the sweet dishes at Bar Q quite manage to transcend the goopy, uninspired realm of the Asian (and barbecue) dessert. Stick with the smooth coconut soup laced with papaya and mangoes, or try the ice creams and sorbets, which are made fresh and flavored in pleasing ways with unlikely Asian ingredients like sweet pandanus-leaf paste, from Malaysia.
My guess is you won’t find any pandanus paste in the kitchen of “Big Lou” Elrose, at the new B. R. Guest barbecue production called Wildwood Barbeque. Stephen Hanson’s latest big-box venture occupies the same vast hangar space that once housed his failed Spanish experiment, Barça 18, and it operates according to the same well-rehearsed, volume-oriented principles. The room is ribbed with wood beams, which make it look less like a juke joint than a giant Viking hall, and fitted with a cocktail bar that’s longer than a good-size passenger jet. The well-trained, unfailingly cheerful wait staff are dressed in snappy charcoal-colored T-shirts and come at you in never-ending waves. Big Lou, a former cop from Ozone Park who learned his craft at the great brisket mecca Hill Country, operates two belching smokers in the back, which turn out those three mainstays of the barbecue canon—here, “Carolina” pulled pork, “Memphis-style” baby backs, “Texas smoked” brisket—by the truckload.
Quality is tricky when you’re dealing with this kind of volume, and many hard-core barbecue hounds have dismissed Wildwood on account of that. But Wildwood is more of a big-money New York restaurant and bar than a hard-core barbecue joint. And for a big-money New York restaurant and bar, the barbecue isn’t so bad. My 8-year-old daughter, Jane, gave thumbs down to the dry, spicy-sweet baby backs (“The ones at school are better, Dad”), but she liked the crunchy chicken wings and the fatty, “all-natural” Denver lamb ribs. I wouldn’t recommend the shanky, semi-smoky pulled pork to anyone from North Carolina, but it doesn’t taste bad in sandwich form, buried under pickles and cole slaw. Big Lou’s brisket is the best of the barbecue facsimile on the menu, but his signature sauce (flavored, tragically, with raspberries) needs retooling. The best of the industrial-size desserts is the carrot cake. But beware: Coming on the heels of all this meat, just the sight of this towering, Bunyanesque creation could tip even the most hard-bitten barbecue hound into a deep food coma.