Brimfield: (09/22/07) (10/07/07) (01/04/08) (05/08/08) (02/12/08)
Sturbridge: (11/19/08) (04/21/09) (06/08/09)
On Memorial Day 2007, BT’s Smokehouse opened on Route 20 in Brimfield, just a few miles west of where I-84 meets the Mass Pike. The BT of BT’s Smokehouse is Brian Treitman, a CIA-trained chef who’s worked some upscale kitchens in the Napa Valley and Boston, but chose to open his own joint in the area to escape the lengthy commute to the city.
In an era when comfy sit-down barbecue restaurants are calling themselves roadside shacks, and boil-and-grill-houses are calling themselves smokehouses, BT’s Smokehouse is actually a roadside barbecue shack in its purest form. The fact that it’s situated in a trailer park—surrounded by broken-down trailers, golf carts and assorted retired lawn furniture—only adds to the ‘cue cred. The set-up is a small trailer with a custom-built offset smoker on the back, a kitchen not much larger than a Fotomat booth, a window for ordering and an add-on heated trailer that looks like somebody's 1970s-era basement.
A satellite BT's Smokehouse location in Sturbridge opened in the fall of 2008. Nicknamed "The Snack Shack" because of its abbreviated menu, it's an equally small space tucked into the corner of the Yankee Spirits building on Route 20.
As you might expect of a roadside shack, the menu at BT's is stark, with mostly barbecue offerings and not much else. The initial four meats (pork ribs, pulled pork shoulder, beef brisket, chicken) were later augmented by the addition of beef short ribs and smoked turkey. Also on offer are smoked salmon, house-cured bacon and bacon brittle. There are just three sides (baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad) plus cornbread.
Beef and pulled pork are available on platters, sandwiches and by the pint; ribs are available by the slab, half slab or on a platter with chicken. Whole and half chickens are also available. You've gotta love that the sides are only a dollar each.
At the Sturbridge location, the menu is even more streamlined: pulled pork and brisket sandwiches and minis, hot dogs and chili. Ribs are available cold with reheating instructions.
My wife and I made our inaugural visit to BT’s on a Saturday night within two months of its opening, and ordered two 2-meat combos that spanned ribs, pork, chicken and brisket. I returned a month later with a friend for a Sunday lunch, and found both experiences to be fairly similar. I made a few return trips, mostly on weeknights, to sample the chili, short ribs and turkey as they were added, along with a few visits to the newer Sturbridge outpost.
The departure of the briefly featured wings leaves chili as the lone appetizer here. A frequent participant and occasional winner on the chili competition circuit, Brian Treitman breaks from convention with an in-your-face quantity of beans, but counters with plenty of thick brisket chunks that supply a high smoke level. I like it enough to have included it on my 2009 Favorite Chili List.
You can order the ribs sauced or unsauced, and I've always gone with the latter. Saying that these are aggressively seasoned would be an understatement, as the naked variety twice packed more flavor into one bone than is often found in a whole rack elsewhere. The crust is well formed and sometimes dark, both from the heavy use of rub and from the smoking process, which can slightly char the exterior. The spice level is matched by an equally strong smoke component. As for tenderness, I like my ribs a little firm, but I twice thought they bordered on being too firm. The wet ribs were near the other end of the spectrum, closer to the style found in a chain, but with a smoke and spice flavor jolt and not as soggy.
Pulled pork, ordered several times on platters and sandwiches, bears a similar flavor profile to the ribs, but with a much better tenderness component. Served in large chunks, the meat has been pink, smoky and moist (ranging from slight to full-on gushing), with plenty of dark, spicy bark.
Chicken has been moist and juicy, with a crisp exterior that was free of char and amply spiced.
Brisket is the star of the show here and among the best in the area. On the first visit, it arrived in large chunks that had a similar appearance and consistency to pulled pork, with flavorful bark and pulling apart easily. My wife, who usually wants nothing to do with brisket of any kind, could not resist grabbing several pieces of it. On the second visit, the brisket was sliced in the traditional manner. Lately, it's been a cross between these styles, but it's always been tender and fully flavored, much of it from the caramelized fat on the outside and the pool of juices beneath it. The bark is sometimes a little on the dark side, but the tradeoff is more spice per bite than with most briskets I've tried.
The beef shortrib is a giant meal's worth of meat on a bone, meant to be eaten with a fork and knife. I've twice found it to be very tender on the inside with a crunchy, highly seasoned bark on the outside; hints of perfectly rendered fat also fuel the flavor. I'm usually a pork guy, but both beef offerings here seem to be a more perfect match for the rub.
Sliced turkey is a recent addition that combines smokiness with gentle sweetness. It's available by the pound or in a crunchy rollup sandwich packed with high octane cole slaw.
In two years, Treitman has come a long way with his sauces. A single sauce once graced the counter, but now there's a wide selection, all home-made and all using natural ingredients. The sweet sauce is a Kansas City variety with molasses leading the way and other flavors adding depth. I like that it's a little thinner than your typical Kansas City style sauce, allowing more coating with less sauce. The mustard sauce has a vinegar kick and a faint heat from plenty of black pepper and other spices. Tomato vinegar is an even thinner sauce that offers a similar tart/spicy tandem that makes it a natural compement to pulled pork. BT's Heat uses scotch bonnets and other peppers to create a pleasingly fruity flavor behind the serious heat. There's also an extra hot version of this sauce if you want a stronger heat that also lingers longer.
Minimalist baked beans, which could not be more different from your typical barbecue joint baked beans, are firm and free of sauce, but tasty. Unusual cole slaw is fresh, crisp and kicked up with enough dry rub and spices to make the dressing orange. This is one cole slaw you'll crave as much as the barbecue, because it's fantastic (I order it by the quart and take extra home). Potato salad is a recent addition that provides the same spicy flavor profile as the slaw. Cornbread, served in mini loaves, is a coarse and very moist rendition of the cakey variety.
The bottom line: It's well worth the short detour when heading from Boston to New York or vice versa, and I'd travel even further. A true roadside ‘cue experience, BT’s Smokehouse serves up meats and sides that are intensely flavored and very different from what you’d find at your everyday barbecue joint. If you seek bold spices, crave lots of smoke and don’t mind some extra dark bark, BT’s will be right up your alley.
Nikas Culinaria on BT's Smokehouse and interview with Brian Treitman
Yelp reviews of BT's Smokehouse in Brimfield
Urban Spoon reviews of BT's Smokehouse in Brimfield