Located on a busy street crammed with a cornucopia of competing eateries, Butcher Bar is a small storefront that stands out thanks to its distinctive (and cryptic) vertical "Smoke" sign. Use the meat cleaver door handle to enter and the deceptive narrowness reveals a deeper space mostly dedicated to glass cases displaying meats both raw and cooked, both for eat-in and takeout. Seating is limited to 22 seats between the door and counter. Butcher Bar is another in a growing regime of barbecue restaurants serving chemical-free, humanely raised, locally sourced meats. According to a trusted source, the smoker is a Cookshack.
There's no bar and no alcohol served.
Ribs are available wet of dry and by the full or half rack, with cole slaw, one other customer-selectable side and a mini corn muffin. Most of the other meats are offered a la carte, either as sandwiches (for the boneless ones) or by the pound. These include smoked pulled pork, smoked pork belly, smoked brisket, double smoked burnt ends, house made sausage of the day, roasted turkey and marinated chicken breast. Sandwiches also include turkey burgers and two custom blended beef burgers. Three- and six-foot hero sandwiches range from American (turkey, roast beef, both) to Italian (prosciutto, sopressata, mortadella, provolone). There's also a soup of the day, a chili of the day and two salads.
A group of family and barbecue buds joined me at Butcher Bar for a Monday holiday lunch. It was the first lunch ever served at the restaurant after their first month of operation, but everything ran fairly smoothly.
Aside from the salads and soups, Butcher Bar doesn't offer appetizers as such. With a la carte ordering by the pound (quarter pound increments), appetizers and entrees tend to blur.
Burnt ends: A half pound ($14.98) of double-smoked burnt ends had the same one-inch cube shape as the ones across town at John Brown Smokehouse and across the river at RUB, and were similarly served unsauced. Unlike at those joints, these had hardly any fat (which can be good or bad, depending on your perspective) and a much more conservative application of rub. Color was mostly a one-note affair, with some hints of dark crusting but not much pinkness. They impressed from a beefiness and tenderness standpoint but were a little too pot roasty for my liking, with not enough juiciness above the admitted moistness, and not enough flavor from smoke or rub. These still satisfied, but would best be enjoyed by someone who doesn't like too much fat or too much smokiness but still wants to have a meaty experience. Or in a sandwich, where the absence of fat is a plus.
Dry Ribs: A full rack ($29.99 with cole slaw, one other side plus a mini corn muffin) arrived on a paper-lined metal tray, with two stacked half slabs that were both fairly thick. The meat had a light, uncrisp crust with what looked like only a moderate rub application, but the bite unleashed some very nice rub flavor that mixed sweet and heat. Smoke was very light but the pork factor was pleasant. Tenderness was just right—yielding to the bite without falling apart—and juiciness was also very high. From a pure barbecue standpoint, there was something missing, though I'm not sure what. A very light and petite quality pervaded Butcher Bar's ribs, as if they were meant to be paired with a glass of white wine rather than a beer. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a personal observation. Taken simply as an expression of pork and not barbecue, I'd still call these ribs a success.
Wet ribs: A half rack ($16.99 with sides) of the special fall-off-the-bone ribs not only added sauce but an extra hour of cooking time to make the meat more tender. The saucing was generous without being heavy handed, allowing the thicker crust to make itself known and the flavor of the meat to shine through. Tenderness was everything you want in a wet rib, with a stringy, easily pull-apart feel without approaching mushy. Smoke was again light; moistness beyond the sauce was again high. Overall, these ribs were solid without being noteworthy.
Pulled pork: A mostly monotone pile of mahogany meat rose out of the cardboard boat, served technically unsauced but bearing the remnants of what looked like frequent bastings. Bark was in there, but a much smaller representation than a half pound ($10.98) should normally allot. Flavor was mild, with very light smoke, not too much rub and a light sweetness from those bastings. Texture was as tender as you can get without being overcooked. Overall, the pork had no disastrous problems but had nothing going on for either flavor or texture.
Pork belly: A half pound boat ($10.98) looked like a ramped-up version of bacon, cut into half-inch-thick strips and then cut into three or four pieces per strip—a serving method that allowed easy sharing. The surface had a well formed crust and good crispness; the interior had just a little chew. What stood out most was the heat of the meat, which must have been smoked earlier and pan-fried right before service. What didn't stand out was any surface rib or any pink color. Flavor was expectedly very bacony. As bacon, it might have been impressive, if a little dry. As pork belly, it left a lot to be desired, namely complementary flavors, smoke, moistness and even more thickness. Just think of it as bacon and it stands up a lot better.
Two sauces are available on the table in squeeze bottles. Both are typical Kansas City style sauces, with the darker one a little thicker and spicier, and the light one a little thinner and sweeter. Both were decent.
Cole slaw: This rendition was crisp and very creamy without being too mayoey. Seasoning was light, but this still worked somehow.
Baked beans: A soft, saucy approach looked very much like the beans that shared a bathtub with Roger Daltrey on an early Who album cover. These weren't sweet enough, savory enough or spicy enough to earn my attention.
Mac and cheese: Soft mammoth elbows draped in a mild but lusciously creamy cheese sauce more than made up for the beans.
Cornbread mini muffin: Nothing out of the ordinary here, just a tiny corn muffin.
I rarely order dessert at a barbecue joint, and mentions of those desserts are even rarer, but it's worth mentioning that a free slice of apple pie is served to each Butcher Bar customer at the end of the meal. It's a nice gesture, and it goes a long way toward overcoming some of the value issues, but it's a bit curious considering the limited seating (I'd think it would impede turnover). By the way, the pie was nothing special, but decent.
It would be very easy to claim gouging based on the high sticker prices here, but the meats are premium, with higher wholesale costs that are merely being passed along. Whether that represents value depends on whether you like their barbecue enough to warrant that premium. Premium sourcing doesn't always lead to premium 'cue, and that was proven for me at Butcher Bar, which I'd put somewhere near the lower middle of the pack. That said, I applaud them for their lofty goals and like their menu and overall direction.
The Bottom Line
There's much potential, but something's missing. At $30 per rack and $22 or more per pound for boneless meats, Butcher Bar isn't exactly a cheap takeout option. And with limited seating and no bar, it's not exactly a relaxed dining experience. But it all comes down to the 'cue: it's a lighter representation that may work for some and may fall short for others. I'm closer to the second group, but think Butcher Bar is well worth a look.
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