Eating At John Brown BBQ: Kansas City Style Meats With Tasty Sides

By on Monday, June 12th, 2023 at 4:31 pm

Pastrami and brisket and pulled pork with a slice of white bread from John Brown's BBQ

Barbecue has come as ubiquitous in New York City as pizza or bagels in recent years. It’s gotten to the point now that “Brooklyn barbecue” culture is now being exported outside of the United States to all sorts of places from South America to Europe.

The rise of New York or Brooklyn barbecue is quite the turn of events given that American barbecue styles are more commonly associated with the south, in places like the Carolinas, Texas, and so many states in between. Two decades ago, New York City was a hellscape of oven-baked barbecue — that is, meats cook in an oven and without the smoke that defines so much of the flavor of traditional American barbecue.

Before the 2000s, mainstream barbecue in New York City came in two varieties: Virgils, a Times Square mega-restaurant, and Dallas BBQ, a Canadian chicken joint that started selling cheap beer and other roasted meats in the 1980s. There are a few other instances of some local neighborhood restaurants like Royal Rib House in Bed-Stuy, or southern and soul food restaurants offering grilled, roasted, or braised meats in the style of barbecue. But when it came to traditional smoked-meats, New York was a desert.

That changed in the new millennia. The seal was broken in 2002 when Danny Myer’s Union Square Hospitality Group opened Blue Smoke, supposedly named for the first bit of flame that rises from a fresh fire. The original location has since closed as result of the pandemic, and the second location has a menu that reflects less barbecue and more southern-inspired cuisine. However, it marked a shift in the way New Yorkers perceived barbecue. It was no longer cheap, greasy chicken or Times Square tourist food.

Within a decade, Fette Sau, Smoke Joint, Hill Country BBQ Market, Mighty Quinns, Mables Smokehouse, and John Brown’s BBQ had opened in the city offering a variety of styles and packaged in a neat, casual but upscale way. Craft beers, locally sourced meats, and most importantly, smoke were all part of the new barbecue scene.

John Brown BBQ opened at its first location in August of 2011, towards the end of the barbecue revolution happening in the city. Queens had actually been home to Pearson’s since 1983, which did smoke its meat in a traditional method. Person’s eventually moved to the back of a bar before shutting down. By opening in Queens, John Brown Barbecue was breaking the rules. The other nouveau barbecue joints in the city were primarily opening in Brooklyn. Second, John Brown was focused on Kansas City style barbecue as the source of inspiration rather than Texas-style.

Pastrami and brisket from John Brown's BBQ

When John Brown opened, it was compared favorably to many of the other barbecue restaurants, especially since it was focused on cooking with smoke.

But Josh Bowen soon became famous for more than just food.

When Amazon announced a competition among cities for tax incentives to build their “HQ2”, Queens was considered at the top of the list. Governor Andrew Cuomo had been quite willing to give away whatever Amazon wanted in exchange for the empty promise of a new headquarters. The plans included new housing and offices in Queens, something Josh Bowen saw as a golden ticket for his restaurants. When the plan was scuttled, Bowen went on the offensive publicly criticizing local elected officials for their failure to give one of the wealthiest companies on earth tax-free bonuses.

Eventually, this kerfuffle led to him suing councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer. Meanwhile, Amazon awarded part of their HQ2 plan to Virginia, but has since suspended the program, investment, and expansion despite the massive tax giveaways.

Nine years after opening, the original location of John Browns shutdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Bowen blamed “idiot local politicians“. By 2022, Bowen seemingly had enough of the local elected officials and launched a bid for the State Senate seat. He ran as an independent despite being a “self-described lifelong Democrat“. He lost the election.

The restaurant reopened. Bowen moved John browns to another restaurant Bowen ran in Long Island City, known as as Mothership Meat Company. Mothership Meat Company opened in 2019 as a Texas-inspired / alien inspired barbecue joint. While Bowen was originally from Kansas City, he had started out smoking meats at Hill Country in Manhattan. If it isn’t obvious by the name, Hill Country is focused on Texas-style barbecue from the “hill country,” around Austin.

Indoors at John Brown's is covered with Kansas City sports memorabilia. The casual space has televisions, Christmas lights, and tables topped with red checked table cloths.

Politics aside, I had been wanting to eat at John Browns BBQ ever since I started writing about the Brooklyn barbecue revolution. John Brown’s remains decidedly Kansas City oriented. The walls of the restaurant are covered with the city’s sports memorabilia, and it’s famous for hosting viewing parties for the Kansas City games.

The hallmarks of Kansas-city style barbecue are the use of a dry rub, and cooked with hot smoke. The style is credited to restaurant owner Henry Perry, who first created it in the early 1900s. The meat is then served with a tomato-based sauce, usually with some degree of spice or tanginess.

John Brown’s offered three sauces.

Three sauces from John Brown's BBQ

The counter had a wide selection of meat to choose from as platters and sandwiches. Since there was just two of us eating, we tried to focus on the core meats. I chose pastrami, brisket, and pulled pork. We ordered fries for the baby, as well as collard greens, beans, and macaroni and cheese. These are my go-to sides for barbecue, a combination of carbs and leafy green vegetables to balance the meat, and daily beans to help the heart.

The tables were topped with red checkered cloths, and the interior felt a bit like a sports bar celebrating the Kansas City football team. The register was open to the kitchen, and right next to it was the pickup counter so there was plenty to watch while waiting for the food to come out. There were just a few people ahead of us and orders were coming out quickly.

The meat was arranged on a single tray with twice slices of bread. There were three sauces on the table—a brown spicy mustard sauce, a spicy red sauce, and a slightly sweet red sauce. The pastrami flaked away and was tasty on the bread. The brisket was cooked well, not too dry and not slimy with grease. The pork could have had more flavor—it was just a bit bland which could all come down to seasoning.

The side dishes were standout. The beans were a combination of sweet and spicy. The flavor actually reminded me of an Italian-style pasta fagioli. I’m pretty sure there were pieces of pork belly braised in the beans adding to the fattiness and richness of the dish.

Three sides from John Brown's BBQ: mac and cheese, collard greens, and baked beans

The Mac and cheese had plenty of black pepper. It was creamy, but also had strands of cheese adding texture to the dish.

The collard greens tasted fresher than many barbecue places have—the broth wasn’t saccharine sweet with molasses, and the greens themselves still had some texture to them.

Overall, John Browns BBQ was certainly a place I would eat at again. There were plenty of other meats I would like to try, and many of the reviews online note the coleslaw is also a particularly refreshing side dish. And of course, John Brown offers barbecue sandwiches, an evolution of barbecue that is increasingly the mark of New York style barbecue.

John Brown’s BBQ
Long Island City, Queens


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