What could be more appropriate on July 4th than to review a restaurant which does its best to bring the taste sensation of the rest of the country to New York City, Virgil’s BBQ on East 44th? Fortuitously, since I’m spending a few days here in NYC, I can bring my Texas BBQ judging skills to bear on Virgil’s and see if it lives up to its reputation.
The atmosphere in Virgil’s isn’t bad. They’ve got the basic look of a relatively unassuming barbeque joint down pretty well, with a lot of rough wood and idiotic pictures and bric-a-brac on the walls. But there are some refinements which are jarring right off to those of us from real barbeque country. One issue is that the barbeque is served on actual ceramic plates, a sissification which I guess I can live with, though I’ll always prefer brown paper. What is a bit more troubling is that the pits are nowhere to be seen. Serious BBQ gets served right off the pit, and you ought to be able to see the smoker and feel the fire when they bring the meat out. Not having that element of direct exposure to the cooking process is a real let down, not to mention that it means that the dining area isn’t full of savory smoke and the smell of roasting meat.
The menu and presentation are intriguing. The placemats have a rusticated map of the country showing BBQ joints they approve of, including a number in Texas. The good sign is that they include Kreuz Market, which is arguably the best BBQ in the world. The bad sign is that they think Southside Market in Elgin is even vaguely in the same league, which it certainly isn’t. On the menu they offer a wide variety of meats, cooked in the styles of different regions, including Memphis Pork Ribs, Owensboro Lamb, Smoked Maryland Ham, Sliced Texas Briskit, Texas Link Sausage and Pulled Carolina Pork. In addition to straight meats they offer a selection of sides, salads, appetizers and sandwiches, which is nice – but barbeque is all about the meat, not the other stuff.
For the most part the meats are pretty good. We took them as served. Some came with sauces and some didn’t. I’d rather have had all the sauces on the side, but I wanted to see what they did with them. The meats are treated with a very nice, very spicy rub during cooking. It leaves a good, gritty and very flavorful residue. Virgil’s basic sauce, which was served on the Texas Briskit was a bit sweet, but basically quite good – sort of similar to Stubbs sauce, which isn’t a bad way to go. The ‘Kentucky Style Worcestershire/Mustard’ sauce on the Owensboro Lamb was possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, however. We didn’t try the ham, but we did sample all the other meats. The beef briskit was really outstanding, on a par with the best I’ve had in any restaurant, and almost as good as top competitors I’ve tasted at cook-offs. The Carolina Pulled Pork was exceptionally tasty. They resisted the temptation to drown it in sauce and the flavor really came through. The pork ribs also had excellent flavor, though they were a bit dry.
The chicken was less good – somehow managing to be overcooked, flavorless and greasy all at the same time. Several of us also harbored a suspicion that it was a bit off. The Owensboro Lamb was really unappealing. It was a lean cut of lamb, more braised than barbequed – it still had some pinkness to it. And while it was tender, it had almost no flavor except for the horrific flavor from the inconceivably disgusting sauce on it. Remind me never, ever to eat BBQ in Kentucky.
Finally, the Texas Link Sausage was a bit of a mystery. I put our flustered waiter on the spot by asking him what specific kind of Texas sausage it was supposed to be, and he had no idea that there were different types identifiable by the city they come from. When we got it we discovered that it was none of those types, but something different and original and sort of good. It combined the black pepper flavor of Lockhart sausage with the consistency of an Elgin sausage and the red pepper of a Chorizo. The result wasn’t bad at all, though my wife found it overly spicy. It might not have been genuine Texas sausage, but it tasted good enough nonetheless.
On the whole, Virgil’s meats were pretty good. Certainly better than most BBQ restaurants which can usually only manage one or two really good meats. Virgil’s has two which are excellent (briskit and pulled pork) and two which are at least good (ribs and sausage) and that’s well above par. Just avoid the chicken and the lamb and you’ll do okay. If they’re looking for suggestions I’d urge them to scrap the Owensboro take on Lamb and look to the deep south for BBQed breast of mutton. If they can do that right they’ll have another winner.
As a final note I have to touch on a couple of their side dishes. They offered two that struck me as particularly interesting and awfully tasty. One was the Georgia style Pecan Rice, which was a nice variation on the idea of Dirty Rice, but with roasted pecans included. The other was their hush puppies. They’re something I don’t usually associate with barbeque, but they were very good. They also weren’t the familiar round and generally hard and overcooked variety, but tender finger-like fritters of fried cornmeal with a bit of scallion in them. Really very nice. Reminscent of the ones at the legendary Stagecoach Inn in Georgetown, Texas.
On the whole, despite the New York style prices – about triple what we’d pay down home – Virgil’s offers some very genuine BBQ with more hits than misses, a result much better than I’d have expected to find in the heart of New York City.