Opened in late 2011, Harley's Smokeshack adds a new barbecue presence to East Harlem with an old school look and feel. The raw brick walls are timeless; the country-western decor (wagon wheels, saddles, cowboy hats) and eclectic collection of tchotchkes—none of which have anything to do with Harley-Davidson—are very typical of a 1980s era barbecue joint. I'm surprised there's no fried onion loaf on the menu.
The entry up a half flight of stairs leads to a narrow hallway with mid-sized bar to the left and an assortment of deuces and 4-tops (no booths) spread across two rooms. The tables are made of heavy, rustic wood that's either been around a long time or made to look that way. Lighting is dim.
Opening pitmaster Dave "Fink" Finkelstein has departed for parts and projects unknown. According to the kitchen staff, they're continuing to execute Fink's recipes without veering drastically, but intend to tweak gradually.
The Harley's menu is ambitious, varied and tempting.
There's no attempt here to offer "North Carolina pork" or "Texas brisket" or the like, which suits me just fine since most attempts do a better job using the name than adhering to the style.
Barbecue and smoked options include babyback ribs, St Louis cut spare ribs, beef ribs (one night a week), pulled pork, brisket, turkey, chicken, housemade bratwurst (naked or wrapped in bacon), smoked meatballs (naked or wrapped in bacon), smoked prime rib, smoked-then-fried wings with a few different topping choices, a smoked 3-cheese fondue, quesadillas with smoked meat, Frito pie with smoked meat and Cajun pork loin. Combos can group three appetizers or two or three BBQ entrees.
Non-barbecue options are nearly as plentiful, with cornmeal trout and bacon, maple smoke roasted salmon, bacon wrapped filet (can you tell they like bacon?), chicken or shrimp with grits, burgers, po boys, a grilled chicken sandwich and four different salads.
I visited with my young bride for a Sunday lunch and a Monday lunch about four months apart. The first visit was diring the Fink administration (though he wasn't there); the second visit was after his departure.
Wings: The standard version is smoked then fried, then tossed in a sweet and tart sauce that gives them as much flavor as you possibly can while still letting the chicken flavor shine through. These bore a slight resemblance to Chinese wings in texture, juiciness and flavor, only taken to a much higher level by the smoke and superior saucing. Harley's wings stand a very good chance of cracking the next version of my Wings list.
Babybacks: Selected on the first visit's appetizer combo, these impressed with good size and thickness, a nice crust that had just enough char, a light coating of that same sweet and tangy sauce and mid-level smoky flavor throughout. Moistness was good and tenderness was perfect (clean bite, pulled easily off the bone without falling off). I might have said the sauce was redundant after having it on the wings, but it's a really tasty sauce and it's not overdone. This was a definite throwback to the style of barbecue I enjoyed 20 years ago, but executed well and with legitimate smoke and a better cut, so no complaints.
Texas lollipops: It's hard to go wrong when you take a house made bratwurst, wrap it with bacon and smoke it. The bacon could have been crisper but the brat beneath had good tenderness, an interesting crumbly texture and very bold flavor from the spices and smoke. This item too had that same sauce (very light coating), so the redundancy started here. But taken on its own merit, the lollipops were just fine aside from the underdone bacon.
Bacon garlic wings: There's a $2 premium on this variety ($11), so that sets the bar of expectation extra high. On the second visit's weekday lunch these came in extra crisp and extra golden brown of skin, but would need a little extra bacon (there were only a few scattered bits) to really justify. A light, slightly wet bacony essence (I wouldn't call it grease) surrounded each of the nine pieces, which were stacked attractively and accompanied by a thick, high quality blue cheese dip. Garlicky essence was less evident. Inside, the chicken was moist but shy of juicy (reheat alert), pink and pleasantly smoky. Minor freshness quibble aside, these were some very good smoked wings—just not worth the upgrade.
Chili: This was ordered on the second visit; a full 15 minutes later we learned that it wasn't available. Supposedly it's a mix of the classic ground beef style and the barbecue style that repurposes smoked meats.
Gumbo: I'm no gumbo authority, but the rendition of the day I tried (about $8) seemed more like thicker, spicier chicken chow mein. Meat to vegetable ratio was high, with sausage and chicken the predominant players; little slices of pork appeared every now and then. Jalapeños were more of a garnish. Additional spice came from a powder tossed on top and around the rim of the monkey dish, but this needed a few dashes of hot sauce to get it going. It may or may not have been a classic gumbo, but it was a good stew.
Ribs: The first visit's St Louis ribs ribs on a 3-meat combo arrived grilled, glazed, crusted and charred just enough to flavor them but not so much to mask the natural porky, smoky flavor. The sauce is basted in and applied during the grill finish. It's the dominant flavor but it never hijacked the ride. As one of the two women overheard at an adjacent table observed, "They're tender without being mushy." Extra barbecue sauce in a pitcher hit the spot when desired but was never a necessity. Doneness was just about right and all of the ribs seemed fresh even though they were probably a reheat.
The second visit's St Louis ribs on a 3-meat combo were a bit of a letdown from the inaugural batch, mostly due to the not-so-moist, not-so-fresh feel. Crusting was a success, offering a nearly solidified basted-in glaze to boot. Inner meat had mild smoke and decent enough flavor, but the texture held them back. I did like that they weren't overcooked.
Pulled pork: The first visit's pulled pork had a light coating of sauce, good bark and good flavor, but a steamy feel that made it less impressive than the ribs. Things picked up on the second visit, even though the pork was initially left off the 3-meat combo (a mixup instead included Cajun sliced pork). When the pork arrived in a bowl, it looked very dark but very good. The dark saucing made it hard to see, but a careful examination revealed a very high bark ratio and some appealing pinkness to the meat. The bark had good crunch; inner meat was very tender. All of the pork had an extremely potent flavor that I'm guessing came from a combination of liberal use of rub and mustard applied before smoking. On top of all that was a good dose of barbecue sauce that supplied a rare combination of thin, dark, dense, sweet and sour. Although the amount and style of sauce were both outside my usual preference, this not only worked but was outstanding. A barbecue meat doesn't have to conform to my preconceived notion of what it's supposed to be—if it's good it's good, and this pulled pork was good. Damn good.
Brisket: The first visit's brisket was probably the weakest of the meats we tried. It carried a decent smoke profile but very little bark or other flavors. The thin (almost deli thin) slicing made it nominally tender but not the classic barbecue tender.
Brat: I included this on the second visit's 3-meat combo based on the promise of the first visit's Texas lollipops. Here, the brat was served whole but butterflied and topped with a warm neo-kraut of sliced cabbage and apples. The sausage had no crispness, a gentle texture and decent moistness that fell short of full-on juicy. Flavor was very pleasant, just not as compelling as the lollipops and not nearly as smoky.
Consistent with the 1980s barbecue joint style, no sauces are kept tableside but extra sauce can be requested. The house Granny Smith apple barbecue sauce arrived in a stainless steel pitcher. This is an interesting number that works well for everything but brisket, and is the defacto topping unless you request otherwise. It's surprisingly dark and very sweet, but its thinness and tartness allow just enough sweetness to perk up the meat without getting too sugar happy. And if sugar happy's what you want, the pitcher is right there. The jerk sauce is equally dark, of more typical thickness and supplying Caribbean spices (more savory than just flat out heat) instead of tartness to complement the sweet.
Potato salad: Egg and heavy spices were expected but very nicely done; bacon camouflaged as potato skins delivered a surprising flavor blast even though it's a listed ingredient. This was definitely a winner.
Cabbage: This had pork chunks and was cooked in bacon fat, so we're not talking low calorie vegetable side here. It reminded me of pasta a la carbonara if cabbage were swapped in for the pasta.
Scrappy baked beans: Thick, sludgy and uncharacteristically unsweetened,
these beans brought a lot of natural bean flavor, with several
scraps of barbecue meat on the first visit and few if any on the second visit.
Cole slaw: A solid creamy crunchy version provided good counterpoint to the meats without trying to do too much flavorwise.
Cornbread: Not included on the second visit. Whether this was a change in policy or an oversight (very possible on this visit, given that our server was obviously unseasoned) was not clear.
I'm not sure how many New Yorkers will be able to identify with this comparison, but for what it's worth Harley's very much reminds me of the now-departed Uncle Pete's Hickory Ribs (Revere MA). Similar atmosphere and a lot of the same approaches in the kitchen.
The Bottom Line
Old school smoke-sauce-and-grill barbecue that doesn't compromise the legit low and slow prep. If you insist on having your 'cue naked, this isn't for you, but if you do (or if like me, you're up for a change every now and then) Harley's has the potential to hit it out of the park. Consistency is very much at issue and the second visit wasn't as impressive as the first, but there were enough highlights on both visits to bring me back every now and then. I put Harley's in my third tier of New York City barbecue behind the big boys, but it's a threat for the back end of my NYC top 10.
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