(11/09/13) (11/14/13) (11/26/13) (02/22/14) (03/06/14) (first review)
(02/10/15) (02/22/15) (03/15/15) (03/21/15)
Riverside Barbeque is the transformation of the former Sausage King into a barbecue joint under the same ownership. The small space has a few booths at one end, a few tables in the middle and a few more stools against counters at the windows. You stand in line, order and pay ahead of time, then they bring the food out to you when it's done. The revamped ordering counter has moved closer to the kitchen, now facing the street and making way for a small bar area with stools. The craft beer selection is exemplary for a place of this size and type. The smoker is a Cookshack.
Barbecue meats include pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, burnt ends of brisket, pulled chicken, smoked-then-fried chicken wings, smoked turkey and smoked sausage. Appetizers feature fried string beans, fried pickles and fried chicken tenders. There's also a burger.
The menu changed format in early 2015, offering sandwich combos ($9.99 for pulled pork, pulled chicken and sausage; $10.99 for brisket, burnt ends and turkey) that include one side and the option to purchase a second side for another 99 cents. Ribs and chicken combos (quarter and half rack, quarter and half bird) do the same. The boneless meats are oddly not offered as combos, but are available as "meat only" selections stuffed into cups, presumably as add-ons. Most are $7.99 and $8.99 for small, $12.99 to $14.99 for large.
So while there's no classic 2- or 3-meat combo with two sides and cornbread, it can be configured a la carte. We're talking $23 for a 2-meat combo and upwards of $30 for a 3-meat combo. Admittedly, these supply significantly more meat than a typical 3-meat combo, but variety here now has its price. For two people sharing, this might be a big plus. For a lone diner seeking some semblance of variety, not so much.
The Back Story
Toward the end of 2014, Riverside ownership left a message on the PigTrip Facebook page requesting a review update. The rationale was that my visits for the first review hit them during Riverside's first few months, and that their practices and quality had come a long way since then. Fair enough, but that just reinforced my earlier notion (which offended Riverside's owner) that too many barbecue joints were learning how to cook barbecue on my dime, rather than figuring it out and then opening. So with an open mind and more dimes, I headed back to Nashua more than a few times to gauge the improvement.
Shortly after the re-review request but before my first return visit, I encountered some new graphics on the Riverside Facebook page: beautiful photographs of ribs and pulled pork with alluring smoke and glorious red color that implied a stronger flavor. The tagline? "Barbecue done right." While I wasn't exactly willing to bet the house that the reality would match the photographs, I was genuinely excited for the possibility. Upon my arrival, I saw posters on the windows—similar to McDonald's or Dunkin Donuts—with the same eye-catching graphics, this time with a second tagline: "Served fresh every day."
For this 2015 review update I mixed the visits to hit Riverside Barbeque for a Tuesday dinner, a Sunday lunch, a Saturday lunch and a Saturday dinner—two of them with young bride and another two solo.
Wings: If you were to ask me after my 2014 visits what my least favorite meat at Riverside Barbeque was, the answer would come easily and swiftly: the pale, rubbery, flavorless wings. For my first three 2015 return visits, wings were sold out and unavailable, but the fourth visit was the charm in more ways than one. But first, the ordering: you can get them in quantities of three, six or twelve, as meat-only or as a combo with a side ($3 extra, with the option for that second side at 99 cents). Note that these are whole wings, so one wing gets you both the wingette and the drumette pieces, or what most joints call two wings.
At first glance, the trio of wings ($7.99 with a side) had that plain look again, and not much for size, but they were a step up from the ghastly pale version of yesteryear. Upon closer examination and flipping one over, the appeal of the well rubbed crusts came into play, and the bite further illuminated that these wings have actually made significant progress. The skins were all crisped up via a post-smoke dip in the fryer just before serving, and thankfully not at the expense of inner texture. The underlying meat, both tender and juicy, had a much improved flavor, as if brined. For a while there I was reminded of the wings you get at Chinese American takeout joints, with that slightly sweet, gingery flavor inside and a barbecue flavor outside.
While I'm not exactly adding them to the PigTrip Wings List, they're a possibility for that next tier and a certainty of being ordered again on any return visit.
Then versus now: I like it better now.
Ribs: A Tuesday night visit the day after a storm had the potential to yield leftover meat from a slow day before, so I asked the counter girl which meats were fresh that day. She said the restaurant was closed the day before and swore all meats were fresh.
A quarter rack combo of ribs ($11.99 for three with a side) had none of the appealing color in the new Facebook photos and window posters, looked steamy and carried a slightly slushy crust from either a too-long holding or a too-quick reheat. They had plenty of moisture though, much more than just a sweat, so they may have been fresh in terms of no fridge after smoking, just that they hung around in a sauna a while. They weren't the least bit smoky. The ribs had rub but not much penetration. The end ribs had huge sections of unrendered fat visible on each of the cross sections, which wasn't a show stopper but wasn't insignificant. If properly rendered—"done right," if you will—into liquified smoky porkfat lubricant, this could have been a hallmark. I took the Tuesday-after-a-storm timing into account and decided to revisit the ribs when they'd have a better chance to succeed.
Fast forward a month and then some to the fourth 2015 visit of the new-and-improved era—this time on a Saturday night when their new "Served fresh every day" claim had the greatest chance of being upheld. While standing in line, I overheard the customer in front of me being told that there was a 20 minute wait for ribs, which the owner corrected to 4 minutes. While waiting at the table for my quarter rack combo, I overheard someone in the kitchen say they were out of ribs and I hoped that meant after I'd get mine. What I got was nearly double the meat of the previous visit: not three but four very large full cut spares. The surfaces—very pale in color, almost like congealed fat not brought back all the way—did not exactly scream "Served fresh." But sometimes color can be deceptive, so I soldiered on. Speaking of color being deceptive, this batch of ribs again looked nothing like the glorious hue of the menu photos and posters.
The first rib was extremely tough, requiring great effort to pry the meat off the bone. Some spots were quite dry, other spots moist, none full-fledged juicy. Rub was noticeably different from past visits, now applied aggressively as a mishmash of spices that might be more at home on a gyro. While texture was another story altogether (the remaining three ribs were every bit as tough as the first), and smoke was again absent from the mix, I can't say the meat lacked flavor. But I liked the flavor better a year ago. That may just be a personal preference, but personal preferences aside, I don't see the improvement.
Then versus now: I liked it better better then.
Pulled pork: Before the first return visit's pulled pork sandwich hit the table, the pale color screamed in defiance, again not the beautiful red hue on the Facebook page and on the posters. The meat was a little lifeless and a little old, much like many of the previous visits. The bark did not improve, the smoke did not improve, porkiness did not improve and overall flavor did not improve. The texture had enough stiffness that a reheat was evident. Certainly not horrible, and actually a doable pulled pork sandwich when factoring in the well-above-average buttered and griddled bun, the well-above-average fries and the reasonable ticket price. But improvement? Not yet.
Two weeks later, I tried the pulled pork sandwich again—this time for a Sunday lunch when the BBQ odds would again be against me (nearby errands dictated the timing). Again I asked which meats would be fresh and the counter girl (a different one) said all of them. And they were out of wings, which I took as a good sign—they'd be easy enough to fake by tossing old ones into the fryer.
This time the longshot paid off. The pork coloring might not have matched the Facebook photos and signage, but it was somewhat pink. And man, it was fresh. And moist, ultra tender and succulent. Some decent bark surfaced too, but oddly the best bark piece faced down at the bottom of the pile. Flavor was still light, with no smokiness, but a major breakthrough otherwise. The bun and sauces more than made up for any flavor deficits, but the terrific texture would have made the sandwich a success this time even without them.
Then versus now: I like it better now.
Brisket: The brisket has been such a roller coaster ride here that one data point in the new era isn't exactly something to hang your hat on, but the most recent visit's small add-on ($8.99, stuffed into a paper ice cream cup) delivered a sample that was neither impressive (one can hope) nor disastrous (as was the case with one of last year's tries). The meat was nominally moist on the surface, less moist further down and beefy (and beefy alone) in flavor throughout. No salt and pepper oomph on the edges. Tenderness was more than adequate. Fat wasn't a problem. Overall, about average or maybe a bit below, and reminiscent of brisket in 1990s barbecue joints.
Odd, though, that the meat with the longest cooking time brought no smoke with it. Eat enough barbecue and it becomes easy to miss the smokiness of a meat while in the restaurant. But the next day usually brings a new perspective, allowing the smoke to be more noticeable. I had the brisket leftovers for lunch and couldn't smell a thing.
Then versus now: hard to say (one earlier example was better, one was worse, one was disastrous).
Burnt Ends: No seasoned barbecue aficionado can see burnt ends on a barbecue joint menu and not get excited about them. The crispness, the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, the juiciness and the flavor intensity from a second rubbing before a second stint in the smoker are all part of the allure. Unfortunately, none of these characteristics made their way into Riverside Barbeque's interpretation of burnt ends ($10.99 for a sandwich with a side). Here, they're at least cubes now, so good call on that. But look past the sauce in the close-up photo and you'll see no crust. With a texture similar to Chef Boyardee canned meatballs, the pale, rubbery cubes were moist in a steamy way and made even more rubbery by the unrendered hunks of fat left in even after chopping. I'm not saying it came out of a microwave or was even a reheat, but the meat sure looked, felt and tasted like it. All of the flavor came from the sauce, not the meat, which again bore no smoke. The buttered, griddled bun that made the pulled pork sandwich work could not rescue these burnt ends.
On a later visit I considered giving the burnt ends another try, but quickly changed gears when I saw a large order of them (and its owners' disappointed faces) at another table that looked just as pale and steamy.
Then versus now: I liked it better better then.
The barbecue sauces, available on the table in squeeze bottles and next to the cutlery station in larger glass bottles—including some limited time sauces not available on the table—are one of the highlights here. Colonel Mustard, which looks browner than yellow and tastes yellower than brown, is a nice mix of sweet, tangy and spicy, with good viscosity. Sweet Caroline is a Northern Carolina style vinegar sauce, tart with a hint of sweet and best on pulled pork. Riverside Original, a sweet, slick and slippery number with just enough thickness to cling (that's good), some vinegar pop and faint heat, is a solid sauce for ribs. Bah-B-Que looks a lot like Riverside Original, but it's a thick purée with tiny pieces of fruit and autumnal seasonings. Disco Inferno is more similar to the Riverside Original but a little thinner and with pronounced but easily tolerable chile heat.
Fries: This has been the one area of universal excellence, or at least close. You can tell that these are not just the typical bagged frozen fries; they put effort in and it shows. The skins are on and the seasoning is very nicely done with generous amounts of black pepper and coarse, large granule sea salt. They are hot, they are crisp, and they taste like potatoes, which is not always a given at places like this. So when all else fails, this is the one safe sanctuary. Even on an off night, they're pretty good. But when they're on, Riverside's fries are among the best in the region, barbecue joint or not.
Cole slaw: Here's another menu item that's changed recipe from a year ago. It always looked like a storebought mix, but I liked the creamy condiment that straddled tangy and sweet. Now there's less tang and the creamy has become more gluey.
Collard greens: A simple preparation brought large, soft leaves immersed in a tame broth that leaned not on seasoning or heat but more on pork choppings and meaty fattiness (in a good way). It allowed the vegetable to speak loudest and there's nothing wrong with that.
Baked beans: A huge serving had much sogginess and much resemblance to a canned version despite the few bits of shredded beef. Probably their worst side.
Potato salad: Large chunks of skin-on potatoes delivered the right texture (just a hint of firmness) and perhaps a little more than the right amount of mustard. With some nice other spices in there too, this is one worth checking out as long as you don't mind the mustard dominance.
Fried green Beans: A generous portion brings a bumpy, seasoned crust evocative of fried chicken. Frozen fried chicken, but I'll take it. These are warm, crisp, and the batter still lets the vegetable be tasted. Served with ranch dressing for dipping.
Fried Pickles: Spears have a simpler batter with a smoother texture and no seasoning. Served with ranch dressing for dipping.
Cornbread: I haven't tried it in any of the revisits, but pieces of cornbread I've seen on other plates have been large, coarse and somewhat appealing.
In addition to metered street parking, there's free parking to the right of the building.
The Bottom Line
So let's take a look at the score sheet. The wings improved significantly. The pork disappointed one time and was a textural triumph another. The ribs were a minor disappointment one time and a major disappointment another. The brisket was just okay. The burnt ends were a steamy failure. The fries and sauces remain strong to excellent. Collard greens yay, baked beans nay.
The menu reconstruction has eliminated the multimeat combo but added some a la carte choices with more flexibility but at a higher price per bite and a much higher overall commitment. The menu photos are beautiful but bear little resemblance to the food you actually receive.
Improvement? I'll let you do the math.
Killer barbecue this isn't, but just as in 2014 there's been some intermittent success and occasional glimmers of hope. Don't make a special trip, but if you find yourself in Nashua, craving barbecue and willing to roll the dice, give it a shot. Some days you'll be rewarded, more days you won't. Just think of "BBQ Done Right" as more wishful thinking than guarantee and you might be pleasantly surprised.
My 2014 review of Riversise Barbeque Company
Yelp reviews of Riverside Barbeque Company
Zomato reviews of Riverside Barbeque Company
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