Stephen Starr is an ideas man. Thing is, sometimes they’re other people’s ideas.
That’s been the rap on Philly’s foremost restaurateur for longer than is probably fair. You’ve heard the restaurant know-it-alls: Parc is a rip-off of Manhattan’s Balthazar. The Dandelion is just a supersized Pub & Kitchen.
Lately, though, there’s been more truth to this litany. Talula’s Garden was a straightforward extension of Aimee Olexy’s Kennett Square-bred brand. Later this year, Starr will be former Momofuku lieutenant Peter Serpico’s emissary on South Street. And in between, we have Fette Sau, an enlarged carbon copy of Joe Carroll’s popular Brooklyn barbecue shack.
Philly’s been having a fling with barbecue recently. Cochon’s Gene Giuffi opened a side project, Blue Belly BBQ, in Bella Vista in July. A couple food trucks were trailing smoke through town back in warmer weather, and Bubba’s Texas BBQ opened within days of—and about 40 paces from—Fette Sau in Fishtown in October.
Blue Belly’s the place to go for inventive sandwiches—think lamb barbacoa showered with crunchy tortilla strips—a great potato salad, and business hours seemingly designed to minimize trade. Bubba’s has your quarterly ration of smoke and cheesy memorabilia. (It mainly stoked my appreciation for Percy Street Barbecue, however, which has grown on me as its early self-seriousness has faded—and Erin O’Shea’s baby back ribs have found the sticky, marvelous border between smoky chew and tenderness.)
But Fette Sau is the standout, for three reasons that might seem counterintuitive at first: It doesn’t feel a thing like Brooklyn, there’s not really a whole lot of smoke cloaking its meats, and there’s no one there to bring food to your table.
But let’s back up a minute, to the curb cut on Frankford Avenue where Starr sold Carroll on expanding to Philadelphia. The property sits next door to Frankford Hall, Starr’s biergarten, and it was the spitting image of Carroll’s picnic-tabled Brooklyn haunt.
“There was a gate, and this muddy walkway,” Starr recalls, “and Joe was like, ‘Wow, it’s gotta be cosmic. This is the place.’”
In went the picnic tables, among heat lamps and cords of red and white oak, and up went a shotgun-shack facade whose ramshackle rusticity disguises an urban warehouse sprawling over 7,000 square feet (to Carroll’s 1,200 in Brooklyn). The space exudes a studied unfancyness: concrete floors, light bulbs dangling in chicken-wire fixtures, walls papered with pig-and-steer-part diagrams, and a rope maze leading to the meat case.
Here’s the drill. What you see is what you get at Fette Sau. Are the brisket slices coming off the glistening fatty end? Take half a pound. Otherwise, have a quarter. Does the pork belly look plump or lean? Match your order to your druthers. It pays to ask questions here, and to listen closely to the answers. All meat comes out of the oak smoke (accented with beech and maple and a little fruitwood) looking like it’s been rolled in coal ash. That bittersweet bark, built on brown sugar and espresso, often conceals terrifically moist heritage meat that’s longer on nuance than the stuff at your typical pit operation. But there’s a lot of variation depending on how long it’s been sitting.
The first beef short rib I had here looked like it had just finished cooking. Biting through its layers of fat and meat, seasoned (but not overshadowed) by smoke, was like sinking into a down pillow on a feather bed in a backwoods hunting shack. The texture defied speech.
The one I got a week later? It could’ve ranked as the best barbecued short rib I’d ever had, but that first one still might be the best short rib, period. Expect something similar with the pork belly and flank steak—though neither of those was quite as show-stopping for me.
No table servers means no pretense. So even when hipster Brooklyn rears its head in the form of, say, beef tongue pastrami—which was clean-tasting and mellow on a DIY potato-roll sandwich—the atmosphere is down-to-earth and family-friendly. There’s no regional BBQ fundamentalism on Carroll’s line. Squirt bottles hold a vinegar sauce that errs on the side of too bracing, a chipotle hot sauce that’s overly earthy and astringent, and a sweet sauce that’s maybe a little too mild. They take well to sequential dipping, though, and even better to some artful blending.
The sides also struck me as too one thing or another—sweet for the baked beans; austere and undertangy for the sauerkraut—though a simple broccoli salad was well balanced. But then I’d get a mouthful of juicy pulled pork, wash it down with a beguiling amber ale made by Earth Bread + Brewery with Carroll’s dry rub, wonder if it was time to hit the long whiskey list … and marvel at how good I felt just being here.
Who’d have thought that the best thing to happen to Philly’s barbecue scene would come from Brooklyn—and a guy, in Carroll, who first tasted traditional ’cue as a college kid at a long-gone joint in Manhattan? Probably only Stephen Starr. So give the former concert promoter some credit. The man knows how to sign a solid act.