In this column, NY transplant Thomas Santella astrally projects himself across the NJ Turnpike to illuminate the ever-increasing connections between Philadelphia and its (supposedly) hipper brother of the north, Brooklyn. His goal? To obliterate the ongoing rivalry between the two and piss off the locals.
While both Philly and Brooklyn excel in the meat medium, I wouldn’t exactly call either of them a definitive barbeque metropolis- that moniker is better reserved for towns like Memphis or St. Louis. Fortunately, you can always find someone bucking the tide, toiling in a cuisine that’s neither fully appreciated (or understood) by carnivorous ignorants of the North. That said, there is good barbeque in these otherwise ‘cue-less parts – and we’re throwing two of the absolute best into a fiery pit of charred mammal flesh.
Ready your moist towlettes; things are about to get bloody…
Sweet Lucy’s v. Fette Sau
Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse: A few miles off the Academy Road exit on 95, past numerous factories and a correctional facility, lies what is unarguably Philly’s best barbeque joint, Sweet Lucy’s. Stepping inside, Sweet Lucy’s is an extravaganza of colorful artifacts; there’s porcelain pigs, wooden roosters and those quaint, wooden chairs you’d expect to find at a roadside BBQ pit three miles outside of Nowhere, Alabama. You’ll also notice the exhilarating smell of hickory smoked meats wafting through the air and, typically, a quickly moving line of salivating patrons.
Their high caliber barbeque is achieved through a tried and true method: Slow cooking. This allows the meat to take on the requisite pinkinsh hue that other local meat purveyors often overlook. Their bbq sauce, that essential ether that makes or breaks any barbeque experience, is more sweet than it is spicy, with a slightly tart finish. For some items, like the chicken and turkey, you can swap out bbq sauce for a delicate (almost dainty) brown gravy, which is an interesting alternative. And because you can order a sandwich, platter, or meat by the pound, everyone from the most timid of meat-eaters to those giant barbeque barons of the south invariably leaves sated.
The ten plus side options on the chalkboard are made fresh daily, offering innumerable permutations of BBQ trappings. I’m not from the South but if I were, I’d bet a plate of Lucy’s brisket with baked macaroni n‘cheese, collard greens and warm cornbread would instantly bring me back home to those idyllic, non-existent backyard barbecues of yesteryear.
Fette Sau: A small neon sign, the smell of bbq and the not-so-faint sound of revelry draw you down Brookyln’s Metropolitan Avenue to Fette Sau, what many consider to be Brooklyn’s preeminent smokehouse. Owners Kim and Joe Carroll (of the beer bar Spuyten Duyvil) rented the semi-secluded spot from the auto-body repair shop across the street and transformed the driveway into a seating area with communal benches that are usually packed with loyal carnivores. Inside, the space is fittingly industrial, with wooden beams, brick and cut-of-meat diagrams adorning a sleek bar lined with eery and murderous cutting implements.
If you’re lucky, the line will not stretch all the way to the street. But, should you find yourself patiently waiting in the meat queue (there is no table service here), you can easily dispatch a member of your party to the bar, where they can grab a growler of one of the rotating local brews on tap, along with a few mason jars for guzzling.
You’ll need to mentally prepare yourself before you get up to the counter, though, as you’re required to sift through Berkshire pork shoulder, pork belly, St. Louis style pork ribs, brisket, beef cheeks and sirloin before arriving at your destination (all meat comes from “organic and/or small family-farmed heritage breed animals”). There are no frills here either; meat is ordered by the pound and served communally on a single wax-paper lined tray. A smattering of obligatory sides are available (most notably the burnt end baked beans), and all trays come studded with Martin’s Potato Rolls, which would be great, if there were more sauce to sop up (we’ll get to that).
The intense smoky flavor of the meat is imparted from red and white oak, maple, beach and cherry wood. All barbecue is dry rubbed and left unsauced, letting the flavor of the meat present itself without ornament (sauces are available tableside). What separates Fette Sau though, is the crispy, extreme char that gently cradles each piece of meat without drying it out. The term “burnt to a crisp” does come to mind, but this style is not the unfortunate consequence of too much heat: it’s more of a candy-like sweetness imbued by hours of slow cooking.
I should note that Fette Sau is German for “Fat Pig,” and you will certainly leave fat, in a kind of delirious stupor – stumbling back out onto the street in a state of meat inebriation.
Again, we come down to the particulars here. Sweet Lucy’s definitely triumphs in terms of side dishes (better overall) and atmosphere (ultimately much friendlier than Fette Sau), though they would certainly benefit from the addition of one simple yet crucial staple: cold beer. So, based strictly on the quality of barbeque, the slight edge has to go to Fette Sau, with those sugary burnt-end miracles tipping the scale in their favor.
Many thanks to Natalie Klyashtorny for writing in to us with this suggestion, keep them coming!
Written by Thomas Santella
Photo courtesy of To Take the Train