(01/27/08) (11/06/10) (08/14/11) (08/14/11) (02/19/12)
From the street, Fette Sau is a little imposing, with the locked high gate and barbed wire fence shielding the former autobody shop’s narrow outdoor corridor. Up close, Fette Sau ("Fat pig" in German) is a treat for all of the senses. As soon as you walk in the door, you’ll hear the loud music, feel the heat and smell the smoke, and if you’re wearing glasses, they’ll fog up by your second step. As I wiped mine off early on my first visit, I took in my surroundings.
The seating consists of large communal picnic tables spread evenly throughout the large room and out into the walkway. Rising up to the high ceiling on the back wall are artful rendiions of the classic meat charts for pork, beef and lamb. The bar area, where you can order microbrews by the glass or by the jug and choose from more than 60 bourbons, has vintage John Deere tractor seats for stools and an assortment of cleavers and other cutlery for tap handles. A virtual fireplace on a wide screen television, with real firewood beneath, adds an element of humor. It was only after the line passed through that I was able to see the market style display case. Here you can get a good look at ribs, butts and other barbecued meats that will be cut as ordered, weighed and sold by the pound.
Before you advance far enough in line to see the meat offerings, the chalkboard menu apprises you of the choices, a subset (varying nightly) from the master menu. All of the pork items are from Berkshire pigs: Berkshire Boston butt, Berkshire pork ribs (babybacks or spares), Berkshire pork belly bacon and Berkshire pork sausage. Beef items include brisket, flank steak, ribs and "Akaushi" beef shoulder. Occasionally they have pig tails, leg of lamb, pulled lamb and smoked duck breast. Chicken is a notable omission. Sides are limited: baked beans, German potato salad, mac and cheese, broccoli salad and assorted pickles and potato chips.
I joined a fellow barbecue judge and two members of a New York competition team for a Sunday night visit in 2008. When we arrived shortly after the (then) 5:00PM opening, the line was fairly long and the joint filled up within the hour. It took more than two years before I returned, but the recent noon opening on weekends made it possible. Finding an empty seat even at 4:00PM was not possible, but a couple of empty stools at the bar beckoned. A year later I returned for both lunch and dinner in the same day, so that should tell you something. On my most recent visit, I attempted another doubleheader after a successful Sunday lunch, but the dinner crowds were too much.
There are no appetizers as such at Fette Sau—only waves and waves of meat.
Ribs: On the first visit we shared a full rack of the Berkshire babyback ribs. These had a very dark, very thick bark from slow smoking and a liberal use of spicy, salty, coffee-infused rub that also had a sweet, pleasing flavor with hints of clove. The inside was bright pink, with a light smokiness more than balanced by the pure porkiness of the meat. Our rack was moist and juicy, although racks I saw later in the night looked a little less moist. The second visit's ribs were spares that looked a little small but moist. Both the cut and the execution contributed to an even better rib experience, with pork flavor, smoke flavor and juiciness in every bite. The pork ribs have gotten a little larger in recent years, while the rub content, smoke content, juiciness (all extremely high) and just-tender-enough texture have remained constant.
Pulled pork: Some of the pieces of the first visit's bark-studded pulled pork shoulder were moist, some were a little dry, but all had a strong, pleasing pork flavor and light smokiness. The next and only time I tried the pulled pork, it had that same strong porky flavor and a perfect texture: extra crispy edges and very juicy meat irrigated by just the right amount of hot, melted fat. That second stab at the pulled pork was excellent; sadly, it's been unavailable on all my other visits.
Beef brisket: On the first visit the brisket was sliced fairly thick, with a blackened bark that mimicked the other meats. The flavor of the brisket wasn’t as rub-intensive as the pork, and though moist, it wasn’t as juicy. Still, at the time I placed it among the top third of those I’d tried. The more recent samplings of brisket have all been smokier and more tender than the first try, often presenting (especially on the second visit) a lush, melt-in-your mouth texture. The third visit came in with respectable texture and smoke, but a surprisingly lighter flavor that was a little roast beefy. The fourth and fifth visits rebounded with more succulence, more smoke and more rub flavor that erased the roast beef impression. Instead of top third, I'd now put Fette Sau's brisket in the top ten percent for sure.
Beef shoulder: Ordered on the first visit, this was much juicier than the first brisket, with a good ratio of fat to meat. Although I really liked the flavor, I found the texture a little tough. The larger cut on our neighbor's table looked perfect.
Sausage: The Berkshire pork link with an unusual red color has improved from a mild glorified hotdog to a robust and smoky Italian style with pepper in every bite. It's gushingly juicy, a little salty and full of all-around flavor.
Pork belly: What the pork shoulder may have lacked on that first visit in moistness was made up by the pork belly that exploded pork fat at first bite. The crisp exterior was also a nice carrier for the rub. The heaviness of the meat and profusion of solid fat made it something you probably shouldn’t have too much of, but some careful segregation of the meat from the fat yielded tasty pork goodness. On the second visit, the pork belly had the same outer crispness and the same punch to the rub, but this time had an interior so moist it was silky, with fat melted in rather than in the way.
Since that second visit, I've come back to the outstanding pork belly again and again. Consistently thick sliced, incredibly well seasoned, very smoky, very tender, very moist and very juicy, the pork belly has but one variable: the fat content. On that blubbery first visit, it was more than half fat and nearly inedible. On the latest visit there was much to discard, probably 25%. More often than not, the Fette Sau pork belly is a completely edible chunk that's got just enough fat to lubricate the whole piece. Thanks to an irresistible exterior/interior textural contrast and an addictively delicious rub, it's one of the must-try items at Fette Sau whenever it's available.
Bacon: The pork belly's cured cousin, tried only on visit 3 (I'd get it every single time if were available), was the best bacon I have ever had. Why? Because it had everything I look for in bacon: a thick cut, a strong but unbitter smokiness, pink hues throughout, good crispness and darker color at the edges, bendability with easy chewiness, extremely juicy meat that never gets too fatty and a compelling cured porkiness.
Pork chop: Maybe it's the cut, or maybe just me, but I'm not a fan of smoked pork chops, which are much better suited to the grill. Fette Sau's pork chop special had decent tenderness but not the same rub content, smokiness or all around flavor that makes their other pork offerings so special. This was one of the few times I reached for the sauce at Fette Sau.
Flank steak: Beef flank was another special that sounded better on paper than as executed, and another cut that's better suited to the grill. Flavor came through nicely, with all the steaky notes kicked up by the smoke, but the texture and moisture lost something along the way.
Boneless beef ribs: Available on a recent visit as a special by the pound, sliced beef shortrib came through with unsurprisingly strong smoke and high rub potency. Crisp around the edges, bright pink near the edges and sweating juices near the center, each slice was a perfect fit for the complimentary Martin's potato rolls. Tenderness was off just a hair but well within the desired range.
Plastic squeeze bottles present four sauces on every table, but they're neither a strength nor the horrifying disaster portrayed in some early reviews. The largest bottle is a ketchupy number with a little more tang and a little more spice, but it's hard to block out the Heinz flavor. A dark brown sauce has the look of a classic Kansas City style barbecue sauce, but it's a roulette wheel of spiciness: some squeezes are simply sweet with only a faint pepper slant (maybe guajillo or chipotle); others are wincingly potent. Also potent is a mustard sauce identical to the Chinese restaurant standard. A tart, runny vinegar sauce is best suited to pulled pork. A wise approach is to treat the sauces as primary colors for mixing and matching, but I've found the meats juicy and flavorful enough to not even need the sauce.
Overall I’d say that sides are a minor weakness here, more so from lack of selection than lack of execution, which has been mostly solid. Because the bar is such a strength, I’d like to see some additional sides that could double as bar snacks.
Baked beans: Plain and one-note ketchupy on the first visit, the baked beans have steadily improved every time since, bringing more smoke, more richness and much more meat. Unlike another famous "burnt ends baked beans" across the river, this identically named side lives up to that billing and then some. Fette Sau's cup of beans have such steeped-in flavor from smoky meat that it's nearly a chili.
Potato salad: A German style with large potato chunks is light on the condiment but still well lubricated and very refreshing, making it a competently cold counterpoint to the meat. Atypical of many German style renditions, it's as sour as it is sweet. I like the profusion of seeds that give it a little zip.
Mac and cheese: This is a recent addition to the roster. Barely room temperature in spots, a little crisp on the surface and runnier and warmer beneath, the mac and cheese acquitted itself nicely with extremely sharp flavor and strong saltiness to boot. The cheese blend? White Cheddar and Parmesan.
Pickles: Half sours by Gus's Pickles are more deli than barbecue, but they're crunchy and cool and work just as well.
Fette Sau is the first of the German style “BBQ market” restaurants to hit New York City, predating Hill Country by about three months. Unlike Hill Country, Fette Sau isn’t attempting to recreate a specific Texas joint; on the contrary and to its credit, Fette Sau strikes me as very original and very New York. On the other hand, Fette Sau's lines don't move nearly as quickly as Hill Country's, with only one person taking and assembling the orders (Hill Country uses four to six employees for this). The food? It all comes down to what you feel like having and what's available that night.
Parking can be a challenge immediately in front of Fette Sau, but just a few blocks south at Meeker Avenue there's a large lot under the Brooklyn Queens Highway that never seems to be full.
Yes, you may find a hipster or two here. That never bothered me.
It's important to know going in that the menu at Fette Sau changes from day to day and even from lunch to dinner on the same day. You'll usually find at least one of the holy trinity of ribs, pulled pork and brisket, but landing all three at the same time is no guarantee. For those who have one go-to meat, it could be disappointing if it's not on hand. But for those with flexibility and broad interests, exotica such as smoked duck breast and pulled lamb might dazzle just as much as the standard fare.
The Bottom Line
Fette Sau has a lot going for it: good to great barbecue meats with a killer rub, a rotating menu full of surprises, a great bar atmosphere and a comfortable place to hang once you've settled into a hard-to-get spot at a picnic table. I’d like to see a little more variety in the sides and a little more speed in the service, but Fette Sau easily makes my upper echelon of barbecue joints for not only New York City but the entire Northeast. Your chances of achieving a great barbecue meal within the region may be at their highest at Fette Sau, which is very good and still on an upward trend.
New York magazine's Fette Sau profile
Free Williamsburg's Fette Sau Profile
Robert Sietsema's review of Fette Sau in Village Voice
Gastro Chic's post on Fette Sau
Yelp reviews of Fette Sau
Urbanspoon reviews of Fette Sau
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