The huge space on a cobblestone street in downtown Lowell is at least a hundred years old, with well worn wooden floors and brick from floor to high ceiling. There are two rooms, each with a long bar. The one on the right is roomier and has one long hightop counter with stools parallel to the main bar stools, creating a second row.
Previously operating under the same name but renamed in mid 2013, they're still owned by the Village Smokehouse (Brookline MA). The switch coincided with a menu overhaul required because "the barbecue wasn't selling," according to a server.
The narrower menu has more appetizers, but alas, no chili made with barbecue brisket (partly because there is no brisket). Wings are deep fried, not smoked. Joining the brisket on the list of casualties are smoked chicken, sausage and beef ribs. Only babybacks (half rack or rack) and pulled pork (only on a sandwich) remain, and there's no combo where you can get them together.
For my first visit after the name change I arrived solo just after the 5:00PM opening and with no combo available had no preference among the babybacks and pulled pork sandwich. I flipped a coin in my head and went with the babybacks. A couple minutes later the server informed, "I have bad news: they're still in the smoker."
Bad news? This was potentially great news.
"What time will they be ready? I might want to wait it out."
"They won't be ready until tomorrow."
I'm one of the few who don't have a problem when a barbecue joint runs out of a particular meat, even if it's the meat I want. Sometimes it sells well enough that they run out; I not only get it but like it in an odd way, because it means they're not selling leftovers.
But here? They don't serve lunch. They open at 5:00. I was the first one in and the only customer in the building when I ordered, so that means they opened with no ribs. If you run out the night before, shouldn't you know to smoke some today? Even if you don't start them 'til noontime, babybacks should be more than ready by 5:00. On a Thursday, one of the busiest nights of the week, no ribs available for the entire evening. Yet they're smoking them Thursday night so they can refrigerate them to be reheated Friday.
Wings: I'd like to try these someday. They're not smoked but they're fried with the cost option of being additionally grilled with slivers of garlic. sounds interesting.
Ribs: Not available. Next time, if there ever is a next time.
(You may be wondering whether I mean "if I ever decide to go back" or "if they're still open long enough." It's both.)
Pulled Pork Sandwich: Served on a fresh, pillowy roll, the pulled pork sandwich ($9.95 with
one side) brought a profusion of chunky, slippery meat cloaked by a
greater profusion of thick, sweet barbecue sauce topped with melted
cheese. The pork slid out the sides of the sandwich upon first bite,
just like a Sloppy Joe. Most of the pieces bordered on mushy, but none
went over. Bark was minimal; smoke was scarcer. Flavor had hints of
grilled melted fat but mostly took on the personality of the generic red/brown
barbecue sauce. Since I initially went with the babybacks and then had
to change my order, I forgot to ask them to hold the cheese, which is an
insult to good pork and an insult to injury if the pork isn't good.
I'll let you guess which one this was.
There's nothing on the tables in bottles, but my server offered to bring extra sauce if needed. There was already so much on the meat that it wasn't a requirement. Thick, sweet and generic, this sauce tasted like a typical storebought variety. Nothing offensive but nothing imaginative.
Cole Slaw: A generous bowl had white cabbage in a thick, creamy condiment. If it
wasn't in fact Stop & Shop cole slaw, it was a pinpoint perfect replica. Bravo to the chef if that was the goal.
Service was extremely cordial.
The Bottom Line
Part of me wants to go back and try the ribs for both due dilligence and fairness, and perhaps I will someday. Here's the quick review for now: I can't recommend it.
2008 PigTrip visit report for Village Smokehouse Lowell
2009 Boston Globe review of Village Smokehouse Lowell
Yelp reviews of Smokehouse Tavern
Urbanspoon reviews of Smokehouse Tavern
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