(04/20/14) (05/10/14) (05/17/14)
Carnivores All American BBQ sits in a tiny strip mall in a quiet section of Milford. The large meat case holding wrapped uncooked briskets and cooked wings is probably a holdover from the fish market that previously occupied the space. Behind that is a huge, artfully done chalkboard menu listing the carnivore-pleasing fare.
Ordering is over the counter, with most of the customers opting for takeout and some occupying the four closely spaced tables along the wall decorated with an American flag. Mounted T-shirts from other barbecue joints—none local—add more color. A few picnic tables outside allow al fresco dining.
Simply put, the menu at Carnivores might be the most approachable I've ever seen. All of the barbecue meats are available a la carte in small servings costing $3 or $4, with a quarter rack of ribs in the high rent district at $6. If you'd rather have a combo, you can get one meat and one side ($6), two meats and two sides ($12) or add on more meats for $3 each, with ribs demanding a $2 premium on any combo. And so many smoked offerings to choose from: pork ribs, pulled pork, sliced beef brisket, burnt ends, smoked wings, smoked chicken, pulled chicken, tri tip, turkey and ham.
Think about it: for $39 you could try ten different meats.
But there's more than meets the meat here, as you can get six different salads, three of them vegetarian, plus fried pickles, hushpuppies, fried cheese curds, a veggie platter, a veggie burger and spinach artichoke dip. Getting back to the carnivorous, there's also fried chicken fingers, potato skins, nachos and real burgers. Oh, and baked potatoes or mac and cheese with or without meaty or meatless toppings.
I visited Carnivores solo on a weeknight, with a barbecue buddy on a Saturday afternoon and with young bride and another barbecue-frequenting couple on a Saturday night. Business was steady on all three visits.
Burnt Ends: I’m not going to get into the tired agument over what “real” burnt ends are or judge based on what they have to be; I’ll just say that two tastings ($4 a la carte) on visits 1 and 3 delivered two different treatments. But first, the menu description: "chopped brisket and tri tip twice smoked for added char, then simmered in Carnivores BBQ sauce." On visit 1, the burnt ends consisted of mostly cubes that looked like what you get in beef stew, and about as wet as beef stew, but the sauce was more sweet than savory, so the overall vibe was franks ‘n’ beans, only in cube form. None of the extra char or extra smoke made themselves known; there was barely any regular char or smoke. Or rub, at least the first time. I'll give it this: the meat was tender. On visit 3, the bowl had beefy shreds instead of cubes, with no better crusting or smoke but a slight improvement on the rub front. Saucing still prevailed but overall flavor made this batch doable if not memorable.
Wings: You get four pieces for $4, with some traditional choices (honey/cayenne, barbecue, teriyaki) and the ground breaking bacon Buffalo. The sizeable wings are smoked but not deep fried, so the skin crispness has varied in four samplings over three visits. More consistent is the doneness, which is usually just slightly under, giving them a little snap. But there’s usually a little give to the meat, one time a lot, and some occasional juiciness. Of the eight meats I’ve tried here, it’s the wings—they of the shortest cooking time—that have surprisingly had the most smoke. Not enough to bowl you over but just enough to let you know it’s there (the other meats are far more discreet). The meat itself has been decent, but what elevates these wings to good is the sauces. I like the honey cayenne, which is like a typical Buffalo, only thicker. And I also like the bacony flavoring from bacon fat and tiny bacon shreds topping the bacon Buffalo.
Hushpuppies: A small basket ($6) provides six balls of deep-fried corn meal batter resembling Dunkin munchkins. The crusty, seasoning-free surfaces also brought a sandy coating that felt like cinnamon but tasted like cornmeal. The insides were fairly simple (no complementary flavors such as herbs, chile peppers, etc.) and very dry. The ranch dressing dipping sauce was much needed.
Fried pickles: A much more generous basket ($6) delivered a huge pile of thin slivered pickle slices with even thinner batter that had a hard time adhering. The crispness was only borderline, but the lightness of the batter letting the pickle tartness shine through almost made up for it. Seasoning was minimal, so dipping was required here as well.
Veggie platter: The third vegetarian-friendly item ($7) from the third visit, ordered specifically for vegetarian bride, was a crudité sampling of carrot, celery, sliced peppers, tomatoes and broccoli crowns. Several dressings and dips can accompany this.
Pork ribs: Tried on all three visits via combos ($14 for 2-meat, $16 for 3-meat),
the unsauced, uncut quarter rack of smallish but untrimmed spare ribs
exhibited midrange size, good outer color and crusty surface each time.
The smoke has been mostly light and the rub has been moderate,
with salt way out front the most recent batch. Inner color, tenderness
and juiciness all suffered on the lunch visit. But on the two night
visits, all were in play, making the ribs enjoyable two out of three
times. Tweak that salt down (remember, I like salt, so these were beyond
salty) and I'd even say very enjoyable.
Pulled pork: I have very mixed feelings about this one ($3 a la carte for the equivalent of a small cup of ice cream ). There's bark. There's some color. There's good doneness that's neither stiff not mushy. Flavor? Not so much, especially if you're looking for smoke. Nor rub, unless salt constitutes a rub. Nor juiciness, though it was moist in a steamy way—on the outside of each shred. Further in: very dry. This pork was probably the most consistent item, and by consistent I only mean it was the same on all three visits. Semi porky, very salty and that's about it. But it's at least serviceable and just a few tweaks away from good, so I'm holding out hope.
Brisket: Tried twice, the sliced brisket ($12 in a 2-meat combo) looked very dry but was borderline moist both times. Though still very mild, smoke was toward its most noticeable here, with rub flavor minimal at the edges and more potent further in. On both tries the brisket wasn't outright tough but wasn't anywhere near tender. The thick cut—which is a selling point in the menu
description—didn't do it any favors. Overall, we’re talking average flavor and below average texture, but better than it looks in the photos.
Turkey: If you squint your tongue, you’ll detect the faintest smokiness in this serving of sliced, skin-on turkey breast ($3 a la carte). This was very tender and borderline dry on visit 2, not so tender and over-the-border dry on visit 3 and tasty more in the poultry sense than the barbecue sense on both visits. Although less effective solo, this meat might make a nice sandwich or a
healthy meat addition to a salad, where condiments and dressings could
provide some moisture relief.
Ham: A pinker version of the turkey, the ham ($3 a la carte) was thick of slice, light of smoke, lighter of cure and lightest (read: none) on moisture. Most of it sat uneaten.
Tri tip: Prior to the serving ($4 a la carte) here, I never had this meat that’s becoming more common in barbecue restaurants lately. Disclosure: I’m not a fan of roast beef. Observation: this reminded me of roast beef. On the plus side, the slices were slightly moist and extremely tender. On the downside, I would never have known it came from a smoker, and it added another example of frustratingly minimal rub. Just as Mama Cass and Karen Carpenter might both be alive if they shared that fateful ham sandwich, the tri tip and ribs might be better off if half the salt in the ribs got shared with this beef.
There are three sauces in large squeeze bottles for dispensing into plastic cups. Two are slightly ketchupy but still homemade enough and effective enough to work fairly well, with one spicy. The North Carolina sauce looked and tasted like Italian dressing, only thickened and less bold.
Cole slaw: Crisp, yes. Creamy, yes. Interesting, no. Flavor, none. Actually, maybe some sour cream, but this was too bland for me.
Onion rings: Done in the New England seafood shack style—also what I call the "flaky" style and the style I love most—these are well executed thin rings with thin, crispy batter, and you can taste both onion and batter equally. One of my favorites. On the third visit, the rings and batter were both a little thicker but still very good. Salting is just right.
Pit smoked beans: No recognizable smoke and, sadly, no recognizable flavor. The soupy batch had a watery tomato base and not a whole lot more, so if your preference is molassesy, spicy or both, this might not do it for you. I do like that the beans were very obviously not just poured from a can, but they can do better than this.
Mac and cheese: More Kraft than craft, this old school mac and cheese was creamy, thick and mild, though on one visit I did detect enough faint heat in there to make it nominally interesting for adults while still safe for the kids. On visit 3 the heat was gone but the thickness and creaminess made it work very effectively for anyone into this style.
Cornbread: A butterscotch colored block was moist the first time, drier the second and drier still the third, but all three times soft. The slightly chewy texture on the first try had a peanut butter cookie feel, making it unique and enjoyable. The later ones echoed that somewhat but to a lesser extent in all aspects.
Be forewarned: no bathrooms.
Chicken fingers (an item I think of as for kids not something I'd ever order myself) looked good spotted on an adjacent table: homemade, chicken pounded thin, surrounded but not overwhelmed with crunchy looking batter.
The Bottom Line
If you go strictly item by item, Carniviores might not fare so well, but I think the whole is a little greater than the sum of its parts. So while there's still a long way to go in the smoke, rub, texture and consistency departments, there have been some highlights (ribs, wings, rings) and the menu breadth and value are reasons to go back.
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