At first glance Fette Sau is reminiscent of the little highway barbecue shacks down South: a few sun-bleached picnic tables, brown paper-lined half sheet pans piled with smoked meats, and the sound of auto mechanics welding next door. But despite its bare-bones Southern feel and German name (translation: Fat Pig), owner Joe Carroll is barbecuing with a New York accent. Which is tricky business. Variations in rub, smoke and sauce can be points of national contention. The beauty of Carroll’s philosophy is that, with no regional standards of authenticity to be held against, he’s free to barbecue exactly the way he wants. And what Carroll wants is “to create a New York barbecue vernacular.”
Despite the recent crop of ’cue joints, there’s no established New York barbecue style—still, Fette Sau has a distinctly New York feel.
Take the meat selection. Instead of German sausage, it’s Berkshire Italian. Of course there are ribs, but instead of brisket, the same cut of meat is brined for three days before being smoked, to make pastrami. New York’s more recent cut of choice, pork belly, is barbecued in thick, delightful strips with delicate shells of smoky fat infused with Carroll’s aromatic rub. Other nontraditional barbecue items include cheeks, thinly sliced tongue, chewy pig tails, lamb and whatever else tickles Carroll’s fancy.
“If I’d been from North Carolina,” explains Carroll matter-of- factly, “I would have made North Carolina-style barbecue. But I’m not.”
He grew up in Jersey, where the closest he got to barbecue was a family friend who roasted whole pigs on a spit, over coals, for hours and hours. In college, Carroll studied musicology and went to Brothers Barbecue when he needed his fix. Then, while working in the music business, he bought a bullet smoker and embarked on a decade-long, self-taught, unofficial barbecue educational program. Which is to say, he barbecued stuff. A lot.
After 10 years, he paid homage to international beers by opening Spuyten Duyvil with then-girlfriend-now-wife, Kim. As the bar’s success grew, they planned their second project, feeling that most barbecue places in the city, replete with tablecloths and wine lists, missed the point. That barbecue wasn’t barbecue without the barbecue vibe. They decided the auto mechanics’ space for rent across the street from Spuyten Duyvil was “exactly what we were looking for.” Carroll added personal touches: old gramophone horns reclaimed from a Victrola graveyard stand in as light fixtures, and a flat screen plays a blazing hearth in winter (and the occasional Knicks game).
The next step was finding an eager young chef, not a pit guy who had his own set of rules. “Barbecue is a way of cooking, a technique. It’s all about perfecting the technique,” explains Carroll, “so there’s not a lot of room for creativity.”
It’s a rare cook who’ll dedicate himself to a practicing and perfecting a single technique, rather than creating new dishes, but Carroll found him in Matt Lang. Lang was cooking for Rebecca Charles at Manhattan’s Pearl Oyster Bar and often came in to Spuyten Duyvil for a drink after his shift. Carroll and Lang got to talking, presumably about beer, and it became clear it was meant to be.
Carroll pays homage to his grandparents by serving their versions of broccoli salad and potato salad, and Lang’s burnt-end beans, are a hit, but Fette Sau is really all about the meat (sold by weight) and the whiskey. Fette Sau’s beef is all raised at Maine’s Pinelawn Organic Farm, except the Wagyu and Akeyoshi, which hail from Japan. All the pork is heritage breed, mostly Berkshire. The bar offers about 80 bottles of American bourbons and ryes, including some pre-prohibition bottles sniffed out at auctions and kept on the top shelf, above the taps. Bartenders here officially endorse a few rocks. “It’s not manly to drink your whiskey straight,” says Carroll, seated on one of the iron John Deere tractor seats reappropriated into a bar stool and wearing a Mr. Sausage T-shirt.
Beers here are quirky, as Spuyten Duyvil regulars might expect. House selections on tap change often—from Six Point’s Mason’s Black Wheat (that tastes like Marmite, in a good way), to Kelso’s floral Fette Sauv (get it?) made with Sauvignon Blanc yeast. Mason jars in all sizes encourage patrons to take their beer to go. All sodas (except Coca-Cola) hail from Greenpoint’s own Manhattan (Avenue) Special. Wine is seldom seen, and while there are a few cocktails on the menu, they aren’t encouraged.
“Do you know there’s a surprisingly high percentage of the population that insists on using forks with their barbecue?” asks Carroll incredulously. He was persuaded to purchase metal silverware when staff tired of watching these effete eaters wrestle with the plastic cutlery. But that’s all the frills carroll will allow. His ’cue credo? “No bullshit. It’s just barbecue.”