(09/06/09) (11/22/09) (07/16/10) (11/05/10)
Located on Grand Avenue in Baldwin just a few blocks north of the Sunrise Highway, Burke's Bar-B-Que Barn is an over-the-counter joint with a homey, country look. There are numerous displayed trophies attesting to Burke's prowess on the competition circuit. Despite some roominess, there's no real seating. A bench is more geared to waiting than eating; two 2'x2' tables against the wall allow eating while standing up. Or you can take your food to the sister bar Burke's Landing a few doors down the street—when it's open (on two occasions, the bar was closed during posted operating hours).
The Burke's menu manages a perfect compromise between compactness and creativity. For the barbecue standards, there's one kind of rib (full cut pork spares), pulled pork, pulled chicken and sliced brisket. Appetizers and offshoots include smoked wings, pork or chicken wontons and barbecue spaghetti. Fried chicken is a special on Thursdays.
I stopped at Burke's during their opening weekend on what would have been day #2 of operation; they closed to make some early adjustments and instead offered free samples to bar patrons at Burke's Landing. Well spaced follow-up visits (two times with barbecue competitors and judges; one time alone) hit them on a late Saturday afternoon and for two Friday lunches.
Pork and chicken wontons both delivered crispness and a warm, satisfying filling with just enough meat to do the trick, without making it seem like they were just using leftovers. The thick, creamy dipping sauce seemed a bit out of place, but the wontons were fine on their own.
Chicken wings brought average size, average smokiness and better-than-average flavor with a modestly applied sauce that balanced sweet, tangy and spicy.
Barbecue spaghetti punched things up with colored taco shell confetti for visual and textural (crunch) appeal. The spaghetti itself had more barbecue sauce and a scattering of either chicken or pork. The meat and flavor levels were both high, and like the wontons, didn't seem like a flagrant repurposing of leftovers.
Pulled pork: This was at its best off a platter from the late Saturday afternoon visit, when the product seemed fresh. Bark was noticeable, smoke was light, sauce was heavy, flavor aside from sauce was a little bland. Overall, better than the sum of its parts and a solid offering for Long Island but run of the mill for anywhere else.
Brisket: The first visit's brisket from a 2-meat platter was visually stunning, with a textbook smoke ring, crisp crust and good juiciness peeking through a heavy dousing of sauce. Meat flavor was smoky, beefy and complex; texture took a big hit from the brisket's being incorrectly sliced with the grain. The second visit's brisket was similarly heavily coated but had enough oomph to stand up to such a dominating sauce. A pleasing flavor within the meat delivered a little heat and a subtle sweetness not related to the sauce. Texture was partially enjoyable—there was no crispy crust to speak of this time, but each slice was well within the narrow sweet spot between too stiff and too tender. I just wish the brisket arrived unsauced as ordered.
Pulled pork sandwich: This was twice served on a poppy seed bulkie roll, an unusual vessel. I knew from the previous visit that the meat is smoked, but the visual was not helped by a brown-on-brown presentation: a thick coating of dark brown barbecue sauce on similarly brown pork. The first sandwich's taste and texture both reminded me of chicken more than pork, but the meat was decent, offering big chunks of pork with a fair amount of bark hidden in the camouflage. The sauce is a heavy duty sweet blend that recalls the Blues Hog sauce popular on the competition circuit, and most of what I tasted was that sauce. The unsauced sandwich on my most recent visit approached that "turkey thigh consistency" I often talk about, but was more like the breast. Or to be more precise, a dried out breast. There was a little flavor from some of the outer meat hit with rub and possibly brushed with a mop sauce during the end of smoking, but most of the meat had less flavor than turkey. No porkiness, no spiciness, not much smoke.
Brisket sandwich: Ordered on my last visit, this was an improvement over the pulled pork sandwich, and I liked the portion: about three layers of thick-cut slices, each one with a little crispiness to the outside, a dark pink smoke ring inside of that, gradually progressing to the pale brown meat of the interior. Although this fell far short of juicy, it had some of the moistness of a turkey thigh. Flavor had hints of sweetness and smokiness, yielding to the heaviness of the beef that dominated. Texture bordered on tough. The half-inch slices should have been cut a little thinner to offset the noticeable rigidity of the meat. There was also a bit of that disappointing "roast beefy" quality to both the texture and flavor.
Ribs: Very large untrimmed spares twice carried enough fat to moisten them but without any excess fat to get in the way. The first visit's ribs had a nice crust that took well to the saucing. Under the second visit's liberal sauce layer (same sauce on all meats) was a would-be crust that got soggy from sitting. Below that, the meat was cooked to the right tenderness, offering decent moisture and faint juiciness. The flavor was only lightly smoky with a hint of porkiness. Overall, the ribs stand up to the sauce better than the pork but not as well as the brisket. The second visit's ribs seemed like an obvious reheat and were a steep decline from that first batch, with less punch in the flavor.
This was a pleasant representation of a sweet, thick competition style sauce that has a little kick to it without being too spicy. If I were to guess its composition, I'd say two-third's Cattleman's and one-third Blues Hog. I like Burke's sauce a lot; I'm not as enamored with how heavily they use it.
Sides were the highlight of the first two Burke's visits. Cole slaw was the one dud among the sides: cabbage, mayo and not much else. Potato salad was a different story, turning out to be one of the best I've had. There was a lot more punch from a spicier condiment, some egg and liberal seasoning that included paprika and probably a few other surprises. Beans were also very nicely done, using red and green pepper to brighten the dish, plus some meat to liven it. Biscuits fused the flavors and textures of cornbread and garlic bread.
The Bottom Line
Burke's has shown flashes of competence but overall has turned out not to be the Long Island BBQ savior I once thought (and hoped) they'd be. The flavors of the basic meats are mostly good but inconsistent. The textures often have a reheated feel, which is ironic considering how the impressive appetizers didn't convey that quality. So where do they stand in the Long Island BBQ pecking order? Not in the top three, not in the bottom three. Any of the remaining slots is possible, depending on the day.
Urban Spoon reviews of Burke's Bar-B-Que Barn in Baldwin