Inside Long Island's newest barbecue restaurants

Pizza we consume in our sleep. Bagels we could write a book about. But barbecue is a relative newcomer to the Long Island dining scene, still feeling its way into our hearts and stomachs.

This profoundly regional form of cooking has primordial roots in places like the Carolinas, Memphis and Kansas City, where the smoked meat of choice is usually pork, and in Texas, where cattle ranching bestowed on pitmasters a steady source of brisket.  

Of the barbecue specialists in Nassau and Suffolk, the oldest, Bobbique in Patchogue, has only been open 13 years. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it hardly compares to the oldest Italian (Casa Basso in Westhampton, estab. 1928), kosher deli (Lido Deli in Long Beach, 1930), fish restaurant (Jolly Fisherman in Roslyn, 1957) or steakhouse (Peter Luger’s in Great Neck, 1960).  

But today, there’s smoke in the air. Almost half of all Long Island barbecue joints opened in the last three years, five of them in the last 12 months. (Fatwood Southern Kitchen, which opened in July, closed in December.)

The modern era in Long Island barbecue dates back to 1995, when retired Oklahoma oil man Stanley Singer opened Turtle Crossing in East Hampton. Here were serious, pit-smoked meats accompanied by the kind of stylish, eclectic sides that the Hamptons crowd demanded. After a short-lived stint as the barbecue-tinged Turtle Crossing American Bistro, it closed in 2011, but was resurrected as Smokin’ Wolf the following year by its chef, Arthur Wolf.

Long Island’s eldest statesman of barbecue is Al Horowitz, whose first Smokin’ Al’s opened in Bay Shore in 2003 and closed in 2013. A second location opened in Massapequa Park in 2008, smack in the middle of what we can call the first LI BBQ boom. Of the barbecue places that opened between 2006 and 2009, Bobbique in Patchogue, Townline in  Sagaponack, Swingbellys in Long Beach, Harbor Q in Port Washington and Tennessee Jed’s in Wantagh (now in Lindenhurst) are all still smoking.  

In the ensuing years, Long Islanders have become ever more discerning. We can tell when the only smoke applied to the ribs is in the form of liquid. We ask for our ribs “dry” because we know that sauce can often mask overcooking. We no longer fear fat on our brisket.  

Some of this hard-won knowledge comes from travel, either to the barbecue belt south and west of New York, or across the East River to the temples of New York City’s smoke scene, which include Virgil’s, Blue Smoke, Mighty Quinn’s and Hill Country in Manhattan, and Hometown Bar-B-Que and Fette Sau in Brooklyn. Armchair connoisseurs salivate over televised barbecue championships. And, perhaps most significantly, Long Island has a cadre of passionate amateur pitmasters.

Manny Voumvourakis, owner of the new Smok-haus in Garden City, started as a weekend warrier himself and he is well aware of the challenges that plague the professional pitmaster. “At the restaurant,” he said, “you are prepping and smoking and resting the meat so that it is ready for customers all day—in our case, from noon until 9 p.m.” That is a far cry from the backyard barbecuers who can focus all their attention on that one brisket, on that one rack of ribs. And when it is done perfectly and has rested, they can call family and friends to the table to eat.

The process pretty much describes how barbecue got its start: a cook who was looking to feed a crowd for not a lot of money would take some of the animal’s toughest, least-prized cuts—the oddly grained beef brisket, the sinewy pork butt (actually the shoulder), the bone-dominated ribs, or perhaps the whole hog—and place them in a pit. Smoke would be supplied by smoldering wood. Using a little fuel and a lot of time, the meat would cook slowly, its fat melting and dispersing, its connective tissue, made from collagen, dissolving into gelatin and lending the meat even more silky smoothness.

The most traditional barbecue purveyors in the American South adapted this most basic form of cooking into a commercial enterprise—but barely. Many barbecue places are little more than markets where countermen cut the meats to order for diners who stand in line and then either retire to a table or head home with the grub. When there’s no more meat, it’s closing time.

In the North, customers tend to expect more restaurant amenities such as servers, printed menus, and hours of operation during which everything on the menu is available. So the chef needs to guess how many briskets, ribs, pork butts and chickens he will need for lunch and dinner, then back-time to figure out when to start each of these cuts of meat in the smoker so they will have time to cook and rest. Once the meat is at its peak, it will not stay there for long, and the chef must choose a strategy for keeping it in good shape.

Some chefs, for instance, wrap the meat in butcher paper, keep it in a warm, moist environment, and then slice or pull it to order. Others will cook down the meat, slice it and keep it refrigerated until ordered, after which it will be gently reheated. Practitioners of one method usually disdain the others, but they can all work well—or poorly.

The "dinasour rib" at Rolling Smoke in Ronkonkoma.

The "dinasour rib" at Rolling Smoke in Ronkonkoma. Credit: Raychel Brightman

At Rolling Smoke in Lake Ronkonkoma, pitmaster-owner Rich Ciota said he doesn’t even list ribs on the regular menu because they are so hard to keep. “It doesn’t take them long to dry out,” he said, “at which point the only solution is to smother them with sauce.”

If Long Islanders are relative newcomers to the world of barbecue, our lack of tradition has a definite upside: We are natural-born barbecue innovators. Radio Radio in Huntington smokes a meatless meatloaf for its vegan customers. At Smoked Barn in Levittown, Renzo Vargas serves his meats with huacatay, a spicy green sauce from his native Peru. At Smok-haus, Voumvourakis combines smoked beef and lamb to approximate (and improve upon) the gyro that is central to casual Greek restaurant fare. At Backyard Barbeque in Freeport, Archie Ware had to contend with a customer who said, “You should be shot for seasoning brisket with lemon pepper.” The customer changed his mind after the first bite.

For Long Island barbecue, 2018 was a banner year.

Smoked Barn

In the corner of a strip mall off the Hempstead Turnpike south service road is a nondescript little place with real barbecue chops. Smoked Barn lacks the aggressive farmhouse décor of some better capitalized operations—a lone pig statue rendered in stainless steel greets diners—but what’s on the plate more than holds its own.

When Renzo Vargas took over this spot (formerly Potters Deli) last year, he called it Sanguchon Factory and specialized in big Peruvian sandwiches (“sanguchon” in Peruvian slang) and juices. But Vargas gradually turned up the smoke volume on his menu and, in May, went whole hog, renaming his restaurant Smoked Barn.

Vargas’ father raised pigs on their small farm in Peru, and he recalls smoking them either in a caja china (a wheeled roasting box popular in Latin America) or a stone-lined pit. Individual cuts of meat were suspended from a grate laid across a repurposed oil barrel.

Nevertheless, Vargas disputes the idea that there is something called “Peruvian barbecue.” Certainly at Smoked Barn he is offering the American pantheon of pulled pork, pork ribs, brisket and beef short ribs—plus pork belly and, as a special, the rolled Italian pork roast called porchetta, which Vargas smokes and then deep-fries to crisp the skin to chicharron-like levels.

The whole smoked chicken at Smoked Barn in Levittown.

The whole smoked chicken at Smoked Barn in Levittown. Credit: Raychel Brightman

But any of these meats benefits from a green Peruvian hot sauce called huacatay, which is made from black mint, garlic, mayonnaise, vinegar and pulverized crackers. No self-respecting Peruvian meat specialist can shun rotisserie chicken, and Vargas seasons his with oregano, thyme and the Peruvian pepper called ají panca. (He also places a small box of smoldering wood chips at the bottom of the rotisserie oven to lend a bit of smoke to the proceedings.)

Nor can he help but fill out his menu with such Peruvian dishes as salchipapas (sliced hot dogs over French fries), arroz chaufa (fried rice) and lomo saltado (marinated sirloin steak).

Before Sanguchon Factory, Vargas had started a landscaping business and a contracting business (both still going strong) as well as a limo business that he sold right before Uber arrived (“the smartest move I ever made”). But he always wanted to open a restaurant. His wife, Patricia Espino, is from the family who owns La Candela Peruvian restaurant in Hicksville, and she wasn’t terribly interested in the idea. “Buy me a house first,” she said. Vargas did.

The restaurant itch did not abate. “It’s my dream,” Vargas told the mother of his two children. “Please do it with me.” And she did.

Smok-haus

Manny Voumvourakis’ years-long transition from derivatives trader to pitmaster ended last November when he opened Smok-haus in Garden City. The restaurant, almost three years in the making, specializes in classic American barbecue.

“I realized I’ve got one life to live, and I love barbecue.”

Manny Voumvourakis 

The former managing director at Jefferies Financial Group started smoking meats about 10 years ago in his backyard. After 20 years trading derivatives, he said, “I realized I’ve got one life to live, and I love barbecue.” He doubled down on the backyard smoking and started collecting cookbooks. He eventually reached out to Myron Mixon, author, barbecue champion and reality television star, and enrolled at Mixon’s four-day barbecue boot camp in Unadilla, Georgia.

Back in Garden City, he took over and gutted the low-slung building just across 12th Street from Sears. Most recently an office, the place started life as a garage for Fairchild Sons Funeral Home, whose parking lot it shares. (Don’t bother making a joke about the proximity of a smokehouse to a funeral home; he’s heard them all and he’s made a few.) The building is divided into an eat-in dining room with a full bar and a counter devoted to takeout. The interior is rustic chic, with reclaimed wood and exposed light bulbs.

The menu features brisket, pulled pork, baby back ribs and spareribs as well as a pulled beef and lamb combo that honors the owner’s Greek heritage, and a smoked porchetta that honors his wife’s Italian heritage. Most meats are sold by the half pound; ribs come in half and whole racks. There are also smoked turkey breasts, pulled chicken thighs (with a shawarma- style dry rub) and smoked wings that are subsequently fried for maximum appeal. Especially for lunch customers is the “individual meal option” wherein meats are served over rice or salad, in burrito or pita. Sandwiches, on toasted Hawaiian rolls, come piled high with your choice of meat plus coleslaw and pickled vegetables.

The pulled pork sandwhich at Smōk-Haüs in Garden City.

The pulled pork sandwhich at Smōk-Haüs in Garden City. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Backyard Barbeque

The Nautical Mile: It’s not just for fish anymore. That’s the implicit message at the Mile’s newest restaurant, Backyard Barbeque. Once you get past the fried-shrimp appetizer, it’s all meat, all the time. Backyard Barbeque, which opened last September, is the first restaurant venture from Archie Ware, a former Town of Hempstead sanitation worker who retired in August 2017 and, he said, “got bored of sitting at home doing nothing.”

Ware was the backyard barbecuer par excellence. He started smoking in his Weber kettle more than 15 years ago and soon upgraded to a smoker from Lowe’s that quickly found its way “into the garbage,” followed closely by a smoker from Home Depot that met the same fate.

“You need a smoker that is airtight and made from thick-gauge metal,” he said, after he started working with a fully loaded Yoder Wichita offset smoker. Unfortunately, the Wichita only fueled his habit, and then he was on to a custom-built vertical Yoder Durango 24-inch unit. He installed a commercial Southern Pride smoker in his restaurant kitchen, and now views the Durango as a family heirloom. “That’s two-inch-thick steel,” he said. “My grandkids are going to be smoking with that.”

Whereas other pitmasters develop side dishes to offer relief from smoke, Ware goes all in, smoking his macaroni and cheese, his baked beans, his black-eyed peas. “Why not? It’s all better with smoke.”

Ware’s menu is fairly traditional, with one big exception: The specialty is brisket rubbed with lemon pepper. “I started doing that in my backyard. Folks said, ‘What the hell are you doing to that brisket?’ but they changed their minds when they tasted it. The lemon just works great with the smoke.” Ware now uses the same rub on his meaty smoked wings.

Left: Archie Ware, the owner of Backyard Barbeque in Freeport. Top: The pork ribs at Backyard Barbeque in Freeport. Bottom: The lemon pepper brisket at Backyard Barbeque in Freeport. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

The restaurant’s simple interior is dominated by a huge mural by Caryn Allen depicting musical giants of blues and jazz, among them, Ray Charles, Etta James, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. “I listen to R&B, hip-hop, reggae,” Ware said, “but for smoking, it’s gotta be the blues. The blues relax the mind and the soul, and you need to be relaxed to make great barbecue.”

Rolling Smoke BBQ Wood-Fired Grill

Leisure time is not, apparently, what Kerry and Rich Ciota of Rolling Smoke BBQ Wood-Fired Grill wanted from retirement. Having given up busy careers in, respectively, catering and construction, the couple bought a custom-designed food truck fitted with a smoker and kitchen, and began to up their backyard game. Over the next four years they drove their Rolling Smoke truck all over the Island, catering parties, appearing at public events, and providing the residents of East Setauket with a semi-permanent truck stop on Route 347. In October, the Ciotas took the next step in their barbecue journey, opening up a full-service restaurant on Portion Road in Lake Ronkonkoma.

Rolling Smoke’s signature item is a Flintstonian “dinosaur rib,” a nine-inch length of short rib that is almost indecently tender. Brisket is sliced to order, pork butt and chicken thighs are pulled to order, and ribs are only intermittently available as a special because, Kerry said, “there’s only a short window when they are at their best.”

Pitmaster Rich finds that overcooking meat is more of a danger than undercooking. “When the brisket is done,” he said, “the probe will glide right in, and when you poke it, it will shimmy. But if you go too far, you can’t get those nice quarter-inch slices.” He dangles a slice between thumb and forefinger: “When you hold a slice upside down, it should not break. It should be tender, but you still need teeth. Same with ribs; they should put up a little fight.”

The kitchen’s secret weapon is the Ciota’s 23-year-old son, Adam. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, he had an externship at Alinea, Chicago’s vaunted temple to molecular gastronomy, and, before he joined his parents on Long Island, worked at Tail Up Goat, a Michelin-starred Mediterranean bistro in Washington, D.C. At Rolling Smoke, Adam makes his own pickles, chips and onion dip (from caramelized onions, mayonnaise and crème frâiche). Sandwiches are served on brioche rolls from Blue Duck Bakery in Southold; leftover rolls wind up in the elegant bread pudding, topped with housemade brown-butter semifreddo.

The bread pudding at Rolling Smoke in Ronkonkoma.

The bread pudding at Rolling Smoke in Ronkonkoma. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Adam’s parents understand that at some point he is going to have to move on. “He has so much more to offer as a chef,” said Kerry. “But he told us that he would not forgive himself if he did not help us to open the restaurant.”

Rich, whose eyes well up frequently when he talks about his family—and sometimes when he talks about his customers—is grateful for Adam’s participation, but will manage. “Being here with my wife is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. We are here all the time, and it just doesn’t feel like work.

Restaurant information

BACKYARD BARBEQUE: 300 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport; 516-771-4227, bbqonthemile.com

ROLLING SMOKE BBQ WOOD-FIRED GRILL: 189B Portion Rd., Lake Ronkonkoma; 844-474-5548

SMOK-HAUS: 7 12th St., Garden City; 516-833-6633, smok-haus.com

SMOKED BARN: 2932 Hempstead Tpke., Levittown; 516-396-9892