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Daisy May's BBQ USA, located in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, is the only New York BBQ joint I know of that has counter-service only, and it's a comforting change of pace. The side dishes ("fixin's") are on display in steam trays behind a glass window when you walk in; the meats are brought out as ordered. After getting your order from the friendly servers, you can eat (Gray's Papaya style) at the stand-up dining counter near the window, or take your food into the separate dining area constructed in the spring of 2006. This room has three long communal tables and two flat panel TVs at opposite sides of the room. Once BYOB only, Daisy May's now offers a small selection of beer and wine.
Owner Adam Perry Lang is a classically trained chef who migrated from fine dining (Daniel, LeCirque) to barbecue. In recent years Perry Lang has taken on other projects, including a steakhouse in Las Vegas with Mario Batali and a yet-to-be-revealed barbecue concept in England with Jamie Oliver.
In addition to the location on 11th Avenue, Daisy May's has street carts for easy access (check website for locations). They also deliver to almost any location in Manhattan.
The efficiently minimalist approach to service is paralleled by a sparse menu that covers only the basics: wet and dry pork ribs ($13.50 per half rack), a humongous Oklahoma beef short rib ($18.00), BBQ half chicken ($9.50). Pulled pork and brisket were previously available on sandwiches only ($10.50 and $11.50) but have also made their way to platters. A "Bowl O' Texas Red" ($9.00 for 12 ounces) is considered by many to be the best chili in the city.
A nice augmentation to the regular menu is the Big Pig Gig, a series of cooked-to-order offerings available by reservation only. These include a half pig ($240), a whole pig ($480), whole pork butt ($150) and rack of lamb for two ($95). All include cole slaw, Texas toast, two other fixin's of your choice, watermellon and reserved seating. This option ensures that the barbecue you eat was prepared specifically for you and prepared to be at its best at the exact time of your arrival.
My meals at Daisy May's BBQ have included a good mix of lunches, dinners, weekdays and weekends. My last few visits have been with friends, allowing more sharing opportunities.
There are no appetizers as such, which is a shame given Adam Perry Lang's skill and creativity. However, the one item that could be considered an appetizer is the outstanding chili that I ranked #1 in my 2009 Favorite BBQ Chili list. It's packed with large chunks of brisket that have grown increasingly barbecue-flavored in recent visits and accented with a thick, peppery-sweet brick-colored ancho lather. It may be mild but there's no lack of flavor. A plus is that there are no beans to get in the way of your enjoyment; a minus is the pre-packed sour cream that's refigerator cold. Fortunately, a chili this good needs no sour cream. I may be wrong or just lucky, but the texture on my last few visits didn't seem like repurposed brisket at all—I'd almost swear it was smoked exclusively for the chili.
Thick-cut St Louis style pork ribs come six to a plate, so my standard order here is three wet and three dry; splitting among three people and repeating as necessary is the way to go. The dry ribs have the distinction of not only having the most rub I've ever tasted on a rib, but the rarer distinction of avoiding the ashen mess you sometimes encounter with such a rub-heavy rib. The rub has an unusual and very appealing flavor, possibly from cloves. Inside, the ribs are moist and tender (and often juicy), with a noticeable smoke flavor as well as some mustard influence. It doesn't taste like mustard, but has the flavor pork gets when you slow smoke using a mustard slather under the rub. They sometimes have a tendency to be a little steamy, but more often than not, the Daisy May's dry rubbed pork ribs are among the best in New York. The wet ("sweet and sticky") version is also usually very good, though they can somertimes be a little overcooked.
Adam Perry Lang's pork shoulder won first place at the 2005 American Royal, but I'm guessing that's not what's being served here. Between a sesame seed bun sits an adequate but undistinctive mound of pork bathed in a nondescript sauce and topped with cole slaw. There are bits of bark and the texture is thankfully not soggy, but there's just nothing compelling about the slightly sweet meat or the sandwich as a whole. The moistness and the size of the serving have both varied greatly in multiple visits. I do like that on the street cart, the roll, pork and slaw are provided separately so you can make your own sandwich, reheating only the pork.
The brisket sandwich is a generous serving of pulled meat that's very similar to the chili (minus the broth) with sauce, onion and pickles on a very high quality sesame seed bun. I prefer sliced brisket, but this is pretty good, if slightly pot roasty. This sandwich succeeds as a whole more so than the pork.
The Oklahoma beef rib is large enough to be a deadly weapon. It's been served both on the bone and off, with the clean bone beside it as a garnish. This presentation allows the meat to be sliced and shared easily, and it's tender enough to cut with the plastic knife. The inner meat is always pink and naturally beefy, with the well rendered fat in the cut supplying both moisture and flavor. The texture has varied from falling apart consistency to medium-well steak consistency. The outer surface always carries a sauce that's mildly pleasant without overshadowing the beef, though I always wish that outer surface had some crispness for textural contrast. At its best, this beef rib is fantastic. At its worst, it's still one of the best in the region.
I only tried the chicken once and it was pretty good, with a noticeable smoky flavor and decent moistness, but not up to the level of their other meats.
Chopped beef is a relatively new item at Daisy May's that I observed on a neighbor's plate on one visit and ordered for myself on another visit. The chunks of beef were tender within, ever so slightly crisp at the edges (I'd prefer crispier) and generously coated with sweeter-than-usual sauce. I'm not a fan of sweet sauces with beef or of oversaucing beef, so while this was a nice item, I probably wouldn't get it again as a plate (the sandwich offers complementary flavors and textures that make it work much better). As I observed the first time I tried their brisket sandwich, there's also great similarity between this and the chili, so why not just get the outstanding chili.
The cole slaw is crisp and assertively flavored with a hint of mustard. I like this a lot, but I'd like it more if it weren't served so cold. The baked beans are phenomenal, with three different types of beans, bacon, burnt ends and a dark sauce that isn't too sweet. They're always good, but when the meat level is high (this phenomenon is getting rarer and rarer), these beans induce nirvana. Rice and beans were ordinary the one time I tried them. On my very first visit, the counter server was nice enough to offer me a sample of their bourbon peaches, which were cooked into more a deep flavored dessert than a side dish. I would have loved to pour these over some good vanilla ice cream. I once tried their cornbread and was impressed by its piping hot presentation but not its texture (stiff) or flavor (jalapeno).
Other than the dry ribs, everything at Daisy May's arrives with the sauce already on. There are no table sauces for experimentation.
Other Thoughts and Observations
Everything is packed to go in extremely high quality plastic containers, which would be a big plus if I lived close enough to reheat the leftovers.
The staff has always been friendly and helpful.
In February 2007 I finally tried the Big Pig Gig, and it was a fantastic meal.
I don't know if Daisy May's has slipped in the three years since I first tried them, but where I once ranked them #2 in the city (behind RUB), I now have them a little further down, thanks to the improvement of Dinosaur and the emergence of Hill Country, Wildwood and Fette Sau. I'll still match Daisy May's chili and dry rubbed pork ribs against any tandem in the city, but there are more New York BBQ joints doing more things well now.
The bottom line: Overall, I find Daisy May's to be one of the top half dozen New York City BBQ joints and one of the better joints in the Northeast. For an informal, easy-in, easy-out barbecue meal near midtown Manhattan, Daisy May's is a good choice.
Ted Lorson's review of Daisy May's (1), (2)
White Trash BBQ's review of Daisy May's (1), (2), (3), (4)
Yelp reviews of Daisy May's
Urban Spoon reviews of Daisy May's