Southern Hospitality is a barbecue concept created by pop star Justin Timberlake and two of his boyhood pals. The restaurant has alternately claimed and denied that Timberlake is involved financially.
Southern Hospitality's second outpost in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood is a mere two blocks from the heart of Times Square but surprisingly quiet. Inside, there are mostly deuces and four-tops in a modest dining area with a long bar on one side and a few booths on the other. Overhead, large block letters, some lit, spell the lyrics to some of the rockabilly era's best known songs. On one wall is a gigantic photo of that era's greatest pop star: Elvis Presley. There are no similar current pop star Justin Timberlake, who's officially listed as one of the restaurant's co-creators. TV monitors are nearby if you need them, but remain low key. A windowless private dining area can be found in the back. Just days before my lunch visit, Timberlake gave a surprise performance there.
The smoker is a Southern Pride—a serious upgrade over the Cookshack originally installed at the Upper East Side Southern Hospitality.
The menu at Southern Hospitality is a blur of barbecue, Southern fare and pub grub. The barbecue menu offers two kinds of ribs (babybacks and spare ribs, wet or dry), beef brisket, pulled pork, barbecued chicken and pulled chicken. Four pre-configured combos team up ribs with chicken, brisket and/or more ribs. All platters now come with two sides that you can select yourself. To mitigate the lack of flexibility in the combos, Southern Hospitality
now offers add-ons like three slices of brisket, a pair of dry rubbed
Memphis ribs and scoops of pulled pork and pulled chicken.
Sandwiches include the brisket, pulled meats, shrimp po' boy, grilled chicken, grilled portobello and a burger au naturale or topped with brisket. For the ‘cue-phobes, there’s fried chicken, chicken and waffles, grilled or fried shrimp, grilled salmon, meatloaf and steak.
Appetizers lean toward the Southern and the fried, with fried pickles, hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, Buffalo fried shrimp, coconut shrimp, catfish lollipops, chili, chicken wings, nachos and pulled pork or chicken in quesadillas or sliders.
The beverage menu has all the usual libations, plus a special milk shakes section with some intriguing selections like Peach Melba (vanilla ice cream, peach puree, amaretto and peach schnapps).
My young bride and I checked out Southern Hospitality for a Labor Day lunch. Of all the times I visited an expansion location of an existing barbecue joint, this is the one that had me filled with the most curiosity. It was more than just another location; this was a new era.
I classify four different eras for Southern Hospitality:
1) The initial phase, which banked mostly on Justin Timberlake's involvement (which seemed to change according to what served them best at the time);
2) The Ray Lampe phase, where the face of the restaurant shifted from pop superstar to the barbecue competition superstar better known as "Dr. BBQ," who was hired as executive pitmaster;
3) The post-Lampe phase, which seemed built more upon bar than barbecue; and
4) The expansion era, in which the Hell's Kitchen location's smoker is the Southern Pride, an upgrade from the Cookshack they saddled the good doctor with.
I didn't know going in whether there'd be a new smoker, but I hoped that would be the case based on some comments Ray Lampe shared with me during a previous visit.
Fried pickles: Toppling out of a mini cast iron pan, the deep fried dill pickle chips ($7.95) showcased perfectly crisp, bumpy and not overcooked batter that reminded me of fried chicken. Seasoning was minimal to nonexistent, but the batter itself—much thicker than the sliver of pickle inside—still had a nice flavor. I'd like a little more pickle and a lot more salt, but these were enjoyable on their own and with the remoulade dipping condiment.
Pulled pork sliders: Served on the now ubiquitous (and always fresh) Martin's potato rolls, a trio of pulled pork sliders ($8.95) lined up on a rectangular plate, presenting a conservative pork-to-bun ratio that echoed the pickles and batter in the fried pickle chips. The airiness of the rolls didn't necessarily solve the portion issue, but did a nice job allowing the pork to make itself known in every bite. I tried some of the pork without the roll, and while I would by no means put it among my favorites, it was noticeably improved from the last pulled pork sandwich I tried at the Upper East Side Southern Hospitality. The saucing was lighter, the color of the meat was closer to pink than previously and the texture was tender while still offering some resistance. I didn't get any smokiness per se, but it did taste like a smoked product with flavor coming from rub as well as sauce. Cutting back on the sauce even further (sauce-happy customers can reach for the squeeze bottle easily enough) and being just a bit more generous with the meat would make the sliders more impressive, but they were serviceable as is.
Ribs: For the entree, we shared the Wet and Dry Rib Sampler ($27.95) that includes a half rack each of sauced babybacks and unsauced Memphis rubbed spares. Before the plate hit the table, I uttered an audible "Wow." These ribs were gigantic, not just in comparison to previous Southern Hospitality visits but gigantic in their own right. Ditto the visible-from-a-distance smoke ring and deep pink coloring throughout that nearly had me reaching for them before taking photos.
Spare ribs: The spares were long and thick (nearly 2 inches in some spots), with good bone retraction and an extremely sturdy, crunchy crust that wasn't too dark. Some separation between the crust layer and the majority of the meat revealed a little fat between, but it was all edible and all very moist. On top of that surface was the Memphis treatment: a generous allotment of dry rub tossed on just before serving, adding flavor and another textural dimension. Upon bite, the attractive pink meat released juices that ran rampant. The flavor that was missing in action during a half dozen Upper East Side Southern Hospitality visits marched forth triumphantly, delivering a light hit of smoke and a heavier hit of deep rub flavor. Tenderness was right where it was supposed to be, allowing an easy but clean bite with no meat falling off the bone. If the pulled pork represented a noticeable improvement, the spare ribs brought a dramatic improvement, but just comparing them to past visits would be doing these ribs a disservice: they were excellent in their own right. (I still can't believe those ribs came from Southern Hospitality.)
Babyback ribs: Lengthy but more petite babybacks had a lighter crust that could be seen and felt under the light saucing. Avoiding typecasting, these were fully tender but witha little more chew to them than the spares. The sauce kept things moist without upstaging the meat, which brought a recognizable smoke and a more recognizable pork-rub tandem.
Three different table sauces were available in squeeze bottles. All were fairly standard variations of your typical storebought hickory sauce and not all that different from each other. Not a showstopper, but not a strength.
After a continued rib-high, the meal was brought down to Earth by some pretty average sides. Collard greens had large leaves, a thin broth and not much additive. Onion rings were the puffy kind and most likely frozen.
The Bottom Line
For a lunch on a holiday, Southern Hospitality not only exceeded all expectations; it hit actually some legitimate highs. I still get the impression that Southern Hospitality thinks of itself as bar first and barbecue joint second, but their ribs are to be taken quite seriously nowadays. With still plenty of room for improvement, Southern Hospitality appears to be on the right track at last in what might be the best of their four eras.
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