Let the baconing begin
It was with great pride that I flew from New Orleans to New York City, my home for nearly 12 years, to help officiate the first ever Extra Crispy BreakFestival. You have to admit, it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that nobody—especially in the Big Apple—thought to host a festival solely dedicated to breakfast food and drink until now. So it makes perfect sense that this festival should, by all rights, finally get out of our dreams and into our waking lives in such fine Manhattan splendor. Seriously, what could possibly be more New York than bagels with cream cheese? (Note: There were definitely bagels with Arla cream cheese, and they were divine. As Jami Attenberg noted, it’s nigh impossible to find a truly great bagel in NOLA.)
My job as Extra Crispy’s Bacon Critic included some ceremonial duties at the festival, particularly in the emcee department. Among other things, this meant judging and co-hosting the no-hands bacon-eating contest, in which six participants attempted to eat 12 strips of bacon as fast as they could. I was slightly conflicted about this gastronomic feat (bacon, I feel, is something special and worth leisurely savoring, not so much power-eating), but it was a hell of a lot of fun watching these guys go to town face first on a plate filled with salty, crispy, chewy bacon strips, certainly not something you see every day. It also didn’t hurt that my co-host was the enchanting and down-to-earth Sports Illustrated model Britt Maren. Turns out, we have similar bacon philosophies: When looking for the perfect bacon, it’s all about delicately balancing flavors and textures so that no one aspect overpowers another.
But The BreakFestival wasn’t my only bacon adventure in New York. I wasn’t returning to my former home simply to hold court at an event. Once I’d checked off my obligatory NYC must-have foods list—lox and bagels, pizza, pastrami, Chinese, the usual suspects—it was time to explore what the city has to offer in terms of bacon.
I certainly have my prejudices when it comes to bacon in New York. I’ve always been fond of the bacon at Peter Luger in Brooklyn, where I’d often go for burger lunch when I couldn’t afford one of their magnificent dry-aged porterhouses. And there were other bacon delights I discovered over the years as well, including Five Leaves, which is a block from the apartment I lived in for eight years in Greenpoint. Their BLAT is something of a marvel.
On this trip, however, I was on the hunt for something new, or at least new to me. This brought me to BarBacon in Hell’s Kitchen, a restaurant that specializes in all things bacon. In a city awash with restaurant gimmickry that includes everything from ninja servers to a dining room Broadway revue, having a bacon focus seems a little tame. But the restaurant manages to have fun with the theme while taking its bacon seriously. The setting was, essentially, your standard sports pub fare, with a bar focused on whiskey and craft beer and a setting to match. If it weren’t for the menu—and the servers’ matching BarBacon T-shirts—you might not get that this place was all-bacon, all the time. I appreciated that they kept things relatively understated, decor-wise, when the temptation to go “whole hog” with a theme restaurant can be so tempting.
As for the food, BarBacon did not disappoint. There was bacon, and plenty of it, starting with the joint’s bacon flights, which could, if desired, arrive paired with whiskey or beer flights to compliment the pork. The current menu offering included pecan wood smoked, corn cob-roasted, brown sugar coated, and jalapeño-spiked bacons. The jalapeño version had an intriguing and familiar kick to it, but ultimately the pepper overwhelmed the subtlety of the pork. Similarly, the brown sugar bacon seemed like an excellent idea—pairing sweetness with smoky bacon makes sense, especially when it comes to dipping your bacon in pancake syrup—but that same sweetness unfortunately threw the rest of the bacon off balance, and while not totally cloying, the sugar proved a little distracting. On the other hand, I found both the pecan wood and corn cob strips to be enjoyable traditional-style bacon. Which aids my theory on the “Goldilocks” factor of perfect bacon, to wit: Unless you absolutely hit it out of the park with your creative flavors, it’s best not to fool around too much when it comes to bacon. Nothing makes me more sad than “the bacon that could have been.”
After that, it was on to the composed bacon dishes. Again, balance was key here, and BarBacon did the job well for the most part. The bacon sliders were, in essence, just small bacon cheeseburgers, and to that end they squarely hit the mark. I found the bleu cheese dressing a lovely funky accompaniment to the beef patties and bacon strips. Plus, it’s always fun to say, “I ate three bacon cheeseburgers tonight!” with all the proud glee of Jughead from the Archie comics.
Not all the dishes were standouts, however. The salads were decent but nothing special, with the crackly lardons seeming like more of an afterthought, taking the “add bacon to everything” concept to its logical conclusion. A kale or Caesar salad can be perfectly pleasant without fried pork belly, but the addition never hurts. On a brighter note was the spectacular lamb bacon Reuben, which impressed on two scores. Firstly, BarBacon succeeds in crafting a non-pork bacon admirably—the traditional bacon flavors were there, albeit in a more British rasher format, texture-wise—and they also manage to keep the sandwich clearly a Reuben in the classic sense. I particularly enjoyed the distinctive lambiness of the meat and found myself snacking on the fallen, leftover bits long after the sandwich was gone.
Alas, my visit to New York was all too brief, but at least I packed it full of bacony delights. Well, maybe not as full as the bacon-eating contestants, but I did my best. And next time, believe you me, there will be Peter Luger bacon.
Some things are considered classics for a reason.