“Pretty much when you see tails on a menu it means that the pigs are free-range. Because caged up pigs usually bite each other’s tails off.” –Joaquin Bacca
By Jason Greenberg
In 2009, Joaquin Bacca – who had previously opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar and Ko with David Chang – opened Brooklyn Star in Willliamsburg to much buzz and rave reviews for his skillful take on Texas-style cuisine. After only a year of being open, a massive fire shut it down. He has since relocated and reopened in a bigger, better space. We sat down with him to discuss all that…and pig tails.
So Joaquin, what’s your background? How’d you get started?
I’m from Texas. Been cooking a real long time mostly in Texas and New Mexico and then moved out here 7 years ago. I hooked up with Dave (Chang) and we opened Momofuku and ran together for a good 4 years. And then I sold my shares back, came out to Brooklyn and opened up Brooklyn Star on Havemeyer in 2009. Had a nasty fire about a year into being open. All my insurance was good, everything was fine, we had the place built back up, but in the meantime one of the landlords who used to own that building had approached me about this other piece of property that he had.
He had talked to me about it a couple of times and then the guys who were here finally just cleared out one day and so it was sort of at the right time. I partnered up with my buddy Simon. He and his brother own a couple of bars in the city – Bua, Wolfie and Nell and they have another one in Astoria now too, so we decided to open up a bigger spot. I also partnered up with the Roberta’s guys over at the old space because I still have the lease and everything and so now we’re running a little pizza shop out of that — Best Pizza.
Oh, I didn’t know you were involved with Best Pizza.
Yeah, well they do all the work. (Laughs). We have this kid Frankie from Bensonhurst, who was born to make pies. He’s doing a great job.
So it sounds like the fire actually wasn’t a huge disaster.
No. I mean it actually wound up coming out good for us. At the time it was pretty disastrous, but in the long run…we’re deeper in debt but we have a better platform and this space is great and much bigger. Its about 3 to 4 times the size of the old space.
Do you prefer being in this location then?
Yeah, I do. I mean for what this place is, it fits better in this space. We were trying to do a lot of menu items out of a tiny kitchen for a small dining room and it was just really hard to keep up. Plus we have a full liquor license now too, which is great. And also I realized that I would never, ever, ever do anything like this again without partners because, it sucks being the only one who’s…chewing their fingernails. It’s too much to have on your shoulders by yourself without having someone to commiserate with.
So when you were in Texas did you go to culinary school?
I went to the University of Texas and got a bachelor’s in journalism. See how that worked out for me? But no, I never went to culinary school. I used to build houses and stuff when I was working my way through school. I finished some work and wound up working at Whole Foods in the kitchen for whatever reason. I started working on the line to pay for school and then I started taking it seriously I guess when I realized I wasn’t going to be a photojournalist.
What kind of food were you doing then?
Oh you know, I started out doing café stuff and then as fine dining as Austin gets which is pretty casual. And then I moved out to New Mexico, to Sante Fe, to check it out there. Everyone is cooking southwestern food, so it wore thin after about three years. Then I came out to New York to cook. It’s where all the big fish swim, so I came out here to cook in one of these kitchens that I always wanted to cook in. I trailed at a bunch of places and got a few really terrible offers. So I met this dude (Chang) and decided to go for it.
So when you opened Noodle Bar, did you have any experience with that type of cuisine?
Well you know, cooking is cooking. It’s all like flame and pans, water, proteins. Its just different ingredients. You’re still dealing with salty, sweet, sour. It was definitely a new set of ingredients.
Was that exciting and challenging?
Oh yeah, yeah. It was great, it was really fun. Which is part of why our menu at that time had kind of like this weird southern-y tinge to Asian stuff because that’s basically what I know. Dave’s background is different. Even though it was Asian ingredients, I just tried to do what I do.
So was it always your intention to get back to doing Texas-style food?
No, there was never really any plan. You know, I love Dave and I love that place but it was outgrowing itself, it definitely outgrew me. I prefer a smaller operation. There was no reason to stop it, once the momentum started. So we got to the point where I was sort of obsolete. We just had an amicable break-up.
Did you know already where you wanted to go from there or did it take you a while?
No, I knew I wanted to be in Brooklyn. I’ve been living in Brooklyn since I came to New York. I’ve been in Williamsburg the whole time. So I knew I wanted to be out here. Also with a limited budget Manhattan is a bear. I didn’t want to take on investors or partners which sort of changes everything. So as far as the neighborhood goes, I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to be. I looked at a bunch of little spaces. I was pretty much looking for that 35 to 50 seat small space. And ultimately took the spot on Havemeyer because it had this really awesome wood burning oven. Which was great and really fun, I really miss it. That’s really the only thing that didn’t translate to this new location.
So how much of the menu at Brooklyn Star is stuff you grew up eating?
Well it’s really more about the flavors I grew up with. Some of it is pretty standard Texas stuff like country-fried steak or the tripe chili with Fritos. And now I have a great bunch of dudes in the kitchen and at the end of the night over whiskeys, the menu changes. Everybody’s got ideas so we definitely change stuff a lot so we don’t get bored. People want to go somewhere where they know they can get a few things but its nice also to have some rotating stuff.
I seem to hear that a lot from chefs and owners. There is that fine line between not changing the menu enough or changing it too much. What are your thoughts on that?
You’re coming for some regular stuff for sure, but there are some regulars that come to expect new stuff when they come in. Which makes it better for us in the kitchen, we get bored cooking the same stuff. I have a ten-year lease here (laughs).
Is it just new dishes that you’re creating or are you constantly tinkering with the ones already on the menu?
Well as the seasons progress and different things become available, I’d be a fool not to take advantage. It’s not California, we don’t have the constant rotation; winter and fall are a lot trickier than theirs is, but what we do have is great.
How has the reaction been to the more obscure, nasty-bit type items on your menu?
It’s been great actually. We sell a ton of guts. The tripe (chili with Fritos) sells a lot, same with the pig tails. We had chicken fried foie (gras) on for a while with waffles that sold great.
Are you surprised by that?
Sort of. Most of those dishes are as pedestrian as offal dishes can get. Basically more accessible to people because of the preparation around it seems to make them less frightened. You can sell tripe if it’s in chili-form. They read “chili” and “Fritos” and they don’t even realize there’s tripe in it until its in front of them. That’s how you have to cook offal. You need to dress it up. It’s the left over trash bits that you have to transform into something. You can still highlight it, but it’s in a more familiar form when its in chili or deep fried.
Yeah I mean the pig tails look just like chicken wings. How are they prepared?
We get tails from a farm in Canada. Pretty much when you see tails on a menu it means that the pigs are free-range. Because caged up pigs usually bite each other’s tails off. Anyway, so we blanch them and then braise them in mustard, tomato, garlic, thyme, chili flake and some vinegar for about 4 hours. We take them out of the braise peel the skin and cut them into little thumb-sized pieces and reduce the braising liquid. On pick-up we roll the tails in Wondra flour and throw ‘em in the fryer. We add chili vinegar to the sauce and right now they’re being served with jalapeno hush puppies.
It’s exciting for some diners to walk into a restaurant and see something like fried pig tails on the menu. People seem much more open to it and adventurous lately. I heard that M. Wells in Queens had veal brains on the menu which they thought no one would order it but they actually sold out. I came in and before I could even really look at the menu my girlfriend ordered the pig tails. I couldn’t believe it.
Especially because there isn’t a lot of foot traffic in their neighborhood. Our neighborhood, I’d say, has a lot of people who work or live in Manhattan. Not that Long Island City is unadventurous, but people in Williamsburg are used to a lot more options and not afraid to try stuff. I think it’s part of — and I’m not sure if its just New York — a growing trend in the last decade or so. A lot of these things used to be exclusive to rustic French or rustic Italian cuisine. Now it seems to be finding its way onto a lot of menus. But it’s definitely a trend. My wife is Malaysian so she eats everything. She’s a great dining companion.
Is it a good thing? That we’re eating more parts of the animal?
Yeah, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s great that we are, like you said, using more parts, which creates less waste for sure. Now all of the sudden purveyors will sell you something that they used to throw away. Now that it turns out that you want it, it costs more.
Sort of like what happened with short ribs.
So do you have any future plans you can share with us? Anything coming up?
Well we just did a whiskey pairing dinner which was really fun and went well. It was $85 for 5 drinks and 5 plates. So we’ll probably do a little more of that. We’d love to get some people to participate to do more of that with. We recently just added brunch, which is great. This neighborhood loves brunch. We’ve been trying to sort of keep it under the radar so we can get our shit together. Other than that, we have a late menu, we serve until 2 a.m. Hoping to get that rolling a little more.
We get a lot of restaurant and bartender people who are just getting out of work who don’t have that many options where they can get a full meal at 1 a.m. I honestly don’t have it in me to open another restaurant. I feel like I have opened a restaurant every year for the last 7 years. Noodle Bar, then Ssam Bar, and then we moved Noodle bar, then Ko, then we opened Star, then it burned down and we reopened. So this is it for a while.
Curious about the pig tail? Stop by Brooklyn Star at 593 Lorimer Street in Williamsburg (at Corselyea St. near the BQE and Metropolitan Ave).