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KC's Rib Shack oddly shares a driveway with a bagel joint on one of the few busy streets in Manchester, with several fast food joints as neighbors. It's an old-time shack with low ceilings inside and lots of exposed wood beams and ceiling supports. In the main area, there's a small bar with a few TVs and likely some bikers quietly enjoying beer and barbecue. A more subdued alcove offers a few comfortable booths. In early 2011, the rarely-used function room off the main entry got a makeover that integrated it as an extension of the standard KC's Rib Shack dining area. Used on busy nights and weekends only, it has two levels of seating, its own bar and a true barbecue feel. Southern Pride smokers can be seen in front of the building and across a side street.
The barbecue menu at KC’s Rib Shack offers most of the BBQ staples: one kind of rib (large pork spare ribs), pulled pork, sausage ("KChunks"), smoked chicken (breast only) and brisket (a combination of slices and chunks). Ribs are available as small and large sized platters ("pladdas") with sides and cornbread, or as quarter, half and full racks a la carte. Cleverly named pladdas include two to four meats ($16.99 to $21.99). The QQ Pladda ($30.99), available for parties of two or more, serves a sampling of four different meats and two sides family style, at a significant savings from separate 4-meat pladdas. In some places, "family style" is a sneaky way to skimp on portions, but at KC's Rib Shack, it's just the opposite. You won't leave hungry.
Appetizers include hush puppies, deep fried pickles, chili, Brunswick stew, fries, buttery garlic fries, mushroom fries, jalapeno poppers, haddock sticks, onion rings and several types of wings. Tossed and Caesar salads can be had with or without barbecue meats on top. They also have deep fried hot dogs and a deeper burger menu (11 different). An endless parade of sandwiches includes the usual barbecue suspects plus steak tips, French Dip, Cuban, Portobello mushroom, seven different chicken sandwiches and the famous “Cardiac Sam” that layers pulled pork, chicken, bacon and cheese.
I've hit KC's Rib Shack over the years on weekday nights, weekend nights and weekend lunches with an assortment of barbecue collaborators.
Chili: Just a basic straightforward chili with no bells or whistles, it's competently done. It's no threat for my favorite chili list though.
Fried pickles: Extra crunchy, thickly coated, lightly seasoned spears are served with a ranch dressing.
Onion rings: KC's beer battered onion rings ($7.99) originally straddled the territory between the thin crunchy style and the thick puffy style, and they held their own quite nicely. They've gradually shifted away from the puffy and more toward the thin, flaky batter style that I prefer, and I rank them right up there with my favorites. Salt on the table is sea salt, a perfect match for this batter.
Haddock sticks: Mrs. Paul's gets a serious upgrade here, and so does the beer batter. While the onion rings are made with PBR, the haddock fingers ($8.99) are made with Bass Ale. Slightly thicker, darker and crispier than the rings, the batter tastes homemade and good. The fish is moist and flaky in whole long chunks that don't seem commercial at all.
Jerk wings: I ordered these a few years ago after owner Kevin Cornish's Jamaican jerk epiphany had a ripple effect on the menu. The jerk wings were not smoked but still tasty, cooked to a doneness that yielded a crisp exterior and a tender, juicy interior. There wasn't as much debris on the surface as in other jerk wing renditions I've tried, but the flavor was strong, with a steady, unobtrusive heat. Less liquid coating than on most wings allowed the natural chicken flavor to shine through. Crushed pineapple was served alongside as a dipping sauce. I'd love to see a cooked pineapple condiment with more jerk flavoring and more heat.
Wings: A more recent order with the appletree slatha sauce satisfied. Again not smoked, but a well executed fried/grilled version with the inner meat moist, the outer meat crisp while uncharred and the sauce generous without overkill. These weren't quite in the running for my all time wings list, but were solid, tasty wings.
Pladdas: Before I go into a meat-by-meat breakdown, I have to say that every time I've ordered a Menage A Trois (3-meat pladda, $19.99), it overflowed with food, supplying at least a pound and a half of meat. Pladdas with ribs have included three bones per plate; those with brisket had about a half dozen slices (from the flat) and another half dozen large chunks (from the point); those with pork supplied more than enough for a hearty sandwich. Value here is off the charts.
Spare Ribs: The go-to item on the KC's Rib Shack menu, these full cut behemoths are dazzlingly voluminous and striking in appearance. Coloring is just about perfect, with a maroon/brick tint to the crust created (I'm guessing) through repeated but restrained sauce bastings. This provides a faint crunch and a pleasing hint of sweetness that yields the stage to the porkiness of the meat. Below the crunchy surface, the interior meat continues the near-perfect texture, allowing a clean bite without being even the slightest bit overcooked. There are always plenty of juices and not too much fat. The one drawback is that sometimes these ribs are less dazzling in the flavor department, with an oven broiled pork choppy quality, albeit a very moist pork chop. Rub, though a little heavier the last couple of years than the previous couple, is nowhere near as deliciously abundant as in 2007 and earlier. Smoke has also been much lighter than 2007 and earlier but is still noticeable.
KC's ribs are served unsauced as standard practice. A recent development is the introduction of optional "grill slathers" that can be applied to the meat for a quick grill finish. I like the apricot, a nice addition that amplifies the moisture and flavor without dominating an already-good rib. Especially nice is that after a handful of tries, the grilling never charred the rib to death. With or without the slather, these are some really good ribs, with recent visits leaving me with the same impression: although the smoke and spice levels are still down (significantly) from my first few years of hitting KC's Rib Shack, it's nice to know that they're reliably very good. I clearly yearn for the old days, but I still rank these pork ribs among my favorites.
Brisket: It was just a few years ago that brisket wasn't even on the KC's Rib Shack menu. At that time, the restaurant's website had an admission from owner Kevin Cornish that "the menu may be limited," but he wanted "every item on it to taste great and not just OK.” And so explained the brisket omission.
Fast forward a few years and brisket was added. My first try was a little rough, but every serving since has been solid and some servings have approached competition quality. The edges of all the slices are typically very crisp and chock full of flavorful spice rub; inside, they have enough tenderness to bend easily while keeping a little "snap" in the texture. Flavor permeates deeply, suggesting an injection. Whatever it is, the meat has a fragrance to it that's borderline sweet but still manages to complement the beefiness perfectly. The chunks from the point (or "deckle") haven't been so crispy outside but have been reliably tender (if a little steamy) inside. A fair tradeoff I suppose, but it's those flavorful slices that make the trip worthwhile.
Maybe KC's Rib Shack didn't offer brisket in the old days because they thought they couldn't do it to their satisfaction; now it's one of their greatest strengths. I'd put this brisket in the upper 10%.
Pulled Pork: A surprisingly voluminous mound even on a 3-meat pladda, the pulled pork is usually buried at the bottom of the pile. So whether it's the other meats compressing the pork into the plate and altering its appearance or simply covering it to the extent that it winds up getting steamed, the pulled pork always seems to emerge worse for wear. I like the flavor of the meat, which, like the ribs, has a natural pigginess bumped up ever so slightly by the complementary flavors, including vinegar. But the texture in recent years—usually on the doner side of done, and often downright mushy—makes this pork only so-so. Smoke and bark levels are both very light. I'd still rank KC's pork somewhere near the median, but at one time I would have said top 10%.
Pulled Pork Sandwich: Pladdas are clearly the way to go here, so I rarely try the sandwiches. After about ten visits, I ordered my first pulled pork sandwich ($8.99 with one side) and found plenty of meat but not plenty of bark. The pork was borderline moist, lightly vinegary, very lightly smoky and not as soggy as usual. Maybe pladdas are the way to go except for pork, because the steaminess issues were resolved in the sandwich.
Chicken: A "mahonkenly huge" (the menu does not exagerate) boneless breast had slightly crisp skin, plenty of seasoning on the outside and surprisingly good moisture inside. Although smoked, it didn't strike me as smoked chicken in flavor, aroma, texture or color. If you're into smoked chicken, this might not hit the spot, but compared to Boston Market or equivalent, this is a huge step up. I am into smoked chicken and I like it enough that if I weren't continuing my endless game of pulled pork roulette, I'd probably choose it as the third item along with ribs and brisket on the 3-meat pladda.
Sausage: KC's sausage, also known as KChunks because they slice the links lengthwise and then against the cross section to yield a pile of half discs, would be my last choice for pladda inclusion, for two reasons. First, you can add sausage links to any pladda for $2.99. Second, it's just-okay sausage, mildly satisfying in the flavor department but usually overcooked and undercrisped, often with a meatloafy sogginess. On the nights when they're crispy, it's a nice addition, so I do so about every third visit.
Graceland Burger: This is just one of many creative burgers on the menu. Ordered medium well (one member of our group that night can't handle medium rare), the Graceland burger ($10.99 with one side) was cooked to spec and had that rare (no pun intended) combination of a crusty char grilled exterior and an extremely juicy interior. The peanut butter was melty/gooey, blending beautifully with the meat. Mayo remained obediently in the background. Bacon was crisp but a little less voluminous and assertive than I hoped. A simple bun was extremely fresh and just the right size. Bananas should have been in the mix somewhere (fried would have been perfect) to keep the Elvis theme, but as constituted both the design and execution of this burger were more than adequate. Overall, this was a very good burger, and the quality of the meat itself far exceeded the memory of my last pretty good one at KC's a few years back.
The meats at KC’s Rib Shack usually don’t need sauce, at least not for moisture, but they have four to choose from at the table: mild (typical BBQ sauce), spicy (a little more peppery), Carolina red (a nice vinegar sauce, perfect on the pulled pork) and appletree “slatha” (an interesting concoction that tastes like the inside of a McDonald's apple pie).
They haven't been horrible or anything, but compared to other joints' offerings, I'd say KC's are average at best. Creamy cole slaw has a bit of a kick and a nice celery seed flavor. Baked beans (probably canned) are dull, soggy and ordinary. Collard greens are well chopped and vinegary, but otherwise bland. As seems to be the custom with New Hampshire BBQ joints, chili is available as a side, as is the Brunswick stew. Macaroni salad is fairly basic; rice (though wet) is impressive with a couple of different beans and a couple of different barbecue scraps. Cornbread has progressed over the years to the point where it's now a star here: tall, moist, slightly gingerbreadlike in both flavor and consistency, and studded with jalapenos that complement rather than overwhelm.
The Bottom Line
KC's Rib Shack is one of my two favorite joints in New Hampshire (the other is Goody Cole’s Smokehouse) and one of the better barbecue joints in the entire Northeast region. Admittedly, the sides are weak, the pork is overcooked and the rub and smoke levels have dwindled. But the menu is huge and accommodating, the onion rings are off the charts, the brisket is solid, the ribs are consistently bodacious and juicy, the service is super friendly (and sometimes just as bodacious) and the value is spectacular. I haven't walked out yet without a smile on my face.
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