(08/30/14) (09/06/14) (10/11/14)
Though one of the largest restaurants of its kind in New England—it looks like a strip mall occupied by a single entity—Brutopia would be hard to spot from the road if not for the giant sign out front bearing a logo that could make Peter Max jealous. Inside, it's an industrial looking space with high ceilings, lots of reclaimed wood and seating mostly in spacious booths with high leather backs.
The bar doesn't mess around. The focal point of the first of two dining rooms is large, outfitted with reclaimed wood on the sides, leather hightop stools and six large screen TVs (three on each side, one on each end). The second room is subdivided into a few different sections of booths and standard height tables, with additional TVs more sparsely situated (there are 17 total). A patio with picnic tables allows outdoor dining and drinking in warmer months.
A shed to the left of the building houses an Ole Hickory smoker.
On the way in, it's impossible not to notice the brewery. The huge room to the left of the entry houses stainless steel tanks that produce all of the beer served. If you're looking for Budweiser, you're in the wrong place.
Brutopia could easily get away with a far less sprawling menu, but they manage to stretch barbecue, fried foods and vegetables into a versatile set of offerings.
Mainstream barbecue features babyback ribs by the rack and half rack, plus brisket, pulled pork and pulled chicken as platters or sandwiches, and a BBQ combo with all four. Smoked whole turkey legs are a special a few nights a week.
Appetizers include smoked wings, pulled pork nachos, hush puppies, fried pickles, fried chicken tenders, fried pretzels with cheese sauce, mahi mahi tacos, butternut squash ravioli, chili and four different salads that can be had as is or topped with meat or salmon.
Non-barbecue entrees offer fish and chips, pan seared salmon, steak tips, a vegetarian mixed grill, a dinner-sized mac and cheese with optional toppings, five different burgers and a veggie burger.
I stopped into Brutopia on back to back Saturdays for lunches—once with assistance, once solo—then followed up again a month later with help for a weekend night visit.
Wings: In Brutopia's earliest days the wings weren't smoked, but they are now, and topped with your choice of five barbecue sauces, each made with beer. My go-to is Fire Starter, which brings light but escalating heat amid a fruity pepperiness that reminds me of peppadew or pepper jelly. These wings are more moderate of smoke, but it's noticeable, even under a sauce with a strong personality. On the first try, they had good size and good moistness—probably a reheat but a pretty good one.
The second time around the wings were bigger, fresher, crackly and crispy of skin and bursting with juices. The third try was almost as good on the freshness and juiciness fronts while boasting ramped up smoke and more forceful chicken flavor.
These are wings well deserving of a spot on my 2014 Wings List. On Wednesday nights, they're 50 cents apiece.
Fried Pretzels: Imagine a warm, fried, slightly crisp crueller, only savory, and instead of being rolled in sugar, it's rolled in salt, and you have this dish ($7), which gives you four of them and a house made cheese sauce that incorporates beer. It didn't incorporate any flavor, but the pretzels were warm, fried and slightly crisp. Oh, and did I say they were warm?
Brisket Sandwich: On my way to the table on the first visit, I noticed a platter of brisket that looked montonone brown but otherwise attractive: large, well crusted, tender looking, visibly moist. That was enough to choose the brisket sandwich ($15 with fries) over the pork in our sandwich decision. It arrived just as monotone, but the moistness seen earlier just wasn't meant to be. This was dry, pot roasty and not all that flavorful, though the grilled and buttered bun provided welcome relief, as did the cole slaw. Still, I quickly reached for the sauce to perk the beef up even more. Well below average.
Ribs: They're babybacks here, and I'll cut right to the chase. Never would I have expected it, but the first visit's half rack ($16, I think) might have been the best babybacks I've ever had. That may sound like faint praise, since I'm a spares guy, but these would rank right up there with any ribs. These had everything you could ask for.
Thick? Yes, nearly as thick as most spares and thicker than many.
Rub? Very dense, and pretty flavorful. Not the jolt that the volume suggested, but well done.
Crust: Just enough to get the job done, with no blackened spots.
Tenderness? Perfect. A light crackle giving way to luscious and delicate meat beneath, with no sogginess.
Fresh? You bet. There’s no doubting they were smoked that day if not within the hour.
Flavor? Not exactly screaming with pork or rub, but very pleasant on both.
Juicy? Very. And by juicy, I mean JUICY juicy, not steamy juicy.
An absolute pleasure.
A second try on visit three, ordered as a whole rack ($27) didn't yield such an impressive specimen, but I'd put it slightly above average. Where there were glorious pinks and reds before, this time there was brown. And this time the meat was satisfyingly moist but nowhere near the juice gushing experience of the maiden voyage. Rub was much more prominent though, if in a Shake 'n' Bake way.
Pulled Pork: The second visit's pulled pork sandwich ($12 with fries) brought things back down to earth with a not-so-moist, not-so-tender rendition that reminded me of a backyard barbecuer's first attempt. The stiffness of the meat in spots indicated a reheat. Not much going on flavorwise either, much like the previous week's brisket. Disappointing.
Visit three changed things up: the housing replaced a smooth brioche-like bun with a coarser, flakier doughy model. Flavor took a big swing with a variety of seasonings well outside the barbecue mainstream. A tablemate liked it; I found it odd. Texture was a bit odd too, with an almost ground feel within the chunks.
Burger: A few options are available, but to ensure bacon, we went with the Smokestack ($14 with fries). This had the same coarse, doughy, buttered bun as the pulled pork sandwich, which had some individuality. Everything inside there was as generic as it gets, from the extra dry, less-than-ordinary, BJ's-caliber grilled patty to the virtually unrecognizeable bacon.
Cole Slaw: Tangy and refreshing.
Mac and cheese: Unusual pasta cooked to al dente texture, with a sharp and creamy cheese sauce accented with pepper and nutmeg. One tablemate called it egg nog mac and cheese. On the second try, the recipe was the same but the pasta was even stiffer and barely room temperature.
Fries: Skin-on but likely a frozen product. Warm and crisp but tasteless. Nothing special.
Sweet Potato Fries: Probably also a frozen product but a slight step up, with good contrast between outer crispness and tender interior. Nice salt volume and cling.
Mashed Potatoes: More homemade tasting than the fries, these had a very moist consistency and sour cream worked in.
Cornbread: Spongey (like a sponge, not spongecake) and plain the first time, soft and very cakey most recently. I think there's a lot of vanilla in there.
There are five to choose from, and all of the sauces are made with beer. Two of my favorites in different strengths both had the bright sweet fruity heat of pepper jelly, though the stronger of the two has been replaced by a Buffalo sauce. There's also a vinegar sauce, a mustard sauce and a more standard sweet. All but the vinegar have just enough thickness to cling without drifting into pudding territory.
The Bottom Line
Most barbecue joints present similar quality across the board, with an outlying item or two a step up or a step down. At Brutopia, there seems to be a wide and clearcut separation: the meats off the bone (pulled pork, brisket, burger) have been disappointing and the meats on the bone (wings, ribs) have been pretty good to spectacular. Be prepared for rough spots, but if you like different beers, make the right meat choices (with luck on their timing) and draw the right servers, Brutopia can be very worthy of a spot in your rotation.
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