When we look back at 2020, the restaurants that launched this year may have wildly divergent origin stories. For Uncle Steve’s House of BBQ in Roslyn, that tale might begin with “It was a dark and stormy night …”
That would be the night owner Matt Prince raced around the darkened roads of Roslyn in a Jeep Wrangler delivering brisket during Uncle Steve’s first night in business as a so-called ghost kitchen.
Prince’s other business at 1 Railroad Ave., Vienna of Roslyn, had been thriving when lockdown arrived in mid-March. In the bat of an eye, events hit a hard stop. After reassessing his choices — and as takeout and delivery gained steam as a survival tactic for other restaurants — Prince realized that what might be missing in his immediate surrounds was a delivery-focused barbecue spot. Around that time, a culinary consultant Prince had worked with, chef Matthew Birnbaum, reached out and asked, “What are we going to do with Vienna’s kitchen?”
This challenging and unusual year has lent momentum to ghost kitchens, a restaurant model focused primarily on pickup and delivery. While “ghost kitchen” is a mysterious term, it’s just one of many nicknames for a kitchen-within-a-kitchen that has no public-facing presence beyond a web page or delivery app. Some Long Islanders had their first exposure to ghost kitchens this spring when Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings suddenly appeared in their delivery apps; as it turned out, Pasqually’s was a sub-brand of Chuck E Cheese, and one that operated out of Chuck E. Cheese kitchens without any public tie to that company.
Prince, a career-long hospitality professional who had founded or overseen more than a dozen bar and restaurants, had never heard of the term. Yet it was unwittingly the model he adopted, installing smokers into Vienna’s kitchen to transform it into a barbecue spot with “a small menu, top meats and the best ingredients,” Prince said, as well as online ordering and delivery.
In early September, Uncle Steve’s House of BBQ was born, with Prince himself ferrying food to customers, mostly friends and family at first. “It was my 2020 version of a soft opening,” joked Prince, who drove orders around the area until midnight or so for the first few nights.
Brisket ($18), baby back ribs ($19 for a half-rack, $37 for a whole), smoked half chickens ($14), pulled pork ($14) and burnt ends ($21) forming the meaty crux of the menu, all overseen by Birnbaum, who has worked with chefs such as Bobby Flay and Jonathan Waxman during his career and once oversaw the commissary for the first Shake Shack. Birnbaum also grills smoked garlic and jalapeño-cheddar Meyer’s Elgin Sausage from Texas, and will soon add fried chicken; sides run the gamut from mac-and-cheese with a bacon crumble ($8), potato salad ($7), barbecue beans ($11), Tater tots ($5 to $9) and an iceberg wedge with a roasted garlic-yogurt dressing ($9). Cocktails to go, such as moonshine margaritas, are made with spirits from Kings County Distillery, and come batched ($28 to $49).
After it launched in September, Uncle Steve’s kicked up a lot of fuss in online foodie groups. Curbside delivery was added to ease the delivery burden; on Oct. 7, Uncle Steve’s will add a few outdoor tables, boosting it from ghost kitchen status to a hybrid model whose on-site identity is Uncle Steve’s Tavern. That in-person arm will open from Tuesday to Saturday for happy hour and dinner, said Prince. “Times may change. We are feeling out the town for what works best.”
Uncle Steve’s House of BBQ / Uncle Steve’s Tavern, 1 Railroad Ave., Roslyn. 516-621-5542. unclesstevesbbq.com