Review: John Brown's Smokehouse (Astoria, NYC)

The biggest regret I have about John Brown's Smokehouse in Astoria, New York, is how long it missed my radar. [Update: John Brown's Smokehouse has since moved to Long Island City: 10-43 44th Dr., LIC, NY.] It opened this summer, but I hadn't heard about it until last week, when it landed a spot on  the Real Cheap Eats blog.

The small and casual barbecue restaurant is an under-appreciated smokey gem of the neighborhood. Charmingly out of the way on 37th Avenue, a few blocks from the foot of the Queensboro 59th Street Bridge, John Brown's Smokehouse takes Texas-style, cafeteria-tray eating and adds curious minute twists (barbecued pastrami) just enough to make the food enticing and interesting, but never steering too far from the beaten barbecue path. Those with an appetite for pulled pork and dry rub ribs will be sated and for a reasonable price.

Burnt ends are the showstopper, soft and delicate bits of fatty meat surrounded by crusty hunks of charred spices and skin. Pork ribs saw their share of dry-rub crust, too, a hefty layer on the top side of the ribs, and not a bit of it tasting bitter--just mildly smokey and charred.

The pulled pork was a little drier than I like, as were the baked beans. I like both to be almost soupy with sauce. Macaroni and cheese, a dish that I always find underwhelming, met expectations by being overcooked and slightly soggy.

For $22, Boyfriend and I had a filling meal. John Brown's Smokehouse has a BYOB policy at the moment. I'm not sure if the restaurant has applied for a beer and wine license, but BYOB joints in New York can be such a steal, so here's to hoping that it stays that way for a few more weeks at least.

10-43 44th Dr.
Long Island City, NY 11101

Recipe: German Apple Cake

Hand-picked apples from Dressel Farm, New York (September 2011).

Last weekend, seven of us piled into a minivan and drove up and out of New York City, along the Hudson River, into apple-growing territory. We went to Dressel Farms in New Paltz, New York, an orchard that lets visitors pick their own apples right off the trees. There's no fee to pick or to park, just a per pound charge for the apples you take home (it was $1.10 per pound last week, though prices may change).

The farm provides a bucket that holds approximately 20 pounds of apples. Fill the bucket half way, as we did, and it'll be about 10 pounds. When we arrived, six or so varietals of apples were ripe and ready to pick: macoun, Fuji, Cortland, empire, gala, and golden delicious.

  • The tractor at Dressel Farm.

  • Tromping through the mucky orchards can be an ordeal. I wore heft rainboots, and I'm glad I did because it was thoroughly muddy last weekend. If you can't easily walk across the fields, you can ride on the back of a tractor. Although you can't see it in this photo, the tractor pulls a long, covered flatbed with benches that seats at least 20 people. 

  • Boyfriend (right) with a freshly picked apple and cup of hot mulled cider, at Dressel Farm in New Paltz, New York (September 2011).

    Back home, with 10 pounds of apples, I started thinking of what I wanted to make with them all. After a week, we probably only have about 3 pounds left because we ate so many of them plain. But I did manage to make a German apple cake, riffing on a recipe I found on (German apple cake recipe from The recipe calls for "chopped" apples (large dice), but I sliced them instead, very thinly, so that the cake had a more layered texture. I also felt like using only white granulated sugar (2 cups) was a mistake, and I'd switch it out to 3/4 cup brown sugar, packed, plus 3/4 white sugar next time instead. I might also scale back the vegetable oil a little bit, as the cake came out almost too moist, and it wasn't from the apples. The empire and macouns I used didn't release too much juice or water.

    The only other change I made was to sugar-coat the baking dish (an 8-inch by 8-inch Pyrex pan; although I really would have rather the cake had been in a 9-inch round pan so it could be served in wedges rather than squares), giving the cake a little sweet crunch on the edges.

    The German apple cake isn't overly sugary either, making for a stellar breakfast cake or coffee cake.

    German Apple Cake
    Makes about 12 servings.
    2 large eggs
    3/4 cup canola oil (this amount could be scaled back slightly)
    3/4 cup white granulated sugar* plus 2 tablespoons, divided
    3/4 cup packed brown sugar*
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    4 cups peeled, cored, and thinly sliced apples (preferably slightly tart and firm varietals)
    *The original recipe called for 2 cups white granulated sugar, but it didn't have enough caramel flavor or depth for me, so I offer this untested suggestion instead.
    Preheat the oven to 350°F.

    Grease or butter a baking dish (I used 8-inch by 8-inch square, but I think the presentation would be so much nicer in a 9- or 10-inch round pan). Sprinkle the pan with the 2 tablespoons of white sugar. Set aside.

    In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, then add the oil, continuing to beat, until you achieve a uniform light yellow color. Beat in the white sugar, then the brown. Add the vanilla extract.

    In a separate bowl, sift or whisk together the dry ingredients: flour through salt. Working in thirds, mix the dry ingredients into the wet. The batter should be smooth and thick, not lumpy, and not full of air bubbles.

    Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold in the sliced apples, making sure not to break them as you work. The apple slices should be fully coated with batter.

    Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and use the spatula to smooth out the batter. The apple slices should all be horizontal.

    Bake the cake about 45 to 60 minutes, until the edges and top of the cake look slightly crackled. Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool. When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Invert the cake onto a plate. You can serve the cake inverted (the "top" then will be a little gooey and sticky from the sugar-coating) or right-side up by re-inverting onto your serving dish (the "top" then will be dry and crackled).

    At Dressel Farm, a crew of six (plus me, behind the camera, makes seven).

    Also, there were goats! Surprise!