On New Year’s Day, Franco Robazetti got into his car in New Jersey and went on a barbecue pilgrimage. Two weeks, 17 states, and 3,652 miles later, he’d eaten his way through several southern states and back.
Robazetti is executive chef at Zeppelin Hall Biergarten & Barbecue, a German-style beer garden in Jersey City that added “barbecue” to its name just two months ago, so the trip was all in the good name of research. And it’s no stretch to associate barbecue with German tradition.
German immigrants found their way to Texas in the 1800s, where they settled and butchered cattle. “They worked with whatever they had—cheap cuts of brisket,” Robazetti said. “These guys started to do what they knew. They smoked the meat to preserve and tenderize it.”
In Austin, Texas, the furthest west he traveled, Robazetti made a stop at the legendary Franklin Barbecue. He arrived three hours before opening time; 60 diners were already waiting in line.
Robazetti brought renowned pitmaster Aaron Franklin the gift of a knife, as a sign of his respect. “[Franklin] showed me his smokers, and they cook 100 percent with wood. We talked about meat, how every piece of meat is different.” It’s not only the particular piece, but also the particular day’s humidity, the wood, and many other factors that make barbecue both a science and an art.
When he finally bit into the legendary Franklin brisket, he found it “amazing, amazing, amazing.”
Through his travels in the South, Robazetti went from pitmaster to pitmaster, asking about the barbecue secrets from each one. They were more than happy to share their knowledge with him. “People from down South are real nice,” he said. “It’s not a competition.”
For Robazetti, who has cooked at high-end steakhouses where dry-aged New York strips are ordered medium-rare, seared, and broiled at high temperatures, the slow-and-low cooking of cuts like brisket was completely different.
“It opened up a whole universe. I love it,” he said. “I realized barbecue is a lifestyle. People that do barbecue—that’s what they do on the weekends, with trailers, smokers. It’s not even commercial, it’s just for fun. In South Carolina, some guy told me, ‘I don’t cook pork unless I see it walking around.'”
At Zeppelin Hall, he’s brought back the techniques and dishes he learned from the regional styles, including Memphis-style whole smoked chicken wings ($9.95), which are impossibly crispy and incredibly moist at the same time. The secret? Don’t cut the wings. And there’s the (dry) rub: Robazetti’s own semi-secret mixture of spices that includes thyme. It’s good enough to want to lick it off your fingers.
With its conversion to barbecue, the restaurant acquired a Southern Pride smoker, with post oak or cherry fed into it to create the gentle, steady “blue smoke” that infuses the meat with smoky flavor. Knowing it was essential to use excellent quality meats, Robazetti switched all his meat sourcing to Pat LaFrieda.
That quality is seen in other regional specialties now featured on the menu: Nashville-style spare pork ribs ($11.95); giant beef ribs in the style of Lockhart, Texas, smoked for over 6 hours ($11.95); smoked Texas-style beef brisket ($13.95). There’s even Gulf shrimp “barbecue,” served with a spicy rub over jambalaya and a grilled Hurricane lemon. And so you can judge for yourself the merits of tomato-based South Carolina versus vinegar-based North Carolina barbecue if you order a plate of pulled pork, featuring both styles of meat ($12.95).
Whereas down South you can get into fist fights over barbecue, Robazetti is easygoing. At Zeppelin Hall, there’s a sauce station where you can customize your platter, with add-ons like “Swine Wine,” a Texas-inspired barbecue sauce made with apple cider or “Carolina Gold,” a mustard-base sauce that’s nicely balanced—not too punchy.
Home at the Beer Garden
The gist at Zeppelin Hall is simple. Put an order at the kitchen window, perhaps grab a beer from the bar while you wait for your order (there are 144 draft beers on tap), and find a seat at one of the long communal tables.
In warm weather, with its outdoor patio space and trees, Zeppelin comes alive. “If you don’t want to be in the sun, you come inside. This is like your house. Nobody bothers you,” Robazetti said.
The atmosphere is low-key, and a look around reveals groups deep in conversation. Some groups even bring board games; amazingly, on my recent visit, no smartphones were spotted in the open.
“You’re hungry, you go to the kitchen. Thirsty? Go to the bar. But you don’t have to wash the dishes,” Robazetti said.
Aside from barbecue, there is German fare, but Robazetti and director of operations John Argento like to keep guests on their feet with new events every so often, like the Some Like It Hot Food Festival, The Whole Hog Festival, and the Chili Cook-Off.
The most popular is BACONFEST (running through April 30), with rather outrageous perennial offerings such as the
, with a towering Jenga-like stack of 50 bacon strips ($14.95). It’s the ultimate dream BLT.
A standout is the Bacon World Tour Monster, a sandwich filled with 10 different types of bacon—smoked pork belly, black forest bacon, Irish bacon, beef bacon, pancetta, speck turkey bacon, jowl bacon, Canadian bacon, and Tocineta Cascabel—each bringing its particular flavor to savor ($25.95). It’s served with a side of bacon fries.
Then there’s the 3-pound Tomahawk Rib-eye from Pat LaFrieda, wrapped in about 2 pounds of applewood-smoked bacon ($59). And it’s mighty tempting to order a giant bacon-wrapped pretzel practically the size of a hula hoop, even just for the bragging rights.
It’s enough to make a bacon fan weep.
Robazetti makes his own bacon, and when it comes to cooking it, he bakes it between two pans to create perfect, crispy, flat strips as addictive as potato chips. It’s dangerous territory—plus, free bacon strips are available at the bar during happy hour.
This year, Robazetti is introducing seafood dishes with bacon. There are huge Oysters Rockefeller with, of course, bacon ($11.95). And there’s paella, bright yellow and redolent of saffron, with shrimp, mussels—and all around the sides, like sentries, strips of bacon whose porkiness propels the paella way beyond comfort food status ($39.95). It easily serves two to three people without sides. Robazetti is half-Spanish and fondly remembers when his mother would cook paella at home on Saturdays.
Zeppelin Hall often has live music on Fridays and Saturdays, with country music from bands like Brian Clayton and the Green River Band and Jake’s Country Band.
For New Yorkers, it’s a quick PATH train ride to Grove Street station and then a short walk—and the (short) out-of-state trip is well worth it for affordable prices, ample elbow room, and Robazetti’s dishes.
Free parking is also available, and there is no cover charge.
Zeppelin Hall Biergarten & Barbecue
88 Liberty View Drive
Jersey City, NJ
4 p.m.–2 a.m.
Saturday & Sunday
Children are welcome until 9 p.m.