The upshot of global warming is that one early March evening in Brooklyn, the weather was so mild I was able to bike to a Finback Brewery beer dinner. My destination was Clinton Hill, a neighborhood awash with bodegas and brownstones, taquerias and pizzerias and coffee shops; and, in an apartment building’s basement, identified by a red awning touting fine foods and craft beer, Mekelburg’s.
Downstairs was a condensed constellation of gastronomic desire: swanky olive oils and scorching sauces, small-batch ice cream and a counter lavished with cheese and charcuterie. In the rear room, a lengthy bar—a reclaimed bowling alley lane—faced 16 taps leaning regional and local (among them, Connecticut’s Kent Falls and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Beer & Ale). I sat at a four-top and tucked into six courses of staggering ingenuity. Finback’s tea-infused saison snuggled up to sunchoke panna cotta stocked with sea urchin and lime. Fat crab cakes, finished with pomelo, partnered with hazy Crescent Fresh pale ale; goat cheese washed with Finback’s Red Shift sour served with pistachio cream and lemon curd. For dessert, coffee-infused imperial stout rode shotgun to texturally riotous s’mores—an almond marshmallow aside cacao nibs and graham cracker gelato.
Here’s what’s astounding: The team cooked dinner without a stove, in a cramped cranny behind the cheese counter. “We can’t boil water in our kitchen,” says Alicia Mekelburg, the meal’s maestro, who co-owns the shop with husband Daniel. “We have three convection ovens and a toaster on a conveyor belt.”
Triumphing over square footage is an old New York City tale—one that increasingly involves beer. Grand Central’s closet-sized, commuter-thrilling Beer Table shop; uptown’s Earl’s Beer and Cheese, serving Stillwater Artisanal saisons and grilled cheese in a cubby hole; and Brooklyn’s Keg & Lantern, a three-barrel brewery secreted below a sports bar, demonstrate that size doesn’t correlate to quality. Mekelburg’s does more with less.
In a windowless den impenetrable to cell service, Daniel, a boyish 39, and Alicia, 37, of Cuban-Sicilian heritage with long brown hair pulled back, have crossbred a curated provisionary with a primo beer bar, offering rarely repeated drafts of Hill Farmstead, Maine Beer and Off Color, and a kitchen that need not reach far for a Michelin star. Porchetta and Wagyu roast beef are roasted in-house; the barbecue shrimp po’ boy is New Orleans–level; the banh mi is freighted with double duck (rillettes and Peking), and the potato has been reinvented as a lust object—salt-baked crisp, gooey with raclette, festooned with sour cream and finished with double-smoked bacon. A creation inspired by a professional kitchen stint? Not quite. “We have zero restaurant experience outside of what we’ve done together,” Daniel says.
Food and beer never came first for the couple. New Jersey-born Daniel worked—and still works—in the family business his grandfather started in 1942: He bought Cracker Jack factory floor sweepings, selling salvaged prizes to Coney Island boardwalk amusements. This evolved into importing closeout novelty goods like candles, frames, plush toys and lawn decorations. “We watch episodes of ‘Hoarders,’ and Daniel’s like, ‘That’s mine,’” Alicia says. “This explains why there’s not a single tchotchke in our house.”
As for Alicia, a native New Yorker whose dad emigrated from Cuba by boat: She attended Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College for theater. The curriculum wasn’t quite the right fit, so she returned to NYC, passing exams to work on Wall Street. She met a man. Married her first husband in 2000. Daughter Karas was born. Then came September 11. “My mom said, ‘Come work with me,’” Alicia says. Her mother was a retail lifer, running discount shops specializing in bargain-priced name brands. “That’s when I learned retail,” says Alicia, who eventually joined her mom at Jack’s World and became a buyer.
At a Las Vegas tradeshow in 2003, Alicia (now single) met Daniel (who, incidentally, was not her first Mekelburg—their parents were business-friendly, and as a kid she slumbered atop stuffed animals in the Mekelburg’s showroom). Back home, dating proved difficult. “Having a three-year-old, you have very little nightlife,” Alicia says. “[Daniel] would come over with food and cook.” Fairly early in the relationship, Daniel moved in and was soon waylaid by a month-long ear infection. During his convalescence, “I bought two cookbooks and made everything in them,” he says, naming “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table” and “The Gift of Southern Cooking.”
Cooking became entertainment; the stage was their massive, rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment handed down from Alicia’s mom. “We had 17 windows,” she says, and access to uptown’s grocery holy trinity: Citarella, Fairway and Zabar’s.
Thursday nights saw 25 folks gather around a 12-foot circular slab, dining on fried quail and killer Mexican, recreated restaurant dishes and foods discovered during multiple cross-country road trips. (Flying terrifies Alicia.) Mealtime was well documented. “I posted our dinners online,” Daniel says.
That led to influential food forum eGullet, where a poster hired the couple to cook a friend’s birthday dinner. It was the pivotal point when the passionate amateurs became not-quite professional chefs. “The next day for my birthday, Alicia was like, ‘Here’s a website,’” Daniel says. “We have an argument about who named it.” It was NY Bite Club, their underground supper club, launched in 2006 and run from their apartment, friends’ residences and other locales.
While keeping their day jobs (and their identities secret from customers), the couple—married in 2009 in a white truffle–filled celebration in Italy—went whole-hog. Thursday nights they’d drive to Montreal, perhaps make a Dieu du Ciel visit, then head to the market in the morning, loading their trunk (spare tire removed) with milk-fed goat, naturally blue cheese and red hare. Back home, they’d prep into the night, then cook on Saturday and Sunday. And repeat everything the following weekend.
Early press from noted food writers Josh Ozersky (“The French Laundry of dinner clubs”) and Jason Perlow (“probably the best ‘restaurant’ meal I’ve had in a good while”) provided buzz and clientele. “Our five-year plan was to have a brownstone in Brooklyn and open the underground restaurant there,” Daniel says. After management at their Upper West Side building applied pressure to move (“We left when they made it worth our while,” Alicia says), they bought their Clinton Hill brownstone in 2009. There, Bite Club went off weekly, 32 guests at a time, drinks BYOB to mollify liquor laws, reservationist keeping the engine humming. “We were selling out in three to six minutes,” Daniel says.
By 2011, Alicia was working for Bed Bath & Beyond, creating in-store markets selling wine, beer and food. During a San Diego install, she visited Stone Brewing Co. and hung out with Bill Sysak, the brewery’s craft beer ambassador. “He was amazing,” Alicia says. “I knew wine. I didn’t really know beer. I didn’t really like beer. He told me to start drinking German beer, and I started drinking doppelbocks. Then I was like, ‘OK, I like beer.’”
Back home, she shared doppelbocks with Daniel, a wine guy whose early beer tastes veered toward Olde English. “[Schneider Weisse] Aventinus was the first beer where I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s incredible.’” They dropped deep into beer’s dizzying world of flavors and styles. 3 Floyds visits appended Daniel’s Chicago business trips, and he’d ship beer back to Brooklyn. “Whenever we do anything, that becomes part of our life,” Daniel says.
Life hiccupped when Alicia learned she’d need to open 30 new shops, each requiring a week of travel. She resolved to quit and find a permanent space for the couple’s culinary project. While strolling the neighborhood, maybe 150 steps from home, they noticed the basement space for rent. That was June of 2013. “By the end of the month, we had a 10-year lease,” Daniel says. (Alicia quit BB&B in late 2013.) They also had headaches: clearing up violations, installing sprinklers, changing the certificate of occupancy, setbacks that delayed the debut till last July—long enough to welcome their first son, Jax, a riff on his Jewish-Amish-Cuban-Sicilian heritage.
Their other baby quickly became a neighborhood anchor, a stop between work and home. “We like to go there hungry, which I can’t say about most places,” says Five Boro Craft Beer Fest founder Michael Rhyan. Locals pop in after work for dinner fixings paired with a quick pint, while parents bring kids to dine in the backyard or bar, where Karas’ anime-style artwork decorates walls. Beer fans commandeer the bar, tipping back Other Half’s Brett-fermented Topaz IPA or LIC Beer Project’s Ardent Core saison before grabbing to-go growlers or a try-before-you-buy meal.
“We give a taste of anything,” Alicia says. That might include numbing Sichuan peanuts, pork pistachio pate, speck or black cod that Alicia’s sister smokes and ships from Alaska, its journey ending atop a baked potato crowned with creme fraiche and caviar. Mekelburg’s sells upwards of 80 potatoes a day on weekends, when droves also devour Mek-muffins—brioche sandwiches bulging with frittata, cheddar and slab bacon. “When we get slammed with 45 tickets for the Mek-muffin, it gets hairy,” Alicia says, highlighting the confines of the space, where some customers don’t realize a bar lurks in back.
“We’re the mullet of businesses—business in the front, party in the back,” adds operations manager Jennifer Lee, who met Alicia at BB&B and—small world—was on NY Bite Club’s mailing list. Lee left corporate America for Mekelburg’s, where “coming to work isn’t a chore,” she says, adding that the staff has been instrumental. “We’ve been very lucky to find passionate, educated members who want to see this succeed as much as we do.” Employees include a Whole Foods beer buyer moonlighting as a bartender; a canner for Other Half; and an affineur from Crown Finish Caves, the lagering tunnel-turned-cheese-aging facility. “There’s such a great group of talented people in Brooklyn, and we can have them just work a night,” Daniel says.
Mekelburg’s continues to stitch itself into Clinton Hill’s fabric as a deliciously egalitarian meeting place for fans of Tired Hands’ HopHands pale ale, funky cheese and oysters roasted with sambal butter. It’s the couple’s home kitchen, where everybody’s welcome to pop by for a plate, pint or both. “We love when we’re walking down the street and hear people on their cellphones like, ‘I’m going to Mekelburg’s,’” Alicia says.