Review Date: 04/02/18
(02/25/17) (03/04/17) (04/01/17) (04/22/17) (05/18/17)
(06/01/17) (06/20/17) (11/09/17) (11/25/17) (02/12/18) (02/18/18) (02/21/18)
Near Brown University on the restaurant row that is Thayer Street, Durk's Bar-B-Que is a relative newcomer that has established itself as greater Providence's busiest and most popular barbecue joint. There are a few roomy tables and a communal table in front, with a narrow walkway past the open prep area, an Ole Hickory smoker, and a wood pile on display. A three-sided bar and more (but tighter) tables are available in the lively bar area in back.
In its early days (first half of 2017), Durk's was a throwback to the old school Texas and hipster Brooklyn barbecue joints where you waited at the counter as the pit crew sliced the meats and prepared the sides, with servers handling the beverages. The counter is still there, and that's still where the orders are assembled, but Durk's is now full table service. You still use a paper menu with checkboxes to indicate what you want.
Durk's features babyback ribs by the rack, half rack and 2-rib portion, along with pulled pork, brisket (chopped or sliced), sausage, chicken wings, chicken leg quarters and pork belly. The boneless items are offered by the half pound, but you can also order in quarter pound increments. Beyond barbecue, there are fried chicken sandwiches, an occasional burger special, nachos (vegetarian base with meat add-ons), chili and a recently-added salad.
I've logged twelve visits over roughly a year, with some of them coming in spurts. Why such an unusually high number of visits at Durk's before posting a review? Although I knew from the get-go that I liked it, and soon learned that I liked it a lot, I still wasn't sure if it belonged in the upper echelon of New England and New York barbecue joints. By the time you get to the bottom of this review—and the "Bottom Line"—we'll both have a better idea of where my opinion stands.
My Durk's visits have had a good distribution of weekend lunches, weekend dinners, weekday lunches and weekday dinners. And a good mix of barbecue crew, solo and with Young Bride. And counter service versus more recent table service.
Wings: A late 2017 addition presents seven pieces ($9) topped with a pepper-heavy rub and your choice of BBQ or Buffalo sauce. I’ve tried them three times (though I can only find two photos) in the last three months, all with BBQ. The crusts were mostly crisp and the saucing was light enough to let the black pepper, smoke and natural chicken stand out—shining on the third try when the interiors were fully juicy and they tasted fresher than the first two. A pleasant-surprise accoutrement is the buttermilk ranch that supplies some refreshing sourness and another herbal component I can’t quite put my finger on, so dipping is the way to go.
Chili: I only tried it once, shortly after it was introduced in late 2017. Offered as a side ($5) but equally appropriate as a starter, this chili delivers chopped brisket, plenty of chile spice flavor, and cream sauce woven in on top. It’s a solid, well-conceived chili that certainly gets the job done, but without distinguishing itself as much as Durk’s other options. I had it shortly after they introduced it, so that may have changed.
Chicken Leg: Now here’s a distinguisher. The menu listing is a bit of a misnomer; this smoked chicken leg ($6) is really a dark meat quarter that includes the thigh as well as the leg. It’s the first item I ever tried at Durk’s, it’s the most reliable, and in my opinion it’s the most impressive. It’s difficult to get crispy skin and tender meat in the same package, but Durk’s chicken has achieved this every time, with moisture that’s juicy, not steamy. There might be a brine involved, because flavor resides deep down, not just in the slightly blackened, heavily-rubbed skin brushed with a very thin layer of tangy, slightly sweet sauce. This is probably my favorite smoked chicken in all of New England right now, with Hoodoo Brown in Ridgefield CT the closest contender.
Ribs: These are babybacks, available by the pair ($5), half rack ($16) or full rack ($25). I’ve tried them in every configuration and on every visit. Sometimes the ribs are lengthy and other times they’re shorter but plumper, occasionally approaching the pork chop realm. On the few visits when the meatiness wasn’t ideal, Durk’s compensated by adding an extra bone of two above the quantity ordered. These ribs pack a lot of flavor in the peppery rub, high smoke content and light finishing glaze that’s only slightly sweet. With only couple of exceptions among the first few tries, porkiness has also been a part of the equation. The babybacks get a good crust and are usually extremely tender underneath (perhaps overtender for some) without veering into the dreaded fall-off-the-bone territory. A Saturday lunch in June 2017 was the highlight for ribs, when everything fell into place and flirted with perfection. Subsequent visits came close. More recently, a couple of the rib servings have been reheats, as evidenced by minor cold spots. But overall quality has been reasonably high to very high—even among the reheats—with tenderness, moisture (often legit juicy) and flavor all reliably good.
Brisket: Available sliced or chopped, lean or fatty, and at $13 per half pound for all choices, the brisket has shown mixed results but mostly good. I’ve mostly attempted slices, with a couple of chopped thrown in by mistake. Early servings were large slabs that had good moisture and frequent juice puddles but often had unrenered fat or lacked flavor. Toward summer 2017 the brisket became steadily richer, more jiggly, more smoky and more flavorful all-around, with crust supplying a near-even mix of salt and pepper. For those of you coming in from Massachusetts, the brisket that’s the most similar is Rusty Can (Newbury MA). The three most recent Durk’s brisket servings reaching into 2018 included two excellent efforts (sliced brisket with good color, good moisture, great textural contrast; chopped brisket with a buttery consistency) and one mediocre one (sliced with smoky, beefy flavor but gray, pot roasty and borderline dry).
Pulled Pork: You won't find much pink color, but you will find consistently good bark representation and appealing porky-smoky flavor in this pulled pork ($11/pound). Some visits yielded extremely delicate, juicy meat; most lean closer to moist than juicy, with a bit of flakiness, but that moistness is dependable. The interesting thing about the pork is that while some of the other meats either started off great and stayed great, or hit a peak and then trailed off, it's been a steady improvement from first visit to most recent, with smokiness, porkiness and all-around flavor at their best right now.
One way to go, and I've gone that way a few times, is the pulled pork sandwich ($10), which packs onions and hot peppers in with the pork on a Martin's potato roll. It's a nice presentation, though you can also make your own sandwich at the table with the white bread and pickles optionally served (they'll ask) with the entree meats.
Sausage: This is an item ($5 per link) that's locally made and one that made quite an impression on the very first visit and continued strong showings through most of 2017. It's voluminous, snappy, gamey (in a good way) with strong pork flavor, mid-range smoke and just enough spices to accent. Even though it's cut into slices, the links' juiciness came through. More recent examples have had a little less juiciness and oomph, and while I might not rank Durk's sausage near the very top of the pecking order, it still easily makes my upper third. It's onethatshould be ordered regularly, especially if with a crowd.
Pork Belly : This is an item that comes in many forms at various barbecue joints. Sometimes it’s cubes similar to burnt ends, sometimes it’s strips similar to bacon, and sometimes it's slices, as done here. Sometimes it's cured, sometimes it's not. The first four Durk's visits made a priority of the pork belly ($11 per half pound), with varying results. The first try, at dinnertime, happened when pork belly wasn't officially ready, but the meat cutter was nice enough to provide a sample, so I gave them a mulligan for the very high fattiness. Durk’s came through tremendously in visit 2, when the slices were rich, fresh, juicy and wobbly with impressive black crust and a much better meat-to-fat ratio. Visit 3 was similar. Visit 4 achieved a fragile tenderness closer to brisket, with a much more peppery rub also reminiscent of brisket while landing closer to moist than juicy. On all of the tries up until the most recent one, the porkiness wasn’t as noticeable as other examples, and there didn’t appear to be a cure in play. The four slices on my most recent visit included an end piece with perfect texture, explosive juiciness and a strong, alluring bacon flavor. The other slices had similar but toned-down flavor and a much fattier feel. Neighboring tables also ordered the pork belly, and it looked to be similar, with a mix of fatty slices and darker, bacony slices.
I'd recommend ordering the pork belly and recommend sticking with it even if closer to good than spectacular on the first try. When it hits, it hits hard.
Fried Chicken Sandwich: This former Tuesday-night-only special is now a full-fledged menu item
($10). Served on a Martin's potato roll, as are all the sandwiches, it
supplies an overly generous quantity of boneless chicken—soaked for two days in buttermilk and fried to order—along with minimal vegetation and a red
onion mayo. I’ve tried this twice, encountering a thick piece recently and a thicker stack of two pieces back in November 2017. Both times the chicken protruded well outside the radius of the bun, and was audibly crunchy, downright brittle (not that that’s a bad thing), fairly juicy inside, and surprisingly understated in the supporting cast. For a condiment upgrade, ask for a small cup of the zesty buttermilk ranch that comes with the wings.
A single sauce is provided at the table in an old school glass bottle. The calling card of this sauce is Worcestershire flavor, which makes it a little tangy and a little different, though more recently it's been a little sweet too. It's versatile enough to be used on any of the meats, and it's not overpowering.
Cole Slaw: This has been crunchy all along, with earlier renditions very vinegary and more recent ones more nondescript.
Potato Salad: An artful rendition with unusual, plentiful herbal additions and a light hand with the condiment, allowing the potato itself to shine. A nice respite from the smoky meats, so don't let a few twigs scare you off.
Mac and Cheese: This is a very cheffy version, with a barrage of diced scallions
providing contrast, but the well executed pasta (neither stiff nor
soggy) and warm cheese bath would shine even without this added touch.
The cheese is thick enough to cling, thin enough to remain liquid (none
of that gummy stuff here), and sharp enough to dazzle. It's one of my
all-time favorites in this category.
Cornbread: Imagine a Drake’s Coffee Cake Junior, only in cornbread form and much coarser, with a dollop of honey butter and a sprinkling of barbecue rub on top. A little pricey at $3 a pop, but pretty reliable freshness and occasionally served warm.
Brussels Sprouts: After a long hiatus from the menu but occasionally offered as a special, this popular side has made a recent comeback, along with a vow that it will never leave the menu again. It's a crunchy, salty, very slightly saucy production that'll have you rethinking any disdain you ever had for vegetables.
Baked Beans: Another discontinued side (not sure why), these leaned more toward the
savory side than the sweet side, adding diversity with a bit of salsa on
top. Original and well executed.
Collard Greens: This is a recent addition that I only tried once, but I liked it a lot. Large cooked-past-wilted leaves with good color retention, bathed in a
buttery-vinegary-fatty condiment, tasted and felt good. Bolstering the greenery was an ample supply pork bits, which appeared to
be small bacon slices about 1/4" by 1/4".
Potato Wedges: Think of these as an upgrade over the Colonel, with skins on, heavy
seasoning, good crispness and a tender baked-potatoey interior.
Pickles: Supplied gratis with the meats (as is whitebread), and a solid homestyle version that's there for more than just backdrop.
Durk's has been referred to as a "hipster barbecue joint"—it even gets that designation on Google Maps—but the usual connotations (detached at best, attitude at worst) don't apply. Although they're sometimes short staffed, the servers at Durk's have been friendly and helpful over my dozen visits.
A personal rule I adopted when they still had the counter is one that I still try to abide by today: you can adjust the quantity, but order no more than two meats and two sides at a time. This is to ensure that the first meat they cut is still fresh by the time they've finished the second one and the sometimes-intricate sides.
As with most urban barbecue joints, there's no dedicated parking lot, but the street parking is a lot easier than you'd expect and pretty affordable. I've had even better luck on nearby side streets perpendicular to Thayer.
Even though the menu lists most meats by the half pound, they’ve let me order by the quarter pound as well. Note that I've done this for meats #4 and #5 above and beyond a normal portion, so don’t be that guy who tries to order a quarter pound of brisket, extra pickles and a glass of water.
Saucing tends to change from visit to visit. Meats that never got sauced can arrive with a little splash; meats that were previously sauced can arrive au naturale. The best approach is to specify saucing needs to your server.
The Bottom Line
So would I place Durk's in the upper echelon of barbecue joints scattered across New England and New York? That depends on how you define it and how deep you go. First I'll say this: there's a lot to like about Durk's and a lot of reasons why it was my most visited barbecue joint of 2017.
To answer the question, I had hopes of Durk's squeezing into my top handful, but a few recent hiccups place them closer to top 10. With a core of dependable items and creativity in the sides, even on an a lesser night Durk's is a joint from which I leave happy. And there's enough home run power to keep Durk's in the conversation with the greats and suggest greater things to come.
Yelp reviews of Durk's Bar-B-Q
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One of the many restaurants on busy Thayer Street.
Wood and smoker greet you on the way in.
The bar area seating.
Wings, early 2018.
Chili, late 2017.
Chicken leg quarters, early 2017 visit 1.
Chicken leg quarters, early 2017 visit 4.
Chicken leg quarters, early 2018 visit 1.
Ribs, early 2017 visit 3: hitting their stride with lighter bark, more color in the cross sections and legit juiciness.
Ribs, early 2017 visit 4: probably the best serving yet with the perfect bite and fresh from the smoker feel.
Ribs, mid 2017 visit 6: two visits into the pork chop shape phase.
Ribs, mid 2017 visit 7:thinner, lengthier, same feel.
Ribs, late 2017 visit 8: possible reheat, but a good one, good thickness, reasonably moist and overall satisfying.
Ribs, early 2018 visit 2: good flavor and moist, slightly cold, not peak but solid.
Brisket, early 2017, visit 1: lengthy slabs with unrendered fat and pot roasty flavor but floppy texture and a big puddle underneath.
Brisket, early 2017, visit 4: getting there.
Brisket, mid 2017, visit 5: there was still a blob of fat that needed to be trimmed away, but this was the visit that turned the corner. Beyond the now-expected smoke, the meat was luscious and jumping with flavor.
Brisket, mid 2017, visit 6: again the brisket was strong, proving the previous serving wasn't a fluke. I'm not talking Brooklyn quality, but easily among the top third in New England.
Brisket, mid 2017, visit 7: back down a notch, but still good.
Brisket, early 2018, visit 1: back up again with very good coloring, moisture, bark and contrast.
Brisket, early 2018, visit 3: fatty, pot roasty and a little dry.
Pulled pork sandwich, early 2017 visit 4: less bark, much more moist and delicate, with a subtle porkiness that was strong enough to stand out beyond the condiments.
Pulled pork sandwich, mid 2017 visit 5: more bark, less moist.
Pulled pork, early 2018 visit 2: hitting its stride with the best combination so far of bark, smoke, porkiness, tenderness.
Sausage, early 2017 visit 2: juicy, gamey, assertive flavor.
Sausage, mid 2017 visit 6: ditto.
Sausage, early 2018 visit 1: a little more mild and a little more smoky; cut less to preserve moisture.
Pork belly, early 2017 visit 2: very rich, burstingly juicy, mildly porky, crunchy crust.
Pork belly, early 2017 visit 4: more peppery crust and a bacony/briskety texture that prseented good tenderness and juiciness, but not tremendously porky.
Pork belly, mid 2017 visit 5: similar, with less pepper than that one time.
Pork belly, early 2018 visit 1: mix of great and fatty. All were very moist, juicy and flavorful.
Fried chicken sandwich, late 2017 visit 8.
Fried chicken sandwich, early 2018 visit 3. Not double stacked, but voluminous and crunchy.
Mac and cheese.