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In the middle of the summer of 2007, I received an email whose title read, “Can Bulgarians do BBQ?” Curious, I clicked it immediately to find an article from that day’s Manchester Union Leader (see link below) profiling the newly opened City Flame Smokehouse. The more I read, the more eager I was to try this place on Chestnut Street, just a block back from the busier Elm Street. After he and his wife moved to the US from Bulgaria, owner Ventz Simon became a student of barbecue, learning cooking techniques in a year’s worth of trips to Memphis, where his favorite joints were Interstate Barbecue and the Rendezvous. On my first visit to City Flame, I recognized Ventz from his stint two years earlier at Goody Cole’s Smokehouse in Exeter NH (now Brentwood NH).
City Flame Smokehouse has a small lot for free parking, which is a big plus in ticket-happy Manchester. Inside, the place looks more respectable than you’d expect for a BBQ joint. There are a half dozen or so high-top tables in a comfortable setting with faux brick walls and an open view into the kitchen, where you can see the J&R smoker. Ordering is over-the-counter; the food is usually brought to your table when it’s ready. City Flame has a beer license, stocking mostly Budweiser products.
The BBQ menu includes pork ribs (St Louis cut) and rib tips, sliced brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken, smoked turkey and sausages. These are all available on platters ($9.50, ribs $13.50, served with two sides) and combination platters (two meats $13.50, three meats $17.50). All of the boneless meats are also available as sandwiches ($6.50 with one side) and by weight ($15.00 per pound). Ribs may be ordered by the slab ($20.00) or half slab ($12.00). Appetizers include chili (also available as a side), fries and onion rings, the aforementioned sausage and the unique barbecue spaghetti. Sides are a good mix of hot and cold items, with a few unique choices. Caesar salad is also an option.
Over a two-month period I made three visits to City Flame Smokehouse: twice on weeknights with friends and once on a Saturday night with my wife. The food was good to excellent each time, though there was slight variation in smokiness from visit to visit. Each night, a different meat stood out as being particularly tasty. A follow-up 2008 visit confirmed the earlier positive impressions, with each item good despite no real standout.
Gigantic smoked sausages ($5.00 each) were warm, plump and tender, with a lot of flavor in the meat. Though very moist, the juices weren’t oozing out, but I think that’s more a function of how they slice them before serving than any deficiency in freshness. The barbecue spaghetti ($8.00, served with cornbread and cole slaw) was meaty and very smoky, with just the right amount of dark barbecue sauce instead of marinara. I recommend ordering this along with a sausage, combining the two for a barbecue-meets-Italian experience. The only disappointment was the chili ($4.00), which—though studded with sausage and brisket—had a broth that did taste a little like marinara. A Caesar salad was very fresh.
Pork ribs were excellent all three times, with tender meat that got smokier with each successive visit. The second visit’s ribs were among the best I’ve ever had, with a well-defined rub that supplied some heat and texture to counter the lightly-applied sweet mop. You know those radio commercials that use overlapping music to explain how the qualities of gas heat work perfectly together? That's what this rub and this mop made me think of. The first batch of ribs might have been just a little too tender, but the two other batches had a perfect texture. We tried rib tips only once. It’s a nice novelty, but I prefer the whole bones.
Brisket was sliced thick all three times. On the first two visits, the meat was tender and moist, with a mild smokiness. The most recent rendition delivered more flavor and smoke, but was a shade less moist than the first two. I liked the hint of saltiness in the crisp bark.
Pork was at its best the first time out, with moist pink meat and an unusually high percentage of bark. Served unsauced, it had a very natural flavor, with the smoke lending a gentle hand. On later visits, the pork continued to have a very high bark content and high level of flavor. Like the brisket, it wasn't as moist and velvety as that maiden voyage, but was good on every visit.
I tried the chicken only on the third visit, and it was very good. The skin was crisp, the meat was juicy (even the breast) and the flavor was very pleasant. Smoked turkey, sliced thick, had a really nice flavor but wasn't as moist as the chicken.
Overall, the meats at City Flame were very good. Every item was solid every time, with the best version of each one rivaling some of the best barbecue in the area. The challenge now, as with most new barbecue joints, is to achieve consistency so that the freshness, tenderness, smoke and spice levels are at their best every time out. I think they’re very good now, but I’m confident that as the word gets out and the business grows, more predictable volumes will yield even better results.
This is Texas style barbecue, where the meats are served straight up with no sauce for camouflage. Three sauces, in varying degrees of heat, are available in squeeze bottles at the table. All tasted homemade, with a strong flavor jolt even in the mild version.
It’s in the side dishes that you can tell Ventz and Milena Simon were professional chefs long before coming to America. There are the usual cole slaw and baked beans, done really well. There's the cornbread, which was moist and fresh every time. There’s cucumber salad, which a number of joints have, but not as fresh and crisp and as balanced in flavor as at City Flame. Then there are the creative sides, like smoked sweet potato (not that smoky, but nicely executed), baked honey apples (crisp, sweet and tart) and fresh red pepper salad (my favorite, along with the cucumber salad, as a foil to the meat).
The bottom line: Yes, Bulgarians can do BBQ, and in this case, they do it quite well. They’ve got a way to go before I’d consider anointing them the very best of New Hampshire, but they’re already among the best.
Manchester Union Leader article on City Flame's opening
Hippo Press review of City Flame Smokehouse
Yelp reviews of City Flame Smokehouse
Urban Spoon reviews of City Flame Smokehouse