In a well-worn building near the end of Middle Street, just two streets back from the water, sits Norm's East End Grill. With mostly black and white sports photographs on the walls and a creaky wood floor, the place looks like a throwback to some of New England's early barbecue joints of the 1980s. On the smaller main level there's a diner style counter with six stools and another half dozen tables scattered about the room. A more spacious upstairs (open on weekend evenings) has its own bar and televisions for viewing sports. Norm's has the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your perspective) of being right next door to Duckfat, famous for their upscale sandwiches and home of arguably the best fries in the country.
Barbecue options include babyback pork ribs, pork spare ribs, country style pork ribs, barbecue chicken and brisket (spelled "brisquet") and pulled pork sandwiches. There's not much flexibility: you can order single meat platters or a fixed 5-meat sampler. Despite its compactness, the menu manages to offer plenty of variety, with steak tips, sausages, five different salads, grilled wings and quesadillas. Seafood options include lobster stew, homemade fishcakes and fish and chips.
I stopped in for a late lunch on a Saturday afternoon in July. Even though the pleasant weather probably drew many potential customers closer to the water, Norm's was moderately busy.
In an outside-the-box move that's become somewhat of my trademark (and the best defense against a menu that doesn't offer a 2-meat combo), I ordered a pulled pork sandwich ($8.95) as my appetizer. If you are an onion lover, you are in for a treat: it arrived open-faced on a dense onion roll with the cap sitting upright, crisp onion bits facing up; the pork was buried in layers of pickle chips and sliced raw onion. Under the toppings, the thick stack of pork was further aided by a light application of a tomato-based, not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy sauce. The meat came in an assortment of sizes, with each piece fairly mushy and the flavor pretty mild (no smoke or spice). As a whole, the sandwich worked a little better than the sum of its parts would suggest, but the lack of flavor in the meat itself (and I'm guessing it wasn't smoked) was disappointing. So if you're not an onion lover, it might not be so much of a treat.
For my main course I ordered the pork spare ribs ($12.95), a generous plate of meat (7 good sized bones) that was generously coated with a sauce that seemed to have a little more pizzaz (a little more heat and a lot more tang) than what was on the sandwich. The exterior didn't have a smoked-in crust so much as a light layer of char, and there was no smoke ring or any other evidence (color, aroma, flavor) of any time in a smoker. Texture was interesting: the ribs weren't tough, but they had just a little more bite to them than I prefer, and I prefer some bite. The flavor of the meat itself was muted, like a grilled pork chop, but the interplay of the contrasting flavors in the pleasing sauce helped out greatly. These were throwback 1980s ribs to be sure, but one of the better examples of this breed.
A single barbecue sauce is available at the table, and it does a nice job of covering all the bases. It looks and tastes (at least at first) like it's only a doctored ketchup, but there's a lot more going on. There's some extra sweetness, some vinegar tang, a little heat and even some tiny nuggets in there, which I believe were minced onion.
Beans were small and coated with a sweet sauce that probably had a little of the house barbecue sauce in it. Cole slaw topped with chives was thinly sliced and had a pleasing texture, though flavor was minimal. Bar far the most interesting side was the grilled cornbread. You get two thin squares that bear beautiful criss-cross grill marks and an intense corn flavor. I like how the grilling brought out some of the natural sweetness, but overall found the cornbread a little dry and artificial tasting.
Service was friendly and helpful. I like the relaxed vibe. Portions and value are excellent.
The bottom line: Not only does the place look like a throwback to some of New England's early barbecue joints of the 1980s, but the 'cue is also along those lines. Norm's is probably not going to make you rethink your barbecue top 10 list, but it's a pleasant barbecue meal served in comfortable surroundings. And those world class fries are right next door.
Norm's menu (Allmenus.com)
Yelp reviews of Norm's East End Grill
Urban Spoon reviews of Norm's East End Grill