Ducks Eatery is the second iteration of chef Will Horowitz's eclectic small plates conceived after a trip to Southeast Asia. Mere steps from pizza darling Motorino, Ducks' tiny storefront with no signage barely catches our attention, but a hastily scrawled "Creole BBQ" on cardboard taped to the window draws us in. A closer look has the Ducks logo printed into the glass door. Inside, it's just as tiny, with a half dozen metal stools packed tightly against the bar. A quick peek inside the kitchen around the left side of the bar reveals a Cookshack smoker. All thirteen of the tables are 2x2, placed much less than a foot apart and accompanied by mismatched office and schoolhouse chairs. The well worn brick walls look like they've stood there for centuries, housing who knows how many businesses. Votive candles, dim antique lights over the bar and upbeat music (funk, soul, Latin) give the rough and ready joint a surprisingly welcoming vibe that you hope for in a neighborhood joint like this. Outdoor tables (even in January) extend the seating, though not the distance between them.
We're talking a mish-mash of cuisines, from American barbecue, Vietnamese, Cajun, you name it. The cuisine almost defies description, but I'll call it Mississippi Delta meets Mekong Delta, or a poor man's Fatty Cue. It's all small plates and shared plates, with everything a la carte. The three items most in the barbecue wheelhouse are the smoked wings, the pork ribs and the brisket included in a soup dish. But the item that gets the most attention at Ducks is the crispy pig ears.
I hit Ducks Eatery for a long weekend Sunday dinner with my young bride. Having read both positive and negative reviews and seen numerous photos online, I was ready to take the plunge, regardless of how it would turn out. Knowing that the joint would get crowded, the plates would be small and the eats possibly smaller, I slotted this as the first stop on a 2-part dinner crawl to sample this and The Cardinal. That second stop turned out to be unnecessary.
Wings: Served on a wood plank shaped like a ping pong paddle (the chef is a former ping pong pro), the wings ($12) arrived well rubbed and unsauced, though some of the pieces carried a significant squeeze of lime that gave them a refreshing brightness. The aggressive rub wasn't representative of any one style but had elements of the billed jerk among the expected Southern and Asian flavors. More savory than sweet, though both took a back seat to the more noticeable smoke. Not in your face or sooty, but fragrant and ever present—no small feat with a Cookshack. Texture was uniformly crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. Moistness varied: some were fully moist, some just a little dry. Overall, a good start.
Ribs: A trio of individually cut spares ($12) also came aboard a plank, this time rectangular. The bones were long but the width and thickness didn't keep pace, so the meatiness took a small hit. Like the wings, these had a nice crust and plenty of rub. Here, the rub was more straightforward American barbecue, with a good balance but brown sugar the most noticeable. They weren't sauced per se but seemed to have a basted-in crust. Smoke was again pleasantly assertive. Doneness was just right, moistness wasn't, as the ribs weren't insanely dry, but dry. Flavor was fine though.
Yakamein Soup: A huge bowl meant for sharing had more than enough soup for two. With clams, smoked brisket, greenery, papardelle-like flat noodles and a sweet-sour-spicy dark brown broth, this had no shortage of flavor. Authentic? Who knows, as I'm not familiar with this dish that I assumed was Asian along the lines of Vietnamese pho, but is actually New Orleans inspired. I liked the intense flavor in the smoky brisket that seemed like a last minute throw-in and not swimming in the broth all along like with pho. It was the highlight of the meal and a perfect complement to my cold beer (for those of you who care about this stuff, a Tröegs Hopback Amber Ale).
I wasn't surprised by the absence of barbecue sauces on the table, since a) Ducks isn't your typical barbecue joint, if even a barbecue joint, and b) that would use up scarce tabletop real estate. I was surprised that the ribs were served without accompaniment. Sauce wouldn't have been necessary for flavor (other than to offer an additional creative twist) but would have been welcome for moisture.
Collard greens: Made with smoked bacon, these greens ($6) didn't have much bacon but they carried plenty of smoke, making it the most dominant flavor of the dish. The leaves were big, cooked to the brink of wilting and coated with a slightly vinegary condiment that also took a back seat to the smoke.
Some online reviews have called Ducks Eatery more of a bar than a restaurant, but that's more of a reflection of how the clientele choose to use it. I see no priorities issue here.
There's still much of the Ducks menu I'd like to try. The crispy pig ears. The crispy aged shortrib. The charred head-on shrimp. The brisket jerky. I'd be more eager to go back for all of them if they were open for lunch as well as dinner.
The Bottom Line
Loved it? No. Liked it? Yes. Based on advance scouting, I envisioned Ducks Eatery joint as a joint with the potential to go either way, but it turned out to be neither dud nor stud. Less of a barbecue destination and more of a local hang, Ducks Eatery is a creative, comfy joint that I can easily see myself hanging in if I lived in the 'hood.
Serious Eats appetizer review of Ducks Eatery (likes it)
Immaculate Infatuation review of Ducks Eatery (doesn't like it)
Yelp reviews of Ducks Eatery
Urbanspoon reviews of Ducks Eatery