(05/18/12) (04/06/13) (05/18/13)
Phil's Old Fashioned BBQ is a seasonal trailer that operates along Route 101A in front of the old Milford police station. It's a Southern Yankee setup with a takeout window on one end, a smoker at the other and a kitchen in between. Drinks and sauces are self serve; seating consists of a few picnic tables (one covered) on a sprawling lawn to the east of the trailer.
The barbecue-only menu includes full cut pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, sausage and chicken. As for how to get all of the above, you could not ask for a more flexible menu than what's offered here. Well, you could, but there'd be no need to. Two- and three-meat combos with allowable substitutions and add-ons, plus by-the-pound options get you as much or as little as you need, with or without sides. You can also order by the pound, with a one-pound minimum. There's a barbecue chili too.
My maiden voyage to Phil's was a solo one for a Friday lunch in the spring of 2012, and the hoped-for followup never happened. A pair of spring 2013 Saturday lunch visits with barbecue friends allowed two chances with enough ordering to try the full breadth of the menu. Conditions played a role: on the first, I was alone and full; on the second I had help but the temperatures in the 40s did not help.
Chili is the only item that would be considered an appetizer, but I still technically have not tried it. I did taste a single spoonful as a sample and mostly liked the smoky, meaty quality—it's made with the barbecue meats—but would place this on the mild side in terms of chili heat and all around spiciness.
Ribs: These are full cut pork spare ribs ($13.90 for half rack with one side and cornbread) and they are very large and meaty. Although not much rub is used, the surfaces always get a nice crusting from the sugars and the slow cooking. The bark is always brick meets mahogany, with no burnt areas. The cross sections stray toward pink, with brighter hues around the edges and lighter pinkness closest to the center. The meat is what they used to call "competition tender," allowing a clean bite that pulls easily off the bone without taking the rest of the rib meat with it. There's a slight snap that requires just a little bit of effort, but there's no doubt about the tenderness. These ribs are reliably moist, though not explosively so. Flavor is the real calling card here, accomplished mostly with natural porkiness and very woody smokiness. These ribs are served unsauced and are best enjoyed with no additional adornment. A little more rub and juiciness might put them over the top, but as constituted I'd rank them among the best in the area. If you like 'em big and smoky with some bite left, these ribs are for you. If "fall off the bone" tenderness is a requirement, they may not be for you.
Brisket: On all three visits, Phil's brisket has been nothing short of spectacular. There's always the blackened crunchy parts, but never the look or feel or taste that it's been overcooked. There's always the bright ruby smoke ring around lighter pink inner meat. It's always fork tender and always moist to full-on juicy. Smokiness is a guarantee but also not overdone. The aftereffects of rub are noticeable, but the rub itself isn't overtaking the surface. Fat is there but mostly rendered, making every slice entirely consumable with no discard needed.
There are no gimmicks here. Just like with the ribs, the bulk of the flavor—and there is much of it—comes from the meat and the smoke. Combine that flavor with pinpoint tenderness and you've got a winner.
On the third visit, we had a choice between brisket from the flat and brisket from the point, and we unanimously chose the latter, as it's the fattier cut and the one most often used to make burnt ends. This yielded the best batch yet, prompting us to order an encore. After dividing two combo plates and one pulled pork sandwich four ways, we splurged for a pound of brisket. These cubed chunks had nice crisp bark, marbling, fat fully rendered, excellent juiciness and highly concentrated beef-and-smoke flavor.
Based not just on the third visit but all three, I regard Phil's brisket the best of New Hampshire—yes, overtaking Goody Cole's—and among the top handful in all of New England and eastern New York.
Pulled pork: The first visit's pulled pork is a distant memory that's a bit faded thanks to a few different factors. That visit came as the third stop on a 3-stop crawl that also included the dismal Parker's Maple Barn and the now-closed Memphis BBQ and Blues just down the street. So I was both full and queasy and not in the best frame of mind to take on more pork. I was, however, on my game enough to recognize the excellent ribs and brisket, so the okay-but-nothing-special pork slid to the background. It had some good color, a nice bark component and near perfect doneness. Flavor and moistness were by no means problems; they just didn't deliver in the same impressive manner as the ribs and brisket that first time.
The second visit fielded the same basic pork, which had the same positive attributes with some dropoff in moistness (I'd call it borderline dry) and some major improvement in flavor (very pleasant smokiness intermingling with the ratcheted porkiness).
On the third visit, I was standing around with two members of our party as we were awaiting the final arrival of our fourth, and one of them asked me, "Is the pulled pork any good?"
I said, "Yes, it's good, but not as good as the ribs or brisket."
"Not so loud, they can hear you!"
"They can hear me, I don't care. And besides, I said it's good—just not as good as the ribs or brisket." Looking at Phil's wife Kristin, who nodded throughout the proceedings, I asked if she agreed.
"It's not like he said it sucked."
Phil, who'd been at the back of the trailer, poked his head out and with a sly grin put an end to the discussion: "I think today you're going to be pleasantly surprised."
And so we were, as the pulled pork sandwich we ordered arrived with more bark, more pink, much more flavor and much more moistness (this time fully juicy) than the first two tries. My photos of this product do not do it justice, as the sun's haze washed out the color and make it difficult to see how moist and juicy it was. Regardless of appearance—and I still think the pork looks good in the photo—this was some really good stuff: moist, bouncy, smoky, crisp and porky. If there was a weakness, it was that the bun wasn't as fresh as what was in it, but I'll take that over the reverse. And if the pork is this good every time, I'll take it over most.
Chicken: Tried on the second and third visits, a half chicken ($14.40 with two ribs, brisket, one side and cornbread) awed with a dark brown skin that had surprising borderline crispness and trickling juices. The dark meat was moist one time and juicy another, with the white meat borderline moist both times. On the first try, rub and smoke flavor abounded on the surface but had a dropoff deeper in. The second time, more of the woody smoke made its way to the center of the bird. This is an above-average item that's on the verge of becoming special, so if I were headed to Phil's by myself, I could see getting the chicken on at least every third 3-meat platter to gauge progress.
Sausage: As I often say, this sausage would have fared better if offered as links rather than slices, but I also gotta say, these slices were very moist one time and downright juicy another. In addition to the light but recognizable smokiness, both servings brought a nice spicy flavor that was strong without trying to challenge. The casings still had some crispness and snap. Overall, another solid effort that I'd place above average.
There are two sauce options. The brown is a tomatoey tangy number very much like what you'd find at a supermarket, but on the third visit I gave it a longer test drive for some reason and it kept growing on me. I noticed nuanced flavors in the background and some welcome delayed heat. The yellow is a thin vinegar and mustard sauce that has a little spice as well.
Cole slaw: Not too mayoey and not too vinegary, but not too much different from storebought. Of all the cole slaws I've said this about, this was probably the best, for what it's worth.
Baked beans: Another ho-hum effort with most likely a slightly doctored canned variety. Thick sauce, slightly savory, a little more sweet without getting too sweet.
Potato salad: Though not much to look at—it's so monotone white it barely shows up in the photographs against the white styrofoam—it actually comes through with good texture and good flavor, packing a refreshing vinegar kick into the firm but tender chunks.
Cornbread: This reminds me of what the cornbread was like in the earliest days of Goody Cole's Smokehouse (Brentwood NH): sort of a cross between a standard slightly sweet Jiffy variety and a soft, moldable hunk of a moist corny snowball.
The menu is as affordable as it is flexible.
Nice to see some environmental consciousness: platters arrive in compostable greenware clamshell paper boxes, not styrofoam.
The Bottom Line
Say what you want about the sides, but meat for meat Phil's Old Fashioned Barbecue stacks up as one of the best barbecue joints in New Hampshire, with brisket better than any of them. But forget New Hampshire—Phil's five meats hold their own against the best joints in New England.
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