Once located in a smaller space on Islington Street (now burger haven Lexie's Joint), MoJo's in 2010 moved the quarter mile to its current location on Brewery Lane. From the outside it looks like any industrial park inhabitant, but inside it's pure pub. The L-shaped room has a long bar on one wing and an assortment of seating (hightops, long tables, banquettes) in the other. Aside from a few neon signs and red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths, MoJo's BBQ Grill and Tavern could pass for any tavern. Some nice touches in the bar area include a foosball table, a pinball machine and plenty of TVs.
The barbecue menu is compact, with one kind of rib (St Louis cut spares), pulled pork, sausage, one kind of brisket (chopped) and one kind of chicken (smoked, not pulled). Beyond barbecue, there's fried chicken, chicken sandwiches, turkey and roast beef sandwiches, burgers, dogs, steak, steak tips and fish. Appetizers include wings with and without bones, hog wings, a few varieties of fries, fried jalapenos, fried pickle spears, onion rings and quesadillas.
A group of five hit MoJo's for a Saturday lunch in December that saw the joint full. It was my first visit to the new location.
Wings: A dozen and a half wings with Cajun treatment (listed as one of the sauces, but it's more of a rub) were the first thing to hit the table. These were good sized wings with good crispness and a dense rub that packed some strong spice and very light heat. These had an enjoyable overall flavor, with the spice rub singing lead and a light grill flavor in the background. Smoke wasn't a component, which is okay since the wings weren't billed as such. More of a downside was the dryness of the interior meat, which should have been moist even without sauce. These wings needed no assistance flavorwise, but some tableside bottles were a very necessary condiment for moisture.
Ribs: A full rack of St Louis cut spares ($19.99 with two sides and cornbread)
arrived in a basket, separated into a few multi-bone strips. The cut
provided some fairly thick ribs, coated generously but not excessively
with the restaurant's signature Arkansawce. A light charring peeked out
under the sauce, and it wound up being the number 2 flavor component to
the sweet and tangy sauce. If it was there (and I doubt it was), smokiness took a back seat;
rub was nowhere in the vehicle. Texture offered a nice contrast between
the crispy surface and the extremely tender (and extremely white) inner meat. Overall, these
ribs struck me as closer to a product that a pub or a chain restaurant
would roll out—overcooked, overtender, undersmoked, too reliant on sauce for flavor—than something
out of a barbecue smokehouse. Within that context, they satisfied.
Pulled pork: In my 2008 review of the original MoJo's BBQ Shack on Islington Street, I
described the pulled pork as "sudsy." With that in mind, I ordered the pork unsauced to get a better read on its consistency. This time, the pork brought larger chunks, with minimal bark and a texture very similar to solid white tuna after most of the water's been drained out. This pork was slightly moist on the surface, but the inner meat was very dry. Flavor was neutral, with smoke, rub, porkiness and even charcoaliness all on holiday. Even with sauce added, the dryness of this meat was inescapable.
Brisket: When a barbecue restaurant offers brisket as both sliced and chopped, I never go with the chopped, figuring that it's likely to be the leftover scraps, diced and sauced to conceal its age. At MoJo's, all they have is the chopped, so I didn't know what to expect. Surprisingly, it came in as a huge improvement over the pork in every regard, bringing chunks about the same size, with much more surface crusting, much more moisture and much more flavor. This brisket was incredibly soft and arguably overcooked, but it was still pleasant to the bite. Flavor was interesting: it was as if the meat was cooked in beef bouillon or instant soup mix, because the seasoning was extremely concentrated and very unlike the usual barbecue profile. Smoke flavor and smoke ring were again absent, but by this time I had stopped looking.
Overall, despite some obvious flaws, there was something about this brisket I liked. Maybe it was in the soup mix.
Don't get me wrong—in no way am I saying this was good barbecue. But I don't feel guilty classifying this guilty pleasure as "good eats."
If you were to put this brisket on a soft seeded roll and added a little MoJo's chipotle mustard pepper sauce, it would make for a satisfying sandwich. Not satisfying barbecue, but a satisfying sandwich.
Sausage: A couple of halved links cut lengthwise brought more charring, a high salt content and the most juiciness of any of the meats. This sausage—or should I say kielbasa—continued the by-now established pattern of very noticeable charcoal flavor, not-so-noticeable smoke flavor and ultrasoft inner texture suggesting overcooking. There was no smoke ring and no snap, but the crisp casing and marginally pleasant overall flavor helped avoid disaster.
The Arkansawce sauce upon which the MoJo's empire was built is a mainstay years later, standing solo as the only barbecue sauce on offer. It's a well done Kansas City variety that has a little more complexity and a little more heat than your standard supermarket rendition. A few hot sauces, also apprently house made, supply different styles of pepper and strengths of heat and vinegar. The roster would probably benefit from the addition of some additional barbecue sauces.
Cole slaw: I liked this nice mix of creaminess, pepperiness and crisp cabbage.
Dirty rice: This had a rice pilaf characteristic reminiscent of Rice-A-Roni, but I kinda like Rice-A-Roni. Flavor was as concentrated as in the brisket.
Collard greens: Large leaves were still a little al dente and very, very plain.
Mac and cheese: Nowhere near al dente, these wiggly elbows were very well coated with a thick, creamy cheese sauce that was a little chalky but otherwise decent.
Cornbread: A sweet mini loaf was fairly standard.
If you look at the menu closely, you’ll notice that nowhere is there a mention of a smoker or of the meats being smoked. The nicely-written background material on the menu rhapsodizes about how passionate the owners are about food in general and about BBQ in particular: “We believe BBQ is at its best when all of its powerful flavors combine and harmonize. The natural flavors of the meat, the spiciness of the rub, the sweetness of the sauce.” I hear you, but what about the wood and the smoke? Elsewhere on the menu, it says, "All of our meats are dry rubbed, slow cooked, & Arkansawced." Based on what I've tasted and read so far, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's no smoker here.
The large parking lot in front of the main entrance is a welcome convenience, especially in Portsmouth.
The weekly specials, such as all-you-can-eat ribs on Mondays, present a nice value.
The Bottom Line
As someone who demands smoke, flavor, moisture and texture in my barbecue, I have a hard time taking MoJo's seriously as a barbecue joint—it's more of a pub that just happens to have "slow cooked" ribs and such. Still, I did find the overall experience at least serviceable and nominally enjoyable. Someone who values smoke less than I do and barbecue sauce more enjoyable than I do (and there's nothing wrong with that) would probably find MoJo's more than I did. Ditto someone who values the beer more than the barbecue.
PigTrip 2008 review of MoJo's BBQ Shack (previous location/concept)
Yelp reviews of MoJo's BBQ Grill
Urbanspoon reviews of MoJo's BBQ Grill