Located on Portsmouth's Islington Street about a half mile from the downtown area, MoJo’s BBQ Shack looks like an old time joint you might see in the south. It’s connected to a service station and the sign outside touts “Arkansawce,” the sauce creation of MoJo’s Arkansas-born barbecue honcho Maurice “Moe” Buckley. Inside, the joint is a little slick, with a commercial looking logo and barbecue sauce in jars for sale. On my visit most of the joint’s brisk business was take-out, but dining in is a comfortable option: there are a few hightop tables with stools and a long dining counter by the window. Ordering is over the counter. MoJo’s has no bar, but they do offer a small selection of beer and wine. If you’re up for a crawl, MoJo’s is just down the street from Muddy River Smokehouse (Islington Street turns into Congress Street after you cross Route 1).
The MoJo’s compact menu offers the typical barbecue fare (St Louis ribs, chicken, pulled pork, beef brisket), with boneless meats available on platters, on sandwiches and by the pound. For the non-BBQ fan, there’s a 6-ounce burger, a ¼-pound grilled hot dog, a grilled chicken sandwich and a fried chicken sandwich. Wings are available in sizes from 6 to 100 pieces. Combos are limited: a chicken and ribs combo, a 3-way combo (ribs, chicken, brisket) and the MoJo’s Platter (ribs, chicken, brisket, pulled pork and wings).
About a month after thy opened, I visited MoJo’s BBQ Shack on a weekday for lunch, joined by one of the area’s top BBQ competition cooks.
We started with a small order of wings (6 pieces for $4.99). All of our pieces were drumettes, crisped on the outside, tender inside and coated with the signature Arkansawce. We didn’t think they were smoked, but often the wings at BBQ joints are either deep fried or grilled. These reminded me of the wings you get at KFC, only with a crisper exterior and a spicier sauce. That Arkansawce had a nice kick.
For the main event we split a 3-way combo (ribs, chicken, brisket and two sides for $18.99) and a pulled pork sandwich ($6.99 with one side). As soon as we took a look at the 3-way combo, we could tell that this was a joint that not only celebrates its famous sauce, but wants you to celebrate too. The ribs had an initial coating and then were drizzled with more sauce for presentation, as if they were a dessert. Under the sauce, they had a nice crust and were moist inside, but the meat wasn’t pink and there wasn’t even a hint of smoke. I'd say they were a step up from your typical chain restaurant ribs, but not what I think of when I think of barbecue.
The brisket was interesting. Also buried under a generous serving of sauce, this meat was chopped rather than sliced. Like the ribs, there was no sign of smoke. Unlike the ribs, the brisket meat was very dry and tough, with the sauce unable to save it.
The pulled pork sandwich offered a very generous mound of sudsy meat on a seeded roll. Chopped rather finely, the pork had perhaps the highest sauce-to-meat ratio of the entire meal. The meat was all light, with no darker pieces or bark. It’s hard to tell how much of the flavor came from the sauce.
The chicken for me was the highlight of the meal. I liked the golden brown skin and the moist, tasty meat inside. It wasn’t smoked, but it was well executed, and I could actually taste the chicken.
This may come as a surprise, but I thought the sauce was very good. It had a pleasing sweetness that didn’t go overboard and a spicy kick that balanced things out. I liked the sauce. I might even buy some. I just didn’t think the meat should be drowned in it. You can add more sauce using the squeeze bottles available at the table, but I’m guessing you won’t need to. A nice alternative is the assortment of hot sauces on a shelf near the ordering counter that even includes a sauce by the Maine BBQ mini-chain Beale Street.
Sides were a mixed bag. Soupy baked beans had a commercial look and a flavor nearly identical to the Arkansawce. Mac and cheese was creamy and reasonably tasty. The unusual cole slaw had a nutty flavor that I found a refreshing respite from the overpowering sauce.
If you look at the menu closely, you’ll notice that nowhere is there a mention of a smoker or of the meats being smoked. The nicely-written background material on the menu rhapsodizes about how passionate the owners are about food and about BBQ in particular: “We believe BBQ is at its best when all of its powerful flavors combine and harmonize. The natural flavors of the meat, the spiciness of the rub, the sweetness of the sauce.” I hear you, but what about the wood and the smoke? Elsewhere on the menu, it says, "All of our meats are dry rubbed, slow cooked, & Arkansawced." Based on what I've tasted and read so far, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's no smoker here.
Service was first rate, with friendly banter and attention paid to details.
The bottom line: The moist chicken and ribs are the best bets on the menu, and might be worth a try if you live in the area and you know going in that this might be closer to a Boston Market experience than hard core barbecue.
Seacoast Online's 02/15/08 article on MoJo's
Urban Spoon reviews of MoJo's