A couple weeks ago, I found myself down a country road in Chapel Hill, N.C., waiting for lunch amid the taxidermy and ice-cold jugs of sweet tea at Allen & Son Bar-B-Que. Old smoke shacks sometimes don't live up to their legends. But my first taste of this torchbearer of the East Carolina pit - its finely chopped hog sauced with a spicy vinegar tang - was akin to finding religion.
The moment my teeth sank into that pork, it was as though some intoxicating smoke was released, rising and radiating through my head like a sweet and soothing song.
It's a sensation I've experienced on a few occasions before - in Memphis, in Virginia, and in the backyard of a Texan friend, whose jury-rigged brisket smoker channels Austin. But almost never in a Philadelphia restaurant. Never, that is, until the opening of Fette Sau (German for "Fat Pig"), a branch of Joe Carroll's Brooklyn institution imported to Fishtown by Stephen Starr.
The array of coal-black-crusted meats glistening in Fette Sau's glass case like treasures from a primal cookfire do not evoke the storied Southern traditions so much as the indie ethos of Brooklyn, what with their all-natural pedigrees (Berkshire and Duroc pork, Firebird organic chicken), adventure cuts (pastrami-spiced beef tongue, pork belly) and rub infused with locally roasted coffee.
But when I toted my brown paper-lined metal tray laden with a sampler of sliced-by-the-pound meats back to our picnic table and chomped in deep, say, to a sublimely tender hunk of Black Angus beef short rib - my eyes flapped open. Moans began. And the praise at my table rose in uncommon unison: Fette Sau is the barbecue destination we've been waiting for.
It did not hurt, of course, that Howlin' Wolf, R.L. Burnside, and vintage Johnny Cash were playing through the speakers. Nor that the giant ice cubes in our tumblers rattled in the amber glow of some of America's greatest whiskeys (Kentucky gems E.H. Taylor and William Larue Weller, and Virginia's Bowman Bros.). Stellar craft beers from Yards, Six Point and Lost Abbey flowed by the pint (or gallon jug). And there were surprisingly well-balanced cocktails, too, like the rye and apple-brandied Fishtown Ryatt, which latched on as a perfect match to a spicy whiff of oak and fruitwood smoke curling up from a hot slab of ribs.
For whatever reason, true mastery of low-and-slow barbecue is an all-too-rare occurrence around here. There've been modest exceptions, such as Henri's Hotts in South Jersey, Sweet Lucy's in the Northeast, and Percy Street Barbecue on South Street. Even the leather-hatted Robert "Bubba" Kolbasowski is putting some legitimate smoke on his meats just a block away at his new Bubba's Texas BBQ.
But none have harnessed the complete experience with the finesse of Fette Sau, which, likely because of its provenance in Brooklyn - the nexus of American hipness - manages to achieve an aesthetic that feels current and free of clichés.
Starr has created the perfect setting in a gated courtyard beside his Frankford Hall. The vacant lot has been transformed into a big, rustic shack, its salvaged wood rafters and open frame walls fully exposed around communal picnic tables, a butcher's meat chart painted on the concrete wall, and antique cleavers and forks fastened to the beer tap handles behind the bar.
Of course, this would all be schtick without serious 'cue, and Fette Sau delivers with a refinement of technique and focused flavors. Carroll, a music industry veteran before entering the Williamsburg restaurant scene with beer bar Spuyten Duyvil, keeps it simple.
He mostly uses one rub - an earthy blend of cumin, cinnamon, brown sugar, cayenne and espresso (La Colombe here). But it tastes remarkably different with each meat. The beef cuts soak it in to become more dusky and soulful, the brisket's black crust edged with a pink smoke ring so vivid it could have been colored by Crayola; that massive short rib still on the bone and almost caramelized from a basting of its own fat to velvety tenderness.
The lighter-weight pork cuts reflect the rub's brighter spice, an almost anise twinge of cinnamon on the St. Louis-cut ribs and tingly cayenne on the smoked pulled pork, which took on even more life when splashed with vinegar sauce that brought back memories of Carolina. Of all the meats, the ribs had just a bit more chew than I would have preferred.
But undoubtedly, Fette Sau's best cut of swine is the pork belly, a ribbon of juicy, fork-tender white flesh ribboned with fat that has been rendered just enough.
All the 'cue stands on its own. But Fette Sau's three basic sauces also add genuine compliments, the classic sweet adding roundness to the ribs and belly, the already rich brisket sounding even deeper notes in the "spicy" sauce, a puree of dried peppers reminiscent of a mole.
With such a strong lineup, the chicken could be an afterthought - but it isn't. It's compulsory, a mahogany-hued bird infused with a sweet tea brine, then smoke-roasted so beautifully that it practically carved itself at the touch of a knife. If available, try the Nicolosi sausage, made in North Jersey to Fette's specs with a coarse grind and vivid orange spice that, with smoke, reminded me of a Cajun andouille.
Sides matter when it comes to the big 'cue picture, but it is not Fette Sau's strongest suit. The beans were a tad sweet saved by the burned ends. The coleslaw was the only miss of our meals, with a sesame-oiled Asian accent that was off-key. But the cold, Italian-style broccoli salad was a surprise hit, with its tingly crunch. The mustardy German potato salad made for a proper picnic. And the sauerkraut and pickles from Guss' in New York made up for the zing the slaw was lacking.
For dessert, understatement is key, with a peanut butter cookie (not bad at all), a rich brownie (I'd like it better without the bacon), and exceptional dark chocolate toffees crafted by Nunu in Brooklyn. But no finale is quite as fitting as the mini-Key Lime pie, its snappy citrus custard crowned by a pouf of moist Italian meringue - a Philly grace note added by Starr's crew that Carroll says he's come to love.
As long as he keeps smoking those coffee-rubbed meats so well, Philly's feeling for its own Fette Sau should be mutual.