Finally, a joint that looks like a well worn roadhouse, possibly because it's been around so long that at least the wear part is real. Like Duke's and Live Bait, Rodeo Bar manages a space that has a lot of personality without looking totally forced. There are three seating areas on two levels, plus a third level that's just a catwalk to nowhere. The main level has two bars, one of which is a converted truck that services the intimate, wooded entertainment area. A subnook of the second level has a bunch of couches for chilling with chilled beverages. The brick-and-wood space is outfitted with Elvis-related knick-knacks and interesting (and legitimately old) signage, with only one example hinting at barbecue.
A quick run through the generic pub fare appetizers (mozzarella sticks, anyone?) failed to exude much barbecue cred, and the mention of beans in the Texas chili quickly had my guard up. But the barbecue section mentions a few times that the meats are smoked, so there was hope. Pork ribs are available as half racks, full racks and on 2-meat combos. Pulled pork and brisket are both offered on sandwiches, platters and combos. All platters come with an Atkins-be-damned array of potato salad, corn on the cob and cornbread. Other entrees and sandwiches provide an array of predictable, something-for-everyone choices.
A few years ago I ordered a pulled pork sandwich to go for a weekday lunch and wasn't impressed. After what may have been the longest gap between first and second visits, I returned to split a 2-meat combo with a barbecue buddy late on a Saturday afternoon.
Nothing on the menu really stood out as a must-try, so visit 2 spared the appetizers—a decision that was supported by the complimentary basket of tortilla chips and salsa. It was a nice gesture, and both items seemed homemade, but the chips lacked salt and the salsa had the consistency and flavor of watered down tomato soup.
Pulled pork sandwich: Tried on my first visit in 2007, the pulled pork sandwich ($12.95) stuffed overcooked, oversauced, seemingly smokeless pork into a toasted sub roll. The sauce at that time was dark brown, almost fudge colored, and the sandwich as a whole had about as much barbecue flavor as fudge (read: none).
Pulled pork: Fast forward to 2011 and the pulled pork on the 2-meat combo ($18.95) is more lightly sauced, with a much improved consistency and a flavor/texture indicating cooking by smoke. This time the saucing was more restrained, with a redder, more tangy version of a tomato-based sauce. A few bits of bark were a welcome addition, and there was flavor in the meat, not just the sauce. It still wasn't anything to write home about, but it did exceed expectation and it did strike me as legitimate barbecue, however unexciting. I did notice a pulled pork platter on another table that looked much drier, with less saucing.
Ribs: The three ribs on the 2-meat combo were nearly spared of sauce even without having to request it that way. One of the bones was noticeably thinner and smaller than the other two, and that one was cooked to a brittle crispness with no give to the meat. The two larger bones had nice tenderness with some juices slowly trickling out. Flavor again suggested smoke, but a mild version of it. The hint of sauce gave a slight boost but was pretty much uneventful. They're the kind of ribs that you could probably learn to like if you lived nearby, but I don't see loving them a possibility no matter what your barbecue preference is.
No sauce is offered on the table or brought with the order. Both the ribs and pulled pork are topped with the same tomato-vinegar sauce that echoes a 1980s interpretation of barbecue.
Corn on the cob was grilled, supplying a brown finish that didn't go overboard. My two bites detected very little butter and no salt. Potato salad was mayoey and forgettable. As for the cornbread, I give kudos to Rodeo Bar not only for including it in the first place (rare for a NYC barbecue joint) but also for the impressive execution: a very fresh, slightly coarse version with only slight sweetness.
The Bottom Line
Rodeo Bar turned out some actual barbecue that turned out to be a little better than expected on the second visit. I'm still not running back any time soon for the food, but just as with Duke's and Live Bait, the space and acessible menu make it a bearable standby for a diverse crowd that might prefer drink to food or pub grub to 'cue.
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