(04/19/08) (01/04/09) (01/22/11) (10/08/11)
Rick's Roadhouse is one of the most eye-catching spaces in the Northeast BBQ landscape, with a colorful service-station-turned-bar look that brings a 1950s vibe. The bar boasts "Rhode Island's largest whiskey selection," near-outdoor seating (the garage doors tilt back to allow sun), a half dozen TVs and pool tables. Inside, the dining room is dark but as interesting as the bar. Some nice touches include barrels in the entryway, stacks of wood by one of the outlets to the bar, a mural of a drive-in with parked cars, a list of BBQ rules to follow and a catchy "A waist is a terrible thing to mind" slogan that sums up the joint's menu choices. The kitchen is open and the smoker is a Southern Pride Smoke Chef (electric).
Tables are spacious and topped with fitted faux leather tablecloths and a well stacked condiment caddy (more on that later). Rhode Island restaurateur John Elkhay (XO, Ten Prime) put a lot of thought and creativity into the space and into the smaller touches, like a carafe of ice water with lemon on every table in the early days and a couch-happy VIP area in recent days.
Despite the roadhouse moniker, Rick's is first and foremost a bar with bar food. The list of Scotches, Bourbons and Margaritas is impressive. Pub appetizers include chili, steak on a stick, Texas eggrolls with smoked chicken, Buffalo chicken tenders, wings from Buffalo and wings from Hell (so spicy you get your photo on the wall of fame if you finish them). There's a steak, fish and chips, eight different burgers, fajitas, meat loaf and a mac and cheese entree with or without smoked chicken . The barbecue is limited to babyback ribs, pulled pork, brisket and smoked chicken. Ribs can be had by the half rack and rack, as a half rack in a 2-meat combo, and as a 1/3 rack add-on.
I spread four well spaced visits over a four year period, hitting Rick's on a Saturday night within the first two weeks of operation, then following up with assorted weekend afternoon and lunch visits.
If not for the bones I'd swear the breaded and fried Buffalo wings ($7.99) were chicken tenders, but they were moist and meaty. The sauce was fairly mild, though hot sauce helped. The bleu cheese accompaniment was thin enough to allow ample dipping. Buzz saw steak chili (cup $2.99, bowl $3.99) arrived with some onions, plenty of cheese and no beans. Its ground meat consistency was interrupted every few spoonfuls by a larger chunk that reminded me of a Chef Boyardee meatball. My biggest qualms with the chili were the sweetness and the overly high broth to meat ratio, which was only compounded by adding the required hot sauce to raise the heat past children's level.
For the first visit's entree, one item spoke to me loud and clear (technically, loudly and clearly), and that was the Deluxe Combo Platter ($18.99) that included ribs, brisket and pulled pork. The presentation was impressive, with two-thirds of a rack of babybacks and both the brisket and pork nestled on slices of white bread toast. The 3-meat combo is gone now, with a 2-meat combo ($16.99) available instead.
Ribs: The babybacks on the maiden voyage had thick bones with very little meat in between, but that was offset by the thickness of the cut. The moist meat wasn't particularly smoky and showed no sign of a smoke ring, but the flavor was pleasant enough. Visits 2 and three continued in the same vein, bringing a fully tender (actually, more than fully tender) product each time. By the fourth visit, the crust was much thicker, though uncrisp under the sauce. On the plus side, these ribs had a very lively flavor in the meat, not depending on the sauce to carry the weight. On the downside, there still wasn't much smoke. On the depends-on-preference side, these ribs were wiltingly tender, cooked to a fall-off-the-bone texture often found in oven cooked ribs. They were cooked in a smoker, but the texture and flavor were both similar to my mom's oven-cooked, ketchup-topped meatloaf of the 1970s.
Pulled pork: The first visit's heavily sauced pulled pork must have been grilled or fried with sauce on, because the edges were crispy and the meat beneath was quite chewy. The sticky meat was closer to an overly sweetened takeout Chinese dish than barbecue, though I imagine some might like this. I didn't. Two followups lost the grilling effect but brought similar results otherwise, with sauce dominant and the meat very sweet and tender from an extra long cooking cycle.
Brisket: Though heavily sauced in similar fashion to the pork on the first visit, the brisket was probably the best of the three meats. There was no smoke ring or smoky flavor here either, but despite all the sauce, there was some texture and flavor to the meat. The second visit brought some pink and some crust, kept the flavor the same but lost some of the texture. Though the third visit's brisket was requested without sauce, it arrived sauced and soggy, as much from overcooking as saucing. In general, the brisket here is very tender and somewhat pot roasty.
Burger: Because I'm such a fan of sister restaurant Harry's Bar and Burger (opened in 2010), I wanted to test drive the Rick's burger, made with the same beef blend. I wound up splitting a double bacon burger with cheddar ($9.95), which had nice juiciness and decent flavor, but even though the Hereford meat blend is the same, the differences in size (8 ounce patties at Rick's, slider size at Harry's), bun treatment (standard sesame seed bun at Rick's, griddled mini potato roll at Harry's) and cooking method (probably grilled at Rick's, griddled with onions at Harry's) all give the decisive victory to Harry's. Overall, Rick's burger gets the job done, but without any flair or fanfare.
A tray of condiments graces every table. This includes squeeze bottles of sweet barbecue sauce (typical commercial Kansas City style) and hot barbecue sauce (ditto but with heat), ketchup, Rhode Island Red hot sauce, a shaker of dry rub (surprisingly potent in the heat department) and silverware. I miss the custom wetnaps bearing the Rick's Roadhouse logo.
Sides were a mixed bag. Barbecue entrees come with cole slaw and beans as standard sides, and Rick's batted .500.
Beans: A major transformation from the sweeter early days, large baked beans were a little soft and soupy, more savory than sweet and loaded with pulled pork shreds.
Cole slaw: Crunchy thin sliced cabbage studded with seeds was another savory item-- strong on vinegar tartness and light on liquidity.
Cornbread: A large block was very sweet, with more vanilla flavor than corn, and a little dry.
Onion rings: Huge and puffy, these doughnut sized behemoths brought good crispness and a ridiculously high batter-to-onion ratio.
Fries: Midsized cut with skin on tasted fresh and potatoes with decent salting.
The Bottom Line
Much of your enjoyment of Rick's Roadhouse depends on your priorities and preferences. If you dig a super tender, super saucy brand of 'cue, you might like it, especially if drinks are as much of a focus as the eats. If not, your quest for hard core 'cue is not likely to be satisfied here (it wasn't for me). Either way, the prices are more than reasonable, the portions are more than generous, it's one of the coolest hangouts I've seen in a while and it's close to both the Providence Place Mall and the Dunkin Donuts Center. The bar business seems to be the emphasis, and in that area there's unqualified success.
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