Archive - January 2011
Worcester BBQ: A Return to Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Last Friday after work I made it back to Smokestack Urban Barbecue (Worcester MA) for my first visit since reviewing them last summer. Back in September, I called Smokestack "an otherwise above average restaurant with below average barbecue." Their recent introduction of $3 appetizer buckets between 4:30 and 6:30 seemed to be the perfect platform from which to stick a toe in the water, so to speak: a low cost opportunity to aim to their strengths while also seeing if the 'cue progressed. If things worked out well, it would be easy to keep going. If not, no biggie. Things worked out surprisingy well. Here's the run-down:
Habanero Wings: Aside from this one being a complete misnomer, it was a fine start to the sampling. First, the downside: not only wasn't there enough habanero to make these dangerously spicy, there wasn't enough habanero to even challenge a toddler. But there was still plenty of flavor all around. Smoke stood out prominently, leaving no doubt as to how the wings were cooked. The light coating of sauce added a nice hint of honey that complemented the smokiness perfectly without interfering with the crispness of the exterior. And, just like in Smokestack's earliest days, the "chickininess" was back in full force. A barbecue buddy and I were in full agreement that a second bucket was warranted, and that one also passed with flying colors. I wasn't counting, but I think you get six wing pieces or three full wings for the $3.
Sliders: I liked the idea of this interesting mix of pork and brisket even before the plate arrived, because it's an item that's not on the regular menu. That means the $3 sliders plate, which probably gets ordered more than the full priced pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, is generating product turnover that's potentially improving the freshness of main menu fare. Beyond that, there was some welcome flavor in the meat, an upgrade over what I tasted previously. Although not smoky like the wings, the pork and brisket did have a smoked meat taste that was kicked up ever so slightly by a reasonable application of sauce. The mini brioche buns were fresh tasting and a nice medium for the meat. I'd recommend that they also add their apple slaw (probably my favorite item on the menu), but at $1 per slider, this was a good value and surprisingly good on its own merit.
Fish tacos: One of the most popular menu items, the catfish tacos also arrived three per plate for the $3. These are battered and fried (odd for a taco) and dressed with light vegetation and a tangy, creamy chipotle aioli. The fish pieces were small, but thick enough so that they didn't get overcooked or overwhelmed by batter, and the overall arrangement of flavors worked.
Fried pickles: This echoed my previous experience, with a delicately light, crisp batter and little if any seasoning. This was nicely remedied by the accompanying ramekin of "special sauce" that may have been the same as the chipotle aioli, but seemed smoother and tangier.
BBQ potato chips with bleu cheese bacon dip: This dish wasn't one of the $3 bar specials, but we ordered it anyway because it's the perfect bar snack. The chips didn't have as much rub on them as I remembered, but they were fresh and crisp. The bacon/bleu dip was exactly as I remembered, and that's good: a sharp, creamy, smoky, chewy mix that I still say would go great over a burger.
Outlook: Overall, things were good. Admittedly, this was a small sampling with low difficulty and heavy reliance on the fryolator, so I'm not going to get too excited (barbecuewise, that is) just yet. But the two smoked items did acquit themselves nicely and represent significant improvement, so I'm buoyed. And genuinely looking forward to the next dip into the water.
Coincidentally, TV Diner happened to air a review of Smokestack Urban Barbecue last Saturday, the morning after my visit. I'm not as impressed by TV Diner's bestowing of the Gold Plate—the next best thing to the Platinum Plate—as I am by their visuals of the 'cue, which also show some improvement over what I was served last summer. Granted, these were posed shots knowingly prepared for the cameras, but at they showed potential and built upon my optimism.
View the TV Diner review of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Providence, Not BBQ: Harry's Bar and Burger Reviewed
Here's the latest of my occasional departures from my usual review of barbecue joints throughout New England and New York. It's also a departure from my usual thick, medium rare pub style burger, but what a departure it was at Harry's Bar and Burger (Providence RI).
See my review of Harry's Bar and Burger
In A Burger Groove
I've had a couple of notable burgers lately that stand a good chance of making their way into a review. Two weekends ago, I really enjoyed the $21 steak-like beast at Boston's Back Bay Social Club. Then last weekend in Providence, Harry's Bar and Burger blew me away with a pair of double-stacked sliders for $7. These are two completely different burgers at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, and both are fantastic.
Joints Directory Madness
Here's the latest batch of barbecue Joints directory activity, spanning four states. This time there are three new joints, three closings, one joint that's back in the directory because of a menu change, and one joint that suspended its barbecue service temporarily.
The Country Diner (Enfield CT) is an all-purpose Southern style eatery with beef and pork ribs, an assortment of burgers and sandwiches, a full breakfast menu, comfort foods like fried chicken and pork chops, pasta and a few other things I've already forgotten. Thanks to Dan for the lead. www.thecountrydiner.com
New England BBQ (Canton MA) is the new home of the award winning competition cooks that previously manned the pits at Red Rose Cafe in Weymouth. It started as a BBQ supplies shop and catering outfit only, but they began serving lunch (takeout only) last week. Thanks to Ling for the info. www.bbqnewengland.com
Mason Jar (Mahwah NJ) is a New Jersey barbecue addition that's already been around for more than 30 years but it under new ownership. The menu features barbecue, burgers, pizza and a brunch buffet. Thanks to Robert for the lead. www.masonjar.com
Jessie's Roadhouse (Merrick NY) is an on-again, off-again joint that was on again, but is now off-again, apparently choosing to go with a different concept. Thanks to Fred for the tip.
Canz (Astoria NY and Westbury NY; also known as Canz a Citi Roadhouse) recently brought ribs back onto the menu, once again qualifying them for inclusion in the directory (the pulled pork sandwich has remained a staple throughout their run). The best bet may still be the more-than-respectable wings, but with servers like theirs I'd be looking forward to returning even if all they served was salad. www.canzusa.com
Some Free Advice to BBQ Restaurateurs permalink
1. Start slowly. I know you love the 13 appetizers, 27 entrees and 12 sides you conceived as if they're your children, and you don't want to leave any of them off your menu when you open for business. But treat them as children another way by not trying to give birth to them all on the same day. When you've mastered a core menu, maybe you can branch out and add a new item or two every week. It'll ensure higher quality and give even the most positive customers a reason to come back sooner than they would otherwise.
2. Don't just buy the smallest, cheapest smoker you can find, or your barbecue will suck. Okay, so maybe it won't suck, but if you buy a Cookshack, it'll stand a good chance of being a notch below what comes out of a Southern Pride, Ole Hickory or J&R. At least do yourself (and your business) the favor of tasting barbecue at different joints produced by different smokers, and if you believe smaller and cheaper is the way to go, you've done your due dilligence.
3. Use an answering machine and have a recorded message on it. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it should at least state the name of your restaurant, with operating hours a bonus. Believe it or not, potential customers will call you during off hours to make sure you still exist or to see if you are open on Sundays.
4. List your hours on your website. You can reduce those off-hours calls by simply declaring when you're open on your website. For those of you who say you can't update this information because you have a web guru who charges $75 per hour to make the change, I say hogwash. You might not be technically savvy enough to create your website, but you should be able to change "11:30" to "12:00" fairly easily. Rather than lumping "Tuesday through Thursday" and "Friday and Saturday" together with common stated hours, have your web guru list every day separately, so you can make changes without having to worry about adding a new line.
5. Use Facebook. I know many restaurants are on Facebook, but how many use Facebook? Some of the restaurants I've friended or liked haven't posted a thing since the summer of 2009. Others go through long stretches of posting nothing, then on a snowy day dust off the "Come on in, it's warm in here!" chestnut. The masters of Facebook have figured out that by announcing entertainment ("Right here on our stage... The Meatles!"), food specials ("Today's guest chili is serrano elk stew!"), pricing specials ("Mullet Mondays! Mullets eat free!") or other enticements ("Tank Top Tuesdays! Come see Brianna!"), they're doing something much cheaper and easier than drumming up new customers: they're getting more repeat business from their existing customers. Note that exclamation points are not required but seem to be the general practice. And adding "Woot woot!" at the end of your Facebook post seems to somehow add some hipster cred.
6. In your website or Facebook photo gallery, show pics of the food, not the drunks, fatties and hotties who frequent your place. Okay, maybe keep the hotties. But show the food too. You're not ashamed of your own food, are you?
7. Selling T shirts is cool. Selling them for $20 or more is not cool. I guess it all depends on whether you want to treat T shirts as a profit center or as a break-even proposition that ups your cool quotient and effectively gets you free advertising. For a juggernaut like Redbones (Boston) or Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (NYC), the first approach makes sense. If you're struggling to make a name for yourself, stick with the groundswell approach.
8. Rethink your "no substitutions" policy. Yes, I know the organic vegetables cost a lot more than the dirty rice. And yes, I know substituting tater tots for the cous cous compromises your chef's artistic vision. But regardless of facts, logic and artistry, many customers will just think you're an asshole. And many customers will ask if they can substitute anyway (even if you change "no substitutions" to "No substitutions under no circumstances ever ever ever" [which makes you look like even more of an asshole]). The money you save by restricting your customers to the el cheapo sides is lost—and then some—by the wasted energy your servers will have to go through explaining your policy, asking a manager to overrule your policy, explaining why your manager didn't overrule your policy, etc. And by losing customers unhappy with your policy. And even by the customers at the next table, who had no problem with no substitutions and never thought you were an asshole—instead, they'll simply think the service sucked, because their server was too tied up and never got around to their table.
9. Don't badmouth your competition. It makes you look petty. Most towns are big enough to support both you and your top competitor, so there's no need to take the low road.
10. Taste your food and taste it often. Taste your competition's food too. But don't compare the two unless you're tasting under the same conditions. Sure, your brisket right out of the smoker is going to taste a hundred times better than someone else's reheated brisket that sat sealed in a container on a counter ten minutes, in your car another ten minutes and on your own table another five minutes before you finally dug in. Ever wonder how your own stuff fares after it's been reheated and sitting? You ought to.
Boston BBQ: Blackstrap BBQ Reviewed
The site's 204th barbecue joint review is now posted for the upstart Blackstrap BBQ (Winthrop MA). I have a feeling that this joint near the airport is one that you'll be hearing a lot more about as time goes on. Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
I often get emails from website management types looking for a link exchange. Usually the text of the message is so generic and the content of the website is so unrelated to barbecue (or even food) that I just dismiss it as SPAM. But recently I received an interesting email from a food blogger who seemed more legitimate.
The sender identified herself and her food blog, complimented me on my site (standard practice among the link swapping set, so I didn''t get too excited) and asked not only about swapping links but an opportunity to do a guest post on my site.
I'm a little wary about allowing guest posts from someone I've never even met in the virtual sense, never mind in person (and there's been mixed reaction to the few guest posts I've featured for remote joints I'm unlikely to get to). But I kept an open mind and sent a follow-up email asking about her where she's from and where on the cook-in/dine-out spectrum she was barbecue-wise. It's been a month now and I've received no reply, even after a few follow-ups. Odd, because her website looked promising and seemed like it's done by someone with a genuine interest in food (though not barbecue), not some realty company or generic food resource site. My guess is that this was someone who sent emails to several hundred similar blogs and websites, figuring a few dozen of them would just be so thrilled to get a new link that they'd add hers. I wasn't. Chances are, her veggies-mimosas-and-cupcakes set probably wouldn't click on a link to this site even if it were there.
This is a pet peeve of mine and a multi-tiered one at that. First off, swapping links shouldn't be tantamount to a ransom-for-hostages exchange, where each side insists the other links first. If you're the one asking for the reciprocal link, you should be the one to link to me first as a sign of good faith. Secondly, links should be based on merit, not reciprocity or friendship. If you like my site, link to me. If I like your site, I'll link to you, whether you link to me or not and whether I like you or not. If I ask for a reciprocal link and you turn me down, that's fine; I won't withdraw my link to you.
New Hampshire BBQ: Hill's Top BBQ Reviewed
The site's 203rd barbecue joint review is now posted for Hill's Top BBQ (Bartlett NH). Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Boston BBQ ('Burbs): A Visit to Firefly's For All You Can Eat Ribs, Night 1
Having an all-you-can-eat special return was good news. Having it return on a Thursday instead of a Monday was better news. But what I didn't find out until I arrived for night 1 all-you-can-eat ribs and chicken at Firefly's (Framingham MA) was the best news of all. Full cut spare ribs are back, only for the all-you-can-eat nights, according to owner Steve Uliss. They're longer and thicker than the trimmed St Louis cut. The trade-off is that there's a little more fat, but it brings much more juiciness. On my plate the ribs were served with the rib tips cut off the end and placed on top of the would-be St Louis cut. The other good news was that because this cut is a Thursday nights only affair, they're smoked that day and served without having seen a refrigerator. www.fireflysbbq.com
Maine BBQ: Buck's Naked Review Updated
I finally posted an updated review for Buck's Naked (Freeport ME) that incorporates my two follow-up visits to their newer location.
Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Worcester BBQ: Firewood Cafe Follow-Up
Last week I made my third visit to Firewood Cafe (Worcester MA) for a quick pulled pork sammy. It's definitely smoked, with the impact of the rub and smoking effects inside the meat more obvious than the smoke itself. Also obvious was that it really tastes like a reheat, with a corresponding rubbery texture. The sauce is more mainstream (darker, sweeter, thicker) than the tangy-vinegary original version. The best part is the super fresh bread that gets crisped in the brick oven.
The pizzas passing by again looked good, even better looking than the good slice I had two days after they opened. Firewood Cafe no longer offers slices; ribs are still not in their immediate future and don't seem like a priority. To borrow a phrase from the Bill Parcells coaching tree, it is what it is. And that would be a pizza place that happens to have a few smoked items on the menu but may never have ribs. While I'm unenthused about the pulled pork, I do recommend the pizza.
New Hampshire BBQ: Moat Mountain Reviewed
The site's 202nd barbecue joint review is now posted for Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing Company (North Conway NH). Of all the barbecue joints I've visited for the first time, Moat Mountain Smokehouse might have been the one non-NYC joint that I'd heard the most feedback on from readers and friends. Opinion was varied in terms of degree, but the general consensus in a nutshell was good beer, lousy 'cue. I went with an open mind.
Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Boston BBQ ('Burbs): A Visit to Stevie's Eatery
I had last Monday off and an errand nearby, so I stopped into Stevie's Eatery (Marlborough MA) for lunch. Now this happened to be my third visit, but only my first documented one. I didn't have my camera on the first visit and the second visit's photos are still trapped on my dead USB drive.
Stevie's is an over-the-counter operation with a few tables and a row of chairs along an L-shaped counter that runs the length of a side wall and the front windows. There's a TV in the corner, a recent addition. One of the first things that'll catch your eye is that all of the staff—from owner to kitchen crew to counter crew—sport chef's jackets. "It looks professional," according to owner/namesake Stephen Dembro. It's probably also a good esteem builder for the culinary students that make up the team. The white jackets spotted on my first two visits have been replaced by black ones, because the white ones were spotted a little too easily by stain happy meats and sauces.
Here's a run-down of what I tried:
Ribs: Babybacks and spares are both on offer, available wet or dry, so I went with a third-rack of the unsauced spares ($9.99, with one side plus cornbread). The full cut ribs presented a meaty display, with one of the bones extra bountiful. Each bore a light crust, the result of both slow smoking and a finish on high heat. Rub was both light and tame but at least noticeable; smoke level ditto; pink coloring was nonexistent. Texture was fine moisturewise, with pork fat slowly trickling out of the crevices. Doneness was fine too, but there was a slight rubberiness from the cooking and reheating. Flavor was subtle, so although not required as a moistening agent, the sauces on the side gave them a little oomph.
Wings: As it turned out, wings were in their first week on the menu. My instant "Are they smoked?" inquiry drew a positive response, so I pulled the trigger and ordered a batch ($5.50 for 5 whole wings), downing two wings myself and sharing the rest with customers who happened to be at a neighboring table. I ordered the wings sauced and they arrived with a light coating. The skin was nearly crisp, but not quite. Under the semi-rubbery veil lay some tender, juicy meat, again with a mild smoke but with a little more overall flavor than the ribs. The heat and moisture from the sauce made the wings enjoyable despite low rub/smoke levels and a little too much tomato in the sauce.
Sauces: None are on offer tableside, but two sauces are available to be cooked onto the meats or served on the side. Regular and hot are similar in both color (really close to ketchup), texture/viscosity (really close to ketchup) and flavor (really close to ketchup, with faint notes of molasses, maple and vinegar). The hot version has a little more heat but is not challenging. I'd like to see a little more variety and diversity here.
Sides: Cole slaw was crisp, crunchy cabbage mixed with a thin but creamy dressing that had some tartness and pepperiness; the mixing must have been recent. Small, al dente beans sat meatless in a concoction similar to the barbecue sauces with some interesting heat; the tomato flavor prevailed. Cornbread was Twinkie-like. I should mention that the mac and cheese is the so-called specialty of the house (it gets top billing on the menu), but is only available as a full order, not as a side. I'll try this when I'm with an extra person or two.
Dembro is not only aware of the low seasoning levels but takes pride in the fact that there's no salt in the rub. "We're not trying to blow you away with heavy smoke and we're not trying to get you to eat too much salt. I want you to taste the meat."
Boston BBQ ('Burbs): All You Can Eat Ribs Are Back at Firefly's, Thursdays
The all-you-can-eat ribs and chicken deal that was a Monday night staple years ago has returned to Firefly's (Marlborough MA, Framingham MA, Quincy MA), but now on Thursday nights, starting tonight. It's $16.99 with two sides included. www.fireflysbbq.com
Long Island BBQ: All You Can Eat BBQ at Swingbelly's, Sundays
Another all-you-can-eat deal has surfaced recently at Swingbelly's (Long Beach NY), who on Sundays during NFL football features all-you-can-eat ribs, chicken, pork, brisket and turkey with all-you-can-eat cornbread and sides for $19.99. Swingbelly's all-you-can-eat wings deal ($9.99, Mondays) and $1 rib deal (Thursdays) are also still in effect. www.swingbellysbbq.com
Worcester BBQ: All You Can Eat BBQ Buffet at Smokestack Urban Barbecue, Sunday Nights
An existing all-you-can-eat deal is switching hours at Smokestack Urban Barbecue (Worcester MA), whose new winter hours have eliminated Sunday brunch service. Their all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet ($14.95) will simply be pushed back to their new Sunday opening time of 4:30. www.bbqstack.com
(01/05/11) (second post)
Now that Bert Blyleven finally (and in my view, incorrectly) made Baseball's Hall of Fame today, maybe it's time I rethink my stance on New York City's Blue Smoke, the pivotal barbecue joint I called "the Bert Blyleven of Barbecue" in my 2006 review. Or maybe it's not time just yet. I liked Bert Blyleven as a pitcher and I like Blue Smoke as a restaurant, but both simply have too many contemporaries that are superior to be worthy of Hall of Fame status.
Blyleven was good but Seaver was great. Carlton was great. Palmer was great. Marichal was great. Ryan was great, even if his record was only good. Hunter and Jenkins were very good. Maybe I'm being a homer, but I think Tiant was very good and for two brief stints was great. Blyleven was merely good.
So am I bringing all of this up just as a convenient excuse to beat up on Blue Smoke? On the contrary. Even though I can rattle off some easy names (RUB, Hill Country, Wildwood, Fette Sau, Dinosaur, Daisy May's), a few surprising or less familiar names (Rack 'n' Soul, Virgil's, Waterfront Ale House) and one arguably out-of-category name (Fatty Cue) as ranking ahead of Blue Smoke in my New York City BBQ pecking order, I've always considered Blue Smoke to be good. Their beef ribs are among my favorites, their cole slaw topped my favorites list of a few years ago, their burger is solid and their pork belly appetizer is well worth a look.
It wasn't until his 14th time on the ballot that Blyleven made it into the Hall, so obviously there had to be a shift of opinion among the voting body. And likewise, I'll keep an open mind on Blue Smoke, who's still, as I also say in that review, "worthy of a spot in your rotation."
Massachusetts BBQ: Pete's BBQ Pit Reviewed
The site's 201st barbecue joint review is now posted for Pete's BBQ Pit (Dracut MA). Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Massachusetts BBQ: CnD's Reviewed
The site's 200th barbecue joint review is now posted for CnD's Barbeque Grille (Wakefield MA). I was tempted to save a more "important" barbecue joint for such a milestone review, but CnD's just happens to be the 200th, with no fanfare. For those who think I go a little too easy on the barbecue joints in my reviews, this one might be worth a look. Check out the review via the Reviews page, the link above or link to reviews using the red icons in the Joints directory.
Boston BBQ: Hoppin' John at Redbones, Through Tomorrow
Redbones (Somerville MA) once again has Hoppin' John back for the holidays. No, I'm not talking about a band or a person; Hoppin' John is the classic Southern dish of rice and black-eyed peas. Southern tradition says eating Hoppin' John on January 1 brings good luck and prosperity in the New Year, so give this classic a try, available now through January 2. www.redbones.com
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