The sign glows on a cold night like a honky-tonk babe’s bubble-gum-pink belt buckle: Fette Sau, it says, in supple scrolling neon. The chain-link fence beneath swings open like a screechier saloon door, drawing plaid-clad passersby into a wide breezeway lined with old brick and new wood, fresh-cut cords of the latter stacked against former, leading to the faux-dilapidated building beyond. Built of corrugated tin and yellow pine, the shed looks more like a murderous hillbilly’s lair than a smokehouse dining room.
But a dining room is exactly what the structure is, part of a faithful recreation of the oak-perfumed shack belching smoke since 2007 a block off the BQE in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The arrival of Fette Sau, a partnership between Stephen Starr and founder Joe Carroll, is the latest example of the Brooklynification of Philly, joining fellow seven-one-eighter Barcade about a month ago. Where Brooklyn at? These days, um, Fishtown.
Hate on, haters; I’m flattered Carroll wants to do business here, and judging by the feasting finger-lickers crowding Fette Sau’s dining room (if an industrial open-air garage can be called such), I’m not alone. But it’s not the yay-Philly warm-and-fuzzies he’s serving by the pound that make his barbecue worthy of praise. No, it’s everything else.
Where to begin? How about with the staff? From the dude at the counter slicing and weighing flesh like a friendlier Shylock — “You like pickles? I’ll throw a couple on there for you guys” — to the one roaming the dining room clearing sauce-splattered trays, Fette’s crew was disarmingly warm, without any of the too-cool-for-school attitude their American Apparel-model looks imply. The bartender seemed as enthusiastic as I was about the flight of American whiskies I ordered along with a round of Mason-jar beers poured from a draught system whose handles are rusty cleavers and meat mallets. One-handed, she tipped each of three small-batch bourbons from jigger to snifter, amber waterfalls of caramel and smoke.
Speaking of smoke: Red and white oak mixed with bits of cherry, hickory and beech create the super plumes that seep deep into the heritage-breed meats taking long naps in the kitchen’s Southern Pride smokers. I could smell it from a block away, long before I passed beneath the hot-pink sign, and again long after I was home, the intoxicating perfume of smoked meat attached to my clothes. I huffed them like a can of Reddi-Wip, hurtling backward to hours earlier when my stomach was empty and my tray was full.
A length of brown butcher paper blotted the juices running off the pulled pork. Thick, ketchup-y sauce crawled down the side of a cup of baked beans. A quilt of pert potato rolls (Martin’s, naturally) awaited sopping instructions.
Elbows on the table? At Fette Sau, you could put your feet up and no one would blink. Just mind the squeeze bottles, please, their precious contents including a sweet rust-red barbecue sauce, a darker version involving roasted pasilla and ancho chilies and a thin vinegar sauce spiked with cayenne and garlic. None of the housemade condiments follows the protocol of any particular regional style — nor do the meats. At a glance, they look Texan, cooked dry and trimmed in rough black bark, but that spice rub contains a whole lot more than just the Lone Star State-sanctioned salt and pepper, namely brown sugar and finely ground espresso.
Carroll developed this rub early on in his barbecue education, back when he’d “spend the night sitting up with a brisket, pork shoulder and a couple racks of ribs” on the Bullet smoker he stored in his parents’ Jersey backyard. “The rub’s sweet and bitter notes, those two flavors create a complex interesting flavor, like putting milk and sugar into black coffee,” he says.
Add in the pork belly, my favorite of Fette Sau’s meats, and you’ve got breakfast. Thick slices of it glistened against the brown butcher paper, the alternating bands of flesh and fat. Chef Jim Davidson, a Starr veteran executing Carroll’s vision, knows what he’s doing. The smoke came through immediately, then the rub. I tried a little naked, a little with each sauce; a splash of the vinegar sharpened the flavors like a Nikon lens. Pulled pork was proper, juicy with just a trickle of grease, and the brisket stayed moist all the way through, its burnt ends dispatched to the chunky baked beans, the best of the small list of sides (mustardy potato salad brightened with scallion, underseasoned chilled broccoli salad with stems that stabbed my gums). Carroll deliberately keeps the sides selection minimal: “I don’t want to be one of those barbecue places with a dozen sides.”
I can respect his wanting the meat to be the main attraction, and it certainly was during my visit, save for some chewy flank steak and the calorie-dense desserts (bacon brownie, peanut-butter cookie, mini key-lime pie) that vied for my attention.
Brooklyn is coming, and I certainly won’t complain if the Mast Brothers open a chocolate shop on Girard or a Prime Meats pops up on York. Should those fantasy transplants ever pass, Starr is the mastermind likely to be behind them, as his “new” business strategy seems to focus on courting established concepts (Fette Sau) and chefs (Peter Serpico) and bringing them to town.
The design is not new at all, of course, as anyone who can recall Marcus Samuelsson’s brief tenure at Washington Square can attest. Maybe we weren’t ready for that yet. Maybe we are now. Red Rooster Port Richmond? Bring it on. We’ve got Brooklyn, now give us Harlem.
FETTE SAU | 1208 Frankford Ave., 215-391-4888, fettesauphilly.com. Open Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m.; Fri., 5 p.m.-midnight; Sat., noon-midnight; Sun., noon-11 p.m. Meat, $8-$11.50 (based on half-pound per person); sides, $1.50-$7.50; desserts, $1.50-$4.