[Note: This review predates the arrival of Kenton "Jake" Jacobs as Roadhouse pitmaster in late February 2009 (see preview with food photos) and his subsequent dismissal in July 2009, when the restaurant abandoned the idea of serving barbecue smoked over wood and cooked by a pitmaster.]
(09/08/08) (09/10/08) (09/14/08) (09/21/08) (09/30/08) (10/24/08) (11/12/08)
Roadhouse on Beacon Street in Brookline is the barbecue offshoot of the popular Publick House, one of the area's most respected destinations for craft beer. Located just a block away from the flagship, Roadhouse is a converted Vinny T's that boasts two bars (each with distinct offerings on tap), a large dining room, a variety of seating options (tables, communal tables, booths, stools), an outdoor deck and a provisions store that sells many of the same beers that are available at the restaurant by the bottle. The J&R smoker sits in the space between the provisions store and the restaurant.
The music is loud and on weekend nights the crowds are louder. This is clearly a high energy place.
Given its progeny and the fact that Roadhouse servers wear T-shirts bearing the motto "Eat good food, drink better beer," the obvious suspicion is that beer is the focus and barbecue is only the sideline. Over seven visits I investigated that charge.
The nice thing about the Roadhouse menu is that it seems to achieve the compactness that's ideal for efficiency and quality while still maintaining somewhat of a something-for-everyone feel. Barbecue offerings include pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken, turkey legs and sausage.
Appetizers include onion rings, regular and sweet potato fries, deep fried ribs, smoked wings, two kinds of chili and four kinds of salads. For the non-barbecue fan, there's steak, fried chicken, a burger, a portobello sandwich, grilled fish (a more recent addition) and pork chops.
In addition to the dinner menu, there's a separate, extensive beer menu that changes frequently. I like the layout, which lists the point of origin and the alcohol percentage for each brew.
One of my go-to appetizers is wings ($9) if they're smoked, and they're smoked here. On opening night these were downright bland, revealing little if any smoke and relying solely on the sauce for its flavor. Inner texture was basically good. On a recent visit the smoked wings were marginally more flavorful but committed the cardinal sin of not being the slightest bit crisp.
Homemade onion rings ($6) arrive in a brown paper bag, providing some service drama and a good way to relieve some of the grease. Surrounded by a thick, almost too-crunchy-to-be-true batter that overwhelms the onion, these rings are a polarizing dish: some of my tablemates loved them, some hated them. I took the middle ground, but I do wish there were a lower batter-to-onion ratio, more seasoning and a more interesting dipping sauce than barbecue sauce.
Deep fried babyback ribs ($9), ordered on two separate visits, are somewhat of a misnomer, as the size and shape (no curvature) clearly revealed them to be spare ribs, but that's a good thing. The crunchy batter (thankfully not as thick as on the onion rings) and juicy meat beneath provided a perfect mouthfeel. The minimal smoke inside and the lack of seasoning outside brought these down a notch from what could have been excellent to merely good, but I'd probably get them again. There are plenty to an order, so plan on sharing.
Smoked turkey leg ($8) is served on a bed of smashed red bliss potatoes. The pink meat is tender and smoky while allowing the natural turkey flavor to shine through. This is a hard item to share but makes a handy bar snack for one and may be the best bet on the menu. The potatoes are good.
Chili ($4 cup, $8 bowl) is a ground beef variety that's strong in both the tomato and bean departments. I'm a no-beans guy, but this isn't the deal-breaker. If it had some smoked meat (brisket, pork, whatever) or were stronger in the flavor department or the heat department, I'd feel stronger about this chili. It's served with tortilla chips for dipping.
On my first two visits I sampled the entree ribs ($22 rack, $12 half rack) once with sauce and once without sauce, and neither version impressed me. The sauced batch was overcooked to the point where picking up a bone left its meat on the plate, but my larger issues were the lack of outer crust, lack of noticeable rub and near-lack of smoke. The unsauced batch was cooked to a better tenderness (less is more), but was dry. Later visits yielded smaller portions and varying doneness but finally a well defined crust on the fourth try. Rub and smoke still need to be ratcheted further upward, but the flavor is at least improving.
A pulled pork sandwich ($10) from the first visit had so much meat that it spilled out from the bread and onto the plate. Helping that along was its highly sauced, overtender consistency. There were some larger chunks and crispy pieces mixed in among the mushier meat, so those were at least good signs. More importantly, I liked the flavor of the meat, which had a higher smoke level than the ribs and some heat to go along with it. A thin layer of cole slaw under the meat of that first sandwich added a nice contrast, but the slaw has been absent on later renditions. The pork seems to be the most reliable smoked item on the menu, with repeat visits yielding a generous serving of smoky, tender (sometimes overtender) meat each time. One caveat: inspect your meat before your first bite, as some of the fat that should be discarded is often left in the sandwich.
Brisket ($11 sandwich, $15 plate) has been a roller coaster of smokiness and tenderness. On the first visit, its pink smoke ring and lightly charred edges were a beauty to behold but belied the toughness of the meat, which was nearly impossible to cut with a knife. On the next visit, the brisket was just as smoky and much more tender. On a third try, it was less smoky and less tender.
A half rack of beef ribs ($12.00) supplied hefty, pink and reasonably tender meat, with a nice beefy flavor, but as with the pork ribs, these need more rub, more smoke and more bark.
The sausage trio includes three different kinds of sausage "fatties" that are each sliced about an inch thick. Although not billed as such, these are the first fatties that have been available on a restaurant menu on its first day of operation. For smoke and flavor this dish may have been the most assertive item on the menu.
A burger was decent, as were the few bites I sampled of my wife's chicken (I'm still not sure if it was smoked) and my wife's grilled fish special. Steak was less impressive, with more fault in the cut than the preparation.
Two different Kansas City style sauces have the color and consistency of chocolate pudding. Both are sweet, with the hotter variety a tweaked version of the house sauce. Opening night also had a mustard sauce and a pump-it-yourself sauce station, but both seem to have been phased out.
Collard greens were prepared very simply: large, uncut leaves were cooked just past the point of wilting, with neither meat for contrast nor any discernable complementary flavors.
Supplied in abundance with each sandwich, fries have been excellent on every visit. These are dark, hand-cut, skin-on, thick-cut strips that have plenty of natural potato flavor. If you ask nicely, especially if your table orders more than one sandwich, you may be able to substitute sweet potato fries (shaped into crinkle cut chips) for the standard fries. I wish you could just order any side.
Cole slaw looked very ordinary as orders made their way to neighboring tables on my first visit, but a sampling on my second visit was surprisingly good. There's enough creaminess, tartness and savory backdrop to please all of the different slaw camps out there.
Plump baked beans were bathed in a pool of sauce with a tomatoey, ketchupy base and a good amount of spice and heat. I thought the tomato element was a little strong, but a table mate raved about these beans. On another visit they were very tart.
The cucumber salad was off the charts entirely in the tart department. I like vinegar but I couldn't finish these.
Smashed potatoes were good both times I tried them.
Mac and cheese in the first visits was tight, with just enough cheese and potent in a Velveeta-like way. On later visits, it was looser, much sharper and much more geared to adult tastes.
Cornbread, available in plain or jalapeno, changed even more drastically from the earliest visits to the recent visits. The earlier versions had a texture like a sponge––not spongecake but literally a sponge––and didn't taste too much different. This improved to a sweeter, cakier version that had a good denseness and a coarse texture with a crunchiness from corn kernels. When it's on, it's now one of the best cornbreads out there.
Like a lot of things, the barbecue at Roadhouse is neither as good as its fans would have you believe nor as bad as its detractors would have you believe, but somewhere in the middle (I lean slightly toward the latter viewpoint).
One thing the Roadhouse detractors do have wrong is the notion that it's overpriced, with the usual backing argument the fact that most platters include only a single side, but five hefty beef ribs and one generous side for $12 is a steal. The onion rings offer twice the volume as at most other joints. The beer pricing is comparable. Sides are reasonably priced at $3 each and offer more volume than your
Menu flexibility is needed: there ought to be at least a two-meat combo, with two sides per platter and a choice of the sides.
I wish they'd put some of the hot sauces available at the provisions store on the table. Not only would it be a good way to thin out and tone down the overly sweet, overly thick sauces, but the added heat would boost beer sales andit would be a good showcase for the provisions store.
As much as I like the beer menu layout, I wish there were some descriptions of the flavors. This information––even if lifted from supplier websites––would be very helpful to relative novices like myself to the world of "craft" beers. And I wish the servers were versed enough in the beer offerings to be able to bridge that gap with guidance.
The bottom line: The official name of the restaurant is Roadhouse Craft Beer and BBQ, so both in the name and in the execution, the barbecue does take a back seat––a back seat in a vehicle several carlengths behind, in fact––to the beer. As long as you know this going in and set the proper expectations, you can have an enjoyable night out here. You could have a decent barbecue meal too, but it will probably take a few tries.
At least they're trying. I'll give them another try in another six months or so before I give in to temptation and simply dub them Roadhouse Beer and Kraft BBQ.
Robert Nadeau's Boston Phoenix review of Roadhouse
James Reed's Boston Globe article/review on Roadhouse
Devra First's Boston Globe review of Roadouse
Yelp reviews of Roadhouse
Menu on Allmenus.com (in progress)