Pizza, bagels, friendly shouting: these are a few of New York’s favorite things. BBQ, currently strong nationwide, has yet to find as secure a home in the five boroughs. That’s where Michael Brandl enters the scene: Queens-born and with pizza dough for bones, he has nonetheless chosen, via his Bushwick-based food truck Rib in a Cup, to peddle the food ways of the American South. Earlier this year, Brandl brought those eponymous ribs—plus pulled pork, fried chicken and various sides—to the busy intersection of Dekalb and Wyckoff.
Brandl’s grandfather ran a deli-slash-pizzeria in Long Island City, but Brandl’s father opted for a steady, benefits-rich union job as a Verizon line worker. Decades later, the son he raised on a dependable shop gig chose to follow his grandfather into the life of food and entrepreneurship, a decision the 34-year-old food vendor seems thoroughly at peace with.
As neat biographically as that is, his “aha” moment with BBQ was less picturesque.
“It was Firefly [music festival] in Delaware,” Brandl recalled. “We got back to New York after it was over and there was nothing open. We had a plastic package of ribs in my fridge, but no plates or utensils. I put them on the grill and threw them in cups. We started joking around, ‘Rib in a cup, rib in a cup!’ So it became this thing I did at backyard barbecues.”
In 2016, Brandl went into business for himself, serving BBQ cups at a food stand at the Long Island City Flea & Food, in the same neighborhood as his grandfather’s old deli. From there he gained enough traction to open spots in the Falchi building, also in LIC, and in Chelsea.
The New York City real estate market had other plans for Brandl’s budding business, however. Around 2018, both his Chelsea and LIC locations were torpedoed by newly hired building management firms with ideas that didn’t align with indoor markets, and he was out on his ear. He shifted to catering, working with a startup called Fooda, which provides lunch to white collar office workers. Then the COVID pandemic hit and Brandl was, once again, out of work.
“I was like, now what?” Brandl says.
Unable to work indoors, Brandl spread his wings and went mobile.
“I bought a truck from this Irish guy who had one in the back of his bar, got it for like $15,000,” said Brandl. “I had to clean it up and toss a bunch of stuff out, but I was able to custom-make the interior and exterior, which I painted myself.”
“My first day I was a little nervous. What do I do? Just drive somewhere and pull up and say, Hey guys, I got food?”
Rib in a Cup’s bill of fare has changed little since its market days. Headlining the carnal extravaganza are, of course, the ribs (full rack $18, half rack $10), with dark meat fried chicken and a kidney bean chili kicking up their tasty heels in the background. Any meat can also be stuffed into a brioche roll sandwich ($8) or set on a platter ($10), which comes with two sides (choices include mac n cheese, fries, green beans, cornbread, and chips).
There is one key difference: lidded to-go containers are used in lieu of cups these days, because it’s a little impractical schlepping a sticky meat chalice onto the subway. Cups will still be used at festivals, once those come back into being.
Brandl sits in his sauna of a food truck all day from Tuesday to Friday in Bushwick and, on Saturdays, he sets up shop at the Bronx Night Market in Fordham Plaza. Sunday is his sole day of true rest, with Monday set aside for shopping and repairs.
It may sound like a sweaty slog, but Brandl’s attitude— albeit, a few months into the experience—is upbeat.
“Some vendors think [food trucks] are a huge pain in the ass,” Brandl said “And yeah, I have another vehicle now, but as far as it goes, that’s the only annoyance. Working with the truck is great. I like the freedom to move, not have to be locked down to a brick and mortar, where in New York you’re paying a ton and you’re trapped.”
But coupled with the Sisyphean daily toil of finding parking (“A deli owner called the cops on me twice”), it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Brandl doesn’t harbor qualms about the path he’s taken. Lisa Fernandes, owner/chef of restaurant Sweet Chili and former food trucker, waxed decidedly unsentimental to me about her time as a mobile vendor. If there are misgivings, Brandl holds them close to the chest.
I asked Brandl about the prospect of serving beef briskets, and while doubtful about the feasibility of the idea, he didn’t rule it out. More certain is the prospect of adding tacos to his menu, which he says will likely replace the chicken & waffles currently on the menu. The “waffles,” by the way, are sculpted with his own mac n cheese; get them while supplies last.
Catch Rib in a Cup from Tuesday to Friday, 1pm – 9pm at Dekalb and Wyckoff and Saturday’s at the Bronx Night Market in Fordham Plaza. You’ll have to fend for yourself on Sundays.
Top photo credit: Matt Fink.
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