Rockhouse BBQ & Wings is a fledgling barbecue joint in downtown Manchester, just a few feet away from Corey's Catsup and Mustard. Ordering is over-the-counter, but the kitchen staff will bring your tray out to you and clean it all up when you leave (there aren't any trash barrels, so disposal on your own isn't even an option. Seating includes a few 4-tops, a few stools at a window counter and a few tables outside when weather permits. Behind the ordering counter, an open kitchen lets you see all the action and the huge Ole Hickory smoker. There's no bar or alcohol served, but BYOB is an endorsed option. A big bonus is ample city parking without the typical parking meters.
The name of the joint tells you all you need to know: there's barbecue, there's wings, there's not much else. The barbecue includes babyback ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken and sausage. There are no configurable combos, but fixed combos feature ribs plus wings, ribs plus chicken and brisket plus pork. Sandwiches include the usual pork and brisket suspects, plus a few interesting hybrids that involve multiple meats, cheese and bacon. The wings are fried, not smoked, and have breading under the sauce unless you request otherwise.
Both visits were with friends for weekday lunches—one a few weeks into their operation and another about a month later.
We didn't try any on either visit. Breaded and fried wings simply didn't appeal as much as sticking with the core barbecue items.
The order was the same both times: ribs and chicken combo ($17.99), brisket and pork combo ($13.99). Gotta get the basic four.
Ribs: These are babybacks, which are known to be on the petite side, but the ones at Rockhouse are even more petite than typical. The first visit's half rack had a bumpy, crusty, spiced outer surface topped with an artful drizzle of the classic barbecue sauce. Saucier than I like, but doable, and still allowing that crust to peek through. Scrawniness aside, the inner meat looked just as appetizing with its bright pink color. Flavor brought a nice porky-smoky-spicy troika that showed good promise. Texture was a little firmer than typical, but good. Overall, some decent ribs that I was looking forward to trying again next time without sauce.
So on the second visit we requested no sauce and were told that the ribs come sauced but we could skip the additional sauce. No problem, we said, just go with as little sauce as you can. The ribs came out with even more sauce than the first visit, and with less crust (if by "less" I mean "none"). Pinkness was still there, only this time the texture was at the other end of the spectrum, coming in so mushy it felt pre-chewed. Flavor held up okay. Overall, some less than decent ribs that didn't live up to the promise.
Chicken: A large, uncut, unsauced half bird arrived with well-rubbed, crispy skin both times, making it the item I most wanted to try. Despite the crispiness, that skin was tough; both times a single bite dragged not just the desired area but the rest of the skin along with it. Flavor was uniformly pleasant without any real strong smoke or rub notes under the skin. Moistness both times was schizophrenic: very moist dark meat, very dry white meat.
Brisket: An unusual presentation starred a black pepper topping so aggressive (but entirely welcome) on the first visit that I was thinking au poivre. This was served unsauced by default, leaving the meat naked and a little pale, at least by Ole Hickory smoker standards. The brisket did manage a light pink smoke ring around the edges, but no crispy bark. The peppery slices had some serious flavor, though not smoky. The rest of the brisket had almost no flavor other than the beefiness that was a given. Texture was pot roasty. Black pepper decelerated on the second visit's brisket, but all of the other characteristics were more or less the same. With neither flavor nor texture going for it, the one thing it offered was bulk, and a generous serving at that.
Pulled pork: Sauced with the South Carolina influenced Rockhouse sauce, the pulled pork brought another unusual presentation with its yellow-gold color. I liked that the restrained saucing was just enough to keep things moist but not so much that it flooded the meat. I also liked the bark that may not be visible at first glance but was fairly plentiful upon closer inspection. Flavor was plain on the first visit and a little smokier and porkier on the second try, but smoke levels can still be improved. Texture was slightly overdone on both visits but within the desired range and well short of mushy. For me, this was the most enjoyable of the four meats on the second visit (ribs took that honor on the first).
A quartet of sauces in squeeze bottles graces the tables. Rockhouse is a golden, tangy, slightly spicy, slightly sweet mustard sauce with lots of body and good execution. Classic is dark and sweet, with a pudding-like thickness and muted flavor intensity. Hot BBQ is a non-muted mutant of Classic, maybe slightly thinner and with a lot more zip. Inferno is a Tabasco-like saice with more body and significantly more spice.
For the most part, sides have been good. There ought to be more greens here though.
Mac and cheese: Sticky, yellow and peppery on the first visit, this morphed to loose, smooth and silky on the second visit's batch that dug deep into the oven pan with crispier elbows on top. Thick white cheese struck a midpoint between mild and sharp.
Beans: These looked like a canned variety, slightly doctored up with onions, yielding even more oniony flavor than the little bits suggested.
Cole slaw: A store-bought style with homemade flavor was creamy, tangy and fresh ground black peppery.
Potato salad: A home style with very little mayo, minimal spiciness. Not too stiff, not too mushy.
Fries: Skins-on sticks from visit 1 weren't cooked long enough and didn't have much flavor.
Cornbread: A rags-to-riches improvement similar to the mac and cheese, this was dry on visit 1 but coarse, kernel-studded and more moist than a fudgy brownie on visit 2.
The Bottom Line
Despite the meat-by-meat rundown that may not be the most flattering, there are some signs that Rockhouse BBQ & Wings could be good someday. Right now they're a work in progress, so I'll wait for some progress before I work my way over there again.
Hartford Courant review of Rockhouse BBQ & Wings
Yelp reviews of Rockhouse BBQ & Wings
Urbanspoon reviews of Rockhouse BBQ & Wings
||'Like' PigTrip BBQ Reviews on Facebook to keep up with all of the reviews and much more content not available on the site.