A hipster honky-tonk on a lakefront that serves up Texas-style barbecue.
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Jeff Feldstein is serious about his smoke. He grew up on Long Island helping his dad grill in the backyard. He later joined his father’s court-reporting firm and became the GM, but with the economy tanking in 2009, he left and took a barbecue course with respected pitmaster Konrad Haskins.
“I learned the Texas barbecue way,” Feldstein says. “The essence is the meat, the taste of the beef and pork. The smoke, rub and sauce are secondary. When you’re tasting the extras, you’re not tasting the meat.”
After earning certificates in management and kitchen technique from what is now the International Culinary Center in Manhattan, “I spent over a year traveling to regional barbecue events and festivals, competing in tastings and eventually selling my sauces,” he says. When a longtime bar and grill on Lake Lackawanna in Sussex County came on the market, Feldstein pounced. Having earned his college degree in industrial design, he had the waterfront space outfitted with two decks, handsome booths, gleaming wood tables and bar, and enlivened the walls with funky old signs and other country color. In April 2012, Down to the Bone started smokin’.
The menu is vast (borderline bewildering), packed with combos and mixed grills in appetizer, entrée and family-size (“feast”) portions, plus a host of salads and ’cue-sauced “barbecue fusion” items like wraps and pastas. Barbecued meat can be added to virtually any item.
Doing due diligence, we discovered a couple unlikely winners. Pulled-pork egg rolls sounded like a send-up—barbecue channeling Chinese takeout—but no joke, they were irresistible. Barbecue pizzas (oval flatbreads made with pizza dough) were another happy hybrid. We made short work of the DTTB pizza, a generous scattering of meat—brisket, pulled chicken or (our choice) pulled pork—topped with Jack cheese, fried onion straws and Mild Madness, one of Feldstein’s two proprietary barbecue sauces. (The other is Sweet Heat. Both finished in the Top 10 in the 2011 New Jersey Barbecue Competition.) Unfortunately, the pizzas appear only on the lunch and late-night menus.
My table demolished a plate of crisp fish and chips made with basa, a catfish cousin, as well as a pair of meaty crab cakes we swabbed with a lively mango aioli. Bone Fire Wings have more than a catchy name. Smoked and deep fried, they were plump and flavorful. Some items failed to live up to their intriguing handles. Topsy-Turvy sautéed shrimp, served on toast, delivered little flavor. Spitfire Chili Sticks proved to be sodden fries heaped with yawningly mild chili and gooey cheddar, a failed spin on loaded nachos.
The best meat is the succulent pulled pork from Virginia purveyor Smithfield and Pennsylvania's Hatfield. Pair it with the better sides—sweet Southern-style cole slaw, creamed collards (new to me, made with heavy cream, pork and hot chile peppers) and bourbon-tinged baked beans that leaped to attention with a squirt of Sweet Heat.
The Rib Tip Sampler, a generous starter, may alone be worth the trip to Lake Lackawanna. You get the chopped-off ends of the meaty St. Louis-style pork ribs. Like all Down to the Bone meats, the rib tips are rubbed with kosher salt, brown sugar, chili powder and a few other ingredients Feldstein won’t divulge.
While the tips were tops, an order of St. Louis ribs themselves proved chewy and bland. Smaller baby backs were more tender, yet shy of smoke and pork flavor. Brisket was gray and dry, and smoked chicken came grimly overcooked. (Fried chicken was sold out every time I tried to order it.)
Likable (if not stellar) house-made desserts change weekly. Key lime pie, meringue-topped amaretto bread pudding, or iced carrot cake will help make sure you waddle out the door. If you don’t waddle out the door, you haven’t done barbecue right.