One of the things that pains us most about having left Brooklyn is the fact that the Gowanus restaurant, Pickle Shack, opened up just as we moved away.
Sure, sure—we miss our many close friends, the proximity to family, and the unmatched classic American gestalt of the city, but Pickle Shack is really really good.
From deep-fried hop pickles to an herbed cashew grilled cheese sandwich to vegan mac-and-cheese specials to the stellar hot smoked Carolina BBQ pulled oyster mushroom sandwich (honestly this BBQ-lover’s favorite take on that kind of sandwich yet), everything we’ve had at Pickle Shack has wildly impressed us and left us missing New York even more than we thought possible. Again, we miss you too, friends. But that BBQ sandwich. Shut up.
We were so impressed, we recently reached out to co-owner + chef, Neal Harden to chat about the origins of the restaurant, the inspiration behind the menu, and where he sees it going in the future.
“My partner is the founder and creator of Brooklyn Brine,” Harden told me on a call, “so he just always wanted to open a restaurant associated with it and I had been a working chef for years.”
Opened in late October of 2013 (a month before we set our sights westward) Pickle Shack is a partnership of longtime friends, Shamus Jones—founder of craft pickler Brooklyn Brine, whose factory is just around the corner—and Neal, the former chef at elder raw restaurant (and current NYC culinary controversy) Pure Food and Wine, and champions of all things IPA, Dogfish Head Brewery.
The restaurant’s menu is obviously pretty pickle- and craft beer-infused—both of which I’m all for—but, surprisingly, it’s also 100% vegetarian, leaning heavily towards vegan, featuring house-made nut-based vegan cheeses.
“Yeah, it’s pretty simple actually,” Harden told me, with regards to why the menu’s so vegan-/vegetarian-friendly. “Both me and Shamus, my partner, have been vegetarians since we were young punk rockers, so we just do what we do. We just want to make the food that we like. And I think that one of the unintended consequences that’s really interesting is that there’s a huge amount of people who really love drinking craft beer and eating vegetarian food because most of the choices you have at pubs and beer bar places, it’s all sausages…if you’re a vegetarian and love craft beer you can’t eat at those places. So I was totally amazed by the amount of people who have come in—I didn’t know that crowd was out there as much.”
When I told Harden how impressed we were that they didn’t just phone it in and bring in a packaged vegan cheese substitute, his response—”Well we wanted it to be good, you know? I mean, when we buy something like dairy or eggs, you know, it’s made by die-hards on the farm or whatnot so we want something that’s the same caliber; something special that’s made by hand, not just a throw-away.”
That dedication to quality hasn’t escaped attention. On every visit we’ve made, the place has been packed. And some major press outlets are taking notice too.
“I don’t know, I mean, I’ve been doing this vegetarian and vegan stuff all my life and I’m used to being ignored, especially by the main stream press,” Harden said with a laugh. “But pretty quickly on we got a review from The New Yorker magazine, which was a huge flattery, being just such a high-level magazine…we just got featured in the Michelin Guide. The response has been more than I ever expected,” he continued. “I always wanted us to feel welcome in the neighborhood, but I thought we’d be just sort of more of a quiet neighborhood joint, but yeah, it’s been great.”
And for the future? “Yeah, we have a lot of plans. It’s always been in the works to bottle the sauces we use. Because the pickle company, that’s not really what they do. They’re more focused on the pickles and they never really wanted to go into that. But now we have this new business and people have responded really well to our homemade ketchup and barbecue sauce and homemade mustard and stuff. And we want to figure out what the best things we make are and just have little smaller versions all over the place wherever the market deems it worthy.”
Neal also mentioned possible new locations and/or outlets that might carry some products down the road. As for the barbecue sauce that I so desperately fell in love with on my last visit, sadly, I could not procure that recipe, seeing as how they’ll hopefully be selling it bottled soon, but I did find out that its base was a house-made yellow mustard—”like our version of French’s”—adding cayenne, ancho chile, and “a lot of tomatoes”.
All the more reason to wait with drooling, bated breath the arrival of the Pickle Shack’s bottled sauces.
Pickle Shack is located at 256 4th Avenue in the Gowanus neighborhood of south Brooklyn and open from noon to 10PM every day except Friday + Saturday, when they close at 11PM.
Above, their deep-fried hop pickles; below, the restaurant’s pickle barreled facade, the pickled vegetable plate, some excellent-looking beers, and a mediocre shot I got of the pulled oyster mushroom BBQ sandwich. All non-mediocre photos by Johannes Kroemer.