Review Date: 10/16/17
Visit Dates: (09/12/17) (09/14/17) (09/20/17)
In a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Portland, closer to I-95 than Old Port, sits Noble Barbecue, a Monday-through-Friday (for now) operation specializing in "proper" sandwiches whose fillings start with smoked meats. It smells like smoke outside, butter inside—most likely because one of the predominant sandwiches on the menu is the Pastrami Reuben, but all of the sandwich vessels get the griddle treatment. There's table seating for eleven, high tops against window ledges for eight, and another four high tops at a small bar. Decor consists of circular and diamond tin shelves with mini logs and jarred pickled vegetables. You check the menu and specials list on the right, pass by the open kitchen and order at a counter; they bring it to the table when it's ready.
Starting in early November, Noble's hours will expand to include weekends.
Four core meats—brisket, pastrami, chopped pork and chopped mole chicken—are available as naked sandwiches, as specialty sandwiches (multiple vegetable additions and condiments), and by the pound (you can order as quarter- and half-pound portions as well). A fifth specialty sandwich, black bean falafel, appeals to the vegetarian crowd, with the pickle roster and mostly vegetarian sides providing reinforcement. Daily specials further round the offerings, with ribs typically available on Fridays.
I made three solo visits, all for lunch, in a span of nine days, hitting Noble Barbecue Tuesday-Thursday-Wednesday. As should be expected, they get busier as the week goes on.
There are no appetizers as such, but a worthy workaround is tackling a subset of the menu in quarter pound samples.
Usually I go meat by meat, then visit by visit, but for this restaurant it makes more sense to tell the story chronologically.
Visit 1: An impressive maiden voyage
Brisket: Four mid-sized slices in a half-pound order of brisket ($10.50), served unsauced with an accompaniment of pickled onions, brought very crusty blackened bark and very tender inner meat with a bright smoke ring and a steady stream of juices. Texture contrasted perfectly. Smoke and rub were noticeable but light. The flavor of the beef, with its fully rendered fat melted in, was enough. This was a great start, and one matched previously at less than a handful of barbecue restaurants.
Pastrami: Not quite as juicy as the brisket, the pastrami ($5.25) still impressed with crispness at the edges, a pleasant cure flavor, good tenderness and a moistness level that drifted into juicy for sure. It had a significant bit of fat in the center of the slice, but the size of the slice was well over the requested quarter pound to compensate.
Pulled pork: A quarter pound of pulled pork ($4.00) showed literally more bark than inner meat, easily coming in with the most bark per volume of any order of pulled pork I've ever had in my life. Based on the laws of geometry and probability, it was hardly repeatable, but it was certainly impressive. Less impressive was the moistness, which struggled. I wouldn't call this pork dry, but I wouldn't call it moist either. Right on the edge. But this pork was very porky, thanks in part to that bark percentage.
Visit 2: I'm liking them more and more
Mole chicken: A quarter pound of poultry ($3.50) on the second visit made for a starter of sorts. This was served as a bunch of knuckle-sized nuggets, each one bearing rub, char and a very thin coating of sauce. All of it was tender and moist, though shy of juicy. It reminded me a little of the the chicken at Chipotle (though obviously better) and the chicken in Szechuan chicken and peanuts, only with much more flavor (a little smoke, a lot of spice, mere hints of sweetness, no heat) and char (I'm guessing griddle, not grill, based on kitchen evidence). This also weighed in—visually at least—at well over the requested quarter pound.
Pulled pork: Tried as a sandwich ($8.00), the pork came in much more moist this time, perhaps a little less porky, with lots of bark again (though less than the impossible-to-match first visit). The griddled brioche added flavors from both bread and butter while holding everything nicely in a flexible, collapsible package. Citrus apple slaw topped the meat, adding moisture and contrasting texture and flavor. The menu description includes sauce, but it wasn't in the sandwich; it was easy enough to add at the table. Not an elite sandwich, but certainly a very solid one, with the meat and bun both shining.
Brisket: I forgot to request no sauce on a half pound of brisket, so it came sauced, even though I never made a request the first time when it came unsauced. Despite the sauce (I prefer no sauce but I'm not a dick about it), the brisket still looked gorgeous, with soft, brightly colored meat with a dark crunchy crust on the outside. Said crunch delivered lots of salt, not much pepper. Further in, the tender slices carried lots of melted-fat-fueled moisture and juiciness beyond the sauce, with mid-range smoke. The best way I can describe it to Massachusetts-based barbecue aficionados is as follows: if BT's Smokehouse brisket and Smoke Shop brisket had a love child, it would be this. Sauce could not derail the quality of this brisket. Two tries; two superb examples.
Visit 3: The fall back to Earth
Pastrami: A half pound arrived with a nice shade of pink on the cross sections but unmistakably dry, with dried fat present in the wrinkles and in a thicker rim adjacent to the crust. The slices were quite stiff (a fail on the barbecue judge's "accordion test"), a condition exacerbated by being cut too thick (greater than a half inch), presenting a texture similar to an overcooked pork chop. Matching the visual, this pastrami was pretty dry other than built-in fat from the cut. Flavor was still positive, bringing pleasant rub-cure-smoke, but overall this pastrami was a disappointment and an obvious/sloppy reheat.
Pulled pork: This quarter pound disappointed before the tray hit the table: big chunks (not so bad), gray (not so good), turkey thigh moist (juicy would be better), and zero (and I mean zero) bark. The really noteworthy thing about the bark is that Noble just two visits apart supplied the most bark of any pulled pork I've ever been served and the least bark of any pulled pork I've ever been served. Less interesting but just as obvious was that it was another reheat.
As I contemplated ordering a quarter pound of brisket to potentially salvage the day, one of the staff asked how everything was; I said the flavors were good but the meat wasn't as fresh as the last two times—oh and by the way, is today's brisket from today or reheated from last night? He said reheat, so I passed on round 2.
Two offerings grace each table in large medicinal style glass bottles. The "red" is probably closer to brown and isn't all that similar to most red or brown sauces. It's much thinner, with as much (or more) tartness as sweetness; there's more of a resemblance to Worcestershire sauce. Whatever it is, it works in that it bolsters the meat flavors without drowning them. A mustard sauce is thicker and densely packed with whole grains, allowing it to straddle the worlds of barbecue and deli. It matches perfectly with the pastrami and well with everything else.
Fries: Fortunately there was one silver lining to the third visit, and it was the fries. Served in a McDonald's style container, intentionally tilted so they spill out on the tray, the fries here reminded me of the classic McDonald's fries, only better: thorough crunch, good give, fluffy interior and just the right amount of seasoning.
Citrus Apple Slaw: Purple cabbage and carrot with thin apple slivers hidden in the mix. A clear condiment that adds multidimensional tartness.
Classic Slaw: A pretty simple affair, and predictably mayoey with a hint of tang. Nice crunch. Nothing too exciting.
Beans: Semi firm, molassesy sweet with the kick of smoke and enough meat to make them interesting.
Mac and Cheese: Flattened tubed pasta well coated with a thick, creamy cheese sauce that's not quite sharp but well past mild.
Pickles: At most places pickles are an afterthought, but here they're elevated to an art form. There are four different varieties: dill, bread-and-butter, mixed vegetable and onion. All provide good crunch, plenty of complex tartness and lots of pickling spice and/or complementary flavors. A small amount comes with each meat serving; you can add extra (though not too much extra) for an extra fifty cents.
Pricing is very reasonable. For the quality experienced, it's bordering on bargain.
The old Gary would get at least one more visit in to see if the next one more closely aligned with the first two or the third. Since Noble Barbecue is only open on weekdays until November and I'm no longer available to visit them on weekdays, let's go with the review now. I can always go back. If the brisket next time is anything like the first two times, I'll be going back as often as I can.
The Bottom Line
I'm not sure I can come to any firm conclusion yet, but there's a lot to like at Noble Barbecue even though the most recent visit was a drop off. The brisket alone, based on two great samples, is among the best in the Northeast, so that's reason enough to give a strong recommendation. I'm optimistic, I'm a fan, and I'm returning some weekend before the end of the year.
Yelp reviews of Noble Barbecue
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