April wind licked the faces of some 50 hungry barbecue fans who waited in a line that snaked from the patio entrance of Pig Beach in Gowanus, Brooklyn, to the corner of Union and Bond. Early 2000s radio hits pulsed through the crisp air at the 10th annual Brisket King 2021 competition, bringing to mind the summer barbecues of these pitmasters’ and chefs’ youths. The crowd buzzed with frenetic post-vaccination energy. We were thrilled to be there—anywhere, really—eating fantastic food and stumbling through our first social interactions since last March, when Brisket King’s 2020 competition would have taken place had it not been for COVID-19.
Brisket, a fibrous cut of meat from the breast of beef or veal, has deep cultural significance in the United States. It’s the choice for barbecuers in Texas and braisers in New York; a traditional Jewish protein and ideal for corned beef; it graces stovetops as pot roasts and slow cookers as stews. Every grandma, griller, and gourmand believes their brisket preparation is the best. But this cut is tough unless cooked low and slow, making it the ideal protein for smoking. So every year, the best of the best brisket barbecuers gather to duke it out over who makes it best.
The price of a ticket allowed entry to the event, plus unlimited barbecue (while supplies last, of course) and a selection of spirits. With Knob Creek whiskey in our bellies, guests lined up to try smoked brisket from more than a dozen chefs and pitmasters. Vendors from all over the US, like Blue Smoke in Manhattan, Central City BBQ in New Orleans, and Queens Bully in Queens, spent hours and days over their smokers, furiously competing for the title of Brisket King.
Although all the briskets in the competition were smoked, each had its own unique flavor, cultural influence, and texture. Avellino Family Barbecue, from Stamford, CT, served traditional Texas brisket with house-cured jalapeños. Carlitos Tacos, whose line stretched the entire span of Pig Beach’s patio space, wowed the crowd with their taco-truck spin: Texas brisket tacos and birria consomme. Central City slung Texas-style Snake River Farms American Wagyu brisket with Cajun dirty rice. From Newburgh, NY, Handsome Devil created sliders with sliced brisket and pastrami and a brisket sausage. Bret Lunsford and Blue Smoke served traditional Texas brisket.
While some vendors were new in 2021, a few notables returned to defend their titles: Chef Robert Austin Cho of Kimchi Smoke, 2019 People’s Choice winner, cooked up an Asian-fusion savory-sweet Texas brisket sandwich that sat atop a fluffy glazed donut with kimchi and barbecue sauce; Juicy Lucy BBQ, 2019 Brisket King winner, created his Texas-style brisket; Matt Fisher, winner of Pig Island NYC 2020’s Best Bite, made delicious brisket.
Chef and firefighter Eric Howard, with Aaron Clark and Stephen Shea of Gramercy Ale house, created a Guinness-infused brisket with Guinness-bourbon barbecue sauce, pickled red onions, and a cold-smoked dill pickle. Chef Howard outlined the similarities between barbecue and firefighting: “You need to be able to stay calm under pressure, adapt, and overcome obstacles. We’re always ready to go, so if a challenge is thrown at us, we’re ready to attack it head-on.”
Juicy Lucy BBQ, last year’s winner, won first place for the second time, becoming the first restaurant ever to win the Brisket King title two years in a row. Juicy Lucy and owner Richie Holmes also won 2021’s People’s Choice award, thrilling the crowd and solidifying the restaurant’s reputation for truly killer barbecue.
Other winners included Chef Jesse Jones, whose smoked brisket with creole mustard and cucumbers on a buttermilk biscuit won him the Unsung Hero award; Avellino Family Barbecue’s brisket won the restaurant the tasty prize of a year’s worth of Cabot cheese; Kimchi Smoke won Most Creative Combo for their brisket donut sandwich; and James Cruse of Central City Barbecue, who traveled all the way from New Orleans, won the runner-up trophy.
A portion of the proceeds for the event was donated to nonprofit Friends of Firefighters, which provides mental health services and support to firefighters in the tri-state area—and what better occasion than a barbecue competition to benefit firefighters? Chef Howard explained, “the firehouse kitchen table is someplace that is sacred to all firefighters. It’s where we share stories, jokes, personal experiences, training tips, and just kick back and blow off steam, similar to what anyone would do at a barbecue with family and friends.”