(12/28/05) (02/05/06) (07/08/06)
Coincidentally, I had already planned a visit to Armadillo Depot on the very same day that it was mentioned in the Boston Globe as one of the places visited by Jim Leff of Chowhound.com on a food tasting trip. Leff called Armadillo Depot one of the best examples of Texas barbecue in the Northeast.
Diagonally across the street from Cactus Pete's, Armadillo Depot is serious competition and a nice alternative in style and atmosphere. Armadillo is a small (less than 20 seats), "chef-owned" (so says the sign) counter-service-only storefront joint that has no alcohol but allows BYOB. The educational signs on the wall above the counter describe the various meats and announce that this is Texas style barbecue, where the meats are dry rubbed only and not basted during the smoking process. There are also (good natured, I think) instructions not to ask about the limited parking.
My first visit to Armadillo Depot was for lunch. I ordered a ribs and pulled pork combo with chili as one of my sides, which I sampled first. The good news is that the meat in the chili was some very tender and tasty brisket. The bad news is that said brisket was immersed in a broth that tasted exactly like pizza sauce and nothing like chili.
The ribs and pork were generous portions, both served without sauce. The pork was tender, moist and flavorful, with lots of bark and noticeable smokiness. The ribs were pink and just tender enough, with a subtle sweetness and even more smoke flavor. These showed promise, but they would have impressed me more if they were a little hotter (my last one was cold) and if the abundant rub hadn't gotten a little pasty and soggy from condensation and reheating. I figured a nighttime visit would reveal whether or not this was just a lunchtime effect. The sauces—tangy, sweet and hot— were all good, though all were red, slightly ketchupy, and not all that different from each another. The cole slaw was excellent and the corn muffin was huge and fresh.
On my second visit, I went at night, specifically choosing the hour before the Super Bowl to maximize my chances of getting fresh ribs. Armadillo Depot abbreviated their Super Bowl menu, with no sides and only 3 meats to choose from: St Louis ribs, beef ribs and Buffalo wings. The soggy wings had a mysterious brown sauce that was slightly sweet and had no heat. Not bad, but they bore no resemblance to Buffalo wings. The St Louis pork ribs were pink and perfectly tender (still just a little firm), with a hint of juiciness. The outside had a lot of rub, but it was more of a sludgy ashen grit than the dry rubs I look for, and its bitter flavor dominated the rib. The rubbery beef ribs had a much better surface texture, not enough tenderness inside, and less flavor. Even though there was a short wait for preparation, all three meats were barely room temperature at the outset and downright cold midway through.
On my third visit, a Saturday lunch, I again tried the ribs and pulled pork. And again, the ribs had a good flavor but a sludgy, soggy exterior. Again, the pork was smoky, but this time not as moist and not as flavorful except for the bark. Cole slaw was again excellent, more from the perfectly thinly sliced cabbage than the condiment. Baked beans were pretty good, with a few pieces of meat and a tangy sauce.
The bottom line: Promising but just OK barbecue. With a few tweaks to their holding and reheating methods, Armadillo Depot could be excellent barbecue. I'd recommend it for takeout if you have time to do some reheating.
I like the fact that Armadillo Depot is a small, chef-owned place with BYOB and real barbecue. The meat, for me at least, just doesn't live up to Chowhound.com founder Jim Leff's claim that Armadillo Depot is one of the best Texas barbecue joints in the Northeast. Don’t get me wrong, I like Texas style barbecue, I just think I've had better elsewehere (Jake’s Boss in Jamaica Plain, MA, and Goody Cole’s in Exeter, NH, are among my favorites). I’ll grant though that Armadillo Depot is decent, real barbecue, and easily the best in Worcester.