The word "smokehouse" gets used frequently and misused nearly as frequently, but in front of Porkez BBQ Pig Pen, there's literally a decades-old brick smokehouse with a chimney that towers over the restaurant. Outfitted with an entry door, it's as roomy as a garage, with storage and a smoker that looks more like a brick pizza oven. The restaurant itself has a homespun cowboy theme that also seems decades old, but the equally homespun friendliness of the staff makes you take it all in stride. You can eat in the dining room to the left of the main entrance or proceed straight ahead to the bar whose stools are horse saddles.
Porkez BBQ Pig Pen offers burgers, grilled chicken, Buffalo wings and steak tips for diversity, but it's mostly about the 'cue, which runs fairly deep. The barbecue-focused menu has three kinds of ribs (babyback pork ribs, St Louis cut pork spare ribs and beef short ribs), smoked chicken, pulled pork and sliced brisket. Combinations are available with two, three or four meats of your choosing. For larger appetites or optimal sharing, there's the Hog It Platter (2 beef ribs, half a rack each babybacks and St Louis pork ribs, brisket, pulled pork, a half chicken, two sides and cornbread for $23) and the Super Hog It Platter (one beef ribs, a quarter rack each babybacks and St Louis pork ribs, brisket, pulled pork, a quarter chicken, two sides and cornbread for $30). For the kids, there's hot dogs, chicken nuggets and a PBJ in a hot dog roll.
My young bride and I hit Porkez BBQ Pig Pen on Memorial Day afternoon.
Since we ordered the 6-meat festival better known as the Super Hog Platter, there was no need for appetizers. Onion rings as a side filled this slot somewhat.
Beef ribs: Two beef ribs each about the size of a chalk eraser fronted the first plate, presenting a sturdy crust and mostly brown color. The meat rose nearly 2 inches off the bone, though some of the outer surface was fat. This was easily discarded, revealing well lubricated meat beneath that had the look of medium steak and the texture of well done steak. These ribs might have benefited from a little more time in the smoker, but the meat had sufficient moistness and nice beefy flavor picked up by the subtle spice rub. There wasn't much of a smoky taste or pink smoke ring, but the beef ribs still tasted smoked.
Brisket: Three long slices had a thin strip of fat along the edges—again, easily discarded. Like the beef ribs, the color was monotone brown aside from the grill marks against the width. Unlike the beef ribs, the brisket had no moistness at all. Overall flavor was lighter than the beef ribs but had a more noticeable smoke presence. But flavor took a backseat to texture, as the dryness made the brisket the weak link on the platter.
Babyback ribs: The only meat ordered sauced, the half rack of babybacks arrived as two quarter racks, each with a generous but not overbearing sauce layer above a very noticeable crusting. The cut presented average length and average thickness for babybacks. Slicing the ribs revealed grayish meat that was moist in its own right but monotone in color. The bite exceeded expectation as the sweet tanginess of the sauce elevated (without obscuring) the equally flavorful, slightly spicy meat beneath. Tenderness was about right for babybacks, cooked past competition rigidity but thankfully falling short of chain restaurant mush. I'm not a babybacks guy and I'm not a sauce guy, but I really enjoyed these ribs, even going as far as taking a rib from the second quarter rack that was intended for the take home carton.
St Louis ribs: Ordered unsauced, these were also presented as two quarter racks, each with an attractive crust that didn't look overdone. Slicing these revealed similar gray meat that looked a lot drier than the babybacks, but the bite shocked me as juices burst into my mouth. Each of the ribs I tried from this batch was moist. Although not smoky, they had the flavor of being smoked. The rub gave them a nice flavor that was different from the typical barbecue flavor profile, kind of like Montreal seasoning meets Brazilian steakhouse.
Pulled pork: Served in its own dish, the pulled pork remained true to the monotone motif, this time brown with whispers of pink. The meat had decent bark levels and a pleasantly porky overall flavor that was either aided or sabotaged (depending on your personal taste) by the sweet, dark brown barbecue sauce. Although the fine mashing and sweet sauce are both outside my preference, the restraint on the saucing and overall flavor made the pork at least serviceable.
Chicken: A quarter bird somehow arrived sauced, under which some of the skin was crisp and some wasn't. The underlying meat ranged from slightly juicy to very juicy, with the leg quarter particularly succulent. Lack of pink color and smoky flavor was by now a given, but all of the chicken had a nice flavor (with hints of heat) that suggested brine or marinade.
Three sauces in squeeze bottles offer heat variations on the same basic sweet brown base. They're all a little on the thick side and similar to a typical Kansas City sauce, but subtle additions (I'm guessing minced onions and citrus peel) set them apart a bit. Mustard and vinegar sauces would be good additions.
Cole slaw was crisp, creamy and very plain, as if the flavors (if there were any) hadn't set in yet. Onion rings were the thick battered variety and crisp all the way through, with slightly sweet thick cut onion beneath. Cornbread is served as sweet mini loaves; both the plain and jalapeno versions were warm, soft and moist.
Other Thoughts and Observations
If you're a Budweiser fan, you're in luck here. If you're seeking interesting craft brews, you're in the wrong place.
I know I already said it, but I have to reiterate how warm and welcoming every member of the staff was. If I lived nearby, that alone might make Porkez my regular watering hole even though the beer selection is limited.
Portions are very generous, offering good value.
The Bottom Line
My first visit to Porkez BBQ Pig Pen was a mixed bag for sure, but with more positives than negatives. The more successful of the meats made up for lack of in-your-face smokiness with compensatory non-mainstream flavors that worked reasonably well. I cut them a little slack for the holiday timing and their being just two weeks into the business, but even aside from these considerations I enjoyed the overall visit. I often say that I'd go back to a joint but not right away. Porkez is one I'm looking forward to checking out again and soon, though probably confining my barbecue selections to the ribs and chicken.
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