The Horseshoe had been around since the Prohibition days, first as a private club, then an Irish bar, and since the early 1990s as a BBQ joint. Previously a dive, the Horseshoe Cafe got a major facelift in 2005 and became the Horseshoe Grille. On the outside, it looks huge and fairly respectable, like the kind of place you'd expect to be used for weddings and bar mitzvahs. The digs are pretty plush by BBQ standards, with lots of white bricks and dark paneling, framed pastels of horses, modern lighting, tall padded booths and a fireplace in the dining room. A big bar area has many plasma TVs. Horseshoe has that generically comfortable feel of a Red Coach Grill transported forward from the early 1970s.
The Horseshoe Grill menu lists the predictable barbecue items (ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken) but I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were "developed with the expertise of Memphis rib master John Willingham." Willingham is a veteran of the Memphis in May competition and one of the true barbecue masters, so this was a good sign. A nice array of non-BBQ items includes small plates, sliders, typical pub fare, less common appetizers with some European and Asian leanings, flatbread pizzas, fish, steaks and tips.
I hit the Horseshoe Grille for Saturday night and Saturday lunch visits, spaced five years apart.
I haven't tried appetizers as such at Horseshoe Grille, but both visits featured a memorable basket of cornbread with honey-cinnamon butter (the first time immediately after being seated, the second time after ordering). The cornbread was a fresh, sweet, not-too-coarse, not-too-smooth cakey rendition that reminded me of gingerbread. The cornbread and spread make a better dessert than a side or appetizer, but it's very enjoyable.
On both visits I ordered a three-way combo with ribs, pulled pork and brisket.
Ribs: On the first visit, the ribs on the 3-meat combo ($25) were grilled with dark brown barbecue sauce and served with a wet, caramelized crust. Listed on the menu as St Louis ribs, they were plump but trimmed as short as babybacks and somewhat fatty for such a small rib. Pink inside, they were moist but not juicy, with not much real flavor other than from the sauce. On visit 2, I ordered the ribs unsauced and found the same characteristics: grill marks, pink coloring, moistness without juiciness, minimal flavor and not much smoke. I believe they're smoked though, and I did like that the doneness was just right, allowing a clean, easy bite while still slightly firm.
Pulled pork: On both visits the pork was a big mound of finely chopped meat, with a good bark ratio, tossed in just enough of the same sauce to give the otherwise dry meat some moisture and sweetness. The meat had a pleasant hoggy flavor, though, with more noticeable smoke than on the ribs. It might have been better with a vinegar sauce instead of a chocolate pudding lookalike, but it was still decent.
Brisket: On both visits, brisket was a large single slice (at least 3/4" thick) of meat tender enough to cut with a fork. It packed a strong beef flavor, but smoke and rub weren't so strong. Some extra fat on the edge was easily trimmed away, but not before giving the edible meat a nice lube job. Overall, the brisket wasn't bad, wasn't great.
On visit 1, a squeeze bottle of the same thick, brown, sweet hickory sauce was available on the table. On the return, two sauces were presented in small aluminum cups. A hotter version adds some chili pepper heat (and seemingly, lots of saltiness) to the standard brown variety.
Sides (supermarket-like cole slaw and bland, soupy baked beans) were mediocre but problem free.
Other Thoughts and Observations
Both times the servers were friendly, efficient and knowledgeable from start to finish, advising us on the various dishes, sauces and their preparations. My drink never got below 1/3 full without an offer for a new one. The prepackaged wetnap is real cloth.
The Bottom Line
Decent but less than stellar barbecue. While none of the food items wowed me, the barbecue was real and the place was comfortable and well-run. If your Aunt Gertrude is in town and you want to take the family out to a place where everyone can find something on the menu and you can still have some barbecue, this is a good choice.
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