(04/17/06) (02/11/07) (04/13/08) (01/19/09) (07/31/10) (03/13/12)
Virgil's is located just a few hundred feet from the heart of Times Square, one of New York City's busiest and most tourist-heavy areas. The bright white LCD-style sign rising four stories up lures you into a foyer that immediately hits you with a pile of firewood (that's good, assuming that's how they cook) and a glassed-in souvenir stand (not so good, but hey, welcome to New York City).
It's a busy place that seems to nail every possible demographic. The first floor is divided into a bar area with TVs and a dining area, the rear of which has a partial view of the kitchen that houses a Southern Pride smoker. There's another dinng room upstairs; all three areas get full very quickly.
I like the fact that the placemat features a map of the southern USA, with several BBQ joints identified as being great for pork, beef or both. Framed menus of famous barbecue restaurants and posters of barbecue events similarly extol the virtues of barbecue outside the city.
The Virgil's menu is a hodgepodge of barbecue, Southern and pub food, with trash ribs (rib tips), trainwreck fries, chicken fried steak and catfish in addition to the usual suspects. Barbecue fare includes pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, smoked chicken and pulled chicken, which can be had as platters or combinations of up to four meats. Sadly, smoked lamb is no longer on the menu. Non-barbecue options include grilled chicken, fried chicken, grilled shrimp, steak, burgers, dogs and four different salads.
Because it's in Times Square and has been around since long before the recent New York City barbecue renaissance, you'd expect Virgil's to be a tourist trap. When I stayed at the Millennium Hotel right across the street a few years before starting this site, that's what I thought, so I delayed my first visit until 2006. Pleasantly surprised, I've returned roughly once a year ever since, hitting Virgil's for weekday lunches and weekend dinners both solo and with barbecue-savvy friends.
Chili: An attractive bowl of chili tried on a 2009 visit dazzled visually with an attractive swirl of chipotle cream on top. Flavor and texture were also impressive enough to get this chili an honorable mention on my 2009 Favorite Chili list. I like to think of Virgil's chili as a poor man's version of the list-topping Daisy May's chili found just a half dozen blocks away. While Daisy May's is meatier and smokier, Virgil's captures that same peppery sweet ancho flavor, and it's actually a little spicier. Texture is very smoth, with sauteed ground beef the likely protein and a handful of tiny beans thankfully staying out of the way. The entire bowl of chili might be out of the way now, because I could not find it on the most recent Virgil's menu.
Wings: Pricey at $13.25, but you get seven whole wings of good size, translating to 14 pieces. These made my Favorite Wings list thanks to their flavor that's not smoky per se, but which carries the deep flavor of having been smoked, then grilled and sauced for the finish. Had the bumpy, spicy, saucy exterior reached anything close to crisp on any of the three tries (even on the most recent one when I requested them well done), they'd rank higher than they did. I like the moist and tender interior and the overall flavor that has a hint of lime in the background. I didn't like that the one time I tried them at night (my most recent visit) was the one time they tasted like an obvious reheat.
Popcorn shrimp: A cute serving method put the fried shrimp ($12.95) atop a bag of actual popcorn, making the shrimp look like popcorn and stand out without trying to deceive us into thinking the shrimp went all the way to the bottom of the bag. The real popcorn was better than the shrimp, unfortunately, but the semi-crisp, fully tender shrimp (ground, Ii think) weren't bad. Just nothing topping a typical dish you'd get at your local Friday's. I liked the spicy remoulade, which had good thickness, dense use if spices and a little more heat than you'd get at Friday's.
Ribs: With my silverware wrapped in a thick towel, my first visit had me expecting the ribs to arrive drowning in sauce. I was pleasantly surprised to greet lengthy, unsauced ribs that had a good amount of rub and bark. These were fairly juicy and nearly perfectly seasoned, though possibly a tad too salty. And a tad rubbery too, but good ribs overall.
A second stab at the ribs on the third visit found them a little lighter on rub but extremely meaty and juicy. Smoke was light but noticeable.
It wasn't until visit 6 that I tried Virgil's ribs again, this time on a night visit's 4-meat Pig Out platter ($27.95). The very large full cut spares again arrived unsauced, fully rubbed, lightly crusted and bearing a beautiful pink smoke ring. Under that crust lay a fat layer that hadn't quite rendered into the meat, but the meat beneath that was adequately moist. The doneness was just right, but it still took a bit of pulling to separate each bite of slightly rubbery meat from itself. Flavor was good, bearing light smoke and stronger flavor from the rub.
Pulled pork: The first visit's pulled pork was mashed as if attacked by a meat tenderizer after cooking. It was OK, but definitely overchopped and a little overflavored, as I tasted more seasoning than pork. The 2012 visit's pulled pork from the Pig Out platter showed huge improvement over the initial batch. This pile of larger pink chunks had good rub presence, with the flavor cooked into the meat. The pork had a reheated quality but somehow still had a decent texture along with good overall flavor from porkiness and more judicious use of rub. As a solo item, I'd rank Virgil's pulled pork somewhere around the median—possibly slightly above, possibly slightly below.
Pulled pork sandwich: In 2007 I popped in for a pulled pork sandwich ($13.95 now) to go, and found it significantly better than the plated pulled pork from my first visit. The pork was piled high inside a very fresh, high quality sesame seed bun, and the tangy mustard cole slaw inside the sandwich worked really well with the spicy meat. The pork itself was lightly sauced, fairly chunky this time, loaded with bark and had enough fat to keep the sandwich moist but not so much that it got in the way. Two follow-up tastes of this sandwich in 2009 and 2010 yielded similar results, though that first one was the best. As a complete sandwich, I'd rank Virgil's pulled pork considerably higher than the median. Athough it seems to be trending slightly downward, this sandwich is one of my favorites.
Brisket: In 2008 I tried Virgil's brisket and thought it was decent but nothing special. Tried more recently on the Pig Out Platter, the brisket was by far the star of the show and surprisingly was one of the better (easily top third, probably top 20%) brisket portions I've tasted. It had everything I look for: 1/4-inch slices, noticeable smoke ring, crispy edges, spicy rub at the edges, good saltiness without overdoing it, smoky flavor, fat presence without fat dominance, tender texture without being mushy or steamy, good beefiness with a hint of sweetness. And freshness. Of all the meats on the platter, this one struck me as the only one that might have just come out of the smoker. The pile of neat slices was topped with sauce, which obviously helped in the moisture department, but the slices I tried had a natural moistness and a melt in your mouth quality. Who'd a thunk it—fantastic brisket at Virgil's? It's true, at least this one time.
Chicken: On the 2008 visit, I just shared a bit of the chicken, finding it crisp outside and juicy inside. In 2012 I got a better take on the breast and wing quarter representing on the Hog Platter. If there was any doubt that some of the meats were reheated, that dissolved on contact with the wing, which was cold. Not room temperature after cooling down from warm, but downright cold. The breast meat had a thick rub coating just like the ribs, cooked to near crispness. This gave the meat a nice flavor, with some light smoke too. Moistness was decent for a breast—not moist but not dry.
The table sauces (one mild, one hot) were decent tomato based renditions. Think storebought bottled, only a slight step up.
Potato salad: An excellent included side with a sandwich had skins on and plenty of seasoning.
Mac and cheese: An all-purpose version had Velveeta-like cheesiness, with some soft spots and some crisp spots. I can see kids and adults both liking this one.
Cole slaw: Every time I've had Virgil's cole slaw as a side (different from the mustard slaw on the pulled pork sandwich), I've been reminded of the Colonel's slaw (light on the mayo, a little heavier on the vinegar and sugar), and that's no insult. This one is a little fresher and a little more potent in the spice department, which make it more solid and a nice refresher.
Collard greens: A full size side delivered a bounty of greens and broth, kicked up with bacon and a light vinegar slap. I like that the well lubed vegetable was perfectly cooked, nailing that sweet spot exactly in the center between al dente and mush. These went beyond obligatory vegetable, landing closer to one of the highlights of the meal.
Georgia Pecan Rice: I didn't really notice the promised pecans, but still enjoyed this moist, nugget-filled creation that tasted like a more grown up version of Rice-a-Roni.
Start intertwining all eight of your fingers (thumbs aren't needed) and prepare to lower them to about a foot off the ground, because I need a lift onto my soapbox. Virgil's gets very little respect among the major media and next to nothing among the hardcore barbecue bloggers, but I'm somewhat of a supporter. Virgil's is not just overlooked but actually sneered at, partly because they predated all the cool kids of New York City BBQ (and even the new wannabe cool kids using Thrillist and other media avenues to establish identity), partly because they have no household name pitmaster (though RUB's Paul Kirk was involved early on) and partly because of their touristy location. But they do have a smoker (Southern Pride) and they do cook over wood. As for their 'cue, though clearly not in the same league as RUB or Hill Country, it does deserve to be in the mix of (possibly) second- or (more likely) third-tier New York City BBQ joints.
I like a lot of the little touches at Virgil's. The towels instead of napkins. The inclusion of corn muffins on a barbecue platter (automatic cornbread is common in Boston, but in New York it's rarer than an honest cab driver). The homage on their placemats to legendary barbecue joints throughout the country. The courteous and knowledgable service. One thing I will concede, as I step down from the soapbox, is that the prices at Virgil's reflect that tourist location. All sandwiches are $13.95 and up. Wings ridiculously hover around the same price. A rack of ribs was nearly $30; the latest menu suspiciously lists ribs without mentioning how much of the rack you get.
Service has been uniformly excellent. On the first visit, the server checked back a few times and also investigated the green ingredient in the cornbread for me. Drinks got refilled without asking on all visits. Friendliness has been off the charts without overdoing it.
The Bottom Line
This isn't life altering barbecue by any means, but the pulled pork sandwich is good to excellent, the ribs are usually good and sometimes very good, and the brisket was great that one time. Sides get the job done and service is a huge plus. With a little time to invest, I'd walk a few blocks west or south for better barbecue, but Virgil's is good and Virgil's is legit. The next time I'm at the Millennium, I know where I'm getting my midnight snack. I'll just have to remember to bring a little more money than I think I need.
My 2007 review of Virgil's
Yelp reviews of Virgil's Real BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of Virgil's Real BBQ
||'Like' PigTrip BBQ Reviews on Facebook to keep up with all of the reviews and much more content not available on the site.