Looking at Frank Turnitza, the clean-shaven,
balding owner of Bar BQ in Sunset Park, it’s easy to imagine
him wearing a suit and holding a brief case, a look he sported
in his first career, as a Wall Street broker. But as he turns
to speak to the bartender, I notice a skinny braid in his hair
that reaches his belt.
That braid is an appropriate metaphor for Bar BQ. Walking into the front room, I assumed I’d wandered into a neighborhood bar. All the elements were there: a few faux wood tables and a mirror with corners holding photos and postcards behind a big wood bar. As far as decoration went, there was an air conditioning unit in the center of the dining room wall. The aroma of the place, though, was far more enticing than the cloud of nicotine that once hovered beneath the ceilings of the city’s bars. Here, hickory smoke wafted from Bar BQ’s small backroom kitchen, and, oh, what a fragrance.
Turnitza, who opened Bar BQ in March after a brief stint selling barbecue from a minivan in the city street fair circuit, uses a secret dry rub recipe - he’ll only say that salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika are in the mix - then slowly smokes the meat over hickory wood.
"I suppose it’s Texas-style, but I think of it as Brooklyn barbecue," he said. That long sit in the hot smoke makes for amazingly moist, fall-off-the-bone meat; even lean cuts like brisket emerge from the smoker tasting as if they’re studded with fat.
If you need sauce to feel like you’re eating barbecue, you’ll be accommodated with several store-bought varieties with names like "Kickin’ Ass" and "Cowboy Hell" and two house-made styles. The tangiest of those two is the "East Carolina," which has cider vinegar and dried red pepper flakes; the "Sweet ’n Spicy," a mix of ketchup, Coca-Cola, cider vinegar and paprika, is sweeter. Both are heady blends that add a lot of zest to the food.
If you want to turn your pulled pork into a sandwich, well, this ain’t the place for focaccia, folks. You’ll have to do it the way it’s done in any respectable Texas "Q" pit - between two slices of Wonder Bread.
And, if you want a knife and fork to cut into that sandwich, the cutlery, a fancy word in this setting, is plastic and comes in a little cellophane bag. There are no plates either. The good-humored waitresses - festooned with tattoos, black eye liner and go-go boots - pile red-checkered paper boats full of grub on a cafeteria tray and plunk it down. (In some Texas roadhouses, a sheet of butcher paper is spread on the table and the meat is piled on that, so the paper boats are actually classy.) But what do forks, knives and plates have to do with barbecue anyway? This is the kind of food for which you roll up your sleeves and get down-and-dirty.
To many people, barbecue means ribs, and while Bar BQ’s version is tender and infused with wood smoke, they’re not the best item on the menu. That honor is awarded to the brisket, with the pulled pork running a close second. The beef comes in a hefty pile of thin slices. It’s supremely moist. To put sauce on anything this sensuous, this intoxicatingly smoky, would be a travesty. Take one bite and you’ll eat the entire pile of it without lifting your eyes from the table.
I loved the way the hickory smoke made the shreds of moist pork taste even sweeter, and while the meat doesn’t need a thing, I liked adding heat to the fire with a splash of the vinegar sauce.
There are two kinds of beef sausage on the menu: smoked, but not terribly spicy, and another, flavored with hot red pepper, that has a subtle kick. Both are plump, fatty and more like hot dogs than sausages in texture. To me, a hot dog off the grill - or in this case, from the smoker - is a delicacy I wait for all winter, so I loved them. They pair beautifully with the kitchen’s ketchup-y Bar BQ beans, one of four traditional sides that no down-home meal should be without.
The other three sides are just as well made. There’s a hand-cut, red cabbage cole slaw with a dressing that is creamy but not too heavy; cheddary mac & cheese laced with cayenne pepper that was too dry on one visit and perfectly gooey on the next; and a surprisingly sophisticated potato salad made with red potatoes and white beans tossed in a light, parsley-laced vinaigrette that made a sprightly partner to the lush smoked chicken.
And what a chicken that is. Hickory smoke permeates the bird, causing the skin and bones to slip away from the meat without a single poke from the fork. You’re left with a pile of luscious, smoky meat. After three bites, I began eating slowly. I didn’t want the last bite to arrive too quickly.
After a meal of barbecue, you need a dessert that isn’t dainty. Babycakes, another business run out of Bar BQ’s kitchen, supplies a chocolate layer cake that makes an outstanding finale to the meal. This is the kind of coal-colored beauty moms baked for their children’s birthdays. The two thick tiers are moist and intensely chocolaty without being overly sweet; the icing is pure silk. It needs just one thing - a large, ice-cold glass of milk - to reach perfection.
Steve’s (a Red Hook purveyor of great desserts) Key Lime Pie is also on the menu. The pie’s refreshingly tart custard filling makes it a more appropriate ending to a heavy meal of barbecue. But I’d go for the chocolate cake; it’s just too good to ignore.
If leaving seems like a dismal idea, wander up to the vintage, oval-shaped bar and have a bourbon. There are about 25 varieties from the rawest shot you can stand to bottles that pour pure velvet. That lineup of booze is a bit like Bar BQ. You enter thinking your hitting a dive bar where you’ll have a quick drink and leave, and walk out with blues tunes running through your head, the memory of a funny conversation you had with the waitress, and the realization that you’re now a disciple of all things smoked.
Bar BQ (689 Sixth Ave. at 20th Street in Sunset Park) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $7.50 to $20; $40 for seven meats and four sides that feed four. The restaurant serves dinner Monday through Friday, and lunch and dinner on weekends, from noon to 11 pm. For more information call (718) 499-4872.