If he lived in California in the 1970s, Daniel Delaney might lead a cult.
The guy is a fanatic — one of those types whose rock-hard devotion to the cause makes others want to follow him in hopes that he’ll show them the light. The light, in this case, is brisket, smoked low and slow over Texas post oak.
For months, Delaney, 26, has been tinkering in Brooklyn with something called BrisketLab. He has won accolades by slow-smoking briskets the way the best of them do in the Lone Star State: in an all-wood pit. No wood-enhanced gas smoker, as is the case at barbecue joints throughout New York City. His popularity has grown so great that he recently announced plans to expand into what he calls BrisketTown.
We’ll get to the Lab and Town shortly. First, a little about the brisket disciple himself.
If he were a song lyric, Delaney might be the character in the Simon & Garfunkel tune, “America.”
But where that character only glimpsed Michigan, Pittsburgh and the New Jersey Turnpike — and those from a Greyhound bus — Delaney’s search for America took him from his native New Milford, N.J., to Portland, Ore., and many points in between, chronicling the country through each city’s unique street food.
His medium was VendrTV, a combination blog and video channel that he founded after graduating in 2008 from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts with a multimedia degree.
Delaney has thick black hair and wears oversized glasses on his baby face. His look suits his boyish enthusiasm and curiosity, as he checks out everything from organic pancakes in Burlington, Vt., to lengua tacos in Los Angeles.
Delaney’s definition of street food includes trucks and carts, of course, but also joints and cafes that serve dishes that might say something about the town or city.
His Road to Damascus moment occurred in 2010 at Jane and Michael Stern’s annual Roadfood Festival in New Orleans. There, he tried beef brisket from a vendor, the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue.
Third-generation owner Wayne Mueller had hauled a giant wood-fueled mobile smoker from his restaurant, located in the small central Texas town of Taylor. Delaney sampled the brisket and was so hooked by the juicy, smoke-bathed beef with the peppery crust that he decided to try to duplicate it. “I realized I didn’t want to talk about food,” he told me in a recent interview, “I wanted to make it.”
It was an epiphany that had been slowly taking form in Delaney’s mind during his travels. “Growing up in the North, barbecue wasn’t a regional thing,” he says. “It was always a hodgepodge. There was brisket from Texas, but it wasn’t. Ribs were supposed to be from Memphis, but they weren’t. I didn’t realize that till I started traveling. “
Back in Brooklyn, he started to experiment, using a cheap grill, before graduating to a bullet-style smoker, then to an offset smoker and finally to an 18-foot rig made from a propane tank. He brought a truckload of post oak up from Texas, the type of wood favored by several of the state’s barbecue temples.
Before long, he expanded his experiments from dinner parties at his Brooklyn home to live-music feasts for the general public at bars, abandoned factories and even cemeteries. He sold tickets online at $25 per pound of brisket and gave these functions a name: BrisketLab.
It was an immediate hit. The first Lab sold out in 48 hours. He sold 2,500 pounds in advance orders to his events.
Popularity is one thing. Cred is another. And Delaney’s attention to detail has won him plaudits from those in the know. “The best brisket in #nycbbq is at BrisketLab,” tweeted influential Texas barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn.
After a trip to Brooklyn to check out Delaney’s food, Wayne Mueller gave the young acolyte his blessing. “It is the real deal,” Mueller told me in a tone that can only be described as awestruck.
Recently, Delaney has upped the ante. He announced BrisketTown, a pop-up that, like BrisketLab, will offer the star meat for pre-sale. The pop-up, Delaney says, will open this fall, though he doesn’t specify a date. He says it will be in Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn, perhaps in an old Airstream trailer.
The pop-up will include seasonal side dishes not common in Texas barbecue joints, such as red cabbage and herbed coleslaw in fresh lime juice. “We’re going to keep the proteins traditional,” he says, adding that he’s considering putting ribs or sausage on the menu, “but we’re taking a younger, more Brooklyn approach to the sides.” BrisketTown will also serve pie. Orders are already being taken at the Web site, briskettown.com.
He says he might open a restaurant someday, but only if he can continue to smoke the meats in the traditional, all-wood manner that is essential to Texas barbecue. That would be a remarkable departure from the wood-enhanced gas ovens that populate New York barbecue restaurants.
“We’re working hard to produce Central Texas style barbecue that can stand up to any of the renowned offerings in the Hill Country,” the BrisketTown site says.
If he were a politician, Delaney would. . .naw, that analogy won’t work. He’s actually not just blowin’ smoke.
(Former Texan Jim Shahin, a contributor to TEXAS MONTHLY’s 1997 barbecue Top 50, writes the “Smoke Signals” barbecue column for the Washington Post, where this story first appeared. It is reprinted with permission. Check back there every Tuesday for his latest column, and follow him on Twitter, @JimShahin.)