Express BBQ’s Pulled Pork Far Exceeds Expectations
Southerners like myself would claim that we have high standards when it comes to barbecue. Other people might say we’re jerks about it.
In fact, I was so righteous about this Holy Grail of down south cuisine when I first moved north nearly a decade ago, I would constantly correct my friends when they referred to a weekend cookout as a barbecue. I’ve relaxed a lot about it since then (and probably kept more friends as a result), but I am still very choosy about pulled pork, my native South Carolina’s barbecue of choice.
So it was with great skepticism that I unwrapped my pulled pork sandwich from Express BBQ on the corner of Park Place and Church St. But – Daggum it, y’all! – not only did the pork well exceed my very low expectations, it might even be called good…
For those of you who are followers of New York City pulled pork, here’s where I stand on some staples: Hill Country’s is OK, but the restaurant itself is lousy. (Edit – Hill Country has pork ribs, not pulled pork. I guess I was hallucinating. I like it even less now.) Dinosaur’s is slightly better than OK, and some of the sides are great. Rub’s is quite good, but the sauce is not. (I’m OK with that, since I generally just like vinegar on mine anyway.) Fette Sau’s is probably the best I’ve had in the city, though I know there are a few key places – Blue Smoke and The Smoke Joint come to mind – that I haven’t tried. And, in this Southerner’s not so humble opinion, the pulled pork sandwich from Daisy May’s is BAD. The way they serve it tells you that they don’t have much confidence in their meat: They chop it into a hash because it’s not tender, and they soak it in a sea of sauce to disguise that fact that pork is dry and has almost no smoke or flavor. No thanks.
So I never expect too much out of pulled pork north of the Mason-Dixon (for the record, I consider pernil to be a different beast and have had great versions here), but I really had my doubts about Express BBQ. A dingy storefront definitely doesn’t rule out great pork inside; in fact, it might even make it more likely. But a careful look at that awning will reveal a big red flag: Pulled pork, chicken, and ribs? Yes, please. Quesadillas and burritos? Uh oh.
The interior raised even more concerns:
Big-screen TV version of the menu? Questionable at best. Faux-wood counter facade? Really bad call. At this point, I’m basically writing a snarky take-down of this place in my head even before I’ve ordered.
But wait! I unwrap my sandwich ($5.50) and there are signs of hope:
The bits of pork poking out look neither dry nor fatty. They have actual crust on them from the smoker, the nice variation in color from black to brown to pink that signals proper slow-cooking. The pork is in big loose pieces, and there’s not too much sauce. A quick dissection confirms my initial findings:
Ignoring that dab of pale coleslaw for the moment, all visual indicators suggest that this pork might be alright after all. Only one thing left to do…
My eyes haven’t failed me: The pork from Express BBQ is shockingly good. Tender, juicy, good crust, great smoke. The sauce was unexciting and a little on the sweet side, but it was also applied moderately and didn’t really take away from the pork. I was genuinely impressed. I ate one piece, then another. I handed a piece to Chris, and he confirmed my assessment: What we have here is actually good pulled pork bbq. Probably not Kingstree Pig Pickin’ good, but straight-up good.
The problem at Express BBQ is the rest of the sandwich. The tiny amount of coleslaw that was on my sandwich had essentially no taste whatsoever, and the roll was truly terrible. It was very nearly inedible, and I find nearly everything to be at least edible. I honestly don’t know if it was stale or made out of wood chips or what, but something was very wrong with it.
But the pork passes muster, and that’s the important thing. I’ll let the bun slide this time and hope that they don’t always get them from a lumber distributor. Where there’s smoke, there’s hope, so expect a report on the other meats as well as a bun update in the coming weeks. Who knows? Maybe one of these days, I might just steel my nerves and try a burrito or quesadilla.
That, or I’ll make Chris do it.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- Pulled pork that’s more than passable and suggests the other meats here might be worth a try as well.
- It’s good to have anything resembling BBQ in an area that’s a BBQ desert, even by NYC standards.
- $5.50 sandwiches and $7 combos is solidly in the area of reasonably priced.
THE — (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- The sauce is too sweet and seems to consist primarily of ketchup.
- To paraphrase that old one-liner, “The cole slaw is so bad, and the portion is so small!”
- This mysteriously good BBQ has been produced by people who seem to think BBQ is made in tiki huts.
- BBQ and burritos are like matter and anti-matter. I’m not setting food in Express BBQ, because there might just be an explosion.
Express BBQ, 27 Park Place (@ Church Street)