Often dubbed the face of New Jersey barbecue and a "cult pitmaster," Dave Finkelstein has taken his talents to Dumont, where his West Madison Avenue eatery/drinkery is sports themed bar to the left and dining room to the right. All of the latter's seating is at tables and chairs, with painted or chalked menu verbiage on the walls.
The smoker is a Southern Pride.
Much of the menu incorporates favorites from Fink restaurants past, from Fink's Funky Chicken & Ribs (NJ) to Bailey's Smokehouse (Blauvelt NY) and Harley's Smokeshack (NYC).
Barbecue and smoked options include pork spare ribs, beef ribs, pulled pork, brisket, turkey, chicken, housemade bratwurst, smoked-then-fried wings with a few different topping choices, beef-stuffed meatloaf and mixed BBQ hash. Combos are available; sandwiches are sliders with choice of meats. Non-barbecue sandwiches include burgers, dogs, po boys and grilled chicken. Appetizers feature the smoked wings, New Jersey and Texas lollipops, Smokey Garlic Shiner Shrimp, fries topped with cheese and pulled pork, an "ever changing" chili, a gumbo of the day, beer cheese and two salads. Entrees beyond barbecue include chicken fried steak, cornmeal crusted catfish, broiled or fried shrimp, grilled chicken and Cajun pork loin.
At lunchtime, there's a "carving station" in the bar that features beef ribs every day, with the second meat on a weekly rotation (such as poultry on Wednesday). For $10, you get a plate with the two carving station meats, plus two sides and corn soufflé.
A barbecue buddy and I hit Fink's Smokehouse for a Wednesday lunch, targeting it as the headliner on a 4-stop crawl.
Disclaimer #1: We dropped $80 on drinks, three appetizers and three different combo platters with six sides in an attempt to try as much of the menu as possible, but we were also helped out in that regard by a few samples from the owner.
Disclaimer #2: I got incredibly busy at work shortly after this visit, so with a three-week lag time, some of the details are a bit fuzzy and the descriptions will be more brief than usual (maybe a good thing), but the main themes should come through.
Three Bird Gumbo: A special of the day, this Creole Classic blended smoked turkey, chicken and Cornish game hens in a rich stew served over rice. I didn't find it as spicy as most gumbos, but it was thick, rich and hearty with no lack of flavor from the smoke and poultry. There was a creaminess as well, like cream of chicken meets Chicken A La King, in the best and smokiest way possible.
Wings: Two orders ($9.50 each) bookended the meal as both appetizer and dessert encore. The first round kept things simple, bypassing sauce in favor of the "Cajun Dusted" option. The eight or so jumbo party wings had good crispness thanks to a quick deep fry, good moistness in the tender and slippery meat beneath, a nice mix of rubby and peppery heat on the surface and light smokiness throughout. The finale added sauce to the equation: a thin "Tangy Apple BBQ" brought a sweet-tart tandem that accented without overwhelming. There might not be enough wow factor to reach the top, but these wings are well beyond solid and a strong contender for a spot on my next Wings List. One detail that must be noted: the from-scratch blue cheese dip had a fantastic creamy, bumpy texture with intensely sharp flavor.
Texas Lollipops: Smoked, bacon-wrapped bratwurst chunks come five to an order ($9.00), served with thin wooden skewer sticks as handles (hence the name). They're a little on the saucy side, but there's enough substance underneath that it still works. Surprisingly, the star of this dish isn't the bacon (thick, marbled, just crisp enough and speckled with rub) but rather the housemade bratwurst. The smoky flavor busts through the sauce, as does an array of spices. The texture is a nice midpoint between meatloafy tender and sausage snappy, allowing its own juiciness to be recognized distinct from the saucing. And if you're still fearing that it might be too sweet, fear not: an accompaniment of housemade horseradish cream for dipping provides the perfect foil. The many contrasting flavors and textures make this not only a must-try but a must-get-again.
New Jersey Lollipops: This version (also $9.00), uses a key New Jersey delicacy—Taylor ham—as the main ingredient, stuffing it inside a new potato, wrapping it with bacon and serving with the same horseradish cream. It's a nice little appetizer, but I'd skip the industrial strength ham and keep my lollipops Texan to get that bratwurst made with love.
Beef rib: Ordered as part of the lunchtime carving station deal ($10 for two meats, two sides plus dinner roll and corn souffle), this took me a little by surprise because it was meat carved from the bone (duh, that's why it's called carving station). Each of the four or so slices had good bark representation and pink tint to the meat. None were free-flowing juicy, but most were moist to very moist, with a borderline dry spot here and there. Flavor was excellent, with a nice blend of beefiness, melted beef fat, spices on the surface and light smoke throughout. The timing of the visit—a slow weekday lunch when there was only one other patron in the dining room—might have been a reason for the carved beef not jumping with vitality as if pulled right from the smoker, but it still satisfied. I'd like to try an uncarved while beef rib at night.
Turkey: The other meat on the carving station did exude vitality, making it equally surprising. The spice-flecked skin had some crackle in it thanks to a dip in the deep fryer. The gently tender inner meat—not very typical for turkey—was well past moist and into juicy territory without being the least bit greasy. The pleasantly smoky poultry had a very pronounced turkey flavor—yes, I know it's supposed to, but this had more oomph than most—with some rubby or briny undertones in the mix. The texture/flavor combo made this easily one of the better smoked turkey servings I've had recently.
Ribs: Medium length, extra thick St Louis cut spares on the chicken and rib
combo ($15) had well formed crusts and a light glaze (more crispy than
wet). Its sweet-tart contrast combined with mellow smoke, natural porkiness and some additional
ingredients to make these ribs quite flavorful and quite
pleasant. I liked the combination of sweet and savory that didn't stray
too far in either direction. Doneness was perfect, allowing an easy,
clean bite. Though short of free flowing juicy, moistness came through
in every one of those bites. Overall, some very enjoyable ribs with echoes of
Brisket: Saucier than I like, but doable. A thick sample had well established but well softened crust with delicate, fork tender meat below. My friend noted a bit of a pot roasty quality but the flavor was there (from the rub as much as if not more than the sauce) and the supremely succulent texture was hardly steamy.
Pulled pork: Another sample presented another extra tender serving with good moistness even aside from the light saucing that was neither fully sweet nor fully tart. It avoided mushy but could have had just a bit more bite-back. Flavor was nicely porky, with smoke and spices peeking out through the sauce. A solid enough entry that might have been even more solid on a night visit with more turnover.
Chicken: Okay, here we have something really special. A chicken thigh, leg and a few scraps of trimmed breastage on a chicken and rib combo ($15,00) were smoked first, then deep fried before serving to ensure a crisp skin even after a light but thorough application of sauce. The inner meat had a very appealing flavor from at least the smoke and possibly a brine, and every bite brought juiciness along with it. The key here is balance: there was an unusually potent chickeniness, recognizable smoke, a playful boost from the rub, sweet lubrication from the sauce and a welcome crisp-tender-juicy texture troika. I'd rank this somewhere among my favorite smoked chicken and would highly recommend boosting this up from chicken's usual place in the barbecue depth chart.
There's no sauce on the tables, but there are a few different sauce choices for the meats. The most prevalent is an apple flavored number that's mostly sweet, slightly tart and not nearly as thick as most, so it's able to coat the meat without fully cloaking it. On the pulled pork it's thinner still, though I didn't notice a difference in tartness.
Cole slaw: A good mix of savory thanks to seeds and creamy without being too mayoey.
Baked beans: This is a very unique rendition that's not the least bit sweet, not the least bit spicy, yet not the least bit unflavorful. The spices are less about the heat and more about the flavor, making the experience one that I can only describe as leguminous. Different indeed and worth a look.
Mashed potatoes: Very potatoey, very homemade tasting, with plenty of moisture and the positive effects of butter without ever seeming like it's being used as a crutch. Skins are included.
Collard greens: Cooked well past wilting and heavily coated with a tangy condiment perked up by light pepper heat.
Cornbread: Instead of cornbread, Fink's offers corn soufflé. Yes, that's right, corn soufflé. What cookie batter is to cookies, Fink's corn soufflé is to cornbread. It's a little wet and a little scary in that you might not be sure that it's cooked, but it is and the texture is intended, not a mishap. The corn flavor is strong and the texture grows on you, sort of like Thanksgiving stuffing.
There's a recurring theme here: the potatoes taste really potatoey, the chicken tastes really chickeny, the beef tastes really beefy, the pork tastes really porky and the turkey tastes really, uh, like turkey. That's a good thing.
Just about everything here is homemade and made with pride. Little touches like the sharp, zesty blue cheese wing dip and the horseradish cream for the meat lollipops make something really special out of what could easily just be mailed in.
The Bottom Line
Reliably strong flavors, mostly on-point textures, good value and a deep, creative menu make Fink's Smokehouse a must-try if you're in the area.
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