Pot Belly Jim's Barbecue is the quintessential strip mall restaurant, located just a few doors down from supermarket Roche Brothers in the Great Woods Marketplace. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows? Check. Rectangular room? Check. Long bar with multiple TVs? Check. Hightops galore? Check. (Actually, it's all hightops). There's virtually no barbecue element to the construction and signage save the logo above the front door. The smoker is a Cookshack.
A mid-sized menu keeps to the barbecue basics only (St Louis ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, quarter and half chickens, pulled chicken) for the entrees, available as sandwiches with fixed sides or a variety of 2- and 3-meat combos with selectable sides. (Cornbread is not included but available as an appetizer with maple butter). Things get more innovative with the appetizers: burnt ends, brisket hash sliders, deep fried bacon-wrapped SPAM. and pulled pork or brisket in quesadillas and stuffed baked potatoes. Other bar classics include burgers, wings, steak tips, chili, nachos and onion rings. All of the servers wear shirts with the initials PBJ for Pot Belly Jim's, so maybe that's why the other PBJ (peanut butter and jelly) is on the menu too.
A barbecue crawl veteran joined me for a weeknight dinner in Pot Belly Jim's first week of operation.
Fried SPAM: Cut into a manageable size (about 2"x3/4"x3/4"), wrapped with barely crisp bacon, deep fried, lightly salted and served with toothpicks, the SPAM appetizer ($7.95) provided a unique treat whose richness was cut nicely by a bold whole grain mustard dipping sauce. Even so, this is a heavy starter that's hard to handle (tastewise as well as fatwise) unless shared among a group.
Onion rings: Large, coarse salt crystals had trouble sticking, so the smooth, crisp and puffy onion rings ($7.95) really needed the creamy chipotle aioli dipping sauce for flavor.
Burnt ends: This appetizer ($7.95) was the first item I tried at Pot Belly Jim's, and it wound up being the best item of the night. I'd give it an A+ for texture, which spanned the spectrum of fully crisp and bumpy on the surface to meltingly tender within. A light saucing adding some sweetness to the smoky, beefy flavor of the meat, which was moist even aside from the sauce. For my personal taste, I'd ramp down the sweetness and add more savory and more heat, but the sweetness was far from a turnoff and didn't stop me from popping them like M&Ms.
Ribs: Although not visible under the thick coating of sauce, a half rack of St Louis ribs on the "Ribs and 2 Meats" combo ($19.95) had decent crusting. The meat was slightly thicker than average, with slight pinkness. Juiciness was extremely high, with the first bite delivering a nice flavor jolt of smoky meat and tanginess from the sauce. Rub was a non-factor. Texture was a little firmer than average, but still tender.
Pulled pork: Served in a soft, powdery roll, the pulled pork sandwich ($8.85 with fries and slaw) had strings and large, rustic chunks cooked to the proper doneness, leaving just enough bite in the tender meat. Bark was moderate; sauce was heavy enough to hide the smokiness that was more evident in the other meats. Overall flavor was lacking too; this was probably the least impressive of the meats.
Brisket: The best of the three meats on the platter, unsauced (by request) brisket had dark, crisp edges, a faint pink smoke ring and very tender inner meat that was moist without being fatty. Some sweetness was lurking, but was much more yielding to the natural beef flavor than the burnt ends. Doneness was impressive, presenting slices that broke cleanly yet still had a melt-in-your-mouth characteristic. Smoke was very noticeable without taking over; rub was again not noticeable.
Chicken: A slightly charred leg quarter (also unsauced by request) on the 3-meat combo had loose, uncrisp skin and very moist meat beneath. Smoke was there but less prevalent than on the other meats; this chicken had more of a grill taste.
This area is a tough one to judge, as the staff hadn't yet become fully accustomed to distinguishing among the different sauces (I visited on night 3). Buffalo, Buffalo garlic, house BBQ, sweet BBQ and citrus chipotle BBQ are all available by request, as opposed to being out on the table in bottles for test driving. The sauces section of the menu also lists a few choices that aren't sauces, such as Cajun. I'd like to try the Cajun treatment, whatever that might be, with the ribs and see if that delivers the missing rub component. As for the sauces, there are a few thick brown sweet/tangy variants that all do a decent job without standing out.
Sides were a mixed bag and mostly uneventful. Crisp, lightly dressed and even more lightly seasoned cole slaw was served standard with the sandwich in a tiny cup. Fries were extra crisp from double frying, a light batter or both. Dirty rice with beans was moist and flavorful. Baked beans with chorizo, you had me at chorizo but lost me when you lost the chorizo.
The Bottom Line
It's still early in the game, but I characterize Pot Belly Jim's as a bar with just adequate 'cue that's strong on the smoke, weak on the rub, gentle with the textures and wide with the interesting menu choices. I'm hoping they'll build on what's already a decent start and add some needed flavor to the mix. Although not yet destination barbecue, Pot Belly Jim's is a joint I'd return to for those better than decent burnt ends and the more than friendly service.
Yelp reviews of Pot Belly Jim's (TBD)
Urbanspoon reviews of Pot Belly Jim's