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I tried Chili Head BBQ for lunch in August 2005 and was impressed by the size, texture and flavor of the ribs. I returned for a dinner visit shortly after they expanded to include a separate bar area offering alcohol and table service for the first time. The original room still has counter service and about a half dozen booths; the small bar area has another half dozen tables and stools around the bar, with a small TV behind the bar. The spare décor in both rooms hints that the food is the top priority here. On weekends, Chili Head BBQ has free musical entertainment.
The pork ribs here come in three different cuts, with St Louis the smallest, spare ribs a little more meaty, and Carolina ribs so thick they include much of the fatty and flavorful belly meat ordinarily saved for bacon. All are prepared the same way, unsauced and with a simple dry rub that allows the flavor of pork and smoke to shine through. I tried a half rack of the spare ribs ($12.99) and a half rack of the Carolina ribs ($13.99). Both had a thick crust from slow smoking, with pink and juicy meat underneath. I'd say these were the smokiest ribs I've ever tasted that weren't over-smoked.
The Carolina ribs were decidedly juicier, and had a nice bacon flavor to go along with the smoke. I had to discard some of the extra fat though. The spares were still quite meaty, mostly juicy, with a few dry spots in places. Both ribs had a nice, very straightforward flavor, with no assistance that I could detect from fruit juices or mustard.
Four sauces were available to add at the table, including "Mama's" (sweet and tangy house sauce), "Alabama" (bourbon/hot), chipotle and cranberry. All were good and all tasted homemade, though maybe just a tad too thick and too similar. I thought the ribs were good enough as is to eat without sauce, though the cranberry worked really well as a contrast to the very smoky flavor of the meat.
Interestingly, entrees come without sides; you can order them for $1.99 each or get cornbread and 2 sides for $2.99. I like this method, because it offers both value and flexibility. Baked beans were firm and flavorful. Cole slaw was good but nothing special on my first few visits, with more flavor on my recent visits. Collard greens were nice and leafy but lacked flavor. Moist cornbread had a coarse texture and a lot of sweetness. Potato salad has been pretty good. In general, the sides don't do a whole lot for me, but the meats (particularly the ribs and chicken) are good enough for this technicality not to matter.
On my first dinner visit, the whole idea of table service was still pretty new and it showed, with a few communication issues here and there, but all of the servers were pleasant and tried hard to please. Chef/owner Paul Bello was particularly friendly, checking with customers to make sure everything was OK between stints working the counter.
Follow-up: On several follow up visits, mostly for weekend dinners, I found the ribs to be consistently excellent, with just one not-as-good-as-usual rendition at lunchtime.
Pulled pork was generally pretty good, with mostly large pieces and smoky flavor, sometimes a little dry and needing sauce. Brisket was a little dry one time, very moist and juicy another time, and slightly moist and juicy the rest of the time. Smoked chicken on a few visits had a very flavorful rub and moist, tender, smoky meat inside. This might be the best barbecued chicken I’ve ever had.
Burnt ends and smoked wings are the only items that I've seen arrive sauced. The burnt ends were moist, with flavor from the crisped fat at the outer edges as well as the spicy sauce. Jumbo smoky Buffalo wings had good flavor and a brown sauce that was very good but not Buffalo. I'm surprised they don't do beef ribs, as they would fit their style of barbecue.
I've had the chili a few times. You can select the level of heat you want on a scale of 1 to 15, with anything over a 10 requiring a waiver. It's pretty good, but be advised that it has a lot of black beans in there along with the large cubes of brisket.
The bottom line: This is a generally good meal, with some outstanding BBQ entrees (ribs, chicken), some okay entrees (pork, brisket), some killer wings and some average sides. If you like your meats unsauced and extra smoky, and order to their strengths, it can be a very good meal. Chili Head BBQ offers real deal barbecue with good value.
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