Firehouse BBQ sits at the end of one of the largest and easiest-to-access public parking lots in downtown Amesbury, making it a breeze to get into and out of. I was expecting a converted fire station, but Firehouse BBQ looked fairly generic in a modern, semi-upscale casual sort of way. The long dining room has mostly large, antique looking tables with pull out drawers; a few wrap-around banquettes near the back are more coveted. Flat screen TVs are viewable at opposite ends of the dining room without taking over, and a couple more are located at closer range in the adjacent bar. A fenced-in outside deck offers a serene oasis. Thanks to some pre-visit investigation by one of my tablemates, I learned that a Cookshack smoker is in the house.
The appetizer menu is quite inviting, with chicken critters (smoked bacon-wrapped chicken), gator eggs (fried cheese-stuffed jalapenos), fried pickles, fried provolone, a pulled pork quesadilla, wings with or without bones, chili and sweet potato fries. The barbecue menu is complete but basic, with just one kind of rib (St Louis cut pork spare ribs), pulled pork, brisket (sliced or chopped), smoked sausage (three varieties) and smoked chicken (pulled or as quarter or half birds). Non-BBQ sandwiches include grilled chicken breast, fried catfish, a veggie burger and a turkey burger (I did not see a beef burger). Non-BBQ entrees include fried/smoked chicken, chicken fried steak and fried catfish. Three salads are also available.
I hit Firehouse BBQ on a weeknight about two weeks after their late July opening, joined by three hearty eaters with varying barbecue experience and preferences.
We shared a Tummy Teaser Pleaser sampler that included smoked Buffalo wings, fried pickles, gator eggs and chicken critters. I was looking forward to the wings, as I usually do when they're smoked and fried. These medium sized pieces delivered the anticipated crispness but fell short in the smoke department. I liked the tenderness and flavor of the meat as well as the sharpness (beyond just heat) of the sauce, but there was nothing to really hang your hat on.
The bacon-wrapped chicken that beckoned so loudly from the menu managed a mere whisper on the plate: size was small (think Stonehenge scene from Spinal Tap), meat wasn't moist, bacon wasn't crisp and smoke wasn't in the mix. I'd still order these again, but with expectation more in the LaChoy neighborhood. The honey lime cilantro dipping sauce made up for that, supplying thin creaminess and a nice herbal punch.
Fried pickles were battered spear segments (divide a pickle by four to make spears, then divide each spear by three), making sharing easy and allowing the inner pickle to get hot. The batter was decent but not seasoned convincingly. Once again, a well conceived and well executed dipping sauce came to the rescue—I loved the "Texas tartar," a thicker, zippier cross between standard tartar and Russian dressing. (It would make a wonderful addition to a brisket sammy).
Fried jalapenos were fairly standard. I'm guessing these (and probably the chicken critters and gator eggs) were pre-made frozen fare.
A pulled pork sandwich—ordered as a between courses item and divvied four ways—impressed with a shiny, fluffy golden brioche style bun that's also available as a side ("honey roll "). The pork itself was less impressive, offering the same texture and moisture as a box of shredded wheat. Color was mostly one-note brown; flavor lacked smoke but did present some evidence that there's a spice cabinet in use.
Ribs had a little more bark and a little more moisture. Actually, they were the kind of moist I like to call steamy, since that outer bark lost whatever crispness it might have had once. Aside from that, the texture was excellent, not veering toward overcooked as I feared. Flavor was typical of a Cookshack smoked rib in that it was as subtle as it gets, with very minimal smoke penetration. The rub that contributed to the mouthfeel and look of the ribs didn't keep the pace in the flavor department. Although moist enough to be able to stand on their own, these ribs really needed the sauce for flavor. I did like that the ribs were served without sauce unless you request otherwise, and that the sauces available on the table were all pretty good. I also like the presentation, with the bowl for bones placed upside-down over the platter like the domed lids at old school Chinese restaurants.
A white meat chicken quarter—I would have preferred the cheaper dark meat, but Firehouse doesn't allow you to pick which quarter—was classically moist, bordering on steamy. The skin would never be called crisp but it safely cleared the soggy threshold. Scent, color and flavor all failed to provide rock solid evidence that the chicken was smoked, but it probably was just another Cookshack job. I liked the flavor of the meat itself, which may have been brined. You slap that chicken on a honey bun ordered as a side, top it with some of that Texas tartar, and you've got some good eats. But judging strictly by the meat alone, we're talking as subtle as subtle gets.
Sliced brisket was the best of the meats for me, managing a faint smoke ring, a hint of a crust, good moisture and the texture of perfect doneness. Flavor was again subtle, but the textural achievement more than compensated.
Smoked Fowle's sausage presented a very pale number that was surprisingly dry (because the other meats were so steamy and because sausage is so easy to get moist) and surprisingly flavorful.
Pulled chicken on a tablemate's plate was a sea of white (picture chicken chow mein, minus the noodles and vegetables). I didn't try any, but he said it was the wettest chicken he ever tried, and that it tasted watery.
This is a strength at Firehouse BBQ. On every table is an aluminum bucket with five different barbecue sauces: Kansas City, Memphis, Jerk, Carolina Vinegar and Carolina Red. I would have liked a mustard thrown in there too, but these were all pretty good sauces for both flavor and texture. One of the sweeter ones was a little corn syrupy and the Jerk was a little salty, but I enjoyed and used all of them.
Sides ("Fixins" here) were a mixed bag with an assortment of highs and lows. Fries were the humdrum frozen variety. One member of our group who originally wanted cole slaw as a side for the main course switched to a different option after sampling the bone dry, flavorless cole slaw served with the pulled pork sandwich. Baked beans were a denser, firmer, more satisfying version of a typical canned style. Carrots were cooked perfectly and had a nice blend of heat and sweet. I'm not sure if Birdseye makes frozen collard greens, but if they do they'd probably taste a lot like the collard greens at Firehouse—mine had that microwaved texture and no soul. Cornbread was Twinkiesque but more moist.
Service was friendly and knowledgable. Our young server knew the menu well and seemed to appear at just the right times without being overbearing.
The bottom line: It's early and Firehouse BBQ seems to be off to a nice start in spite of my nitpicking. But if I'm going to make a commitment to the calories, I need the house to make more of a commitment to flavor. Although I usually see flashes of brilliance in a new place beyond the mistakes, I didn't find any compelling reason here to return right away.
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