(09/08/11) (04/28/12) (05/05/12)
About a mile north of the Wrentham Outlets in Route 1A sits Commonwealth BBQ, an outdoor counter service operation with a space age "carport style" overhang that shades their picnic tables. There's also a pickup window to ease take-out orders that comprise most of the business. A Southern Pride smoker churns out meats to the right of the building.
The Commonwealth BBQ menu is fairly compact, sticking to the 'cue but providing good variety within that framework. St Louis pork ribs and Texas beef ribs can be had by the rack and half rack, or (just one of the two) on the Wampum Sampler that includes all the other meats and all the sides. They can't be included on 2- or 3-meat combos with pulled pork, brisket, sausage and chicken. The boneless meats are also available on sandwiches, with multiple meats if desired. Appetizers involve the smoked (chili, wings), the fried (jalapeño poppers, pickles, loaded fries) and the healthy (salad optionally topped with meat).
I visited solo on a late summer weeknight to get a feel for the wings, then abstained during the colder months before revisiting with friends on back-to-back Saturday afternoons.
Wings: Commonwealth BBQ's wings ($7.95 for about a dozen pieces) get instant points for being smoked, extra points for being big boned and a few more for bearing some decent rub. Unfortunately, they don't crack my Wings list because the mostly undercooked skin was rubbery two times (once at night, once at lunchtime). With a light application that let the chicken itself (and appealing, fragrant smoke) do most of the talking, the hot sauce had a fairly neutral flavor that didn't do much talking at all. With a little more crispness, these could be good.
Chili: According to the menu, the chili ($5.95) is made with 23 ingredients,
including smoked meats. Stewed tomato had to have been first in the pecking
order, because that was the dominant flavor, with green bell pepper (or
equivalent) second most noticeable. The smoked meats were in there, but much further down. A light
but pleasant heat was also in there, and smoke certainly helped, but this
seemed like more of an Italian meat sauce—or, considering the lightness of meat, a marinara—than chili. Crumbled cornbread on top is an interesting artistic choice that probably helped.
Fried pickles: Surprisingly, the fried pickles ($5.95) turned out to be the best appetizer of the bunch. Warm, tart and with just enough batter to provide a crunch, these pickles brought a quality more akin to a sit-down restaurant than a takeout joint. The dipping sauce was also first rate, blending creaminess with a hearty dose of spices.
Ribs: St Louis cut spares on the second visit's Wampum Sampler combo ($27.95 for enough food to feed three) brought the most rub and the most smoky flavor of all the meats. The outer surface had a thick crust with some good rub content but enough sturdiness to make the half rack a little tough to cut with a plastic knife. These ribs were neither moist nor dry. Though a little more toothsome than most, tenderness wasn't an issue.
The second try of the ribs on visit 3 saw the same thick crust with nice mahogany color. This time the rub was much less noticeable but the meat was much more tender. Inside, the meat had even better color, with pinkness going all the way to the bone. Improved texture nudged toward ideal, with borderline moist meat (my lunch companion called it dry) pulling easily off the bone without being overcooked. Flavor took a slight step down, bringing a hamminess that had a mostly salty quality with less of the sweetness and spiciness that complemented it on the first try. Smokiness was light at best. Dipped into the sauces, these ribs were more than okay, especially with that nice crust.
So two stabs at the ribs, two different tenderness levels, two different rub levels, with the best of each category on different visits. Hard to get a true handle, but the potential is there if not yet fully realized.
Pulled pork: Tried as a sandwich ($7.95) on the first visit and as part of the Wampum
Sampler on the second visit, the pulled pork was tender both times,
borderline moist both times, pink one time and gray another, and
generally very light on flavor. Bark content was decent. The sandwich
vwas generous on the meat with a very fresh bun.
Brisket: The pale allotment from the Wampum Sampler sat next to the pulled pork and didn't look all that different from the pulled pork, confusing us at first. Though not served entirely as clean slices, the brisket compensated with very good texture and better moistness than the pork, with each shred and chunk feeling well lubed. Flavor had a nice beefiness with a little smoke to boot. A little extra wouldn't hurt, but a lot more all-around flavor would be more welcome. The winning texture combined with Commonwealth's mustard sauce would work well in a sandwich format.
Chicken: Of all the meats in the Wampum Sampler, the chicken was the one that had the most visual appeal, thanks to a dark brown outer surface made up of crisp skin and heavy rub, with juices trickling out. Given first choice of the parts, I went with the dark meat and found it very succulent, modestly smoky and full of flavor from the rub that was as potent as it looked and just as balanced (sweetness, heat, saltiness). A small sample of the breast was somewhat dry. Still, I'm declaring the chicken the star of the show and one of the better examples I've had in a while.
Beef ribs: The menu claims that the "only thing bigger than their size is the amazing flavor." The size lived up to that promise with a trio of good sized back ribs from the second visit's half rack platter ($11.95). On the down side, much of their girth came from the bone. On the plus side, all of the meat was edible, with virtually no fat and no gristle on the one bone I tried. The flavor didn't match the claim, unfortunately; rub (aside from light salt) and smoke were both in very short supply. Although far from championship level, the beef ribs were still what some would call "good eating" ribs, with a beefy flavor accented by melted fat—the kind of flavor more like a burger or steak grilled on high heat. Tenderness was okay, with more of a grilled feel. Juiciness wasn't achieved but moistness was.
Sausage: A single Italian style link sliced in half lengthwise on the Wampum Sampler brought char from the grill and a juice/grease tandem from within. With mostly-sweet flavor cut by the liberal inclusion of fennel, this turned out to be a decent but ordinary offering, bearing more grilling characteristics than smoke.
Overall, a good assortment:
Lee's Slammin BBQ is a classic sweet tomato based sauce that's a step up from the bottled style.
BuffaQ combined Buffalo wing sauce with barbecue sauce to yield predictable but very tasty results.
North Carolina mustard effectively combined spicy and sweet, but it was the generous inclusion of black pepper that made it work.
Eastern NC thin vinegar has a much higher tartness quotient than most.
A habanero sauce, available on just one of the visits, had bits and pieces that made it stand out. Thick, sweet, and not too crazy hot.
Cole slaw: Did you ever see a woman spray one shot of perfume into the air, let it hang there a few seconds, then slowly walk into it to not overdo it? That's probably not too different from how they do it with the mayo and vinegar at Commonwealth, because this cole slaw is cabbage, spices and very little else. I like the celery seed on top and the palate cleansing effect, but it's just too dry for me.
Fries: Handcut, skin-on fries had a homemade taste, crisp exterior and generous salting.
Sweet potato fries: These were equally crisp, but less homemade tasting, with a coating on the surface.
Baked beans: A very unusual treatment had more of a salsa feel, strong on the tomato.
Cornbread: Two times this was somewhat corny and very dry.
The Bottom Line
After three visits, nothing at Commonwealth was a disaster but nothing really stood out except the chicken (and to a lesser extent, the pork ribs). This is real barbecue that's smoked but mostly not smoky, and rubbed but mostly not rubby. A little more of both would go a long way. For now, this is serviceable barbecue that's adequate for a convenient takeout meal but not yet at the level of a destination joint.
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