Having a bicycle and an unexpected free Saturday opens up huge swatches of the five boroughs for sandwich exploration. John Brown smokehouse sits somewhere between the towering Citigroup building and some glimmering high-rise waterfront apartments in an area of Long Island City that would mostly be faded yellow squares in SimCity — glass installers, metalwork, taxicab equipment. It doesn’t feel unsafe or uninteresting, it just doesn’t happen to be a populous thoroughfare filled with restaurants and bars. And that’s fine; many of the best sandwiches live off the beaten path.
The sandwich: The P.B.L.T. from John Brown, 10-43 44th Drive, Long Island City.
The construction: Pork belly, lettuce, tomato and mayo on Texas toast, which here means very thick-cut but untoasted white bread, not the prepared version of Texas toast that is grilled with butter.
Important background information: Everything I read about John Brown before I went recommended the burnt ends sandwich, one of their specialties. But I figured if I already read plenty about the burnt ends sandwich, why not introduce the Internet to something new? There may or may not be a hog shortage coming, friends, and there’ll be plenty of time to eat brisket once we’re priced out of pork.
What it looks like:
How it tastes: Man. Oh, man. Holy s@#$.
OK, let me start with the simple stuff while I collect myself. Lettuce, tomato and mayo don’t sound especially exciting on a sandwich, I understand. Boring, even. But those ingredients, in combination, present a delightful and versatile array of light flavors and textures as well as a certain grounding quality. They are crisp, moist, creamy, summery and familiar.
The bread, fresh and thick, is so soft that it wears under the considerable weight of the meat and toppings. It’s sweet and delicious, but if I had one quibble with the construction of this sandwich it would be that the bread is not quite up to the task of containing the rest of the sandwich. No matter; paper towels are available on every table. And, really, if you’re at a barbecue restaurant hoping to keep your hands clean, you and I have nothing in common.
There are two barbecue sauces on the table at John Brown: A vinegary, peppery mild version and a fiery hot one. I used a touch of both. They’re great.
Now on to it:
It’s the pork! The pork, the pork, the pork, the pork.
Pork belly comes from the same part of the pig as our American bacon, which is likely what inspired this sandwich. But this pork belly is not prepared like bacon: It’s slow smoked but not cured, and it’s cut in thick hunks rather than sliced thin and fried. The result is a hearty, fatty, smoky meat. It’s just a touch chewy but not in any way tough, providing just enough resistance against the teeth and jaw to force you to slow down and enjoy the awesome, awesome flavor of the sandwich. Think meat stripped from perfectly prepared smoked spare ribs. Oh it’s so good.
There’s some talk that word of a forthcoming pork shortage could be overblown, but I wouldn’t risk it. In fact, upon finishing the sandwich, I considered going back for a second before realizing it would make the bike ride back to Manhattan unbearable. Got to get that pork in me while I can.
I took the long way home and biked north along Vernon Boulevard toward the Triborough grinning like a madman. With Manhattan’s skyline looming on my left and the 59th St. Bridge dead ahead, I reveled in society’s grand accomplishments, and all the astonishing things we have done with pork.
What it’s worth: The P.B.L.T. cost $11, which is a lot. But it’s a full meal even without any of the awesome-looking available sides.
The rating: 95 out of 100. All sample-size caveats apply and smoked meat can be fickle, but this is one of the best sandwiches I can remember eating in New York City.