Joff's Backyard Grill is an easy-to-spot, easier-to-smell joint on Route 140 that's an ode to those decades-old backyard techniques your father used to use. As soon as you walk in, if not before, you'll catch a strong whiff of the meats and sauces coming off the gas fired grills. You pay at the counter, grab your drinks and utensils yourself and wait for the order to finish as you gauge progress through the open kitchen window. Seating is mostly on large, clean, well varnished picnic tables. The utensils are stored in shiny, unused grills that add a little decor to the place. There's no smoker in the kitchen but the barbecue fare is indeed smoked—offsite.
The Joff's menu gets a lot of mileage from a handful of core items: burgers, dogs, wings, ribs and pulled pork, which are all available in a few different permutations (yes, veggie burger too). There's also chili, breaded chicken as fingers and sandwiches, Italian sausage, nachos and a few different salads.
After many years of wanting to try the place out, I hit Joff's on a weeknight with a hearty-eating aficionado of burgers, wings and 'cue.
Onion rings: These have two strikes against them, which we knew ahead of time: they're the puffy kind and they're frozen. Still, we gave them a shot and they weren't bad within that framework. Crunch was there and the batter-to-onion ratio wasn't outrageous, but it was still fairly obvious that this was a frozen product.
Fries: A big upgrade from the rings, Joff's fries are handcut with skins on, a medium girth (about two-thirds of the way from shoestring to steak fry), a slightly crisp exterior, a soft interior, decent salting and a pleasantly potatoey flavor. The server (counter attendant) supplied a cup of the house barbecue sauce with the fries, recommending it as a dip.
Wings: A limited selection of flavors includes a few different levels of Buffalo plus Honey Garlic, Barbecue and Face Slappin.' All are grilled. You have the option of having the wings hit the grill imediately with the sauce or dry rubbed first, so we went with the rub and the Honey Garlic. These came out with a sauce more runny than thick and sticky, so it managed to accent the wings with multi-toned flavor without overpowering them. The grill flavor was more dominant, with the potent rub—also multi-toned but heavy on the salt—coming right behind. The saltiness may have also come from some soy lurking in that sauce, but either way, these were noticeably salty but still good for a grilled wing. Texturewise, the wings were very moist and tender inside and fell just shy of crisp on the surface. Overall, some decent wings that had flavor coming from several directions at once. I'd definitely try them again, possibly without the rub for comparison.
Burger: Joff's is probably a burger joint first and foremost, so the visit had to include a burger. The Ranch-House burger ($6.45; basically a bacon cheddar cheeseburger) came on a soft, fresh roll resembling none of the usual suspects, with a half pound patty that delivered outer crust and flowing inner juiciness even at medium. Seasoning here was as aggressive as on the wings, though the saltiness was a much better match here. That grill presence was equally in your face as well, which is a good thing if you like a grilled burger. Though clearly a step above the chains, the angus beef itself wasn't anything special for the hardcore blend seeking set, but it was beefy enough and grilled perfectly. The bacon was uneventful (neither up nor down), the cheese was just slightly melted and the lettuce and tomato could have been a little less chilled. The toppings issues were mere details though; this burger still satisfied thanks to juice, seasoning, crust and fresh roll.
Pork ribs: Having tried the barbecue sauce earlier as a fry dip and not being overly impressed (molasses, liquid smoke and some thinning agent), we requested an unsauced half rack of the "root beer roasted" ribs. Normally that's tempting fate at a place that only sidelines in 'cue, since the flavor and moistness on the meat often depends on it. In this case, the moistness and overall texture were fine: crispy crust, a little char but not too much, good tenderness without being overdone and moist meat that fell well short of juicy. Flavor, on the other hand, was on the light side. Size was about average for St Louis cut spares. The coloring of the rib cross sections was more gray-brown than pink. There was some faint detectable smoke and some very faint root beer flavor that I would never have noticed if I wasn't looking for it (and I might have only talked myself into noticing it), but rub and overall flavor took a holiday on this round. I wound up taking just a few bites out of my allotment without sauce; the rest of it all got dipped. I'd have them finished with sauce on the grill next time.
Pulled pork: Ordered as part of a ribs and pulled pork combo ($17.99 with cole slaw and cornbread), the pulled pork echoed the ribs. Saucing was the same molassessy mix as tried with the fries, but applied lightly enough that you could taste the meat. Smoke: light. Rub: light. Texture: tender without being too tender. Moistness: More from the sauce than the meat. Color: Monotone. Overall: Not bad but not anything I'd go out of my way for.
There's none on the table, but the thick, dark house sauce is brought out with the ribs for extra dipping. It's very molassesey with a hit of liquid smoke. Not my favorite combo, but manageable.
Cole slaw: At first glance, this had the appearance of a white storebought model with a little too much mayo, but the complexity of the condiment and a few interesting spices made this not only doable but quite enjoyable.
Cornbread: If you like the cakey style, this one's a winner, penduluming well past Twinkie into pound cake territory. Rich, moist, fresh and as soft as a pillow. I bought some extra to take home and all of the same qualities lasted not one but two mornings later.
The Bottom Line
I'd definitely go back, though there's no rush. The draws would be the full-flavored burgers and wings, not the 'cue.
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