(07/14/12) (07/14/12) (yes, twice in one day)
Three Guys Basement BBQ is a subterranean joint (no real shocker there) tucked away in an alley near Dartmouth College. A medieval door leads you down to a fun windowless space with impressive antique and neon signage, many inviting nooks and crannies for dining and a bar and scattered raised tables for drinking. According to a trusted mole, the smoker is a Southern Pride electric model.
I'll cut to the chase: the good news is that there are many choices and much flexibility; the bad news was that the all a la carte menu made the bill ring up very quickly. That bad news turned into better news just last week (after my visits) with a menu change that introduced a budget-conscious combo (three meats with one side).
Available smoked meats include St Louis cut pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, pulled chicken (no quarter or half chickens), burnt ends and kielbasa. Turkey legs have been discontinued. Ribs are offered as half racks or full racks; boneless meats are priced by the pound, ordered in half pound increments. Appetizers include chili, wings, rings, grits sticks and three different salads. For sandwiches, there are the standard smoked boneless meats plus a burger, a veggie burger and an oyster po' boy.
I visited twice on the same Saturday: once as a quartet of seasoned barbecue fans and later on when two of us returned to try the burnt ends that weren't available earlier.
Onion rings: That the large platter's rings ($7.00) were thick, golden, crispy and
well seasoned was obvious even before first bite.
(Disclaimer: none of the onion ring photos I took do them justice; they
even appear to be a different breed altogether.) All of those attributes
lived up to expectation and then some. What kicked these up even
further was an intoxicating sweetness that asserted itself but never
tried to steal the show (think savory oniony donut). Salting was also strong and the onions were sweet even beyond the batter, thanks to a buttermilk soaking. These were among the best onion rings I've had, and possibly best ever, barbecue restaurant or otherwise.
Wings: A plate of habanero wings ($10) looked as crisp as the rings and
impressed with a visual that utilized carrots, celery and thin sliced
scallions, but the bite didn't live up to expectation. Flavor was decent
enough, but not only didn't they taste smoked (as our server claimed),
they offered no evidence to convince me that they were. These were not
unlike a KFC honey wing in size and consistency, though I liked the
Pork Belly: Tried twice on the same day's early afternoon and early evening visits,
the pork belly ($8 for a half pound) both times arrived more sturdy than floppy, with the earlier batch merely moist and the later batch trickly juicy. The bright pink slab of well rubbed, well marbled pork came back with the most smoke of any of the meats we tried. The exterior supplied plenty of crunch and more than plenty of cloves flavor. For some at our table, the cloves intensity was too much, but I liked that they let it all hang out with strong flavors, including what must have been a cure. My more immediate gripe with the belly was that it didn't even approach the tenderness of most. And while most pork belly is very bacony, this one was more like a smoky, salty, clovy ham. Make that a very clovy ham.
Ribs: A full slab ($27) of St Louis spares filled the dog dish style round metal tray as two half racks, each one coated with a dry rub that had a semi-wet Shake 'n' Bake characteristic. An immediate first reaction: these ribs (smaller, browner) looked
nothing like the more mouthwatering examples (meatier, redder) shown on
the restaurant's webite. The outer surface varied among the ribs: some had a crisp crust, some had more of a steamy feel. Deeper down, all of the ribs were uniformly moist and tender, pulling easily off the bone without falling off. Smoke was light but noticeable. Above average for sure, but more poultry tasting for me, probably thanks to that Shaky Baky rub.
Brisket: This meat ($8 for half a pound) had a different surface profile. Though served unsauced (as were all meats other than the pulled pork), the thick slices bore a thin glaze of sauce that may have been basted in down the stretch. Clinging to this were numerous salt crystals that sang loudest among the rub ingredients. Once you got past the glaze, the brisket slice didn't have much moistness; some bites were downright dry. Flavor was good though, with more rub flavor or possibly an injection providing a lightly sweet, lightly spicy tandem that caught more of the meat than the smoke did.
Turkey leg: We were told that this large bone of healthy meat ($10) was about
to be discontinued, and days after our visit, it was. Probably a good call, as our sample was light of
skin, light of rub, lighter of flavor and lightest on cooking time (not raw but
Pulled pork: The only sauced meat ($7.50 for a half pound) emulated a big pile of spaghetti with its
noodly, saucy appearance. The sauce masked the pork's flavor through
both sheer volume and a flavor intensity that carried strong cinnamon
notes. Texture was okay under the sauce, and just as noodly, but the sauce had final say.
This is a different take on pulled pork that didn't work for me, but I
can easily see many people really enjoying it. I'd recommend it in a
sandwich where some complementary flavors could temper that sweet wet
Burnt ends: These cubes of beef succulence from the fattiest part of the brisket were previously listed on the menu as a sandwich option only, but they're now also available by the pound. They just might not be available at all hours of the day. On our early lunch visit, they were still a few hours away, so two of the four of us returned late afternoon to complete the mission. The plate appearance fizzled somewhat with a very light, near monotone gray-brown color that's typical of an electric smoker. Bark would have helped but was in short supply. Tenderness was very good, wilting under the slightest pressure. Many of the pieces had a steamy, pot roasty characteristic but one out of every three was excellent, delivering a full-flavored bite that had strong smoke, potent rub and welcome beef caramel chewiness. The salt level was high, as was the case on almost every meat we tried. It never got out of hand, but if a salt lover like myself takes notice, it's worth mentioning. If 3 Guys can put out an entire plate of burnt ends as good as the one-in-three standouts, they might have a real winner, but even as constituted they have a solid example that I'd certainly order again.
Spicy: Thick, brown and mostly sweet with some hot peppers thrown in, perhaps also some vinegar.
Sweet: A lighter brown sauce that tastes a little like apple pie and more like apples cooked down until they become near caramel. This didn't taste as cinnamony on its own as the sauce on the pork did.
Habanero: More of a thick paste than a sauce, this had strong flavor that was best used as an add-on.
Baked beans: Possibly coated in the same sweet barbecue sauce as the pork, the beans had slight firmness, decent flavor and the same onion-chive garnish as all the meats.
Cole slaw: Creamy, crisp and very herby.
Dirty rice: This ultra wet rendition had unusually strong meat flavor and lots of meat nuggets. They say liver's involved.
The Bottom Line
3 Guys Basement BBQ is the classic example of a mixed bag that needs work but has promise. The onion rings are outstanding and there's no hope for the pulled pork or chicken wings, but with just a few slight tweaks, the pork belly, burnt ends, ribs and brisket could be very good. They seem like they're trying, so I'm rooting for 3 Guys to succeed.
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