NOTE: This joint was sold and re-opened under new ownership in summer 2008 as Island Smokehouse.
The bright blue building that is Freedom BBQ easily distinguishes it from the dozens of nearby restaurants on busy Austin Boulevard. Inside, it’s undistinguishable from your typical chain restaurant. If Bennigan’s (which this once was) and a 1970s-vintage Steak 'n' Brew had a love child, it would be Freedom BBQ. The huge room is dominated by dark wood, with a large bar with several TVs in the center, booths around the perimeter and few (if any) tables. I visited on a Saturday afternoon with a few friends of varying sizes, and all but one of us struggled to squeeze into the tight booth.
Open since July 2007, Freedom BBQ embraces the motto, "Great ribs, great times." Normally, a BBQ joint (though this place is too squeaky clean and corporate looking to call a "joint") that emphasizes ribs over the other smoked fare arouses suspicion. But the lengthy introduction on their menu and website mentions "smoking the ribs all day" and "a nice crunch on the outside with a pink smoke ring on the inside," so I let my guard down.
The menu at Freedom BBQ reaches out in several directions. Barbecue items include babyback and St Louis pork ribs by the rack and half rack, pulled pork, pulled chicken, smoked chicken pot pie, BBQ chicken (grilled), smoked brisket and grilled sausage. Most of the boneless meats are available on sandwiches. Appetizers include the expected (wings, rings, hush puppies, nachos) and the unexpected (coconut shrimp, crab cakes, pulled pork “blankets” in thin pastry crust). There are two steaks (flat iron and rib eye), two fish dishes (tilapia and salmon), a burger, two kinds of chili and three different salads.
A half rack of ribs, ordered without sauce, arrived with decent bark on the outside and moist meat inside, but the meat was pale and flavorless, as if cooked in an oven. The meat in a pulled pork sandwich was even paler, with a flavor resembling turkey, not pork. The texture was turkey breast all the way: dry. Cut into strips at least 1/4" thick, the brisket had none of the traditional barbecue flavor profile, but was moist enough and pleasant enough to qualify as the best meat on the table. One member of our party called it a good sandwich from a deli counter, just not a good barbecue sandwich.
All of the barbecue meats can be ordered with your choice of sauce: Memphis (sweet, ketchupy), Kansas City (tangy, ketchupy), Carolina (mustard), dry rub only, or a combination of dry rub and sauce. We ordered all of the meats with dry rub only, sauce on the side, and none of us could taste the rub. I forgot to try the mustard sauce, but didn't care for the tomato-based sauces.
Pale sweet potato fries looked like frozen carrots. The flavor was nice, but they were so undercooked, they had none of the desired crispness. Cole slaw tasted like the supermarket variety. Mac and cheese didn't really stand out as being better or worse than average. Baked beans were very puffy and ketchupy, with very little of the promised pulled pork. These less than stellar sides were buoyed by tasty grilled cornbread (a side) and a basket of biscuits (complimentary), which were crowd favorites.
We didn't touch the desserts, but I did notice they have Savannah deep fried twinkies with chocolate sauce.
The bread products carried more flavor than all of the meats combined. Granted, we ordered all of them without sauce, and they might have benefited from being grilled with sauce, but if you're that dependent on the sauce, it's not a good thing. None of the meats looked or tasted like they spent any time in a smoker. We asked our server what kind of smoker they use. After a research trip into the kitchen, she returned and announced, "We use hickory and apple chips." Maybe in the dishwasher.
The bottom line: Looking at the restaurant space, you can easily see that the owners of Freedom BBQ sunk a lot of money into the place. I just wish they put a little less of it into the dining room and a little more of it into the kitchen. I'm not a huge fan of Long Island BBQ to begin with, but I'd easily rank Freedom BBQ somewhere in (probably toward the bottom of) my lower third.
Newsday profile of Freedom BBQ