Joining the adult food court that is One Kendall Square is State Park, an offspring of nearby Hungry Mother. Both are Southern themed restaurants by chef Barry Maiden and both take their name from Hungry Mother State Park in Virginia, displayed as a scale model diarama in the foyer. The predecessor is more refined (Maiden did stints at L'Espalier, Sel de la Terre and Lumiere) while the newbie is more rough and tumble.
The ceilings are low and the noise levels are high. The room looks like a frathouse basement circa 1977, with none of the reclaimed and reinstalled wood so common among new restaurants these days. No, this is retro without being forced, and rather a beer sign (and beer menu) homage to the cheap brews of youth: Budweiser, Miller, Gennessee, Narragansett, Rolling Rock. There's a pool table and two pinball machines. Reserved tables are identified by wrestling action figures.
Is State Park a barbecue joint? Maybe, maybe not, but there's a smoker onsite, a smoked chopped pork sandwich on the menu and enough other smoked items that it's at least worthy of discussion.
So many joints take a pan-regional barbecue approach in their menus. Here, it's pan-regional Southern, with a la carte sandwiches and stand-alone meats from various food capitals. There are two pork sandwiches (chopped pork and pork cutlet), two fried chickens (Tabasco honey and Nashville hot), two interpretations of smoked Andouille sausage (cold/pickled and in a chili-topped sandwich) plus Boudin sausage, fried items galore (catfish, hushpuppies, oyster roll, tobacco onions, fried pickled okra), Memphis BBQ spaghetti, Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice), Kentucky Hot Brown (turkey sandwich) and more pickling (pickled eggs).
In keeping with the lowbrow feel, bags of Utz potato chips are prominently displayed and available as a side or bar snack.
It's a fun menu, though I have two very minor nits to pick. First, there are no descriptions, just names, which must add at least five minutes to most of the order taking—maybe ten if decisions need to be pondered after hearing the verbal deets. Second, that lowbrow feel would feel a little more genuine if the chips were included with the $10 sandwiches.
I hit State Park with a barbecue maven on a busy Thursday evening. The crowd arrived slowly but by the end of dinner the joint was standing room only.
Pickled Andouille Sausage: More of a snack than a side, this small jar ($5.00) is stuffed with half-inch slices of smoked Andouille, house made pickling liquid and thin pepper slices. Cocktail toothpicks sticking out of the top make festive and useful implements. The liquid takes a little of the color and all of the crispness away from the sausage, but the smoke isn't muted one bit. Smoke and vinegar make an interesting combination that I enjoyed, but the novelty wore off after the third or fourth slice. Still an item I'd recommend if shared among a group of four or so.
Chopped pork sandwich: This is a down and dirty version ($9.95), served on crusty white bread with a few some housemade bread and butter pickles. The first thing you'll notice is the profusion of cole slaw (mayo base, not too mayoey) above the pork that after just a quick glance you'd swear is egg salad. That's because it's very finely chopped. So while that may have crispness ramifications, I actually prefer this approach as a sandwich topping, as it allows better distribution, more neatness and more attention to be paid to the pork. Oh yeah, speaking of which...
This is chopped pork, not pulled, so the pieces look more like cubes than strands, and many of them fall out of the sandwich (so much for neatness). The spillage affords an easy examination and a quick determination that there's not much bark and not much color, unless you count gray as a color. A just-as-quick cube popping confirms the initial suspicion: not much smoke. Texture is moist and more than a bit steamy. Flavor is lacking. There's some thin barbecue sauce in there, but it's rather neutral.
Within the context of a sandwich, this pork does okay enough (that is, if okay is enough) (credit the slaw with the save). But other than out of journalistic diligence, I probably wouldn't get it again unless I saw a better looking version of it passing by on someone else's plate.
Half Smoke: This regional specialty sausage sandwich ($10.00) popularized by Ben's Chili Bowl (Washington DC) gets a well conceived construction here. Is it authentic? I'm not going to pretend to know; this was my first of what I hope will be several here and elsewhere. The etymology of the term has been much debated—see the link below for more info.
Let's start from the bottom and work our way up. The housing is a hot dog bun, liberally buttered and grilled just enough to leave the insides golden brown and the outer body pillowy and pliable.
Then there's the sausage, which I know is smoked and believe is deep fried. Normally I'd be disappointed by the choice to butterfly it, but that's how it's done in the nation's capital. It's also a great way to crisp up nearly twice as much of the surface area while still leaving enough snap, moistness and tenderness. Unlike the pork, the smoke is very noticeable if not very strong. I'm pretty sure there was some spice in there too.
Chili tops the sausage. It's an all-meat, no-bean version with a very fine chop that gets more of that good coverage, minimal messiness combo. Some may want more of it, but I like the restraint: there's just enough to add some spice and liquidity without running down your sleeve.
With what may be a non-traditional element, cole slaw tops the whole thing off. It's a different version from what's in the pork sandwich; here the chop is less minced and more of a traditional slicing. The mayo is more prominent too, giving it a nice cooling effect.
The different flavors and textural elements work very well together, with each one identifiable and the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The chicken (see below) may be getting the attention, but the half smoke is what I enjoyed most.
Fried Chicken: There are two styles, but we had to go with the Nashville Hot fried chicken plate ($18.00), which arrived as an artful stack of four pieces—two thighs, one leg, one breast—with a slice of white bread underneath and some housemade bread and butter pickles on the side.
The surface wasn't particularly thick and wasn't all-out crunchy, but I'd say there was just enough crispness not to have any complaints. Lightly applied thin sauce got good distribution without making things soggy and without disturbing the spice rub that easily burst through the sauce. Both the sauce (red) and the rub (chile peppery) looked imposing. When they recommend ordering a glass of buttermilk ($3.00) as an antidote to the heat, you know you're in for a challenge.
An intense rub featuring salt, paprika and brown sugar masterfully kept pace with the heat component(s) that seemed to come from exterior saucing, a pre-cook brine and possibly the rub as well. Heat just for heat's sake is a bore; here, the heat is just a part of the overall package, even if it is the most recognizeable aspect. Inside, the chicken was quite juicy, even the breast.
That heat arrived instantly and powerfully, and did not dissipate even after a two minute break to assess the situation. It was certainly formidable but still doable; my only fear was that the heat would keep building with each bite. That turned out not to be the case: the heat plateaued, unlifted by further bites, but the all-around flavor actually became more pronounced. I call that a win-win. Surprisingly and thankfully, there were no, uh, "morning after" regrets. That might be the biggest win of all.
Collard Greens: Available a la carte ($4.50), the bright, well-past-wilting leaves bore full flavor from garlic and a dense cooked-down quality that was all vegetarian. Slightly rich and neither bitter not tart.
Service was outstanding. A few different servers got into the act, but our assigned server Georgia worked her ass off getting in and out of the kitchen, researching and answering a barrage of questions, shuttling food, refilling drinks, exchanging high fives and maintaining an infectious smile throughout.
The Bottom Line
A fun place with a refreshingly lowbrow take on Southern food, especially compared to it sibling Hungry Mother. Foodwise, some hits and some misses with more of the former and much more still left to try. All thing considered, I like it.
The Half Smoke (Wikipedia)
Foodie Asshole's Review of State Park
Yelp reviews of State Park
Urbanspoon reviews of State Park
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