BROOKLYN — The most popular drink at Mable’s Smokehouse & Banquet Hall, a cozy barbecue joint in hip Williamsburg, was inspired by Sonic restaurants near the border of Oklahoma and Texas.
“For anyone who grew up in the South, Sonic drive-ins were pretty common,” says Jeff Lutonsky, co-owner of Mable’s. “We used to get their cherry limeades and spike them.” At Mable’s, Lutonsky has re-created the drink, a sweet, tangy blend of vodka, cherry juice, fresh lime, and crushed ice, which provides a fine foil to the heft and spice of a long-smoked, Texas-style brisket.
Lutonsky and his wife, Meghan Love, opened Mable’s in 2011, when Williamsburg was emerging as a leading destination for food and culture. The restaurant serves barbecue, Southern sides, and drinks rooted mostly in Kentucky and the general South (Lutonsky hails from Oklahoma; Love is from Louisville). Many of the recipes are from Lutonsky’s grandmother Mable, who gives to the shop her name and a finger-licking-good barbecue sauce.
The couple started planning Mable’s when Lutonsky’s job as director of an art gallery in Manhattan lost its luster with the recession. He had spent much of his working life in his mom’s Oklahoma restaurant, the former Bet’s Country Ritz, so a down-home eatery was an easy fit for him and Love. They live in Williamsburg and, according to Lutonsky, “We wanted to walk to work.” They decided to cook barbecue because, as Love points out, “That’s all we know how to do.”
Mable’s is an “Oklahoma-style” barbecue joint. Never heard of Oklahoma barbecue? Lutonsky explains, “Oklahoma is in the middle of what I call the barbecue triangle — Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City. In Oklahoma, we had Texas-style brisket. We had sausages that were hot links and kielbasa. We had pulled pork. We just kind of steal from everybody, basically.”
The duo serves four smoked meats: pulled pork, beef brisket, St. Louis ribs (“St. Louis” refers to a meaty center-cut of ribs), and hot link sausages.
Pulled pork is blissfully tender, brisket mischievously smoky, you might even say ashy. Eating dusky strips of brisket in the dim dining room, elbows propped on a hand-hewn table, you could imagine feasting by a campfire centuries ago.
Pork with a cool chili burn melts off the ribs, which should be drowned in barbecue sauce before every bite. Hot links come from Schwab Meat Co., a German establishment that has been operating in Oklahoma City since 1912. Lutonsky smokes them. To the uninitiated palate, they taste unusual, something like smoky, spicy German-style sausage. Think Texas meets kielbasa.
The best food at Mable’s strikes closest to Oklahoma. Lutonsky has a fondness for the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of his past. In food and decor, there are echoes of Bet’s Country Ritz. “All the chairs in here are mismatched,” Lutonsky says. “At my mom’s restaurant in Oklahoma all the chairs were mismatched. She also had exposed brick. She also had barn wood.” Lutonsky and Love built every table at Mable’s and nailed every piece of wood to the walls.
The room was also designed to have a “late-’70s, early-’80s aesthetic,” he says, and a slow country feel. Diners can linger in the 100-seat restaurant for hours watching football, drinking mint juleps to the twang of Van Morrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan on the soundtrack. The 14-foot walls were made using wood from an old barn in Buffalo, N.Y. Quirky chairs and trinkets — an antique Coors Light sign, a pair of Texas longhorns — were bought on a road trip from Dallas.
Recipes for collard greens, candied yams, pickled beets, and potato salad come from Lutonsky’s mother and grandmother. Others, like macaroni and cheese, are his. “I just tried to re-create the tastes of what I remember growing up,” he says. Of these, rich tomato-flavored borracho beans and the collards, jolted by Lutonsky’s serrano-infused vinegar, match the barbecue best.
Follow all this smokiness with peanut butter pie, a dense and dreamy treat lifted straight from his mother’s menu. “Every day she made fresh pies with homemade crusts and meringues that were insane,” says Lutonsky. Get the pie, even if you are full. It tastes like a rich, room-temperature ice cream enrobed in a delicate crust.
“In Brooklyn, there’s a ton of Southern people living all over the place,” says the restaurateur. “Whether they’re from Tennessee or Texas, they’ll come in and say, ‘This tastes just like my Aunt Peggy’s potato salad.’ ”
Love adds, “That’s the best compliment we can get.”
& Banquet Hall, 44 Berry St., Brooklyn, 718-218-6655,
Chris Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.