Brisket is big business these days. After years of struggling in the Passover ghetto, the notoriously fickle cut of beef is having a full- fledged moment in the sun, thanks in large part to the awareness campaign begun some six years ago by New York’s Texas BBQ pioneers, Hill Country Barbecue Market. Unlike most other smoky locales, which worship the almighty hog, Texas has always been cattle country and, as the old saying goes, smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em. That’s not to say brisket doesn’t exist in other traditions, but it’s always been the ugly-duckling cousin to specialties like Carolina whole hog or Kansas City ribs.
Not so in Texas. There it’s all beef and it’s all good, from the Flintstones opening credits-worthy heft of the ribs to the Central Texas snap and spice of sausage. But the real test of the pitmaster’s art is the brisket—done wrong it’s a tragic husk, a cat’s cradle of stringy, lifeless fibers bound by a salty rub (no sauce to save you here). To do it right takes dedication and skill, which may be why New York chefs are almost monomaniacally focused on it (just ask Brisket Town-née-Lab’s Daniel Delaney). Now lifers and dilettantes are chasing the deckle dragon, after the perfect balance of fatty excess and smoke-laced, lean meat.
At next week’s Brisket King of NYC showdown, the city’s boldest will square off against reigning champion John Brown Smokehouse for the crown and the glory. The meaty affair now in its third year (the second under such regal auspices) is organized by Food Karma Projects, which could lead a master class in hosting tasting events. They’ve crowned victors in everything from gumbo to cassoulet, invaded Governors Island with pigs and celebrated craft beers, always with enough food and drink to go around and a ticket-selling philosophy that understands giving attendees a little elbow room is worth more than selling out to capacity every time.
While the rules of competition do not specify the BBQ treatment, it’s a safe bet that at least 75 percent of the dishes on offer will have gone through the smoker in some capacity; the lineup includes all of the city’s BBQ brisket Brahmins. There for the fight will be the aforementioned Delaney; Smorgasburg darlings and now brick-and-mortar East Villagers Mighty Quinn’s; Harlem grandpappy Dinosaur BBQ; the brand-new Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ, run by a former pitmaster for heavy hitters Wildwood and R.U.B.; lone ranger Robbie Richter, the Hill Country O.G.; and the reigning champs John Brown, back to defend their honor.
They’ll be rounded out by a broad selection of wild-card restaurants, from the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-inflected Taboonette to the Caribbean Mango Seed, the Creole Tchoup Shop, and the grilled cheese specialists Melt Shop. Most interestingly, also on the roster are farms being represented by hired-gun chefs, clearly angling more for name recognition than for a chance at the big crown. Of these, the most curious is Møsefund Farm’s apocryphal Mangalitsa pork brisket, which, we’re predicting, will get tons of audience love but no official recognition, like the Olympic figure skaters who were back-flipping before judges would give them any points for it.
Competition will be tough, but ultimately the field will be easily divided into a lot of sliced BBQ briskets served slider-style with a slaw, some just-like-bubbe-used-to-make braised versions, some way-outta-left-field (last year saw a deep-fried, panko-breaded meatball) and a few creative smoked treatments. The judges’ top three will be diplomatically representative, but our money’s on John Brown for the crown, for the Kansas City-style competitor has a secret weapon none of the Texas guys can match: burnt ends. Traditionally, the rub-encrusted, fatty ends of each brisket are saved up over the course of the week, held in their juices like a proper braise, and offered as a blink-and-you’ll miss-it special at the best KC smokehouses. It’s the best of both worlds; truly a brisket fit for a king.
Brisket King of NYC will take place Wednesday, Feb. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m. (VIP hour with open bar from 6 to 7 p.m.) at Santos Party House, 96 Lafayette St. Tickets are $45 or $75; to purchase, visit BrisketKingNYC.com.
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