At the end of a mini strip mall in a former bank, Mama T's Country Kitchen catches your attention with orange-flamed window decorations and a "Real Texas BBQ' sign out front. Inside, it's a squeaky clean over-the-counter operation with the Ole Hickory smoker in plain view. It's more self-serve than most, with drinks and cold sides stored in refrigerators for easy customer access. All of the seating is at tables and chairs that have a view into the open kitchen. Decor is minimal, but the room is bright and cheerful. There's no bar and no alcoholic beverages available. The drive-up window originally intended for fast banking is not yet in use for barbecue purposes.
It's mostly barbecue here, and mostly the classics: babyback ribs, brisket (sliced or chopped), chicken, pulled pork, sausage. Recurring daily specials like meatloaf, quesadillas, chili and other specialty soups round things out. The simple menu gets simpler with three combo deals: one meat and one side, two meats and two sides or three meats and two sides, all with a drink and dessert included. Cornbread is an add-on for 75 cents. Boneless items are also available on sandwiches and po' boys.
Joined by two well seasoned barbecue fans, I hit Mama T's for a weekday lunch.
We bypassed the appetizers (daily specials that included chowder and quesadilla that day) to get straight to the meat of the matter.
Turkey: Usually the first meat to try isn't turkey, but the 3-meat combo ($13.75 with two sides, drink and dessert) had the turkey covering the sausage and brisket beneath. Post-photo turkey transport to another plate could not be performed without an obligatory nibble, and it was a good one. Slightly moist with borderline crisp edges, the turkey impressed most with a briny flavor that took the forefront over the still recognizable smoke. This was a bit salty, but not prohibitively so, and carried a bunch of other top secret flavors along with it. A surprise hit.
Ribs: Plump babybacks come four to a plate on the 1-meat, three on a 2-meat and two on a 3-meat, so our threesome tried them on the 2-meat platter ($12.25). These were plump babybacks with a thin, semi-crisp crust that had a nice mahogany color. The pale cut cross sections, on the other hand, had almost no color. Moistness was above average, with a tenderness past done but short of soggy. I liked the flavor, even though it wasn't exactly mainstream: light smoke, light rubby spice but deep, rich flavor throughout similar to a hearty soup or meatloaf. A dip in the house barbecue sauce, which I'll get to in a bit, maintained that distance from mainstream. These were ribs that satisfied more in the "here's some really flavorful meat" sense and less in the "you're craving traditional barbecue ribs, try these" sense.
Chicken: The weakest meat of the day, a chicken breast quarter on the first 3-meat combo brought less-than-crispy skin on the outside and less-than-smoky, less-than-moist meat on the inside. Unlike the ribs, which were undersmoky and still quite flavorful, the chicken really needed the sauce for both moisture and flavor.
Sausage: A generous service of sausage on a 3-meat combo delivered a mound of sliced chunks from what may have been two or three links. Whole uncut links might have been more gushingly juicy, but these were more than adequately moist, with a springy bounce to the bite. Flavor had a bit of smoke and a lot of oomph from the heavy seasoning that could have passed equally easily for Italian or Texan. Smoke wasn't heavy but was more out front than on the ribs or chicken. Overall, a very good representation that I'd definitely prioritize next time.
Brisket: The strongest meat of the day was the meat that's the cornerstone of any joint purporting to sling Texas 'cue. Removed from a lidded steam tray—as are all the meats—the extra long, folded-over slices had built-in moisture from what seemed to be a pre-service immersion in liquid. Fortunately, that liquid was mostly an asset, flavoring the meat with a salty-beefy-brothy barrage without turning the legit smoked brisket into a stew. The edges still retained crispness and each slice maintained full integrity. Fat was a major player, buffering the meat from the rub-filled bark and contributing some moisture and flavor of its own. For overall taste and texture, this brisket earned a second round on a different platter and was easily among the top third I've tried in New England. It's definitely the best I've had in Vermont.
Pulled pork: Though not on their menu board or Facebook menu photo, pulled pork is
indeed offered here. Just like the brisket, the pulled pork emerged from
the holding bin dripping with liquid, and just like the ribs, the
flavor was well outside the mainstream. Where the ribs were meat loafy
in flavor, the pork reminded me of chili. Yeah, chili. Okay, it wasn't that wet, but the combination of saucy (though not sweet) liquid,
extra tender (though not soggy) meat and spicy (though not hot spicy)
flavor wouldn't need much more to become chili. By the way, that's no
insult. Smoke and rub were both very light, but overall flavor
compensated. There was some of that vinegar/tomato tang also found in
the house barbecue sauce, but this had a personality all its own. While I
can't honestly say that this rendition makes my top third, I'd call it
above average for sure and enjoyable for both its novelty and execution.
A single house sauce is available, ladled over the meats when served, or served on the side. It's called Moos sauce after the owner's father, who created it (that's his last name and her maiden name). This is unlike any barbecue sauce I've had in the Northeast, but very easy to describe: thicker than a vinegar sauce, thinner than a typical storebought sauce, with multi-tiered flavor that's mostly tangy (vinegar), somewhat spicy (Tabasco strength), slightly tomatoey and slightly sweet.
Sides were up and down but mostly good.
Potato salad: As simple as it gets, this rendition paired skinless potatoes with mayo, and that's about it. If there was more going on, I didn't notice it. According to the owner, it's her mother's trusted recipe and geared toward children, so don't expect this to change.
Cole slaw: Nearly as simple, the cole slaw utilized two types of cabbage, mayo, and maybe a little more than the potato salad, but we're talking very mild. Another family recipe here.
Mac and cheese: Things stepped up with this one. A thick yellow blanket of mild but creamy lusciousness had just the right amount of greasiness to give the elbows a boost above for-children-only status. Two of us liked it; one of us couldn't get enough.
Pinto beans: Visually, these didn't do much for me, but the flavor came through with natural beaniness plus a complex savory complement that I kept coming back to.
Rice: Normally rice pilaf, this changed to Mexican rice on our visit to coincide with some other Mexican specials. Moist without being soaked and full of flavor without being overly spicy or chichéd, this was a very successful side.
Hash browns: Forget about the deep fried McDonald's version and forget about the diner style version griddled with crispy onions. This was more of a Plane Jane style (though kicked up with skins and spices) that would be at home in a beef stew or pot roast. Within that stylistic choice, this side was fine though unexceptional.
Cornbread: Plastic pre-wrapped slabs of cornbread appeared to be straight out of Twinkie central casting, but surprised pleasantly with toned-down sweetness bordering on savory. Coarse and crumbly, it was that rare cornbread that actually worked as a side, and not the typical cakey dessert. I should have grabbed a second one to go.
Mama T's is a legitimate barbecue restaurant where the meats are cooked with real smoke, but you'll notice that it's not called Mama T's BBQ. It's Mama T's Country Kitchen, and that's more how I like to think of it: a place where you can feel like family, get some home cooking and come back a few times a week, possibly without even making a dent into the barbecue menu.
No discussion of Mama T's would be complete without mentioning the people that work here. Maybe it's the Southern accents and startling politeness, but these people could speak Martian and they'd still drip downhome hospitality. There's pride in the recipes, real love put into the food and all of it is served with genuine smiles and followed up mid meal.
In case you hadn't already noticed, the pricing here represents incredible value. The portions are generous, so getting three meats, two sides, a drink and a dessert for $13.75 is an absolute steal.
The Bottom Line
Some of the meats I liked a lot (brisket, sausage, turkey), some I liked a little (ribs, pulled pork) and one I didn't like (chicken), but Mama T's is less about the sum of its parts—or even the 'cue, relative to the sides and specials—and more about the overall home cookin' experience. I hope to experience it again.
Seven Days review of Mama T's Country Kitchen
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