We could eat here for days,” my friend the barbecue loon said with tremors of joy in his voice as we stood in line not long ago at the Hudson Smokehouse in the South Bronx and contemplated the bounty up on the great blackboard menu. There were slabs of brisket and smoked turkey breast sold by the half-pound, full and half-racks of pork ribs, and supersize helpings of freshly sizzled pork cracklings seasoned with chile pepper for $6 apiece. There was a house smash burger, and there were eight kinds of sandwiches — one the daunting “Hat Trick” made with three kinds of pork, including the aforementioned cracklings. I think I counted seven varieties of chicken wing, which are smoked and then finished in the fryer (Buffalo, jerk, and barbecue, to name a few), along with a blizzard of sides, including roasted Brussels sprouts, two coleslaws (vinegar and creamy), and a deadly sounding creation called “cheesy potatoes.”
“This is a full-service operation,” said one of the beef connoisseurs we met while standing in line, a gentleman from Nanuet, in Rockland County, just across the Hudson River. He said he makes regular pilgrimages on Saturdays, which is the day when the pitmaster, Kenneth McPartlan, smokes weekly specials like pastrami, which our friend considered to be the second-best pastrami in all the city (“It is not quite as good as Katz’s”), and a giant Texas-style bone-in beef rib that is served up on butcher paper and a metal tray, just the way it’s done in the Hill Country around Austin. Others in the line espoused their own favorites: Two elegant ladies dressed in their weekend best were here for the chicken; two cops on their lunch break recommended the brisket. “It’s a heavy sandwich for lunch, but it’s a good sandwich,” one of them said before his radio crackled and they drove off with their carryout in a cruiser.
McPartlan is a bar owner by trade (his family has been running the same tavern on East 149th Street since the ’30s). A couple of years ago, he and a partner bought a second-hand smoker “from some guy in Jersey,” as he puts it, with the idea of bringing to the Bronx the kind of barbecue revolution that has been unfolding for years now in Brooklyn. They renovated a former bar space in a western-saloon motif (sturdy oak tabletops, lampshades shaped like wooden barrels) and opened days before the city shut down in March 2020. The restaurant survived on PPP money and a now-thriving delivery business, and McPartlan used the time to hone his self-taught pitmaster skills and techniques, which he says are influenced by the great dry-rub schools of the Midwest (“We’re a combo of Kansas City and St. Louis”) and the smoke artists from the Carolinas and Texas.
When we sampled them, the house pork ribs had a nice bark on their exterior but were loose and tender inside, and the combination of spice and smoke didn’t overwhelm the essential porkiness of the meat. The same was true of the excellent rib tips, which are stacked in little paper boats, and also the soft, candied pork-belly burnt ends, tossed in a classically sticky barbecue sauce. The brisket, we generally agreed, was a good, honest example of the genre, although it needed a little more deckle-cut heft to challenge the blue-ribbon champs at places like Hometown. The chicken was on the dry side when we ordered it, although the smoked wings, in all of their multi-flavored splendor (try the jerk and the vinegary, mayo-based “Alabama White”), are worth a special trip.
The thing that separates this neighborly barbecue shack from others around the city is the sides, many of which taste as though they’ve been beamed into this little corner of the Bronx from some ethereal country kitchen in the sky. McPartlan assures us this isn’t true — the sides are the work of a talented cook named Bilal Muhammad — but he learned from the bar business that variety is the secret spice of a good, buzzy hospitality operation. Thus those two coleslaws, one sauced with vinegar, the other a classic “creamy” variety made with strips of red bell pepper for an extra vegetable-garden crunch. I identified at least three kinds of bean in the house baked beans, which are folded with chunks of apple and remind you of something you’d find at a Thanksgiving dinner. Ditto the green beans and bacon and the dense slabs of cornbread, which taste of real corn, the way the best masa cakes do, and are spread with sugar and honey on top.
Timing is everything in the quirky realm of real smoked barbecue, and the best time to visit, as mentioned, is on Saturdays, when the meat is fresh from the smoker, salsa bands set up on the street in clement weather, and there’s plenty of time after lunch to digest your leisurely afternoon meal. The pastrami isn’t quite as good as Katz’s, it’s true, but I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like the deeply smoky beef rib outside of the barbecue temples around Austin; it is crusted with garlic crystals, along with the usual clouds of salt and pepper, and cooked overnight for 16 hours. I don’t recommend consuming any of the deep-fried dessert options afterward (there are six, including deep-fried Oreos, Twinkies, and Snickers bars), but the cool, soothing banana pudding is the perfect antidote to a pleasant case of barbecue daze on a hot summer afternoon.