Division into many smaller rooms gives the large space that is Bluebird Barbecue a surprising intimacy, helped out by a timeless, increasingly familiar design I call "rustic slick": reclaimed wood, brick, metal, bright colors, vintage fonts. Some of the content in those fonts might be trying too hard—the "It's a Bluebird BBQ kind of day" slogan gives off the vibe of a would-be musician signing hundreds of 8x10s ahead of time—but in general, it works. There's a centrally located bar area with a stools and 4-tops; behind the bar is a separate game room that's mostly for standing. Smaller, quieter rooms unfold toward the right of the building. At the back, much of the seating is in two porches with arched open windows overlooking the Winooski River.
There's a handy parking lot to the left of the building and two smokers to the right: a Southern Pride in a shed and a stick burner on a small trailer.
Bluebird BBQ's menu is deep, appealing to barbecue fans, families and even vegetarians. Barbecue platters with two sides include babyback ribs by the half and full rack, pulled pork, brisket, sausage, chicken and a "veggie delight" (seitan). There's also a "Barbecue for Two" platter serving half portions of any three meats, along with four sides.
For both diversification and snackage, tacos can be had with brisket, carnitas, chicken, shrimp or sweet potato.
Smoke also makes its way into some of the appetizers: smoked wings, smoked Buffalo chicken flatbread, smoked onion guacamole, poutine with pulled pork. There are also five salads—three with meat—as well as barbecue beets and warm maple cornbread.
Young Bride and I visited Bluebird on a Sunday night, using Open Table Burlington VT Restaurants to make an easy reservation The place was about one-third full.
Cornbread: Two mini loaves ($5.95) served on a cutting board with a small ramekin of molasses butter between them came out warm, coarse, corny and dry. The accompaniment had the look and texture of pasty peanut butter. Tastes vary, but the funky, more-sour-than-sweet flavor didn't work for me. The good news is you can try it at no cost and see for yourself by checking in via Facebook or Yelp.
Wings: An order of six ($9.95 normally, $5.00 as a before 6:00 PM special) arrived as an attractive pile on a metal tray lined with butcher paper, garnished by greenery and carrots. And without the too-often-forced blue cheese that wasn't necessary and wouldn't have gone with the selected maple soy barbecue sauce. I can hear some of you gulping at that second word (funny how soy has a different connotation in vegetarian-happy northern Vermont), but fear not: this sauce was mostly maple and supplied just the right amount of flavor without trying to take over. Now back to the wings. These were large pieces, somewhat crisp on the outside (a post-smoke frying) and somewhat tender inside. Moist for sure, with a couple bites here and there drifting over the border into succulent. Smoke was an important part of the equation without trying to take over either. The most notable characteristic was the bold chickeny flavor, which I always like. Overall, some very good wings that might make the back end of my next Wings List.
Tacos: The missus tried the sweet potato selection as another before 6:00 PM special (two for $5.00). I've never seen her reaching for the table hot sauce (there's no taco sauce served with them) as often as she did while eating these tacos, so I tried a bite. I'm not sure why anyone other than a vegetarian would want these, or what they should have done with these, but they were very plain.
Ribs: A half rack platter of babybacks ($16.95 with two sides) brought another metal tray lined with
butcher paper, with the lengthy but narrow ribs on one side and my two
sides on the other. The deep, crackly crust had but a light glaze of
maple barbecue sauce and showed splitting in some areas, which I took as
Cutting the ribs with a butter knife encountered much more
resistance than expected, and as I steadied the more noticeably thin half rack with the other
hand, I felt no flexibility whatsoever. Not such good signs. The meat
still tore okay with a little extra effort, and had an interesting texture that could be
called borderline moist by some and borderline dry by others. I'll go
with both, but it was a little closer to dry. Flavor was a strong suit; even though rub and smoke were
light, the porkiness and the hint of glaze were very pleasant. This
brought what would easily be a below average rib example to somewhere
around average. The potential for better than that was certainly there.
Pulled pork: A side ($4.00) of pork accompanied the ribs, ordered as an add-on that used to be mentioned on the menu and now can be ordered upon request—if you know the option exists. It's supposed to be four ounces of meat, but they practically doubled the portion on this night. Also on the plus side: large chunks, good bark and good tenderness (droopy but not soggy). On the down side: turkey thigh consistency, turkey breast dryness, woefully minimal flavor and coldness in spots. And this after waiting an hour for the entrees to arrive (in a restaurant less than half full).
Brisket: I was planning to order a $4.00 allotment of brisket on a second round of meat after the babybacks and pork. If it hadn't taken so long for the entrees to arrive and if their quality had been better, I may have stuck with this plan. Forget the $4.00 and the by-then-obvious quality gamble; I was so cranky by then that there was no way I was going to invest the time.
They left out the word "Waiting."
BBQ Seitan: It's admirable that Bluebird BBQ has a vegetarian option. Less admirable is that it's listed as a platter ($15.95) but comes out as a sandwich; less admirable still are the surface crust (none), the color (none), the flavor (none) and the texture (weird). I have had smoked seitan before—in Vermont even. At Cider House BBQ (Waterbury VT) it had all of the qualities that were lacking here and was actually very good (better than the meats, unfortunately). But this version was an insult. The menu lists this soy product as seared, but these sorry balls had no
visible or tasteable effects of searing. Microwaving or boiling, maybe. All but the first few
bites sat uneaten. We were offered and declined a replacement.
Three table sauces are available in squeeze bottles. The least complex is a sweet, thinned down mustard that still had a lot of that "yellow" flavor. I liked the two other sauces that are similar in color—varying shades of mahogany—and both have a blend of sweet (one via maple) and tangy and spicy, but are very different in flavor and viscosity.
Cole slaw: Cabbage, carrots, mayo and little else. Creamy. Bland.
Dirty rice: Blander. Not only wasn't this rice dirty, it wasn't even slightly unkempt. Zero flavor.
Greens: Now we're getting somewhere. Rather than collards, they went with kale and cooked it down, adding a sweet and hammy broth. A little too sweet for some, but there's no arguing there's flavor in there. I'll take it.
Mac and cheese: Standard elbows, properly cooked, with a thick, creamy cheese sauce that'll work for adults and kids alike. Just a pinch of breadcrumbs on top. Nothing too daring in the sharpness department.
Given the way the menu reads online and the way the place is laid out, I was expecting a little attitude, but the host stand staff and servers were exceptionally welcoming, friendly and accommodating.
"Your entrees will be right out," said the server. About 30 minutes before they came out. For those of you wondering, he took two of the appetizers off the bill (without prompting) for our wait. The seitan probably should have come off too, but I don't get into the negotiation game.
The beer list is filled with local options. After enjoying my first Heady Topper on draft earlier in the day, I had a can of it here with dinner.
I'm still trying to figure out the value in the BBQ Dinner for two, which provides three half portions of meat and four sides for $39.95. Since you can always order any three entrees with two sides each for just under $50, cutting that in half would give you three half portions and three sides for $25—so that extra side is $15? Or, tackling it another way, two entrees (assuming no more than a half rack) get you two full portions and four sides for $33, so for 50% more variety but 25% less meat you're paying $7 more? If you visit before 6:00 PM, it's $10 off this dinner.
An older version of the menu mentioned that you could add extra meats to your single meat platter for $4.00 each; although it's no longer stated in print, it is a secret option that Bluebird will honor upon request. That's the way to go.
The Bottom Line
Ambitious barbecue that succeeded only with the wings and floundered
everywhere else. I like what Bluebird BBQ is attempting at least, and might give them
another shot, but would order lightly and with a very short rope.
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