Review Date: 10/05/15
Visit Dates: (09/26/15)
Literally located on the west bank of the Hudson River, Billy Joe's Ribworks is a former meatpacking plant that's more than a restaurant; it's a complex. Walk past the hostess/souvenir stand on the left and the kitchen windows to the right exposing three J&R smokers and you'll see a large dining room with high enough ceilings to turn the tall walls into a gallery for assorted tchotchkes. But that's only part of the picture.
An airplane hangar sized bar area to the left leads to a roof covered deck with wooden boardwalk style floors and porch view hightops. Further out is a proper outdoor deck (more boardwalk plankage) with picnic tables overlooking the water, affording photogenic views no matter what the season. If the visuals aren't enough, Billy Joe's regularly provides live musical entertainment on an outdoor stage. Rather than merely jutting out behind the restaurant, the deck extends far to the right and has its own outdoor bar. There must be close to a few hundred seats in total, and I bet most of them are in use on a summer weekend night.
Billy Joe's menu is very extensive. Ribs include St Louis cut spares, "monster" babybacks and beef back ribs. Pulled pork, sliced brisket, smoked chicken and Andouille sausage are also available on their own or in combos. Smoked meats also make their way into fillings for sandwiches, sliders, nachos and tacos, as well as toppings for baked potatoes, mac and cheese and burgers. There's also a smoked chicken sandwich and smoked wings with a variety of sauces.
They don't list a flexible 3-meat combo as such, but there is a preconfigured troika that includes chicken, pulled pork and brisket. Fortunately, preconfigured doesn't mean you can't be flexible here; my server notified me that you can get any three meats you want.
Pre-barbecue and beyond-barbecue items include fried calamari, chicken tenders, fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, smokehouse pretzels, onion rings, spinach dip, two kinds of cheese fries, burgers, sliders, five different salads (with or without protein), three kinds of mac and cheese (with vegetables or meat), fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, three different steaks, fried catfish, grilled salmon, meatloaf, steak wraps, veggie wraps, grilled chicken, a catfish po' boy and ribs as an appetizer.
I stopped in solo for an early fall Saturday lunch, right around noon.
Wings: I opted for a half dozen wings ($7.99) with the mid range heat sauce (Kickin' BBQ). These came out in a basket looking stunningly attractive mostly due to their size: they were humongous. But there was also one immediately noticeable downside: they looked woefully pale and crustless. The first wing felt rubbery to the hand and even more rubbery to the mouth—so much so that the flabby skins were a showstopper. It's unfortunate, because there were a few redeeming qualities other than the size. The inner meat was very tender, moist throughout and lightly smoky. Though nothing special, the sauce was pleasant. I struggled with a wing or two, spat out a bite or two, and then decided to leave the rest untouched. It wasn't worth it on this visit, but with a little more care on the finish these could work.
When the server asked how the wings were while removing the still-heavy basket, I told it straight: not very good. He didn't ask me to elaborate and I didn't ask for them to be taken off the bill, but both he and a manager came by to tell me that they noticed the problem as well and took the wings off without prompting.
Ribs: A quintet of diminutive ribs on the 3-meat combo ($19.99) overcame a size deficiency via sheer quantity. The bones were short enough that they looked like babybacks at first glance, but they were indeed the promised St Louis cut with higher fat content. The fairly heavy saucing didn't conceal that the surface had some nice bumpiness in the well formed but unsturdy crust. These were among the softest ribs I ever had, bordering on mushy but still having a hint of chew to them. Admirably, unlike most ribs with this texture, the meat clung faithfully to the bone until the bite, which pulled it off with ease. Flavor was admirable too: the coating evoked a competition sauce with intense sweetness balanced by heat and slight tartness. Moistness was a given. Smoke was very noticeable and the meat itself had strong porkiness with a rub presence that went all the way down to the bone.
So, to sum up: size and texture, nay; flavor, yay.
Per the menu: "We rub them
with our secret spice blend then smoke them slowly until they’re tender and juicy. Just before they hit your plate, they kiss our charbroiler to sear in the goodness. Order your favorite cut naked or slathered with our own house-made BBQ sauce."
Brisket: A handful of short slices from the flat on the 3-meat combo all had a thin, non-problematic rim of fat on the edge and a light drizzle of barbecue sauce—even the slices toward the bottom. All had a faint smoke ring, a bendably tender texture and decent moistness even aside from the sauce. But back to the tenderness: this brisket was extremely tender, like slices of meatloaf, as if held in a liquid for a long time. This texture would appeal to some, maybe not to others. Flavor had some smoke, obviously some sauce, and not too much representation in the rub department. Overall flavor worked well enough that I'd call these slices at least decent. There was enough promise to suggest they could be good to very good on another visit.
Pulled Pork: Why wouldn't Jan Brady have liked this pulled pork? "Mushy, mushy, mushy!"
And with little smoke, no color, no bark and no porky flavor either. But unlike the brisket, the seasonings really made themselves felt, and I liked that aspect a lot. That's really the only positive attribute, unless you count the draping of a few pickle slices on top. Unlike with the brisket, I didn't see much upside.
Three different sauces are available, though only one is on the table. I had hoped to try the other two, which are theoretically available by request. There was enough sauce already on the meats that I really didn't need more, and the rehashing of the wings disaster (at their prompting) ate up what little conversational time I had to pursue those other two sauces before my entree meats got cold. The one sauce I did try had the same characteristics as a commercial sauce, but with much more focused flavor and contrast (heat-sweet-tang).
Cole Slaw: This looked like bland lettuce but turned out to be thinly sliced cabbage with a refreshingly tangy and slightly creamy condiment. Not bad at all.
Mac and Cheese: A basic vanilla version with elbows and a mild, creamy cheese sauce hit the spot with good execution.
Cornbread: A molded mini-block with no color, no personality. Mildly corny, mildly cakey with minimal color and minimal flavor. Yawn.
There were probably a dozen different servers walking around, not really doing anything but walking around, during the time when I was one of only three active tables. My server wasn't around, so I asked another who walked by about the other two barbecue sauces that weren't on the table. "We don't put those on the tables, but you can ask your server." Translation: "I'd get it myself, but walking into the kitchen and doing something would interfere with my walking around not really doing anything."
The Bottom Line
A mixed bag for sure, with quality all over the map and service showing highs and lows as well. I'd need more visits to be sure (and there's certainly potential), but my quick take is that Billy Joe's Ribworks is least-common-denominator barbecue that still manages to infuse a few legitimate touches in. Though unlikely to knock the socks off the strictest traditionalist, there's enough going on that it can still work on some level—on the nights when the kitchen execution and service attentiveness are on point. What will knock your socks of are the space and the views, so tuck that thought away and visit when you can take advantage.
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