New York used to be a barbecue desert; but now that desert has bloomed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is superior, as a barbecue city, to Memphis, Kansas City, and several other overrated areas. Judged, that is, by its barbecues of the first rank, which are as follows.
There are two things to know about Blue Smoke, both of them good. The first is that this isn't a barbecue restaurant; it's a restaurant that serves barbecue, a sister to legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer's venerated restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. So you can't compare the hospitality and service aspects to any of its rivals. Secondly, although the actual barbecue was a weak point for the first couple of years here, owing to legal difficulties with the air exhaust system, they have since been fixed and Blue Smoke now produces barbecue with the robust smoky flavor it was meant to have all along. Go for the barbecue, but stay for the service, the sides, and a bourbon list that just won't quit.
An import from upstate, this family-friendly barbecue looks like a concept but is really the creation of one man, John Stage, a hardcore barbecuer who started off cooking for his fellow bikers. The cooking here is grounded on hard-earned barbecue knowledge, and the smokiness and consistency of nearly every product really speak to it. And unlike a lot of other barbecue restaurants, the sides are almost as good as the meat. Don't miss the Syracuse-style salt potatoes.
When RUB opened it identified itself as the city's Kansas City barbecue tribute, as Hill Country paid homage to Texas. In fact, RUB was always better and more interesting than anything in Kansas City, and catered to the hardcore barbecue geek more than any of its rivals. 100% wood fired where the others used gas fires to regulate heat, and creating specialty products, like burnt ends, pastrami, and duck that nobody else had, this is a special operation with a pitmaster, in Scotty Smith, that deserves to be ranked among the greats.
Brooklyn's let-it-roll style works well in the case of barbecue, which is best served in dressed down, funky environments. Unfortunately, it also requires a lot of precision, which Fette Sau doesn't always lay down. The food is excellent, and there are meats smoked here you won't find elsewhere, but they sometimes sit around too long. Go early when they first open, and look for the pork belly if they have it.
A tribute to the great barbecues of the Texas hill country in general, and Kreuz Market in particular, this spectacularly big opereration is actually better than many of its models (though not the best of them.) The sides are lame, and the brisket sometimes too fatty, but almost everything is redolent of post oak and perfectly seasoned. Look out especially for the fantastic cheese and jalapeno sausage imported directly from Kreuz's.
Fatty Cue has an important place in barbecue history: it represents the first concerted effort to combine traditional American smoking techniques with Asian (in this case southeast Asian) flavors. The results are mixed, but at their best they can be astounding, and are never less than surprising. Fatty Cue is the kind of restaurant New York is best at -- a wild experiment that has enough good eaters to support it.
It's best known as the second home of Harlem fried chicken guru Charles Gabriel, who deserves first billing in any venture he's connected with. But pitmaster John Wheeler, a former competition barbecuer who really knows his way around a pork butt, consistently produces some of the best 'cue in the city, and the only one to my knowledge that really calls to mind the flavors of deep south spots in Alabama and Missippi. So: come for the fried chicken, stay for the barbecue, and don't plan on eating anything for many hours afterward.
A dedicated, artisanal barbecue restaurant, John Brown observes all those rules that some urban barbecues neglect: they use wood and not gas, stop serving when the meat runs out, and put as much effort into their ribs and pulled pork as they do to glamour items like burnt ends, lamb sausage, and foie gras. Yes, there is barbecued foie gras here. Go immediately.