(11/09/13) (11/14/13) (11/26/13) (02/22/14) (03/06/14)
Riverside Barbeque is the transformation of the former Sausage King into a barbecue joint under the same ownership. The small space has a few booths at one end, a few tables in the middle and a few more stools against counters at the windows and ordering area. You stand in line, order and pay ahead of time, then they bring the food out to you when it's done. There's no bar per se, but the craft beer selection is exemplary for a place of this type. The smoker is a Cookshack.
Barbecue meats include pork spare ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, burnt ends of brisket, pulled chicken and smoked-then-fried chicken wings. The options are user friendly, with all meats available as individual platters with two sides, as combo plates with up to four meats and as sandwiches with fries. A sausage sub is a holdover from the earlier incarnation—grilled, not smoked. Appetizers feature fried string beans, fried pickles, chicken fingers and an ever-changing chili. There's also a burger.
After tracking pre-opening progress for much of the summer, I hit Riverside for their second day of operation on their first Saturday afternoon, joined by two barbecue crawl veterans. Follow-up visits included weeknights both solo and with a friend, plus a Saturday night with young bride and another couple.
Wings: The flappers here are smoked first, deep fried before service, then presented unsauced to allow you to choose your own bottled sauces for dipping. The first batch of wings from a 4-meat combo ($19.99) on visit 1 drew mixed reviews from our trio of tasters, with the positives being crispness (I agreed, at least on that batch) and smokiness (I didn't detect any). Overall, I found them plain.
The wings basket ($7.99 with fries) as an appetizer on visit 3 took a slight step up. Smoke was again elusive, but these wings were more crisp and carried a little more chickeny flavor. The next try was again on a 4-meat combo, and the results were disastrous, achieving the near impossible feat of having pale, rubbery skin while still being overcooked inside. Sitting at the bottom of a warm meat pile probably didn't help. Flavor was again very plain.
Tip: If you get the wings, get them as a basket and not on a combo.
Chili: Tried only on visit 2, this was a highlight, combining a spirited broth with smoky meats. This chili might have made a top 10 list and might have been the best thing I ate at Riverside. Unfortunately, this is a changing item that's made differently each time and not always available. On the next visit, chili wasn't an option and on the one after that, it was ground beef only with no smoked meats, so I passed.
Ribs: The most promising item on the first visit was the ribs, which from day 1 have distanced themselves from the rest of the offerings with their higher rub level, higher smoke level and genuine juiciness. Size has been consistent; these ribs are both long and meaty. Doneness is the one variant: sometimes they're a little over and borderline overtender (visit 2); sometimes they're a little under and a little chewy (visit 1; the second round of visit 3). Sometimes they're fresh, extra juicy and exactly where they need to be (visit 3, round 1). While the other meats have been a roller coaster ride—with as many downhill plunges as uphill climbs—the ribs have been the one dependable to be at least above average.
On visit 4, ribs on a 4-meat combo took a slight step down, though I'll still say above average. To visualize just how above average, recall the scene from Rocky III where Sylvester Stallone, every limb twitching from the struggle, hoists Hulk Hogan up and over the ropes. On this effort, the ribs were as jumbo as ever and overall flavor was still good—interestingly stronger on black pepper content in the rub—and with enough tenderness to get by. The cross sections had trickling juices. The bite wasn't as easy as it looked, encountering chewy meat that was probably a post-refrigeration reheat.
The most recent ribs on visit 5 lost the pepper but upped the quality with a somewhat firm but still tender consistency (a combination referred to a decade ago as "competition tender") and decent moisture that fell just slightly shy of juicy. Flavor brought welcome porkiness and light smoke.
Pulled pork: On the first visit's 4-meat combo, the two meats presented as brisket and pulled pork were indistinguishable—so much so that three of us were convinced it was all one meat. Either way, the characteristics were the same: all chunks (hence the conclusion that it was pork), mostly gray, not much bark, faint smoke, very tender, moist more from steam than juice. This didn't dazzle in the flavor department but served as a decent vehicle for the array of sauces.
To avoid any confusion on the follow-up, I went with a 2-meat combo, sticking with the spare ribs and saving the rest of the spotlight for just the generous quantity of pulled pork. Again very light on smoke, bark and flavor, it had a steamy characteristic and an overall taste and feel of poultry. In a sandwich with sauce and slaw and buttery bun to help it out, it might have been fine. But with forkable meat, I wanted more flavor in general and more of a barbecue profile in particular.
That flavor came closest in visit 3, which seemed to improve things across the board. The meat was darker, more tender and moist without being as steamy, and this time it tasted like pork. Bark was at its most prolific. Smoke still lagged behind, but I can't say it lacked flavor.
Pulled pork on visits 4 and 5 abandoned the steamy, pot roasty profile in favor of a ropy, twiny approach without moisture but with less of a "held" consistency. Smoky and porky flavor were held—to a minimum—but rub did come through. Both texture and flavor were mitigated if not rescued by the barbecue sauces available in thin, thick, sweet and spicy varieties.
Brisket: Going on the assumption that the first visit's brisket was really pork, the first real stab at the brisket didn't happen until visit 3. It wasn't bad: thick slices of mostly pink, fully tender meat with a fresh feel and good moisture that included trickling juicers. Smoke, rub and overall flavor were all subtle.
For a while it looked like visit 4's brisket hit the mother load: gigantic piece—think cartoon raw steak shape—with exagerated thickness at one end, some welcome pink color near the edges and enough fat to keep the beast moist. Unfortunately, it was about two-thirds unrendered fat, with the remaining third only nominally moist, mostly chewy and cold in spots.
The fat was better rendered on visit 5, yielding borderline moistness. Although a little pot roasty, this brisket had decent tenderness and a pleasant enough flavor coming more from seeped in rub than surface rub. Smoke was again light.
Burnt Ends: There are many interpretations of burnt ends around the country and even within New England. According to the online menu, the ones here are"14 hour slow smoked Texas brisket, cut and reserved from our sliced option, cubed and slow simmered for an additional 6 hours in our tomato based Sweet-n-Tangy BBQ Sauce." Paper menus have them as "cubed and slow roasted for an additional 3 hours."
Stylistically, the first visit's batch of burnt ends came closest to those made popular at East Coast Grill (Cambridge MA) and Blue Ribbon (W. Newton MA), with the meat shredded, crispy in spots and lightly sauced. While my mealmates scoffed at this and even questioned whether the burnt ends moniker could even be applied, I kept an open mind and judged it on what it was rather than what it wasn't. While I would have preferred that the extra six hours of cooking time be in the smoker and with an extra layer of rub, I did like the beefiness, the melted-in fat and the light smoke that combined for a rich and texture-happy bite. Stellar? Epic? No, but solid for what it was. In this instance, the simmering didn't have the negative effects I was fearing.
Tried as a sandwich ($9.99 with fries) on visit 4, the burnt ends were closer to the menu description in both shape (half-inch cubes) and methodology (more obviously simmered). This time our old friend steaminess came back for a visit. The simmer had the dual effect of fading the meat's flavor while also making it rubbery. Like the sliced brisket from the same night, there was an impressive amount of fat content, but not fully rendered and not at all crispy. Rub and smoke were once again light. The saving grace was the buttered and grilled potato bun, which had satisfying softness, richness and freshness.
The burnt ends on visit 5 got a finer chop that came closer to the shredded first batch, along with a lot more sauce. That, combined with the simmering or slow roasting, gave the ends a softer texture that would be mushy hell for some and tender heaven for others.
One of the strengths of this joint is the sauces, both in variety and quality. The descriptions don't always match the flavors and regionality, but since flavors are mostly fine, so am I. Kansas City is sweet but uncharacteristically thin, with much sediment falling into the cinnamon-allspice-nutmeg-cloves family. Not your typical Kansas City sauce but an interesting one for sure, with some light heat.
House is sweet, tangy and molassesy in more of a Kansas City way. Colonel Mustard looks browner than yellow and tastes yellower than brown, with good viscosity. Sweet Caroline is a classic North Carolina vinegar sauce with a little heat and a lot of pucker. There are a few more sauces I haven't tried or can't remember, including some seasonal and experimental ones that come and go.
Cole Slaw: Plentiful, crunchy, creamy and slightly sweet, this is a slaw that has crossover appeal. It's a dead ringer visually for storebought and I'm not a creamy slaw guy, but I like this one.
Baked Beans: The earliest version was simple black beans with not much going on, but they've gotten lighter, sweeter and more flavorful over time.
Fried Pickles: Spears look like a frozen product with monotone color and no visible or tasteable seasoning. There's a thick crunch and a faint glimmer of heat (hot sauce, I'm guessing) flirting with the the vinegar in the pickle. Served with ranch dressing for dipping.
Collard Greens: No interesting additives, meat inclusions, enhancers or sweeteners, but the leaves get a nice cook to just past wilting. The flavor is all green, with bitterness respectably cooked out rather than masked.
Mac and Cheese: Not a standard side but available occasionally, the mac here is tight on the texture and light on the flavor.
Fries: These they do quite well. Skins on, hand cut, properly browned, sufficiently drained and salted with gusto.
Cornbread: Sometimes fresh, sometimes warm, sometimes burnt, always big and usually a decently executed Twinkie offshoot.
Counter service has been efficient, friendly and sincerely concerned with the success of the meal—often more so than the kitchen.
The Bottom Line
Stick with the ribs, sauces and fries and you're likely to have a decent meal. The rest is an adventure, but there's been enough intermittent moderate success that Riverside Barbeque bears watching for future improvement.
Yelp reviews of Riverside Barbeque Company
Urbanspoon reviews of Riverside Barbeque Company
||'Like' PigTrip BBQ Reviews on Facebook to keep up with all of the reviews and much more content not available on the site.