There’s something democratic, egalitarian and crowd-pleasing about good barbecue. It doesn’t lend itself to pretense very easily, even if you tried really hard to gussy it up. It’s still just smoked meat, sides and sauce. The folks behind Queen City BBQ know that. “We deliberately tried to appeal to everyone,” says Cristian Duarte, one of the owners and part of The Bayou Boys Hospitality Team along with Jerry Straub and Mo Taylor.
That wide appeal is directly solicited by the presence of many televisions, a couple of shuffleboards and a jukebox, along with the 20 taps pouring crowd-pleasers like Pabst and Miller to regional craft brews from Pizza Boy, Weyerbacher and HiJinx. The sheer size of the place—Queen City can seat more than either of the owners’ other establishments, Grain and The Bayou—means it’s prepared for crowds. There’s also a fair dose of sports bar thrown in for good measure; Queen City is located across from the PPL arena and “When there are hockey games, people are just piling in here,” says Executive Chef Fred Grant. There’s ample space around the bar for spillover, and outdoor seating nearly adds about 60 people to the 120 inside. “Some days are very busy. Some days, well, it’s still Allentown,” says Grant, with a chuckle.
You can see the lack of pretense—and a fair bit of cheekiness—coming through in the cow-patterned booth seats, the wall of Andy Warhol-esque animal screen prints and the language on the menu. Chicken, pork and beef are all ordered by the pile, mound and heap, which equal a quarter, a half and full pound, respectively. Naming the amped-up brisket sandwich, chockablock with hot fried onions, pepper marmalade, bacon jam and cheese, proved to be a stumper, Grant says. They didn’t want to name it something totally straightforward and boring. “Someone said, ‘It’s a ridiculous brisket sandwich,’ and the name stuck.”
The vibe at Queen City can get convivial but the approach is definitely laid-back. The owners took over the space formerly occupied by Shula’s Steakhouse, and it now bears little resemblance to its previous life as an upscale dining spot. “It’s sort of like barbecue shack meets restaurant,” says Grant, a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America and Bethlehem native. There’s reclaimed wood from a barn in Germantown, and real honest-to-goodness picnic tables outside. Rolls of paper towels await any mess. You’ll need it, because fare like this doesn’t spare you. Shareable items are prioritized for Bayou Boys restaurants, so you have to order Dat Nacho, which is Queen City’s take on classic bar food. “Everyone loves nachos, and I figured we’d put on it everything we already have,” says Grant. The toppings are piled high, carefully so as to not crush the chips or make them excessively overloaded, with all three meats they smoke in house (brisket, plus pulled pork and chicken), along with baked beans, pickled peppers and scallions. What holds it all together, however, is a creamy American cheese sauce. “It’s better than American cheese itself,” says Grant.
Another must-order is the meat pierogi, whose success has been so instantaneous and stunning that it forced the kitchen to shift its prep gears. Grant says that Jerry Straub, general manager and beverage director for Queen City (and part of The Bayou Boys Hospitality Group), “had a vision” for pierogi. Through much tinkering, it came to life, filled with brisket and “tater,” but when it arrives at the table, it looks like something else altogether. It’s not sufficient to just load it with brisket and potato. No, here you’ve gotta take it to the hilt, and transform it: Meat pierogi is best described as a pierogi-poutine mashup, situated atop gooey cheese curds and a demi-glace, with a mound of delicately fried onions topping the whole outsize thing. “When we came up with this, I thought, ‘We are going to sell a million of these,’” says Grant. At first glance, the pierogi are not visible; it takes a minute to uncover them. It’s pierogi with attitude; pierogi’s sassy Southern sibling. If you look even more closely, you’ll discover it’s—gasp!—not technically a pierogi. It’s oversized because Queen City is using empanada dough.
“The first day we opened, we had 70-some orders for this, and we had to 86 it because we wouldn’t have had enough for the rest of the weekend,” says Grant. It became immediately obvious that making pierogi dough from scratch every day would have required too many resources and a higher price point—neither of which felt right to the team. Necessity is the mother of invention, so the kitchen (which also includes chef Dan Haddon, who’s spent time from day one at The Bayou), opted for empanada dough instead, which is both larger and sturdier, better for the filling.
Southern cooking is still receiving a fair amount of the culinary spotlight—it’s partly what prompted the team to open The Bayou three years ago this March. Funnily enough, a handful of new-ish barbecue places have popped up in the past year or so, too, so Queen City has company: More Than Q (Easton Public Market), Sugar Hill (Allentown), Mission BBQ (Whitehall) and, in 2015, the Chow Hall (Emmaus). The concept behind Queen City is fairly straightforward—Southern love, with a Pennsylvania twist, evident on both the food and beverage menus.
We’ve talked about the pierogi. There’s a whoopie pie on the dessert menu. On the cocktail side, the Ginger Shoo Fly consists of Jim Beam bourbon, Jim Beam Maple, muddled ginger, molasses and ginger beer. You can also order a Sarsaparilla Float, complete with A-Treat soda and house-made ice cream (bourbon vanilla or French toast are regulars).
You can order from the smokehouse menu in the aforementioned denominations of pile, mound and heap. Everything is smoked in-house, low and slow, on a regular, as-needed basis, usually a couple hundred pounds at a clip, says Grant. Seasonings are fairly straightforward, but it’s all in the balance: pork and chicken receive brown sugar, paprika and salt as the main components; beef gets ancho chile powder instead of brown sugar. For pork, it’s not just one cut. “We use the whole long shoulder, which is the picnic and the butt,” he says. The end result? A meatier texture, as opposed to just pulled pork that will likely fall apart and create a mushy mess on the plate or, in Queen City parlance, on your “sammich.”
Speaking of which, those are available in pork, brisket or chicken, with a choice of one “fixin,” for $10, or a quarter, half or full rack of ribs (St. Louis style, a squared-off cut) and “smok’d” sausage. The list of sides, or “fixins,” meets expectations with braised collards, buttermilk biscuits, a traditional mayo-based slaw and a cider vinegar-based slaw, along with corn muffins, burnt-end baked beans, hot fried onions and tater salad; the latter is an “orange” potato salad Grant grew up with—it’s his grandma’s. (The orange comes from paprika.) It’s typically served on a silver tray lined with butcher paper and the sides are piled around, making for a no-fuss presentation that, you guessed it, can be easily shared.
Collectively, the team behind Queen City has decades of experience in the restaurant business, but owning and operating one is a whole different challenge. It’s worth reminding that The Bayou, Grain, Cork and Cage (their beer store) and Queen City have all opened sequentially in less than three years. And there’s more on the way; while I was there, the team was also working on what I was calling a surf-and-turf sandwich (prime rib and lobster) for a new concept in Bethlehem on Elizabeth Avenue. There’s simply no down time.
Everyone has his particular role. Duarte and Taylor manage marketing and day-to-day operations. Grant, who’s worked across the Lehigh Valley, has been with the team for about a year and a half, and works as sort of a “corporate executive chef,” says Duarte, overseeing menu development at all destinations. Straub remains a whiz with beverages and an inspired presence, prone to waxing poetically about creating restaurant environments and menus. As for what’s in a name, Queen City BBQ reflects its location in Allentown but also hints at a larger conversation. “It’s our style, it’s what we bring to the tradition of barbecue. We didn’t want to be Texas, Kansas City, or Tennessee or Carolina,” says Straub. Ask him about the American flag wall with the restaurant’s logo on it, which has become a destination for a photo op in and of itself, Straub says.
In order to expand and grow, a company has to be a well-organized, well-oiled machine. When asked what he’s learned in the past couple of years of ownership, Duarte says, “Oh man, we are learning every single day.” More specifically, he’s learned how to delegate, and that includes hiring someone to manage the overall operation of the business, which has been a tremendous help. “I’ve also learned how to position employees and that I can’t do everything,” he says. At the end of the day, it takes a whole team of enthusiastic folks with different skill sets to keep things running smoothly, and, as Duarte says, “We have no interest in stopping.” When asked what’s next, they couldn’t share details just yet.
“We want to share ideas with people. We want to give people cool stuff that we ourselves would enjoy, too,” says Straub.
Queen City BBQ
27 N. 7th St., Allentown | 610.351.4072 | qcityq.com
Mon.–Thurs. & Sun. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
Street parking and several parking decks within walking distance.
Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Recommended. “Event nights seem to be on random days in Allentown, so it’s always for the best, although not always necessary. We always keep space open for walk-in traffic as well,” says Duarte.
What to Order
Dat Nacho, a signature take on nachos but with smoked meats and house-made potato chips (not tortilla chips); meat pierogi; the “ridiculous brisket” and anything on the smoked meats menu. The cocktails shine here, too—the Vanilla Almond Old Fashioned is a hit, along with the Peach Arnold Palmer and Smoked Dark and Stormy, with in-house smoked pineapple. Once the weather changes, you might be enticed to try one of Queen City’s eight “frosty drinks” (frozen margaritas, mocha lattes, sangrias and the tropical slushy, with Red Bull). Dessert is essential. The ice cream flights are seasonal, special and treated with thoughtful toppings, but the key lime tart with graham cracker crust topped with creamy whipped buttermilk is a must.
Happy Hour: Mon.–Fri. 4–7 p.m. Food and drink specials include wings, nachos and pork sandwich with house-made barbecue chips, $6; wines by the glass, signature cocktails, craft beers and more, $5–$7, with “More to come!” says Duarte.