NYC BBQ: Lunch at Southern Hospitality
Last Monday was Martin Luther King Day, so I parlayed an opportunity for a day off into an opportunity for a barbecue crawl. Two crawls actually, joining different friends for a Long Island BBQ crawl on Sunday and a New York City BBQ crawl on Monday. While the Recent Eats column is keeping strict chronological order, I'm rearranging the telling somewhat to make for better regional balance. I still have some Rhode Island BBQ to talk about and I'll get to the Long Island part shortly.
But I digress, this post is supposed to be about Southern Hospitality, which has been on my radar for a while now. Even though I posted a review 16 months ago, that review in many ways describes a different restaurant from the one that's operating now. Since early 2008, the barbecue program has been guided by Ray Lampe ("Dr. BBQ"), familiar to many for his victories on the competition circuit, his appearances on BBQ reality shows and his best selling BBQ books. Last spring I attended a gathering of about 20 members of the BBQ Brethren for a barbecue bash with Lampe as host. The 'cue was fantastic and the service improved by several notches over my first visit. But was that a true indication of what I'd get if I just wandered in randomly? I needed to know.
For various reasons, that "representative visit" to Southern Hospitality has eluded me. Last summer I visited on a Sunday afternoon and the brunch menu made much of the barbecue menu unavailable. More recent attempts at a return visit have been foiled by inclement weather, lack of vacation days, some friends cancelling crawls and other friends preferring to keep the crawls confined to joints further downtown.
Last Monday I finally made it back, joining another barbecue blogger for lunch. As it turned out, Lampe was in the house, and despite efforts on my side of the table to keep the visit anonymous until after the meal, one thing led to another and we were chatting with the good doctor within minutes. He's one of the great barbecue storytellers who's equally enthusiastic taking about restaurants or the competition circuit.
All of the food we had was good to excellent. A pulled pork sandwich, ordered before the discovery, was light on the pork but exhibited moderate saucing, decent flavor and a good texture (not the overcooked mush that too often passes as pulled pork). Chicken was more abundantly glazed without depending on it: even the white meat was moist and juicy. Spare ribs lacked the smoke ring and the color that typifies good barbecue, but the abundant rub, the lightly crisped crust and the juiciness of the meat were apparently colorblind. Sliced brisket—not nornally available on the lunch menu—had a pleasing flavor, moist texture and much more definition to the bark that was missing on my previous visit.
While I can't claim with any certainty that this visit was representative (though Dr. BBQ said everything we tried came straight off the line), I can state without question that the barbecue at Southern Hospitality has not only come a long way since its early days but is now pretty good in its own right. If I can get this caliber of 'cue—or at least something reasonably close—on a regular basis, I'd come back more often. As often as RUB, Hill Country, Daisy May's, Dinosaur and Wildwood? That remains to be seen, but Southern Hospitality is in the forefront of that next tier, ahead of some better known joints.
Maybe it's time the public finally stopped holding the fact that Justin Timberlake owns Southern Hospitality against it and actually tried the food before bashing it. Some of the naysayers might be pleasantly surprised.