Moat Mountain Smokehouse looks so much like a residence (albeit a large one) that it's easy to overlook while scanning the road for dining options along North Conway's shopping happy main drag. Just look for the yellow structure with an enclosed purple ski lift chair in front. Immediately inside the entry are a converted greenhouse/porch to the left and a two-sided bar with a few flat panel TVs in the bar room to the right. A few different dining rooms are scattered into separate nooks.
Of all the barbecue joints I've visited for the first time, Moat Mountain Smokehouse might have been the one non-NYC joint that I'd heard the most feedback on from readers and friends. Opinion was varied in terms of degree, but the general consensus in a nutshell was good beer, lousy 'cue. I went with an open mind.
"Smokehouse" is in the restaurant name, but the barbecue fare (pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken, turkey) is just a small subset of the ambitious and far reaching menu. Appetizers include brisket and Andouille chili, Thai peanut chili, Thai mussels, Asian pork dumplings, flatbread and hummus, curried crab and corn bisque and New England style hushpuppies with maple syrup. More than a half dozen nachos and quesadillas are available, plus a half dozen burgers, a half dozen pizzas and four salads with homemade dressings. Sandwiches include smoked turkey, meatloaf, catfish, tofu, chicken salad and lemon-oregano chicken. Entrees include a ribeye steak, steak frites, two catfish preparations, meatloaf and a pasta of the day. As for the barbecue menu, there are pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket and chicken, available on platters, sandwiches and a 3-meat combo (ribs, chicken and a choice of brisket or pork).
A barbecue competitor/judge joined me on a four-stop crawl whose second stop was a weekday lunch visit to Hillbilly's. The place was packed. I saw a few pizzas on the tables I passed, but the overall mix of plates spanned the entire menu without much duplication.
Chili: I give a big plus to the option of beans or no beans, and it's really so simple that I'm surprised more joints don't do this. My choice was no beans. The chili arrived in an overflowing crock with thin slices of Andouille peeking out of the broth, topped by a dollop of sour cream. The broth was very thin (consistency similar to chicken broth), but the brisket chunks were very thick. While there wasn't much body to the broth, it did pick up some heat and flavor from the Andouille. The brisket was very tender but a little pot roasty, with no crusting and not much flavor other than the red specs of chile pepper on the surface. The Andouille was clearly the star of the show, sliced thin enough (a quarter inch or less) to allow a slice with nearly every spoonful. Overall, this was an enjoyable chili that might make the tail end of my next Favorite Bowls of Chili list.
Cornbread: Two wedges accompanying the chili presented a not-so-fresh savory interpretation that had a strong baking powder component and a light jalapeno kick.
Pulled pork sandwich: The menu item that most caught my attention in the pre-trip preparation was the pulled pork sandwich served on cinnamon raisin toast ($8.99, with fries). Sure it's a little outside the barbecue mainstream, but hey, why not? I'm glad I ordered it. The bread was very fresh, cut thick and not too sweet. The pork was an equally thick layer of meat, cooked to a doneness that was tender but still provided some bite-back. There was very little bark and no pink coloring in the meat, but flavor seemed decent. I say "seemed" because the dark brown saucing was so profuse that it obscured the meat, avalanching light heat with heavy sweetness. It's not so much that the sauce itself (which I actually enjoyed) was too sweet; there was simply too much of it. In the end, the item whose sweetness I feared—the raisin toast—proved to be a key antidote because of its thickness. Thin sliced raw onion and creamy slaw provided additional foils that worked nicely both flavorwise and texturewise. In the end, I wound up enjoying this sandwich in spite of its defiance of purist barbecue ideals.
Brisket: The Combo Platter ($19.99) included a generous heap of brisket slices (ten or so, with good thickness) that were oversauced, but some of the slices survived unscathed. Flavor was subtle and completely lacking in smoke. Sauce certainly helped, perhaps a little more than it should have, but its flavor was pleasant enough and oddly seemed to work better with the brisket than it did with the chicken. Aside from a lack of crispy edges, texture was near perfect, allowing the "accordion test" with just the right amount of give upon pulling. The meat was tender without coming anywhere near mushy. There was no smoke ring, but even with no irrefutable evidence, I believe the brisket was smoked.
Chicken: Under the sauce and semi-crisp skin, the breast meat was snow white and extremely moist (I'd even go as far to say juicy), but extremely bland. Sauce was needed here, but even with the sauce, this was a plain, smokeless chicken geared more for kids than adults.
Ribs: The half rack of ribs on the Combo Platter had a really nice crust, but it was coated in more sauce than the other meats, and that's saying a lot. The ribs had a beyond-tender consistency nearly indistinguishable from the chicken, with rub and smoke levels predictably low. All of the flavor came from the sauce, not the meat.
Meats summary: You could probably skim the last few paragraphs very quickly and not miss the few recurring themes. Generous portions. Good textures. Moist meats. Very light rub. Very light smoke. Very little overall flavor in the meat. Good sauce, applied very heavily. Much of your likelihood of liking Moat Mountain Smokehouse will depend on your reaction to these characteristics.
No sauce appeared on the table. If it did, the table sauce probably wouldn't get used, as the meats arrived sauced by a very heavy hand. The one sauce used on all four meats was a pleasantly sweet number that had the same color as a typical storebought Kansas City sauce, but had more character and seemed homemade. I'd heard about Moat Mountain also offering a mustard-based Austin sauce, but that didn't appear on any of the meats (the menu claims it comes with the brisket) and wasn't brought or even mentioned on my visit.
For the most part the sides were very good. Skillet cornbread accompanying the entrees had that same jalapeno kick, but was bigger (the whole skillet), warmer, fresher and sweeter than what came with the chili. Cajun fries accompanying the pork sandwich were voluminous, hot, crisp, hand-cut, skin-on, dark brown beauties heavily seasoned with a would-be rib rub (it would have worked nicely) that gave them a balanced, appealing overall flavor. I would have liked more heat than sweet in the seasoning (it was the other way around), but I really liked these fries. Sesame cole slaw, ordered as a substitute side for the Combo Plate, arrived in a large bowl, with a fragrant dressing that would have worked well with a salad, but there was too much of it.
The Bottom Line
If I found myself looking for a North Conway restaurant that would please a diverse group, I'd choose Moat Mountain. If I'm recommending a barbecue joint to someone who likes a mild, saucy brand of 'cue, Moat Mountain would also be a good choice. While I'd never say that I loved Moat Mountain Smokehouse, I liked it more than I would have guessed based on previous word of mouth and more than my own item-by-item breakdown would suggest. Barbecue flavors are too stymied to call Moat Mountain destination barbecue, but it does succeed at presenting hearty fare in generous portions, created and executed with effort and conviction.
Steve Sack's 2009 guest review of Moat Mountain Smokehouse
Yelp reviews of Moat Mountain Smokehouse
Urbanspoon reviews of Moat Mountain Smokehouse