In typical Williamsburg fashion, there's a small handmade sign in the window furthest from the street, but unless (and even if) you were specifically looking for it, you'd probably walk past the nondescript Pies 'n' Thighs storefront without noticing it. Inside, the joint is even more typically Williamsburg, with 1950's diner style tables, an assortment of antiques, a broken-in pastry case, funky cartoons (one of Lou Reed, no less) in the unisex rest rooms and well-tatted servers with European glasses and winter wool hats that are probably worn even in summer. Hipsters, schmipsters, none of that stuff bothers me, but if it bothers you, consider yourself forwarned.
Pies 'n' Thighs is open for breakfast and brunch seven days a week, so eggs, biscuits and other baked goods beyond the namesake pies are a big part of the menu, all the way up to 4:00PM. At lunch and dinner, the compact menu features fried chicken (with or on biscuits, and not just thighs), grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, pulled pork sandwiches and brisket sandwiches, all with Southern sides.
Pies 'n' Thighs had been on my most-wanted-to-try list for years, but Brooklyn has always been problematic for me, as most of the barbecue restaurants have been evenings-only affairs. Complicating things further—especially frustrating after beloved Fette Sau started serving weekend lunches but not weekday lunches—is that Pies 'n' Thighs serves barbecue on weekday lunches but only brunch during weekend lunch hours. In 2012, New Year's Day fell on a Sunday, making Monday a holiday on which Pies 'n' Thighs was open and serving lunch. Bingo, I was there. Joined by my young bride and a longtime barbecue/donut accomplice, I hit Pies 'n' Thighs at 10:30, when most of the local clientele had breakfast plates in front of them. I still had my doubts even after calling ahead, but barbecue indeed was in the cards.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because barbecue is an inexact science. Not to tip my hand and not to give restaurateurs any excuses, but I draw different conclusions based on dinner rush meals versus early lunch meals. Or early lunch meals versus mid afternoon dead zone meals. Or middle of summer meals versus day holiday meals.
We'll stretch the "appetizer" category to include donuts. Known as much if not more for their baked goods than their barbecue, Pies 'n' Thighs offers an interesting assortment of homemade donuts. While deciding what to order (or more accurately, while waiting for buy-in to my suggested order, since I had that nailed down days earlier), our table of three sliced up an orange clove donut and an eggnog special donut. Both were large, thick, thick of frosting, very sweet, very dense and very firm. Without getting into all the food blogger cliches, I'll just say that the flavors were excellent but the freshness was lacking. Small batches of new donuts periodically made their way into the case throughout our meal, so I know they have the potential to be served warm. Based on that and the flavors of what we tried, I would not hesitate to try these again even though rigidity was their downfall.
Fried chicken: There was no doubt a fried chicken "box" ($13 with biscuit and one side) would be in the order, as that's another item Pies 'n' Thighs is known for more than their barbecue. Props to them for being on board before fried chicken became the new black. A trio of wing, thigh and breast pieces wisely left off my least favorite chicken part, making the divvying a little easier. Each piece had a thick coating of crunchy batter that was surprisingly light and grease-free, with not much going on as far as batter seasoning but a noticeable salting probably added right before service. Inside, the meat was warm and moist, though not brined or infused with any special flavors. This was pretty good fried chicken, but without much flavor or anything special to hang its hat on, I'd put the brakes on calling it anything higher than that.
Pulled pork sandwich: Served openfaced to showcase the pork on one half and the cole slaw on the other, the pulled pork box ($11 with the slaw plus one other side) looked old school. The bun was your standard issue soft white hamburger variety. The pork itself was pulled into large chunks that were mostly gray with little to no bark. Adorning the meat pile were some thin sprinklings of red pepper and a very light coat of the house vinegar hot sauce. This tasted like Tabasco, but with a little more thickness and a little more heat. The cole slaw was extremely finely chopped, still leaving it with a little crunch while making it adhere easily to the pork during biting. Two pickle chips also came along for the ride.
Texture was surprisingly decent for 11:00AM, but as is typical of most pulled pork that's mostly gray with little to no bark, there was little to no flavor (rub presence, smokiness, porkiness) in the meat itself. As a fully composed sandwich, however, it was much more successful. The diversity of all the textures, the zing of the sauce and the creaminess of the always-in-right-proportion cole slaw combined to make this sandwich a pretty good one despite the lack of a true barbecue profile in the meat. Even without any extra sauce added, the sandwich fell apart, requiring much of it to be eaten by fork.
Brisket sandwich: Sold as a "box" ($13 with one side), the brisket sandwich arrived on grilled challah-like bread with a perfect golden brown surface that had just the right amount of cooking time and just the right amount of butter. Thin, dark-edged brisket slices peeked out between the bread, revealing a liberal application of a tangy, tomato-based barbecue sauce that was thicker and sweeter than the pulled pork condiment. A little probing also revealed a generous whipped butter layer spread beneath the meat. Gray similar to the pork, the brisket had a nicer flavor that may have come from cooking spices but may have also come from simmering in sauce. Either way, it was a nice mix of sweet and savory that was pleasant enough, though hardly barbecue (and probably not smoked). As with the pork, the sandwich worked as a whole despite the meat being its weakest link, and fell apart under the moistness. With all that butter and the eggy flavor of the bread, I'm tempted to call this sandwich the Monte Brisko.
There's no sauce choice, no extra sauce served with the meals and no barbecue sauce on the table, though there is a squeeze bottle of a fairly well done thin vinegar hot sauce.
Cole slaw: Supplied in the pulled pork sandwich, this was the creamy mayo-based classic, only chopped much finer. Seasoning was low but crunch was high.
Baked beans: This run of the mill variety looked like the neans that buried Pete Townsend on an early Who album cover. The promised burnt ends were tiny bits that were just as pot roasty as the brisket in the sammy, so they added no smokiness. Tomato was the dominant flavor.
Black-eyed pea salad: This was by far the best side of the meal for me—partly because I like this dish and partly because it was one of the better renditions I've tried. Cold, crisp, sour and spicy is definitely the way to go, and this one hit all the marks while adding some sweetness and some dress-it-up scallions.
Collard greens: Thick, heavy, cooked to the brink of wilting and perked with the vinegar hot sauce. Fairly standard but good.
Biscuit: An accompaniment to the fried chicken, the biscuit was tall, crusty and moist without being greasy.
The Bottom Line
Although the timing of the visit may have had an effect, the smoke and flavor profiles were probably no different from any other day, so I'll cut right to the chase and call Pies 'n' Thighs a letdown. As a bakery, sandwich shop or fried chicken joint I'd give it another try for sure. As for the pulled pork and brisket, both were satisfying as sandwiches but not so much as barbecue. To its credit, Pies 'n' Thighs isn't calling itself a barbecue joint, so take that into consideration. But no matter how you classify Pies 'n' Thighs, I think its notoriety and reputation are a bit undeserved.
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