(08/06/10) (08/31/10) (09/15/10) (10/14/10) (10/26/10) (11/03/10) (12/07/10)
Buck's Roadside BBQ is a small over-the-counter joint on Southbridge Street in Auburn, plunked in the middle of a mostly commercial stretch not too far from the Mass Pike exit 10. Outside, an old fashioned offset smoker uses billows of smoke as a beacon to draw customers. Inside, there's a large chalkboard menu with checkboxes indicating which of the rotating items are available that day. At the ordering counter, a Southern Pride smoker is visible. Although geared mostly for takeout, Bucks has four tables around the corner from the counter. In the restaurant's back yard, four more picnic tables allow outdoor dining in warmer months.
Buck's has a streamlined, barbecue-focused menu with a rotating selection of one kind of rib (pork babybacks), pulled pork, quarter chickens (dark meat only), pulled chicken, brisket (chunks), burnt ends, sausage (hot or mild), smoked turkey legs and smoked steak. Sandwiches are available in two sizes; ribs can be ordered as half racks, full racks, combo plates and single bones. Turkey legs can be added to any plate.
I made seven well spaced visits starting about two weeks into the operation. One was a weeknight visit; the rest were weekday lunches.
Chili: Available in a cup ($2.99) or bowl ($3.99), the chili is a frequent special that uses Buck's brisket as one of its main ingredients. Unfortunately, beans are also in the mix, but they're small and don't take the focus away from the meat and the broth. The meat is often chunkier than the brisket that's served as brisket (more on that later) and the perfect consistency for chili. The broth is thick, heavy on the tomato flavor and around midrange on the chile pepper heat.
Ribs: Smallish babybacks are light on meat, light on bark, light on smoke and light on color, generally presenting a monotone brownish gray hue that's missing a smoke ring. How about the rub? Good question. The ribs are heavy on rub—very heavy, in fact. But ironically, there's almost no flavor in that rub: no saltiness, no black pepper kick, not the slightest hint of a cayenne jolt and no exotic ingredients like coriander or mustard seed, at least as far as I (and a few of my dining mates) can tell. The meat is tender to over-tender, literally falling off the bone with no effort on one visit and coming very close on three others. They're always moist and almost always steamy from holding, which often makes that thick rub a little soggy. Overall flavor is expectedly also light, with not much porkiness or complementary oomph. The ribs here work best as a vessel for the needed but impressive barbecue sauces.
Pork: Like the ribs, the pork tastes like it's been smoked, just without the really obvious clues (smell, color, smoky flavor). The meat is again mostly monotone brown, with little to no smoke and moderate bark. Flavor was bland on the first outing or two and then chickeny on later visits, as if the product had been enhanced by or reheated in chicken broth to keep it moist. The most recent visits have been the best, with a light porkiness peeking through and some good texture that's tender without being mushy. Sauce is required here more for flavor than moisture, which has never been in question. There's often a pool of juices (or broth) below the hefty pile, and I like that the pork is served in its own boat to rein those juices in. I'd say the pulled pork is probably your best bet at Buck's.
Brisket: Buck's brisket is the most consistent of the meats, with no real highs or problematic lows. Served as chunks and bits rather than slices, the brisket here sits pre-service in a large heating pot, ensuring hot, dripping product every time. There's more than a touch of steaminess to the end result, and that monotone brownish gray makes another appearance. Flavor again shows not much in the way of smoke, but I believe the brisket has seen a smoker. There's still something satisfying about it (same mouthfeel as a corned beef sandwich, just none of the flavor intensity unless you add sauce), as long as you're comparing the meat to nearby fast food lunch options instead of other barbecue joints. But it ain't BT's (Sturbridge MA).
Chicken: Here's another item that's solid when treated strictly as "chicken" and probably superior to anything I've had at Boston Market, but I don't really think of it as hard core "barbecue chicken." The skin has been crisp, the meat has been moist, the size of the bird has been impressive and the overall flavor has been more than pleasant (even "chickeny"). It's just that the surface has never shown any rub appeal and the color, texture and flavor all show no signs of smoke. I like how the barbecue platters only offer the leg quarter as a choice for non-pulled chicken, because it safeguards against a dried out breast.
Beef ribs: These are back ribs, not shortribs, allowing each person to have his own bone. There's a lot of meat along the length of the bone but there's not much thickness or meat between bones. This results in an uncharacteristic but welcome crustiness. There's also plenty of rub, which adds a nice mouthfeel when the crust is crisp like that, but it's again too tame spicewise. Inside, the (fully cooked) meat has some pink color but not much smokiness. It's not downright dry or tough, but close, and certainly not as moist or tender as the similar product at Texas BBQ Company (Northborough MA) or a few different joints in New York City.
Sausage: Tried only once, the sausage made a nice presentation in a hotdog bun even on a
platter. The sausage was a typical hot Italian with light heat and a
grill-tasting outer flavor. This would be right at home outside the ballpark, because it's that grill taste that prevails.
Burnt ends: Another intermittently offered item, the burnt ends the first time I tried them were mostly fat chunks that had been burnt to a charcoaly crisp. With little to no meat remaining, most of the pieces were literally inedible. A second try down the road was improved: the crisping and fat content were well past ideal, but there was some meat to go along with it this time. There was a little chewiness (in a good way) to the meat, but most of the sensation was like a pork rind. With no sauce and very minimal rub, these burnt ends tasted less like a barbecue item and more like a grilled item, with the predominant flavor reminding me of the burnt fat at the edge of a steak.
Smoked steak: A new item, the smoked steak is the antithesis of the burnt ends. Served in long strips, they're virtually crustless on the exterior but have a tender, almost delicate interior that oozes liquid (some of it is natural beef and some of it a soy/teriaki treatment). Smokiness is still too light, but the overal flavor is appealing, if out of the mainstream barbecue flavor profile.
Meats summary: There's a trend here, and it's toward mostly tender, often steamy meats with not much smoke and a mild overall flavor. At least there's some consistency—you pretty much know what you're going to get. And you can manage a decent visit as long as you come in feeling like using meats to satisfy your protein craving and sauces to satisfy your flavor craving. I do see improvement with each visit, but there's still a long way to go.
Sauces are a strongpoint at Buck's. There are five squeeze bottles available in the takeout area and on every table, and I like all of them. Sweet and Spicy (previously called Kansas City) is your typical dark brown, sweet and slightly tangy sauce similar to (but a little better than) what you'd find in the supermarket.
Apple City is a thick, extra chunky sauce that combines standard sweet barbecue flavors with apple sauce, providing some tartness very different from just adding vinegar. South Carolina is a dark yellow mustard based sauce that has some sweet and heat elements in there as well, but it's the mustard that dominates. Lexington is a tangy vinegar sauce with a hint of tomato and the only one that's not thick.
Buck's Sweet is a tangier, fruitier sweet sauce without the heat and that "hickory" flavor that's in the Kansas City. It's my favorite of the three sweeter sauces.
The minimal offering of sides has been a mixed bag so far. The one shining standout is the superb baked beans that combine slightly firm but fully cooked beans, an irresistable "broth" with the perfect viscosity (not too thick, not too thin) and flavor balance (lots of molassesy sweet with a light but discernable heat) and crouton-sized tidbits of crispy porkfat. Collards (intermittently available) were also nice, with a not-too-vinegary, not-too-salty broth and leafy, barely crisp vegetable that had plenty of flavor. The other sides are fairly humdrum. Macaroni and cheese recently morphed from a too-tight, too-mild, too-greasy rendition to a loose, creamy rendition that's still arguably too-mild. Cucumber salad is competent but simple, combining thin slivers of cucumber with some onion and slightly sweetened vinegar. Cole slaw has been crisp and fresh each time but inconsistent in the flavor department. Cornbread is basic, but I like the addition of vanilla to the mix.
The Bottom Line
Although it may seem like I gave Buck's somewhat of a beating item by item, I'm looking forward to more visits to gauge progress. I don't see anything close to a barbecue jackpot, but as consituted, Buck's is at least doable and at most the best barbecue lunch option within 10 minutes of downtown Worcester.
Worcester Telegram Profile of Buck's Roadside BBQ
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