Review Date: 09/30/16
Visit Dates: (09/08/16)
Located just outside Albany, just off I-87 and just around the corner from the airport, Bull & Barrel is a long building with a bar area to the left and a well separated dining room to the right. The bar has tables against the wall and a lone roomy booth. Down the hall is a smaller dining room that's a little more subdued. The decor at both ends is fairly simple, with a few old west touches (like a wagon wheel), but the prevailing vibe is modern. A fenced-in patio allows outdoor dining in warmer months.
The Bull & Barrel menu features barbecue standby items like pork ribs (served "Memphis style" dry or "Kansas City style" wet), pulled pork and sliced brisket, plus smoked chicken, pulled chicken, smoked sausage, smoked pastrami, smoked turkey and smoked wings. Beyond the expected platters and multi-meat combos, sausage and wings are available as appetizers; brisket and other pulled meats can be had as a sandwich, as a trio of sliders or as a topping for nachos. Tacos, Texas chili, two soups, four different salads, five different burgers and several steak and seafood dishes provide plenty of variety for the less barbecue inclined.
I visited Bull & Barrel on a weekday afternoon, hitting them during the lull between lunch and dinner.
Wings: I wasn't sure I could handle an order of wings as well as a combination platter of meat, so the availability of wings on the "Pick 3" combo ($23) came in very handy. The wings were fairly large, smoked, seemingly deep-fried as well, then coated in a choice of sauce. I went with the raspberry chipotle, which I enjoyed very much. Though dark and messy, this sauce complemented the wings nicely with unabashed fruity flavor and less prevalent heat. The flavors of the chicken and the smoke both came through, and the thickness of the sauce didn't compromise the crispiness of the skin. Underneath, the meat was very tender, borderline juicy and flavorful even aside from the sauce. Of all the wings I tried in the area (four different barbecue joints), these were the ones I had the lowest expectations for, but they wound up being the best of the bunch. And even though I'm not usually a fan of heavily sauced wings, a batch I'd order again in a heartbeat if given the chance. Well done.
Ribs: A third-rack of spare ribs from the "Pick 3" combo brought a crusty exterior and sweaty meat that looked and felt like a reheat but still had some juiciness in addition to the steam. Their texture was generally pleasant, with the bite easility pulling the meat cleanly off the bone, but with just the right hint of resistance. The ribs had a porky flavor with some faint infused sweetness even sans sauce. Also noticeable was a gassy flavor that lingered in the background; it was faint enough not to bother me but I can see it bothering some. Rub was less noticeable even though these were the Memphis style.
Brisket: Long slices, served unsauced by request, had a dark exterior with a smoke ring along the perimeter. Some of the bites were a little dry, others had ample moisture, and all had a bit of give to the meat without drooping completely. Unlike the ribs, the rub came through here and could be tasted well below the surface, which was nice. Oddly, this brisket reminded me of both what barbecue brisket was in the 1980s as well as what it has become now, depending on the bite. I'd call it somewhere above average but below destinationworthy.
Four sauces are available in squeeze bottles on the table. Sweet & Spicy is a typical commercial sauce similar to what is found in the supermarket, with lots of thickness, lots of sweetness and a little tang. Applewood Smoked Bacon is a typical commercial sauce made atypical with a bacon backdrop. Smoky is a typical commercial sauce that I really couldn't distinguish from the Sweet & Spicy. Tangy Carolina is a mustard sauce that straddles the worlds of tangy, spicy and sweet in a different way from the others. If you like Cattlemen's mustard sauce, you'll like this. There's a chance that's what it may actually be.
Onion Rings: Thick cut, with a crunchy breadcrumb coating. I was told they are homemade, which I'm not so sure of, but they weren't bad.
Apple slaw: A large bowl of creamy cole slaw with apple slices mixed in, and there may have been some apple pie components in there too. Very different and highly recommended, even if it sounds odd.
Cornbread: Served as a muffin, this had a cakey flavor and a crumbly texture that was a little too dry to warrant taking more than a bite or two.
Don't get too caught up in the online menu, because it varies from the one you get handed in person. Don't sweat it though, because the prices are similar andthe meats are all available; it's just that the way the combinations work is a little different.
The Bottom Line
Just like the decor, the barbecue at Bull & Barrel is a mix of the modern and what was common a few decades ago, but all things considered, the quality exceeds expectation. While I wouldn't plan a special trip just to hit them again, I'd happily stop in for another visit if in the area and might even give Bull & Barrel the nod over some of their flashier competition.
Yelp reviews of Bull & Barrel
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