Review Date: 10/06/17
Visit Dates: (07/22/17) (09/30/17)
Away from the water and just slightly away from the touristy main drag in historic Salem, Smokin' Betty's is a stylish barbecue joint and lounge by the owners of Gulu-Gulu Cafe and Flying Saucer Pizza Company elsewhere in town. Said stylishness is as much of a draw as the wood-smoked meats. Brick walls: check. Reclaimed wood: check. Unusual artwork: check. Tin hightops: check. Lounge chairs: check. Communal seating at picnic tables: check. Outdoor seating: check. Vintage games, including a bowling-themed one: check.
The barbecue entree proteins stick to the basics (babybacks, brisket, pulled pork, chicken), along with hot beef sausage. These are offered a la carte; the only combos are $60 and $90 configurations intended for groups of four and six. Sides are also a la carte, but you can order a half pound of any one boneless item (no splitting) plus two sides for $16. Smoked seitan is just one of the many attractions for vegetarians on a menu that clearly identifies vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items. Appetizers include smoked jerk wings, fried green tomatoes, hush puppies and tacos. Sandwiches can also be had, including the boneless meats as well as Nashville hot chicken, a fried green tomato po' boy and a smoked pork belly BLT.
I visited Smokin' Betty's with Young Bride for a Saturday lunch and a Saturday dinner, spaced about two months apart.
Fried Green Tomatoes: Tried on both visits, the fried green tomatoes ($11) were crunchy with thick batter and vacant seasoning the first time, crunchy with thinner better and mild seasoning the second time, and thick, tart, juicy tomato slices both times. A zippy orange sauce (think Russian dressing, only thicker and spicier) is smeared on the tray for dipping.
Wings: Normally this would be an automatic first visit order,
but Smokin' Betty's didn't add wings until a couple months into the
operation. The second visit's order ($12) seemed pricey at first glance,
but the tray yielded a half dozen jumbo full wings that would translate
into a dozen pieces if separated. These came with no sauce on them and
no dipping sauce, but the jerk rub still provided sufficient flavor
(though the smoke was very light). The grilled exteriors were brittle and
dry, but not brutal and dry. The inner meat was mostly moist. Flavor
didn't need any boost, but the moistness was easily enhanced by the six
barbecue sauces available on the table (details below). Overall, these
were some good wings with the potential to be very good with a little
more moistness throughout and a little more smoke.
Ribs: They were babybacks both times, but the two visits encountered different presentations. The first try was part of a 3-meat combo that no longer exists (everything's now a la carte unless you want a $60 combo for a crowd); the diminutive ribs carried minimal meat but made up for that with quantity (six is virtually unheard of on a 3-meat) and boatloads of balanced, fragrant rub. The second try came after the introduction of a new menu: a half rack ($15, no sides) saw curvy bones that were more than twice as long, with more meat per bite. While the meatiness increased significantly, the rub decreased nearly as significantly, though there was still enough of it to make the ribs pleasant. In both orders, the smoke and moistness were recognizable but barely so. They were hardly tough, but the ribs required a little effort to get them off the bone, similar to old school Chinese takeout ribs. I preferred the first batch, but there's still potential here.
Pulled Pork: Tried only on the first visit's 3-meat combo (now defunct), the pork was served as very large chunks with some bark here and there but mostly interior meat. Again, light but noticeable smoke. The good news: it was by far the most tender and juicy item I've tried here. The bad news: it didn't have much flavor. The worse news: it was probably the only tender and juicy item I've tried here, though some others came somewhat close.
Brisket: Tried on the first visit's 3-meat combo (now defunct) and as a half-pound ($16 with two sides) on the second visit, the brisket both times arrived as thick, lengthy slices with darkened bark on the outside. They were also both borderline tender and borderline moist, coming in right on the border the first time and barely on the right side of the border the second time, but not that far apart. There seemed to be more moistness on the surfaces, with a slightly dry chewing experience. Smoke and rub were both noticeable though both light. But let's cut through all the verbiage: this brisket was slightly above average. Both times. Nothing more, nothing less (read: no hallelujahs, no condemnation).
An arsenal of six different sauces at the table provides some interesting and well executed choices.
Memphis: A thick brown sauce with a red tint might look vaguely commercial, but it's not commercial at all; this is complex with fruit and vanilla flavors.
Bourbon: Not at all whiskey heavy, this one's more of a marmalade with pieces of fruit and/or onion with light tingly heat. It's one of my favorite sweet sauces anywhere.
Kansas City: The only ketchupy sauce of the bunch but kicked up with tang.
North Carolina: Very thin, tangy, slightly sweet.
South Carolina: A typical mustard-based sauce with not as much sweetness and heat as most.
White: The Alabama style mayo-based sauce was thinner and more vinegary than most; it appears to have been replaced by the new Louisiana sauce.
Louisiana: A thin, green, runny vinegar and pepper sauce with a little more bite than the North Carolina sauce. It's a good one to add to one of the first three sauces to balance the sweetness.
Vinegar Cole Slaw: Crunchy cabbage was lubricated with what felt more like an Italian dressing than pure vinegar. Not much flavor.
Vegetarian Collard Greens: The condiment here similarly added moisture but not flavor; the large wilting leaves were basically a solo act.
Mac and Cheese: Properly non-wilting spiral pasta carried a creamy, slightly-sharper-than-mild cheese sauce just thick enough to cling. I prefer their original version with pimento flavor (abandoned based on their Facebook page poll, which I can respect), but what they're serving now is very good.
Corn on the Cob: Solid. Husk intact; otherwise standard.
Cucumber Salad: A simple mix of cucumbers, vinegar and onions.
Cornbread: A large Twinkie-like brick was both times warm, crisp and dry enough to need the honey butter.
Before my first visit to Smokin' Betty's, I received some reader photos of the brisket, which looked much more juicy than the two portions I received. To me that means Smokin' Betty's has it in them to produce high level barbecue; perhaps it's just a matter of time.
As with any barbecue joint that sells by the pound, prices can add up quickly. There's a bit of a disconnect between price and value, but it's not off by much. Chalk it up to the location and atmosphere, which are both strengths.
In the old days I'd wait at least one more visit (or two, to try chicken, sausage and one of the sandwiches) before finalizing a review. But since it's early October when I'm unlikely to fight the seasonal crowds in Salem, and since there are too many other joints to either try or close out a review, it is what it is.
The Bottom Line
I like Smokin' Betty's a little more than what I'm guessing comes across in the item-by-item rundown. While none of the barbecue was great, none of it was bad (or even close) and most of it was decent to pretty good. The meats could use more moistness and smoke, and the sides could use some more oomph, but the rubs, the sauces and the vibe are strong suits. Though there's still a way to go, I like where Smokin' Betty's is headed enough to head back.
Yelp reviews of Smokin' Betty's
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