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The all-new, indoor BT's Smokehouse across the street from Sturbridge Village is a step up from the roadside operation at a Brimfield trailer park. The stand-up counter in a cold trailer has been replaced by three plush, spacious booths in a well heated room. Four swiveling stools face an open diner style kitchen, the perfect stage for chef-pitmaster Brian Treitman to hold court. Homemade pickles, pickled onions and habanero carrots are now on offer in serve-yourself bins; pumps dispense a quartet of barbecue sauces. And there's a bathroom, a creature comfort not even imaginable at BT's original Brimfield trailer park location or the now-closed "Snack Shack" location at Yankee Spirits. A beer and wine license is pending, with a BYOB option already available.
Pork ribs include spares and St Louis cut. These are trimmed in house, making sticky rib tips a new appetizer. Beef ribs are a 1-bone shortrib offering that can feed a group. Pork and brisket are available on platters and in three different sandwich sizes. Chicken and a sausage of the day round out the barbecue menu. The Bison burger with brisket burnt ends mixed into the meat is a menu staple. Soups and gumbos vary by the day in colder months. Fry vats have made hush puppies, Andouille sausage bites, corn dogs, French fries and onion rings possible. New sides have already included collard greens, skillet cornbread and carrot/raisin slaw, with mac and cheese on the way. Four varieties of wings are now on the menu, served as whole wings. House smoked salmon is available hot or cold. A chopped salad can be had on its own or with smoked meats, salmon or (gasp) fried tofu.
In its first year of operation, BT's was my most visited joint of 2010, with trips spread almost evenly between weeknights and Saturday afternoons.
Sticky rib tips: Available in two portion sizes, these feature a new sweet barbecue sauce (not available at the sauce station) that would be at home at a barbecue competition. The exterior gets a finishing char similar to a Chinese takeout rib, but with thicker, smokier, juicier meat beneath. This item is a winner, and I like that the sweetness of the sauce enhances rather than overwhelms. It's also a nice contrast to the regular ribs on platters, which are served unsauced and are more savory than sweet.
Burnt ends: Introduced in December 2010, these smoky treats are the brisket version of the sticky rib tips. Taken from the fattiest part of the brisket, BT's burnt ends are crispy cubes that have been smoked 12 hours, sauced, smoked again and then lightly sauced again for service. The smoke component, the spiciness and general flavor intensity are all amped up from the standard brisket, and the saucing keeps the saltiness in check. Texturewise, they're tender, chewy (in a good way) and crispy all in the same bite.
Wings: Available at $1 per whole wing, they're plump, smoked, sauced to order, crisped to finish and served whole. The smoke is noticeable but lighter than most BT's fare. Well made sauces include a thick Buffalo, sweet BBQ, apple cider bourbon and an ever changing offering of experimental "dare" sauces with deadly heat levels. I'm a fan of BT's wings and a bigger fan of the fact that they're so easy to add on, with no minimum required.
Hush Puppies: This meatless treat arrives fresh from the vat, presenting a crisp, hot cornmeal batter studded with onions, bell peppers and jalapenos, served with molasses dipping sauce.
Andouille Sausage Bites: Like piping hot homemade cornbread doughnuts with a surprise inside, these are a little heavier than your typical corndog. I'm predicting this will soon be a much discussed item. I'd like to see a dipping sauce to enhance them, but the Andouille bites certainly aren't lacking in flavor or richness.
Pig Newtons: Available seasonally, this combine smoky pulled pork, a sweet fig chutney and a flaky pastry crust. It's a tasty appetizer or dessert whose mouthfeel nicely mimics its Nabisco namesake.
Onion Rings: Huge and puffy, these are more like tempura than your classic onion ring, but that lightness (in spite of some greasiness) might be a good thing in this case. The batter here also has a sweet, doughnut-like aspect that complements the thick, sweet onions nicely. And they look like doughnuts too. This is best ordered as a shared item for the table, because a couple of rings will more than hit the spot.
Chili: Thick of broth and packed with brisket bits, this one has a sharp pepper flavor and immediate meatiness that give it anything but an acquired taste (it's excellent), but this chili does have an acquired texture: there's a very strong bean component, with the beans a little on the firm side. If beans in chili aren't your thing, pass on this one.
Brisket: Of all the briskets in all of New England, BT's is my favorite. It's not presented as your classic, neatly cut slices but rather a loose, wobbly pile of blackened, fat moistened bliss, loaded with flavor inside and out. Beefiness certainly isn't lost, but the star of the show is the rub, which graces every bite with a spicy, salty kick. Although pinkness varies, there's never any doubt that the brisket is well acquainted with the inner walls of a smoker. There's good contrast between crusty exterior and the tender, moist interior. Fat is present but is easily discarded. Although I generally favor pork over beef, I can't get enough of the BT's brisket. I'd call it the signature item of the house and the meat that's best suited for BT's spicy, salty rub profiles. I don't think I've ever made a visit to the new Sturbridge location without having at least some of the brisket. I happen to like salt and don't mind specks of black bark debris randomly scattered on the plate from time to time, but if either is a turnoff for you, maybe it's not for you. But this is a brisket that demands a try—even if you don't normally gravitate to brisket.
Pork: More often than not, the pulled pork at BT's Smokehouse is very gentle and very fresh, sometimes straight from the smoker. It's served as mostly large chunks, with a high bark level that ensures a dark, crunchy surface area and a smoky, rubby kick. Smoke is less noticeable on the interior. Rub levels vary from butt to butt: sometimes very strong, sometimes surprisingly less assertive than on the other meats. When the rub level is high, there's a pleasant savoriness that supplies more heat than sweet, and the salt is never overpowering. Moistness is usually high. About one out of every five servings can be on the dry side, but a little dab of the mustard or "Extreme Meat Heat" BBQ sauce does the trick. I recommend the pulled pork here, but if you're torn between the pork and the brisket, go with the brisket.
Ribs: Like all of the non-appertizer meats, the ribs are served unsauced at BT's Smokehouse. The larger spares are very thick and served with the ends separated so that they can be enjoyed apart from the main bones. As with the brisket, the ribs are liberally rubbed and pack a lot of heat and salt to balance the stronger-than-typical smokiness. I usually find the savory approach a refreshing departure from the norm, but sometimes think there ought to be more sugar content. Regardless, the ribs deliver a lot of good flavor, and texture is also usually pleasant. The heating aparatus—much improved from the old days at the trailer location—gets a char on the crust and melts some of the bubbling fat into the meat. I've had good results with the St Louis cut, which are easier to eat and less fatty, but I prefer the flavor and moistness of the spares, whose additional bonus is plenty of leftovers.
Chicken: I rarely order this at BT's, since the beef, pork and specials take precedence, but the chicken presents a slightly crisp skin, moist inner meat and less rub and smokiness than the other meats. There's nothing really wrong with the chicken here, it's just that there's nothing special about it. It looks like BT himself thinks the same way, as he's taken whole, half and quarter chickens off the menu but still offers pulled chicken.
Beef rib: A hefty shortrib is a giant meal's worth of meat on one bone, meant to be eaten with a fork and knife. One rendition was a little chewy, but two follow-ups were very tender on the inside with a crunchy, highly seasoned bark on the outside. Hints of rendered fat also fuel the flavor all the way through without getting in the way. I'm usually a pork guy, but both beef offerings here seem to be a more perfect match for the rub than their pork counterparts, and they turn out a little better too.
Bison burger: Raw ground bison is mixed with already-cooked brisket burnt ends, onions and secret sauces, then cooked slowly in a cast iron pan. The bun is grilled and the ketchup is homemade. No cheese, no bacon and no vegetation here, because they'd just interfere with the simple magnificence of meat and bun. This is an extremely juicy burger with a lethal dosage of flavor, thanks to the fattiness of the brisket and the slight gaminess in the bison. The brisket gets a little crisped up while the Bison meat remains soft, offering a unique texture that spans the entire spectrum. Purists might argue that the blend is more of a meatloaf than a burger, but whatever you call it, it's my favorite ground meat inside a bun from any barbecue joint in the region.
Brisket Reuben: Another December 2010 addition, BT's interpretation of the deli classic is the latest in a long line of must-order items. As expected, the star is the brisket, but what makes this sandwich sing is the all star roster of supporting components: grilled extra-thick-cut dark honey wheat bread, fontina cheese, a creamy/spicy cole slaw and a "pickled rye sauce" that gets the required caraway flavor into the mix. I've had brisket Reubens at nearly a dozen joints throughout the region, and this is one of the best.
Meats summary: I like the pork (pulled, dry ribs, web rib tips) and I like the wings (plump, smoky and a steal at $1 per whole wing), but I'm in love with the smoked brisket (salty, spicy, fatty, juicy) and the brisket/bison burger (full spectrum of gushy to crispy texture, with flavor overload). A new cut of beef shortrib and brisket Reuben round out the quartet that—much like the BT's logo, with a steer mounting a pig—shows which meat dominates this kitchen.
Four barbecue sauces are available at a pump-them-yourself station that may have been a holdover from the ice cream operation that previously occupied this space. The sauces mostly share a common theme: thin and vinegary. The House sauce is the most tangy and vinegary. Sweet has a light molassesy feel with a tangy backdrop. Mustard is (you guessed it) mustardy and also a little vinegary, while being the lone thick sauce. Extreme Meat Heat is sharp and peppery with a habanero kick. The meats at BT's generally have enough flavor or moisture to stand on their won. For the barbecue fan who seeks a classic sweet, thick sauce, I'd recommend ordering the sticky rib tips to get that taste sensation. I'm hoping BT's will add that sauce to the pump brigade.
Collard greens, cooked just-past-wilting, have a not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy broth that lets the vegetable stand mostly on its own; bacon level varies. Mac and cheese has undergone many iterations, but they've settled in on shells, which act as buckets to carry the creamy abundance of slightly sharp sauce made with three different cheeses. Minimalist baked beans, which could not be more different from typical barbecue baked beans, are free of sauce, very firm (think M&Ms plinking into a glass jar), and an acquired taste at best. The new "chile beans" are a little softer, a little saucier and a little spicier. Cole slaw is a mostly basic design that's fresh, crisp and kicked up with spices to sometimes make the dressing orange. Potato salad is a similarly well spiced rendition that's become one of my all-time favorites. But my favorite side here is one of the refreshing blackeyed pea salad that's punched up with vinegar, finely chopped vegetables and jalapenos for a little heat. Cornbread, served as mini loaves, is a cakey version that's not too sweet. I miss the superior skillet cornbread from the new location's earliest days.
I like to think of BT's as a "barbecue diner" with a twist: the ribs are good, the brisket is my favorite for all of New England and the bison burger is a must-order item, but the real star of the show is the unexpected creation that might greet you as a happy accident from Brian Treitman's food lab.
There's a commitment to green practices here. The utensils and takeout packaging are both made from recycled materials.
The Bottom Line
As with the original, the indoor BT's serves up meats and sides that are intensely flavored and very different from what you’d find at your everyday barbecue joint. If you seek bold spices, crave smoke and don’t mind a little saltiness and some extra dark bark, BT’s will be right up your alley. With now-comfortable surroundings, some improvements to an already solid core product, an expanded roster of appetizers and a burger to write home about, BT's is right up my alley and a part of my regular barbecue rotation. It's worth a visit from any distance.
Worcester Telegram feature on BT's green practices
Yelp reviews of BT's Smokehouse
Urban Spoon reviews of BT's Smokehouse