Barbecue That’s Completely Over the Top
Posted July 21, 2018 5:35 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — At the corner of Albany Avenue and Pacific Street in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, singles from Jay-Z’s debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” echoed from 47-year-old Donnell Rogers’ front yard as he tended to two weathered-looking, barrel-shaped black smokers. One was filled with pork ribs, and the other had chicken legs. Plumes of pecan-wood smoke swirled in the air.
Car horns and friendly salutations accented songs like “Can’t Knock the Hustle” on this sunny afternoon. A gray Honda pulled up alongside Rogers’ brownstone, the passenger window rolled down, and a young woman yelled out a question about the poultry: “How much?”
After several weeks visiting family in Greenville, North Carolina, the Brooklyn pitmaster was back. He had missed the last two Saturdays — the only day of the week Rogers sells his food, rain or shine — and the intersection was buzzing.
A cardboard sign hanging over his front gate advertises his wares: “Smack Grill; Slab - Pork Ribs, $7; 2 - Leg Quarter $5; Famous BBQ Sauce.” Rogers’ cousin had driven down from Albany for the day to check on their grandmother, who’s lived down the street for 29 years, but not before inspecting the progress of the smoked meats. A lifelong friend, Robert Jackson, also showed up. He talked about how surprised he had been by Rogers’ transformation into a pitmaster four years ago.
“I’ve known him for 40 years and didn’t know he could cook like this,” Jackson said. He recalled the first time he tried his friend’s chicken skin. “I might’ve sucked on that one piece of skin all day, man,” he said. “It makes you say, ‘Man, I’m coming over here next week.'”
Rogers’ vinegar-based sauce is what sets his goods apart. Influenced by the sauces and pork-based barbecue found in eastern North Carolina, Rogers’ Smack Grill sauce is a no-frills condiment that he describes as “mild, hot, vinegar and spice.” There is also a secret ingredient that makes the sauce unique and capable, it seems, of suiting any meat, especially the crackly, golden-brown skin of Rogers’ chicken. “It’s the sauce and the pecan wood that makes it delicious,” Dan Dittrich, a grill regular, said of the chicken.
Dittrich moved to the neighborhood in January and has visited Rogers’ barbecue almost every weekend since then, typically ordering the chicken. A native of Westchester County, Dittrich said he couldn’t think of a similar barbecue experience in the city. “It’s different. It’s special,” he said. “And it’s cool that he’s my neighbor.”
John Gopie has lived in Crown Heights since 1975 and has bought barbecue from Rogers for two years. The Jamaica native says his Hindu grandmother prevented him from eating pork until he arrived in the United States, causing him to appreciate the meat once he could regularly eat it. He considers Rogers’ pork ribs to be exceptional.
“They’re juicy,” Gopie said. “Juicy, juicy. I love the ribs. I get tired of having chicken all of the time, man. Mix it up.”
After Gopie rode off on his bike, a group of three walked up to the gate. Rogers had just shut the hood on both smokers, indicating that he’d shifted a new batch of legs and ribs from the cooler portions of each grill to the hot spots. The food would be ready soon.
A woman in running leggings and a tank top exclaimed to her friends, “Chicken and pork ribs?” The group ordered a little bit of each.