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At this barbecue speakeasy, the pitmaster is spilling some meaty secrets

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Holy Ground in New York City is far from your typical barbecue joint.{ }(Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - The house sauce recipe at Holy Ground is a closely guarded secret. It’s so classified that the barbecue restaurant’s pitmaster Franco Vlasic is the only one who knows how to make it. The sauce stems from his earliest forays into smoked meats, and after his dedicated efforts to perfect it, Vlasic is unwilling to share the ingredient list. Even his surrounding kitchen team of barbecue experts are left in the dark.

Walking into Holy Ground, you might feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a hidden secret of your own. A discreet entrance marks the subterranean spot, and upon entering, a dimly lit staircase leads you underground to the Prohibition-era-inspired den. With seductive red lighting, dark mahogany wood, and elegant leather booths, one thing is immediately clear; this is not your typical barbecue restaurant.

Before settling into the Tribeca ZIP code, Vlasic gained a devout following for his smoked meats first at Meatpacking District cultural hub Fort Gansevoort and then at his pop-up in the backyard of a Williamsburg church. Both spots were more in line with the typical backyard barbecue environment with which most people are familiar, though the quality of the meat itself stood out above the rest.

“From there, we ended up opening up this place, which is very much the opposite of the backyard of a church,” Vlasic said, gesturing at the vintage touches that give Holy Ground its old-school vibe.

“We didn’t really have too much of a plan other than just having fun, which, I think, as a starting point for where we’ve come as a brand and as collaborators with Holy Ground, was a pretty good goal,” said Nathan Lithgow, beverage director and partner.

Lithgow initially met Vlasic at New York University and later reunited with his college friend to team up on Holy Ground, combining his vast restaurant world experience with Vlasic’s savvy smoker skills. “Franco had never done food service before, so the first season [of the pop-ups], I let him treat that as sandbox-style training wheels,” Lithgow said.

“Obviously, this is a very different environment, and that was our main goal, to invert the imagery we were used to in the pop-ups to more of a traditional New York classic hospitality environment,” he continued.

Are you feeling inspired to up your own barbecue game? Though the house sauce recipe remains tightly under wraps, Vlasic and Lithgow were happy to share some of their other secrets for smoked meats and savory sides.

Stop looking at the clock.

“The most important part with cooking any meat is really to not pay attention to time, which is something I feel like a lot of people make a mistake of,” said Vlasic.

All of the protein at Holy Ground is cooked at 230 degrees in the smoker, and the entire team is trained to be experts in knowing when a given piece is finished cooking.

“With ribs, it’s more about the feel and being able to see when they’re done,” he said. Using tongs to hold up the restaurant’s St. Louis cut spareribs, Vlasic demonstrated how they should nearly fold in half without breaking.

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But for most everything else? Use a thermometer. Once your meat reaches the appropriate temperature, regardless of how many minutes have passed on the clock, it’s time to take it off.

Speaking of St. Louis cut spareribs, that uniform shape is about more than just aesthetics.

With the St. Louis style, the cartilage end is cut off, giving them the satisfying well-known rectangular shape. And while it’s certainly pretty to look at it, it also serves a functional purpose. “If the piece of meat you’re cooking is pretty even all-around, it’s going to cook more evenly,” explained Vlasic.

If you’re seeking decadence, go for the beef ribs.

Though each cut of meat at Holy Ground has earned its place on the menu, the beef ribs are by far the most popular dish with diners.

“Beef ribs are extremely fatty and extremely flavorful, so you get this super-soft, moist bite every time,” said Vlasic.

The beef ribs at Holy Ground are slow-cooked in the smoker and then sliced off the bone. The thoroughly cleaned bone is then plated, and thick pieces of the meat are arranged on top of it. After giving it a touch of sauce, Vlasic uses a torch to add an element of caramelization.

Vlasic is only slightly more transparent about the house rub than he is about the secret sauce. “The house rub has some brown sugar in it. The sauce also has a bunch of different, you know, special things that all caramelize,” he said, staying purposefully vague in his description.

The wood matters.

To achieve optimal flavor when smoking meat, you’ll need to use high-quality wood.

Holy Ground sources their wood from a farm in New Jersey. “It’s nicely seasoned, not kiln-dried. Kiln-dried wood really doesn’t give any flavor,” Vlasic said.

“We learned that the hard way,” he added.

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At the outdoor pop-ups, Holy Ground cooked all of their meat in a log-burning smoker. But after moving to their underground Tribeca location, they had to find a replacement suitable for the indoor kitchen. For this reason, the smoker is a gas unit with a box for wood chunks; an internal torch ignites the wood pieces to provide the meat with its flavor.

When it comes to sides, think fresh, not fatty.

You won’t find classic barbecue sides like baked beans or a mayo-drenched coleslaw on Holy Ground’s menu.

“Our whole principle for the vegetable element of Holy Ground food is really acid-forward, brightness, and freshness, which is not typical when you think about barbecue accompaniments,” explained Lithgow.

Take, for example, their summer apple salad.

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It came from a headspace of coleslaw, but rather than drowning the side in the heaviness of mayonnaise, Lithgow considered a different flavor profile that would better complement their meats. It starts with sliced Granny Smith apples and then calls upon fennel as the primary vegetable, rather than shredded cabbage.

“We do a green goddess dressing with some garlic confit, almonds, pistachios, and fennel fronds, which is very herbaceous and bright,” Lithgow said. He then recommends using lime, both zest and juice, to emphasize the freshness.

Lithgow adds mint to the salad as well, the leaves torn into bite-size pieces. “Mint, I think, is great torn, because you get a little bit of a surprise on the palate,” he said.

While Lithgow admits that they don’t get a ton of vegan diners, he intends for the vegan-style sides to add to the play they’re making on barbecue cuisine.

And finally, keep the plating clean but your hands messy.

Each dish at Holy Ground is artfully plated, matching the stylish ambiance while also falling more in line with what you’d expect at a classic New York City steakhouse than at a barbecue restaurant.

“It’s not a counter service, stand-in-a-line barbecue place,” said Vlasic. “All the food is brought to your table and served in a really beautiful way.”

If you’re cooking up barbecue at home, you might give their plating style a try, because who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a carefully plated meal? But no matter how dazzling the dish looks, barbecue is still meant to be messy.

“We definitely encourage people to use their hands,” Lithgow said.

“The first six months, we saw a lot of forks and knives in ribs, which, you know, you can’t really correct people for it,” he said. “We just send over some Wet-Naps in a little bit of a classy vessel and hope the message is communicated.”