Barbecue. Depending on where you come from, it can mean a whole mess of things. And I mean that literally, because for some, it’s just a ton of meat crusted over with a sloppy sugar-laden coating of sauce.
For a lot of us here in the Northeast, it’s also term that can be loosely applied to anything thrown on a grill.
However, if you’re talking about real, true, American pit barbecue in its purest form, it can only mean one thing: high-quality meat cooked low and slow in a cavernous smoker for as many hours as it takes for the rich wood flavor to permeate a dry-rubbed outer layer and create a faint trace of blushing rose that brings grown men to tears.
Now, I didn’t always know that. But after a trip to Austin, Texas and a revelatory meal at the famous Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, there was no going back. Ignorance may have been bliss, but knowledge was ecstasy. There was pure joy to be found in the bursting casing of hang-smoked sausage, under the crackling skin of a slow-cooked bird, and on the dinosaur-like rib bone of local steer. Delight is discovered in charred, fatty brisket, in the rich and meaty sauce of firm baked beans, and the crunch of fresh coleslaw and house-made pickles.
In other words, barbecue in any other form was ruined for me, falling short and disappointing with slatherings of syrupy sauce instead of the inimitable flavor of fine meats engulfed for hours in the smoke of green hardwood.
That is, until I stumbled upon Townline BBQ in Sagaponack. Hidden between a corn and potato field—as Long Island as Long Island gets!—Townline is the most authentic South Texas barbecue joint I have had the good fortune to encounter east of Brooklyn. I was excited to see the stacks upon stacks of chopped wood lined up neatly against the exterior; that always bodes well for barbecue. Yet it only got better from there.
They say that your olfactory sense is the strongest recall for triggering a memory. Well, I took one breath and darlin’, I was not in the Hamptons anymore. Nor was I in Kansas. As the unmistakable scents of smoldering hickory and just-released juices from fresh-sliced meats hit my brain, if I closed my eyes, I could swear I was in Texas again. With that single breath, I knew that this brainchild of Joe Realmuto, executive chef for the Honest Man Restaurant Group, was the real deal.
This became only more apparent as we began to speak. When asked about the inspiration, Realmuto’s eyes lit up as he recalled the great BBQ Trail road trip he took with owner Mark Smith nearly a decade ago, a reconnaisance mission that took them all the way from Lockhart, Texas to Kansas City, Missouri.
“We didn’t want to do fake barbecue; Long Island deserves better than that!” said the CIA-trained chef with a broad smile.
They committed hard to the research, eating their way north and learning all along the way. One of the most important things they learned was that they loved true pit smoking — so much that when they visited J&R in Mesquite, Texas, an acclaimed leader in smokers, they purchased the two that are now well-seasoned and still in use at Townline today. And in authentic, classic Texan tradition, neither electricity nor gas are used to fuel the massive caverns; rather, locally sourced green hickory that smokes but doesn’t burn and good old-fashioned flames do all the heavy lifting.
That’s far from the only way Realmuto and his team stick to tradition. Because with barbecue, it’s all about the meat, and Townline is no exception. When it was first conceived, the experience was pure Texan: butcher-papered trays (no plates!) and whole rolls of paper towel on the table and all. The menu was true to the Lone Star State, too, featuring smoked kielbasa, beef ribs, and dry-rubbed beef and chicken only.
Since then, they’ve evolved to meet the desires of their diners. Today, the beef rib has been swapped for a baseball bat of a short rib, a hefty hunk of meat that shreds with a poke of your plastic fork. Rather than sausages, you’ll now find pork on the menu, from juicy St. Louis-cut ribs you can sink your teeth into to a magnificent sandwich stacked high with pulled pork, fresh coleslaw, and a sweetly tangy house-made pickle mixture on a fluffy Martin’s potato roll. All of these are free of any antibiotics and hormones and full of succulent natural flavor.
Of course, the majority of the original vision remains. Salt- and pepper-seasoned brisket so tender, a plastic knife is all you need. Chicken that hides luscious meat under a layer of crispy, subtly seasoned skin. Fresh-baked, towering cornbread squares that taste like butter, fresh-shucked kernels, and sunshine. Perfectly baked beans, simmered with huge cubes of thick bacon in a tomato-based sauce I couldn’t help but lick off my fingers. Collard greens with just the slightest hint of vinegar—or a lot with the addition of the house vinegar-based sauce on the table alongside their hearty signature sauces. In fact, the mere presence of these sauces in bottles on the side instead of on your meat is a nod to how the Texans do barbecue; they often opt to start with a dry rub, as Realmuto does, and let the meat shine through.
Even the custom of ordering is distinctly true to tradition. Everything is a la carte and by the quarter pound, allowing you to try a little of everything or have a whole lot of what you love.
Granted, there are some twists that make Townline distinctively different from their Texan brethren. Take, for instance, their veggie burgers, salads, and haute dogs. But don’t be fooled. When the brisket and pork butt is smoked for 12 hours, the short ribs and pastrami for about seven, ribs for four, and chicken for two, this is as authentic an eat as you’ll find on Long Island’s streets.