(03/15/06) (12/15/07) (01/25/12)
Usually a strip mall location means modest environs, over-the-counter service, limited (or no) beer selection and a limited menu to boot, but LJ's BBQ defies all those stereotypes. The 2006 move from Providence lost the edginess of the earlier digs, replacing it with a more upscale vibe. Outside there's plenty of parking. Inside, there's plenty of understated framed art on freshly painted walls and a modern bar with plasma screen TVs, separated from the dining area by a divider. Gone are the T-shirts for sale and much of the pig paraphernalia that decorated the previous location. There's a semi-open kitchen that allows diners to view the action through a pass window that must be eight feet wide.
The LJ's barbecue menu includes the core meats of pork ribs (St Louis or babybacks), pulled pork, sliced brisket, smoked chicken and sausage. These can all be had as individual platters and in fixed pairs (ribs and pork, ribs and chicken), one trio (pork, brisket, sausage) or a quartet in the Real Deal Combo (ribs, pork, brisket, chicken). Sandwiches include the pork and brisket as is and in specialty creations like the brisket Reuben, a brisket club, pork and cheese and a pulled pork Cuban. There's also chicken remoulade, chicken cordon bleu, fried chicken, fried catfish, grilled cheese, ham and cheese, plus a wide range of burgers. Non-barbecue entrees include glazed salmon, fried catfish and fish and chips. For bar apps and finger food, there's wings, rings, chili, nachos, chicken fingers and corn dogs.
I first hit LJ's BBQ for a solo lunch at their original Providence location in 2005, well before I started the site but well after I set out to try every barbecue joint in New England. When LJ's moved to their current Pawtucket location in 2006, I was among their first dinner customers on their very first day, and based my previous review on that visit. A lunch follow-up in 2007 bore a photo but no follow-up review. When it came time last week to meet a friend who works in Pawtucket, it also came time to hit LJ's for dinner and bring the review up to date. This review is based on the 2007 and 2012 visits, with a link to the 2006 review below.
Chili: A workmanlike mix of ground beef, pork and beans gets a big build-up in the menu description: "You never tried anything like this!" The promise of heavy on the meat and light on the beans came through, but flavor was a letdown. I don't need an overly hot chili, because you can always add hot sauce. But it needs to taste like chili, and this didn't seem to have much chile powder or other spices in there. A barbecue component was neither promised nor delivered; some smoked brisket instead of the ground meats might have helped in this regard. Oh well.
Wings: There are two kinds of wings on the menu: fried without batter and sauced "bourbon" wings. With appetizers at half price during early dinner, the bourbon wings wound up being a no-brainer ($8 for 8 pieces) even before we discovered two extra thrown in. Flash fried with light batter and coated with a thick, dark, sweet sauce, they looked more like a boned version of General Gau than traditional wings, but within that context they were superb. The exterior was crunchy, the interior was tender and the sticky sauce was hardly a one-note affair, rocking some tangy ginger zing. Just like the chili, this dish had no smoke and wasn't even remotely barbecue. Unlike the chili, I liked these wings on their own terms, and liked them a lot.
Ribs: The half rack of short St Louis ribs on the #4 Real Deal Combo ($28.95) not only sported a couple extra ones beyond the obligatory six, but a surprising thickness as well. Saucing was generous—even slipping through the cracks between each rib—without getting too crazy. Surface crust was light at best. The inner meat was very moist and as tender as you can get without falling off the bone. Flavor within the meat itself continued the trend away from smokiness, also steering clear of strong rub presence. But the sauce was a plus, bringing a good combination of sweetness and spice in a thin concoction that supplied most of the flavor. A little more smoke, a little more crust, a little more rub and a little less of the faint liquid smoke flavor might be asking for a lot, but that's what I'm asking for. But as constituted, these ribs were still above averagethanks to tenderness, moistness and sauce.
Pulled pork: A formidable pig pile lost a little of its crispness buried under the half rack of ribs on the #4 Real Deal Combo platter, but that didn't conceal the likely cooking method: pan fried in the house barbecue sauce to give it a strongly flavored crust with a Caribbean accent. Moisture was in there too, though more from the sauce than fresh pork juiciness. Once again, the meat seemed smoked though lacking smokiness, and the overall texture similarly lacked a barbecue feel. Barbecue purists would probably not like this one, but the crust and sweet sauce will probably have much appeal to a more mainstream audience.
Brisket: I can't see the brisket appealing to any audience. Sliced deli thin and grilled enough to impart dark grill mark against a gray background, this meat on the #4 was dry aside from the few bites that had fat—and those bites had a greasy, liquid smoke aftertaste. One more time, the meat seemed smoked though lacking smokiness, with no smoke ring.
Chicken: The fourth meat on the #4 was a bright spot, delivering crispy skin, tenderness, juiciness and—surprise, surprise—a nice, smoky flavor inside and some rub presence outside. This yielded pleasant flavor in every bite, with no greasy aftertaste.
Sausage: A $3.25 add-on arrived butterflied, exposing a grilled, solid brown interior that showed no signs of smoking. This was basically breakfast sausage, with robust flavor aside from the now-familiar smoke void. The splitting before grilling took most of whatever moisture may have been in it once.
Pulled pork sandwich: Tried in that 2007 visit, this sammy presented the same pan-fried pork with crisp edges, very little smoke and dark brown sauce, topped with some creamy cole slaw. I liked the light, fresh bun that had enough pliability to hold the meat in.
Brisket Reuben sandwich: Another from the 2007 visit, this yielded a hearty sandwich, but it wasn't really a Reuben (you need griddled rye or pumpernickel for that). This was my first exposure to the LJ's brisket, which struck me as very generous and tasty from the grill but not bearing much smoke or associated color.
There's just one sauce in a squeeze bottle: thin, dark, sweet, slightly spicy and spiked with cloves or allspice. I wish there were more sauce options available, but the one they have is different and good.
Cole slaw: This refreshing version had good crispness and a creamy condiment heavy on the mayo without being too heavy.
Mac and cheese: Baked in a ramekin to give it a brown, crunchy crust, this was a tight Southern style Mac that was decidedly uncreamy, with occasional liquid cheese bursts.
Collard greens: Cooked a little past wilting, the tender greens sat in a flavorful vinegar bath studded with pork bits. All around flavor made these one of my favorites.
Cornbread: A small yellow cube was a fairly standard rendition that mimicked Jiffy mix.
On my first visit to this location, I withstood a few service issues that I'll chalk up to opening night jitters. The servers and service on the two follow-up visits were fantastic, bringing a perfect blend of knowledge, efficiency and friendliness.
The Bottom Line
LJ's BBQ strikes me as a milder, gentler, least common denominator approach to barbecue, geared more to a widespread audience than the barbecue hardcore (and geared more to grill/sauce flavors than rub/smoke flavors). But it does so with an equally widespread menu, a pleasant environment and a unique barbecue sauce. Though not a joint I'd ever catch myself craving or waking up in the middle of the night thinking about, it's a joint I'd be happy to check in on from time to time.
My 2006 review of LJ's BBQ
Yelp reviews of LJ's BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of LJ's BBQ
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