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Texas BBQ Company in Northborough is a small roadside joint on Route 20, just a few miles west of Route 495. The converted sandwich shop has a small bar area to the left and a small dining area to the right, each with a single TV. The walls have understated metal stars and metal lamps with steer designs. There's a picnic table for outdoor dining. The smoker is a mystery, safely hidden in a separate structure behind the restaurant, additionally protected by a gate.
It was a steamy 107 degrees on the August day they opened in 2006, so I waited until day #2 to try them out. Four days later I hit them again and posted an early review that I've been meaning to update for at least the last couple years. The dozen visits scattered over six years have mostly been on weeknights and with seasoned barbecue aficionados. On a few of these visits, the smell of smoking woods filled the air as we walked in.
The menu itself is fairly interesting and well written, describing the Texas Hill Country style of barbecue and the various options. Appetizers are somewhat limited, with only chili, soup, salad, fries, onion strings and "Texas Caviar Dip & Chips."
Barbecue sandwiches include the usual suspects (chopped beef, chopped pork, pulled pork, pulled chicken), plus turkey breast, sliced pork loin and de-boned rib meat. For entrees, there are three kinds of ribs (beef, pork babybacks and St Louis cut pork spare), Hill Country sausage, pulled pork, brisket, chicken, turkey and pork loin. I like that they have two different size options for a 3-meat platter, allowing variety with or without the bulk. Stretching the offerings out even further are numerous non-barbecue entrees and specials, including meatloaf, a few seafood dishes and a burger.
Chili: Texas chili with ground beef and beans? Something's wrong here. It's a competent chili for a generic restaurant, but for a barbecue joint—let alone a Texas barbecue joint—the mildness, beans and lack of a barbecue presence combined for a letdown. I do like that it's available by the cup ($3.29), bowl ($5.29) or bowl with unlimited tortilla chips ($8.79). Disclosure: I haven't had their chili in a few years.
Wings: I tried the honey habanera wings ($8.39 for 10), which are deep fried and tossed in a sticky sauce that gives an initial impression of being just sweet, but the heat from the peppers kicks in triumphantly after a brief delay. I like them, but I'd like them crispier and I'd love them smoked.
Fried pickles: Served in a bowl with creamy dip on the side, the fried pickles special arrived lightly battered, lightly seasoned and tasty from the hot vinegar release upon first bite. The dip was a cold concoction that didn't bring much to the equation, but the pickles themselves were nice.
Texas Caviar: The name sounds fancy, but it's basically a black-eyed pea salad ($7.99), mixed with tomato, onions, peppers, avocado, jalapeños and cilantro, served cold. Multicolored homemade tortilla chips are included for dipping. This refreshing dish is a good accompaniment to smoky meat, so I'd actually recommend it as a makeshift side. Some minor quibbles would be that the jalapeños play only a minor role and I missed the vinegar that usually punches this dish up, but I still really enjoyed Texas BBQ Company's version.
Pork ribs: Tried almost exclusively as St Louis cut spares on 3-meat combos, the pork ribs have arrived consistently as a quartet, oddly placed concave side down. Flipping them around to their more photogenic side reveals a light glaze and a heavy rub consisting mostly of black pepper, with a little cayenne thrown in too. The bite typically unleashes more sweetness than the glaze would suggest and certainly more than I'd expect from a Texas style joint. The combination of that sweet with the (usually) heavy spice works very well, though the ratio of this tandem to the meat does vary, sometimes leaving a slight flavor void. More often than not, the overall flavor is fine, with smoke at mid level. Doneness is usually right on the money, never drifting into stiff and rarely drifting into mushy. Texture is what makes or breaks these ribs from visit to visit: sometimes they bring crisp crust and juicy inner meat; other times they lean toward the dry side with just a hint of crust. Texas BBQ Company's pork ribs are always good, but when crust, juiciness and rub potency are at their highest they're excellent. In that regard, I'd say they're very similar to Firefly's (down the street in neighboring Marlborough) even though they're quite different in style and flavor.
Beef ribs: Generally served as two bones to a 3-meat combo, the beef ribs typically offer more of an outer crust than the pork ribs, along with a gentle, almost steaky interior. The smoke level is usually high, as is seasoning, though there's a little less interior penetration than on some renditions I've enjoyed. Moistness is never an issue, but that full throttle juice explosion is a rarity. Overall, these beef ribs might not have that one defining characteritsic to hang their (10-gallon) hat on, but they're always enjoyable and one of the better examples of beef back ribs east of the Connecticut River.
Brisket: The go-to meat of Texas barbecue is a definite go-to here. The edges are typically borderline crisp or better, with some bumpiness from the rub and a thin fat layer that adds both moistness and flavor to the rest of the well-carved slice. Smoke rings are a virtual guarantee. Over the years, some slices have been near meltingly tender and a sole example was stringy dry, but most of the time the brisket has had above average tenderness and moistness. Flavor is a nice mix of beefiness, smokiness and rub (even deep into the slice) without any one characteristic dominating the rest.
You can request burnt ends, which gets you chunks from the fattier deckle section of the brisket. Although cooked no differently from the regular slices here (at some places burnt ends are double smoked and seasoned a second time between sessions), they're a little richer and more moist.
Sausage: Mild and hot versions are available, both done in the style of Texas Hill Country, where sausages are a mainstay. I've probably had the sausage on two out of every three Texas BBQ Company visits, finding it always moist but always shy of the full-on juicy that's possible if you don't cut into the links. Flavor more than compensates, delivering more than a bit of pepperiness in the mild and much more than a bit in the hot. Overall flavor is very pleasant from the meat and the noticeable smoke, but the star of the show is the assortment of spices and seeds nestled into the grind. Tenderness departs from the stereotype here, replacing the near-fall-apart texture with a snap that requires only a little extra effort.
Pulled Pork: I've had the pulled pork here a handful of times, and it's all over the map. Coloring is always an unusual blend of pale at the center, dark at the edges and bright pink near them. What vary are freshness and moistness: sometimes you get neither and sometimes you get both. The better examples have been among the best pork I've had, but it's far from a sure thing. My most recent sample was on the dry side and lacking flavor, but a little splash of vinegar sauce brought it back to life.
Chicken: Shrouded in dark brown wrinkly skin speckled with black pepper, the chicken has been consistently moist and tender, with my most recent serving floppy, fall-off-the-bone tender. As for flavor, the rub is strong and the smoke is surprisingly strong. I don't typically order chicken at a barbecue joint, but aside from the skin issues, this is a good one.
All meats are served unsauced here, following the Texas model and allowing you to eat them as is or add sauces from bottles on the table. I like this approach, but I think their Kansas City style sauces are a little out of place for a Texas joint, not all that inspired and not all that different from what you might find at the store. There's a regular and a hot on the table, plus a vinegar sauce available by request.
BBQ entrees come with two sides and your choice of cornbread or Texas toast. I found the sides to be mediocre in the early days, but they've picked up over the years.
Fried okra: If you're not a fan of vegetables, one way to change things up is to get 'em deep fried, and this is a good one. You revel in the crisp, well seasoned batter, but you'll also taste the vegetable itself, which isn't such a bad thing. If the Texas Caviar is an appetizer I'm getting as a side, then this is the side in getting as an appetizer.
Onion rings: The rings have varied in both style and quality over the years, with some being very good, but the most recent ones were an obvious frozen product. Supposedly these have been discontinued.
Onion strings: Billed as homemade, the onion strings are technically also rings, bearing a thinner batter similar to the flaky style but without any flaking. The salting is always generous and the portion just as generous, delivering about twice the volume as expected. The flavor of the onion and the flavor of the batter both impressed.
Beans: These looked and tasted canned, with not much flavor, texture or added meat.
Cole slaw: Sliced exceptionally thin, crisp and dressed with a thin condiment hinting of sweetness and vinegar (but no mayo), this is a refreshing change of pace. It's one of my favorite cole slaws.
Texas toast: A thick (nearly 2 inches) slice of doughy bread buttered and grilled. Not bad.
The atmosphere here is missing something. Both the bar area and dining room are small, and ther really aren't any bells or whistles. One man's "It's too bad there's nothing really exciting here" is another man's "It's a good thing there's nothing really annoying here," so judge for yourself.
The Bottom Line
In my first review of Texas BBQ Company, I compared them to the girl with the braces and thick glasses, seeing potential for them to blossom into something beautiful. That may not have come fully to fruition, but Texas BBQ Company is looking a lot better now than they were then. Always likeable and sometimes loveable, they're one of the better and more underrated barbecue joints in both the Boston and Worcester 'burbs.
My 2006 review of Texas BBQ Company
Yelp reviews of Texas BBQ Company
Urbanspoon reviews of Texas BBQ Company