Located in the hybrid of strip mall and office park known as the Cummings Center, the Beverly outpost of the American Barbecue is a lot roomier and suburban looking than the barn-like original in Rowley. Outside, there's a stack of wood to let you know that the barbecue is smoked, but the tell tale aroma upon entry would already be enough. The comfortable setting has a chalkboard menu, over-the-counter service and sprawling booths outfitted with paper towel racks below the table top. The American Barbecue also has one of the best equipped stations I've ever seen for condiments, sauces and plasticware. There's no bar, but small and well chosen assortment of beer is available. The meal starts off on a positive note with free popcorn, peanuts in the shell and homemade potato chip samples.
Barbecue options include St Louis cut pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, smoked chicken, pulled chicken and smoked sausage. Combination platters allow two-meat ($15.95) and three-meat ($19.95) configurations. Surprisingly deep for an over-the-counter joint, the non-barbecue menu features wings, chili, grilled chicken, chicken fingers, steak tips, turkey tips, fries and rings, salmon and haddock, burgers, two different salads and an array of Southern desserts.
I stopped in with some barbecue friends for a weeknight dinner, then followed up for a solo Saturday lunch about a year and a half later.
Free snacks: There's something welcoming about a place that's willing to feed you a few different freebies before you even place your order. You can help yourself to baskets of popcorn and peanuts in the shell well ahead of the counter, which has a sample basket of homemade potato chips. The chips had all the characteristics I look for in a perfect cookie: crispy exterior, chewy interior and enough of the complementary flavor (in this case, jerk seasoning) to make an impression but not so much that it barges its way past complementary status. I could easily eat a bag of 'em, and were it not for my token attempt at a diet, I would have easily purchased a bag for two dollars and change.
Onion rings: Homemade rings made with thick cut onions and puffy batter needed some salt, but I still liked the overall flavor. I really liked the crispness, which isn't always a factor with this style.
Chili: Made with mostly ground beef, unmelted cheese and what looked to be a few scraps of barbecue meat, this mildly spiced blend was nothing out of the ordinary and wouldn't receive consideration for making my chili list, but I still give it props as a competently prepared straightforward "everyday" chili.
Ribs: Generously covered with barbecue sauce the first time and requested unsauced the second time, the lengthy St Louis cut pork ribs had a good crust, nice smoke ring, faint smoke taste and good overall flavor despite the lack of a real rub presence. What brought these down a notch for me was that the ribs were very overcooked, to the point where they felt like pre-chewed brownies.
Pulled pork: Sauced both times but with more restraint, the pork was similarly cooked past the point of tender. There was a little bark, but not much, and the very thin, very delicate strings had little resistance and minimal flavor. Some Carolina sauce helped.
Brisket: Bark was mostly absent; flavor was mostly decent. I'll give them points for a visible smoke ring and doneness closer to ideal. There was a pot roasty characteristic on the first visit and a more briskety feel the second time around.
Chicken: It was nice to see a half chicken on the 3-meat combo (first visit), something I'd only seen done at Goody Cole's (Brentwood NH). The skin was rubbery under a heavy dousing of sauce. Dark meat was succulent; white meat was dry. The flavor had a light smokiness.
Sausage: Served on the first visit as slices about 1/4" thick, even these were sauced. The edges were crisp and the insides had the same kind of texture you get in sliced meatballs on a pizza. Oddly, I probably liked the sausage the most of all the meats.
Four different barbecue sauces are available at a well-stocked condiment, cutlery and plating station (I love that you can get different sized styrofoam plates, cups and takeout boxes, and even little bags). The regular (brown) and hot (more red) are slight variations on ketchup, though the regular that topped the meats as served seemed to have more zing and more spreadability. The "Yellow" sauce (that's the name they use) also had some zing and sweetness, and I'm pretty sure it's a Cattleman's product (not that it's a problem). The Carolina sauce had lots of pepper and spice flecks and was significantly thicker and more full bodied than a typical vinegar sauce.
Collard greens: These were the highlight of both visits, offering a grab bag of leaves and stems that were chopped just enough to be manageable and cooked just enough to make them slightly tender while retaining just a hint of al dente resistance. The condiment was an assertive broth and a grab bag of pork (or was there chicken in there too?) and sausage. I remembered pepperoni from my first visit to the Rowley location, but whatever was in there on these visits was better. And enough to make the American Barbecue's collards one of my all-time faves.
Fries: After a pretty impressive onion ring starter that I thought was homemade, the industrial strength frozen fries let me down.
Mac and cheese: Smooth, creamy, soft and mild. Perfect for children and those seeking childhood memories; not so perfect for those seeking adult flavors.
Cole slaw: This had crisp, thinly sliced cabbage dressed with restrained use of a faintly sweet lubricant and a heavy sprinkling of celery seed. On the first visit It felt and tasted like it was prepared just minutes before serving, so the flavors didn't have a chance to settle in. On the second visit, the flavor was more integrated. I'd have to also rank this up there with my favorite slaws ever.
Cucumber salad: Same deal as the cole slaw on the first visit: nice crispness and good potential, but the flavors hadn't kicked in yet.
Cornbread: Each combo was topped with a giant block of cornbread that was nearly the size of a brick, but it was surprisingly light, like angel food cake. It was sweet like angel food cake too, with a little crunch at the edges.
The Bottom Line
At the American Barbecue, the portions are generous, the vibe is cozy and the 'cue is at least above average (well above average if you like it well past tender). But for me, the sides—especially the collards and slaw—are the real reason to go back.
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