The BBQ restaurant I've eaten at the most in my seven years in NYC is Fette Sau (354 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211). Sitting in the culinary hotbed of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Fette Sau has long been praised as one of the top BBQ joints in the city, if not the very best, and the owner Joe Carroll even released a fantastic new book this year.
But in my most recent visits, I've noticed something slightly amiss: Is my mind playing tricks on me or has Fette Sau gone slightly downhill? Chatting with fellow BBQ enthusiasts in the city, I found I wasn't alone. Yes, the 'cue at Fette Sau is still quite good, but it's not "the best."
Two theories come to mind that could explain Fette Sau's (slight) decline:
1) Complacency -- Business is good and lines during peak hours are still long. Customers, many of them tourists, are generally happy with the food and the experience. There aren't a lot of complaints and with nearly 1,800 reviews on Yelp, the restaurant enjoys a healthy 4-out-of-5 star rating. They don't have to try as hard as they used to, so the joint has suffered.
2) Inconsistency -- Many items are still being prepared with the same care as they used to. But the joint is seeing off days, with notable items including the brisket often not getting the time they deserve in the smoker. Whereas a lot of things are still good, not all items are being treated as first-class citizens.
If either of these are true, it would explain why Fette Sau has moved down a few rankings and why "the very best" 'cue in the city now comes from four players: Hometown BBQ, BrisketTown, John Brown Smokehouse, and Mighty Quinn's.
Here's where things stand at Fette Sau now.
Fette Sau has a welcoming, cozy interior with several long tables where you will likely sit next to strangers. Three different BBQ sauces and rolls of paper towels are at a hand's reach on the tables. During months that aren't bitterly cold, there are tables outside to sit at, so you can enjoy nice weather.
The single worst thing about Fette Sau is the line. The restaurant serves people one at a time (or one group at a time, if you're ordering all together) and whoever is working the counter will prepare your meat in front of you, whether it's slicing brisket, chopping off ribs, or ladling beans. If you arrive during peak hours, be prepared to wait an hour or more, because the line moves slow.
For the most part, the meats are still quite good at Fette Sau. They serve up around six different meats each day, so you never really know exactly what the menu has in store. That said, they almost always have pork spare ribs, brisket, and pork belly available. On top of those three standards, I've also been lucky enough to try the beef rib, pastrami, black angus sirloin, lamb ribs, hot link sausage, thick-cut bacon, and pork shoulder.
My favorite items at Fette Sau have often been the specialties -- the beef rib, pastrami, black angus sirloin, thick-cut bacon, and lamb ribs have all made me wonder if I was really too full and couldn't go back for seconds. Out of the standard items, the pork spare ribs and pork belly have almost always delivered with smoky, tasty goodness. The brisket, however, has almost always disappointed by being dry, overdone, and bland.
Fette Sau offers three different sauces -- sweet BBQ sauce, pasilla chile pepper sauce, and vinegar sauce. I only find the original sweet BBQ sauce, which is slightly sweet and tomato-based, to be palatable with the meats. If you like an immensely spicy sauce, you might like the pasilla chile pepper sauce, but I've never cared for it. The vinegar sauce is mostly just vinegar -- also not my bag.
Sides are somewhat of a weak point for Fette Sau. The most vital side here is the baked beans, which are great. They are filling and meaty, with bits of beef and pork (and their associated juices) mixed in, creating a not overly sweet, not overly savory concoction. Damn, these beans are good.
Martin's potato rolls are always served with your platter, which let you make a sandwich with your meats if you want. Other sides you can get include German Potato Salad, Cora's Broccoli Salad, Guss' Half-Sour Kosher Pickles, and Guss' Sauerkraut. I've tried the potato salad, which is a mustard-not-mayo-based concoction that I didn't care for, and the half-sour pickles, which I did enjoy despite not being a pickle fan.
I usually skip dessert here because I'm too full from all the meats. But I have had the key lime pie, and was disappointed by its lacking flavor. It was more crust than pie, and it's served as an individual circular pie tin instead of a fresh slice. It was definitely not worth my $7.
Side note: In the past, on a very lucky visit, the crew was serving an excellent mac and cheese. Fette Sau no longer serves it, with two team members saying it was harder to prepare and to have readily available than the beans, so they stuck with only offering beans as their hot side.
Fette Sau has an excellent bar and regularly features craft beer from all over the U.S. on tap. They also feature a substantial amount of whiskey and bourbon options, which I absolutely appreciate. You can sit at one of the eight bar stools to eat your food while you drink some fine liquor.
The only service you really get Fette Sau is at the ordering counter, where you'll get your meat and sides. Folks at the counter have been generally easy to talk to and relatively willing to walk through first-timers through the process of ordering. (This is probably one of the reasons the line takes so long, as first-timers don't know what the items are or how much they should order. Hint: 1/2 a pound of meat per person works for most people!)
When I first moved to NYC, I was told many times if I wanted the city's best BBQ, I had to go to Fette Sau. For years, I had been a believer of that mantra. But things aren't quite as good as they used to be, and it appears a sense of complacency has invaded the restaurant.
Fette Sau is still an excellent barbecue joint and still one of the Top 5 in New York City. But newcomers are invading its high-end territory, most notably Hometown BBQ, BrisketTown, John Brown Smokehouse, and Mighty Quinn's. Here's hoping Fette Sau finds new ways to innovate and bring itself back up in the rankings.