New York BBQ: A Progress Report on Wildwood
A few weeks ago Nick Solares reviewed Wildwood Barbeque's burger on A Hamburger Today, calling it "the most compelling item on the menu." That same day I posted a comment saying the lamb ribs were the most compelling item on the menu, and then it dawned on me: I hadn't had them in a while, and I hadn't visited Wildwood in a while. So two Sundays ago I took a Boston BBQ buddy on a New York City rib crawl, starting at Wildwood.
Wildwood's lamb ribs were everything I remembered from last time, from the thick, rub-infused outer bark to the intoxicating smoke presence to the tender inner meat with a pleasing caramel-like chewiness. Sure, there was also some fat that needed to be discarded, but a little adjustment pre-bite was all it took. The flavor of the meat was intense without being gamey, and I learned from pitmaster Lou Elrose that it's because Wildwood is using American lamb instead of the more common Australian variety. Whatever the reason, I think these lamb ribs are fantastic, and as I've said many times before, I'm not even a lamb fan. If I were to pick five must-try New York City BBQ restaurant items, the Wildwood lamb ribs would easily make that list.
Lest you think I'm a shill for Wildwood Barbeque, let's segue from the highlight of the meal to the lowlight: the pulled pork. I've tried it three times now and all three times I found it underwhelming. There's something in the flavoring that just strikes me as odd, though I can't place it. I'm pretty sure it's not the vinegar, because I prefer Carolina style vinegar sauces to anything overly thick or sweet on pulled pork, but this sauce tasted odd too. The meat is tender, but a bit too much so, veering on mushy.
Pork spare ribs swung the pendulum back to the positive. Wildwood's pork ribs are still the most gargantuan to be found in the city, edging out their nearly-as-hefty counterparts at Blue Smoke and Virgil's. But size isn't everything, as any fan of RUB's and Daisy May's svelte but flavor-packed pork ribs can attest. Beyond size, the Wildwood spares presented a healthy sprinkling of rub on the glazeless au natural crust, a more subtle smoke than the lamb, a firm but yielding tenderness and a nice porky flavor. They weren't as gushingly juicy as on my two prior evening visits, but the fact that they were close to that level on a Sunday lunch visit is a very good sign.
On this visit I tried Wildwood sausage for the first time, and it was very good, with both the meat and smoke flavors very assertive. This sausage is very similar to the kind offered at Elrose's alma mater Hill Country, only lighter and much less greasy. We went with the jalapeno variety and enjoyed the fact that it not only brought faint heat but a peppery fruitiness to the equation.
I also revisited Wildwood's chili, which didn't wow me last time. It's still the best chili presentation ever, served in a miniature kettle and topped with a generous amount of cheddar. But I was more interested in whether this would be a more serious chili than last summer's bowl, which was a little too light on the chiles and a little too heavy on the sugar. It was. The chili still has room for improvement (did somebody say brisket?), but I like what they've done since last time: the broth is thicker with a meaty silkiness, the beans are still noticeable but unobtrusive, there's less sugar sweet but more pepper sweet. I'm not saying this chili is in the same league as Daisy May's (Elrose's other alma mater), but there are echoes of that same ancho flavor, with some barbecue notes in there too.
Mac and cheese was nicely done, a little smoother and much sharper than I remembered from previous visits.
A new grilled shrimp appetizer special hit several of the tables, including ours. Served in a small skillet, the shrimp are wrapped in crisp bacon, with a slice of pickled jalapeno tucked in for good measure. The tartness and heat of this addition ups the ante; a creamy chipotle dipping sauce seals the deal. This is the perfect marriage of wedding food and bar snack, so next time I'll try them at the bar while watching a Sox-Yankees game. I'll tell the bartender to just keep them coming, one order per beer, and enjoy them almost as much as watching the Red Sox kick the Yankees' ass.