(06/26/10) (11/12/10) (12/18/10)
Pete's BBQ Pit is a strip mall storefront in Dracut MA, across the street from a high school and across the Merrimack River (and then some) from downtown Lowell. Ordering is over-the-counter. Indoor picnic tables add a welcoming touch to a joint that mostly looks like a converted pizza shop. The friendly counter staff mentioned that the meat is smoked using a homemade smoker. The strong smells of barbecue—whether charcoal, smoking wood, burning sauces or all three—are likely to hit you with great impact upon entry.
All the typical takeout fare receive representation, from wings to burgers to barbecue, which features pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, chicken and brisket. Sausages offer a choice between linguica and kielbasa. sandwich options include all of the above, plus steak tips, burnt ends, roast beef and hotdogs. There are no custom 2- and 3-meat combos as seen elsewhere, but a lone Combo Plate includes two beef ribs, two pork ribs, half kielbasa and linguica links on half hotdog rolls, four wings and one side. There's an interesting burger challenge that includes two 8-ounce patties and ghost chile peppers.
Three well spaced visits yielded two Saturday lunches and a Friday dinner.
Chili: More akin to meaty spaghetti sauce than chili, this was a straightforward rendition with ground beef, beans, peppers, onions and no barbecue component. That burger challenge had me expecting some serious kick in the chili, but it was very mild. On the second try, the meat quotient was noticeably lower.
Wings: Sampled twice on the Combo Plate ($16.99), good sized wings were well coated with a mild barbecue sauce. The exterior was once crisped perfectly and once undercrisped in ghastly pale fashion; the interior was moist both times. Charcoal flavor dominated these wings.
Pulled pork sandwich: A pulled pork sandwich ($5.99, sides extra) provided ample meat, more than ample sauce and less than ample bark or signature barbecue flavor. This was soft, mild, monotone pork that might have been smoked for all I know—it just didn't look or taste it. The big chunks, overall flavor and texture reminded me of turkey thighs. It was a generous sandwich, and if you dig a lot of sauce without a lot of smoke, it's a perfect fit.
Pork ribs: Tried all three times, the pork ribs provided a roller coaster of experiences.
- On the first visit, a half rack of St Louis pork ribs ($9.99) brought an improvement over the pulled pork sandwich. Smoke and spice were similarly very low but slightly more prominent. The rack was thick and the color looked appetizing beneath the sauce. Doneness was just about right, yielding tender meat that pulled easily from the bone without veering into overcooked territory. Although these ribs didn't strike me as classic pit smoked barbecue, the overall result was enjoyable.
- On the second visit, the pork ribs were much more saucy and grilled with sauce to bind the two together. Although that's not my preferred style, I thought they did a nice job, and the charred saucy exterior still allowed the flavor of the inner meat—which had more oomph than the first time—to shine through. I still got more of a backyard BBQ feel than classic pit smoked 'cue, but within that realm, it was good, and better than the first time.
- On visit three, the ribs were ordered unsauced. The grill flavor this time dominated the overall flavor much like it did with the first sampling of the wings. Inside, the meat was dry with very little flavor.
Beef ribs: Ordered once sauced and another time unsauced, the ribs satisfied with the sauce and were a dud unsauced. Meatiness also varied (more meaty that first time with the sauce), though fat was low both times. The same theme replayed, with more of a charcoaly backyard feel, less smoke and no obvious rub.
Sausage: The Combo Plate supplied a half sausage each of the linguica and the kielbasa. I didn't get any smoke either time, but both times enjoyed the char that was again reminiscent of backyard grilling. One time both sausages were dry; the other time both were slightly moist. That juiciness might have been more forthcoming and more frequent had the sausages not been scored. Flavor was decent (not great, not bad) both times.
Burger: I split this one with someone who likes medium (I prefer medium rare), and even he said it was dry. It was very dry, and it had the feel and flavor of a low budget, factory-packed burger that was frozen, thawed and grilled. Toppings were okay, but the burger itself was rubbery and tasteless.
There wasn't anything special about the mild, tomato-based sauce and nothing wrong with the sauce other than its mildness. I'd like to see more variety, with some hotter sauces (based on the burger challenge, I know they like heat) and a vinegar for the pulled pork.
Sides changed up from visit to visit.
On the first venture the onion rings were easily the standout among the sides and probably the highlight of the meal. Puffy, crisp and dark brown, they had just the right amount of batter to counter the thicker-than-usual slices. Cole slaw had too much mayo and not enough flavor. Beans tasted canned. Fries were ordinary.
On the third visit the onion rings were a little different and less impressive, while the fries this time had skins, were darker, seemed more homemade and wound up being very impressive. Cole slaw still had too much mayo, but balanced things out with a little more spice and tang than on the earlier visit. Mild, creamy mac and cheese had that orange Velveeta look and taste, making it ideal for the younger palate.
The Bottom Line
Maybe there's smoke and rubs also involved, but the predominant flavor here is from the charcoal grill, both in the char and the grilled-in sauces. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you know what you're getting into (assuming that is what you're into). With expectations set accordingly, sauce not excluded and luck on your side, Pete's BBQ Pit can hit the spot. But even at its best, this is more of a convenient local standby than destination barbecue.
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