Mon Jul 12, 2010
For years I've always looked forward to drooling over the meaty masterpieces that come out of food writer extraordinaire Josh Ozersky's birthday parties, appropriately dubbed Meatopia. Sinful amounts of meat, each one looking more delicious than the next, it's like a long lost twin of the Meatwave. So when I first found out that Meatopia was expanding from private birthday party to all out meat festival this year, my enthusiasm was unbridled. I quickly bought two six-tasting tickets, and before I knew it, I was setting sail to Governor's Island, hoping to return with a belly full of some of the best meats NYC has to offer.
Prior to arrival, what excited me most was that the event was being branded as "NYC BBQ." As convoluted as the way us northerners use the term "barbecue," so is what's considered barbecue in NYC now-a-days.
It wasn't long ago that New Yorker's best hope for good barbecue was the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Leading up to and following the first Block Party, there were only a handful of restaurants serving true barbecue, most focused on the imitation of a distinct regional style from somewhere else in the country. As we got comfortable in our barbecue skin, and with the usual ribs and brisket territories well covered, barbecue in the city seemed to quickly go to no-holds-barred—as long as it's smoked or grilled, it can be barbecue in New York. Large swaths of country probably cringe at this, but I'm in the business of embracing it, which is why Meatopia was so exciting. I thought of it as a State of Barbecue in NYC, which has room on its plate for everything from La Caja China roasted pigs to smoked duck tacos.
It's unfortunate that the event ended up being a less than ideal setting for getting the best NYC barbecue fix possible, mostly due to a few shortcomings. I'm dubious of any new event, as it usually takes a couple years to really work out the kinks, and Meatopia was not safe from those first-year mishaps.
I started getting nervous about the crowds when we had to wait 45 minutes on a hella long line to board the ferry over. Once there, I was actually surprised with the organization— tickets were being handed out quickly based on last name, and much like the fast pass at the Big Apple Barbecue Block party, the Meatopia passes eliminated the need to bust out cash for que, which keeps lines rolling.
After a lap around the event, where not all the stalls were exactly where the map said they should be, the three of us decided to divide and conquer. While the lines were long, it only took 15 minutes for use to reconvene and dive into our first three samplings. With a taste of what's to come, we quickly went off for our next three plates, but by this time—around 2pm—some of our must-haves were already gone. We settled on a few alternative items, then went off for round three. Now it was about 2:45pm and it seemed as if at least half of the vendors were sold out, thee-hours into the event with 2 hours to go. Those still with meat started to have lines prohibitive for the less patient.
I convinced my band of now un-merry men and women to stick it out for one more round, where we waited on now half-hour lines to get food that didn't hold the most interest to us. After that round, and over two hours in the heat and a little rain, my crew was done, and I relented and headed back to the ferry with two tastings still available on my ticket.
It seems that despite a great effort in organization, New Yorkers' insatiable hunger for meat was underestimated. Even so, in the two and half hours I was there, I sampled eleven different tasty meats, even if they weren't all my number one choices.
So what's NYC BBQ today? Here's small tasting that was dictated mainly by supply and demand.
The award for the fast moving line of the day went to Porter House New York, where chef Michael Lomonaco was grilling up Skirt Steak Hoagies with Chimichurri and Roasted Corn. A standard flavor combination for grilled skirt steak, this wasn't breaking any ground, but as the first taste of the day and some nice medium-rare steak, it was a pleasant start.
I weep a little bit when I look back to the day I passed up Mile End because my hungry out did the wait I was going to have to endure. Luckily Meatopia provided me with my first Montreal Smoked Meat. Easily one of my favorites of the day, the smoked brisket was flavorful and fatty (the way I like it), and went perfectly on the rye with mustard.
The only ribs that had the pleasure of filling my belly were these Honey-Glazed Baby Back Ribs with Thai Basil & Mint from Craig Koketsu at The Hurricane Club. Cooked exceptionally well, these tender ribs were sweet without overdoing it. I especially liked the crisp lotus root, which gave a great bite that contrasted well with the honey ribs.
As I walked to get in line for our second round of tastings, I saw that there was no wait for the Whole Charcoal Roasted Lamb Shawarma by Philippe Massoud from Ilili Restaurant. The most minuscule of the tastings from the day, I downed it in almost one bite. The lamb was succulent, but I missed some of the deeper Middle Eastern flavors and a little crisp to the meat that I love in the more conventional shawarmas.
My wife came back from her journey with a two-fer. She went for the Pulled Pork Sliders from Wildwood Barbeque, but saw an opening to get the Roasted Fudge Farms Pork Shoulder, Marinated with Leche Condensada, Eqazote, Ajo, Y Naranjas from La Esquina too.
Out of buns already, the pulled pork had to be enjoyed with a fork and it was hard to get a read on the meat, because it was so doused in sauce. It reminded me more of what you get from slow-cooker pulled pork rather than barbecued, even though I'm sure it was smoked.
I love grabbing a late night taco from La Esquina, but this particular creation wasn't quite doing it for me. The issue probably lies in my personal preference for spicy tacos, while this one had a sweetness to it from the condensed milk that wasn't sold on my more fiery taste buds.
The third member of our eating team went off for some Baron of Beef, but came back with with Barbacoa de Boreggo, after seeing The Little Owl was out and RUB BBQ was right next door. The spice mixture on the juicy and tender lamb was very unique, and although I did miss the Baron of Beef, this taco quickly erased any pain.
My shawarma was enjoy while waiting in line for this Smoked Duck Tacos in a Canela Tortilla from Suenos Restaurant, which quickly put it to shame. A lover of all things duck, I couldn't get enough of the natural flavor of the meat, which had a complimentary, but not overpowering sauce. It was then topped with crispy strips (of potatoes, I'm guessing) and wrapped up in a cinnamon tortilla—just awesome.
A random meeting of meat-loving friends brought Bobo's Grilled Bacon Sandwich with Pickled Green Tomatoes and Napa Cabbage to our party. I kept hearing great things about this, but our bacon was dry and a little burnt tasting, void of the juicy fat that I associate with pork belly. It wasn't bad—how can anything with bacon be bad—it just wasn't all the rage.
Now we've reached the point where we're just looking for places still serving meat, one of those being The Smoke Joint's Grilled Chicken Sausage. Being a prolific chicken sausage producer at home, I fancy myself as being pretty knowledgeable in this arena, which may be why I really disliked these. The texture was not cohesive and felt odd on the tongue, that with an under spiced meat, I understood why they were one of the last vendors standing.
If I was going to exit Meatopia prematurely, I wanted it to be with a bang, which is why I sucked it up and stood in the ridiculously long line for Smokin’ Joe’s True-Blue Texas Barbecue's La Caja China Roasted Pigs. A whole roast pig can be a wondrous thing, and while this provided and nice final porky fix, it fell short of being a divine swine. The meat was tender, but not all that juicy and came up short in the flavor department. The standout here was the crackling—which was given to me upon request—but how can ever go wrong with cracklins?
Finally we come to this pretzel roll, devoid of the smoked brisket pastrami that was supposed to be in it. It kind of symbolized my feelings of the event by the end of the day—it's something to eat, but it's not really what I wanted. As meat ran out, we saw more freebies like this being given out, possibly to appease some of the grumblings that were becoming more audible. When you come to an event called Meatopia, you want meat, and a lot of it, so even though I did get in a decent sampling myself, I understand some of the frustration that was going on as well. Despite all of that, there's great potential in Meatopia, and if it's here again next year, there's no doubt I'll be back, just much earlier...I'm a man who wants to be sure he gets all the meat coming to him.