Review Date: 12/07/15
Visit Dates: (07/15/15) (07/27/15) (11/20/15)
Tucked into a row of businesses along downtown Manchester's Main Street is Smoke Not Just BBQ, the third consecutive barbecue restaurant to occupy the space. The attempted sophistication in both the look and menu are a step up from previous inhabitants Rockhouse BBQ and Hilltop BBQ. Ordering is still over the counter. During the warmer months, outdoor tables allow al fresco dining.
The menu is deep and mostly a la carte, with pricing that's also a step up from the previous occupants.
The starting point of the barbecue options is the "Butcher's Choice" section of the menu that offers sausage, pulled pork, beef brisket and turkey breast by the pound ($18 to $22). Smoked chicken can be had by the half or full bird ($12, $16). St Louis cut pork ribs are sold by the half and full rack ($17, $23).
Combinations are mostly geared toward bulk orders. The two exceptions are "The Hitch Hiker" (a quarter pound of boneless meat with a side and cornbread, $10) and "Just the Two of Us" (a half pound of boneless meat with two sides and cornbread, $19).
The "Snacks" section includes fried wings, smoked wings, boneless wings, candied bacon, burnt ends, a pair of sliders with smoked meat, a meat-stuffed baked potato, chili, a soup of the day and four salads..
Sandwiches feature many configurations and ethnic interpretations of the above meats plus marinated grilled chicken.
I scattered three lunchtime visits over several months, hitting them twice solo and once (the middle visit) with Young Bride.
Wings: I went with the smoked version (natch) and on-the-bone (ditto), tossed in chipotle honey. The wings arrived on a lined tin tray with carrot sticks, celery sticks and ranch dip (you can also choose blue cheese). The sauce looked more red than brown and tasted more of tomato (the most dominant) than honey (not even noticeable), but the heat did come through, along with some tang. Considering that they took a good 15 minutes to come out, it was somewhat disappointing that there wasn't any exterior crispness. That said, I can't say that they were at all rubbery, and the inner meat was extraordinarily tender and moist. Smoke might have been in there somewhere, but I neither saw nor tasted any of its effects.
Pulled Pork Slider: Pulled pork slider: Available by the pair ($7) with choice of pork, brisket, chicken or mix and match. I went with one pork, one brisket, unsauced on both. The presentation was simple but nice, again using the lined metal tray. The bun was a bit smaller than the familiar Martin's potato roll but a step up in elegance with its dimpled and crusty top. Softness wasn't a problem. A pair of pickle chips topped the long strings of pork that had the best color, crust and flavor at the surface and about an inch down. Further inward, the meat was paler, blander and closer to turkey breast consistency (pretty dry). With a bit of barbecue sauce, it worked.
Brisket slider: Even with a more challenging meat, this sibling slider surpassed its (theoretically) porky predecessor. Same presentation, different result: borderline dry inside, fully moist on the perimeter, more rub-filled flavor near the perimeter but not lacking one bit across the rest of each slice. No sauce required. Again let me emphasize: really good bun.
Bacon: This appetizer ($8) gets creative with the presentation, draping three
bacon strips over an inverted carboard cup. Two tries yielded similar
results. Each thick, lacquered-and-seasoned strip strikes a mid-ground
between crisp and limp, delivering an unusually chewy bite different
from most bacon. The flavor balances sweet and savory, with the dense
arrangement of spices (mostly pepper) a good foil for the coating. Smoke
wasn't really a factor.
Burnt Ends: The good news is that this interpretation ($12) of burnt ends is cubed, rather than the shredded version frequently seen in the Northeast. The bad news is that there wasn't much crust, color, juiciness or smoke/rub flavor, and the odd, bouncy texture suggested microwaving. More good news is that the beefiness was certainly in full force, especially on the reheat of the leftovers. The quantity was more in line with the price than the bacon, though a third less for $9 would be a better deal.
Chili: Probably the best item I had when considering expectation, flavor, freshness and value. It was in fact a chili, with strong chile pepper flavor as well as the smokiness of the shredded meat or meats. The cashier said it was made with pork, but seemed neither certain nor interested enough in finding out. The depth and strength of flavor suggested beef in the mix as well. The ratio of thick broth to the meat was ideal and the ratio of beans (zero) to meat was perfect. And a cup for $5? A steal relative to the other items.
Ribs: Tried on the third visit, an a la carte half rack ($17) arrived as stacked individual bones, with very meaty cross sections and an impressively shiny-peppery crust that reminded me of the bacon. Texture was extremely hammy and pork choppy, with a snap to the bite. Though I wouldn't call them dry, moistness was certainly not a calling card. Flavor was very pleasant, but trailed off once you got down below that shellacked surface. The ribs are only available a la carte, so the ribs are another example of less-than-optimal value.
Pulled Pork: Reprised sans bun on the second visit, the large chunks and strings ($5 for a quarter pound) didn't improve in the color department, but texture made a triumphant improvement, even if chickeny. Improved flavor felt a little chickeny too, but I can't argue with its potency. Moisture was never an issue and each bite had a nice tenderness that felt fresh.
Turkey: The second visit's turkey slices ($5 for a quarter pound) showed better thickness than a deli version, but less color, less overall flavor and even less smoke. Moisture was above average as far as turkey goes, while the feel was a bit rubbery. This item might be best targeted to that person not so interested in barbecue—and a better choice in a sandwich.
Having later tried the house sauce (tomatoey and tangy), I'm pretty sure this was on my wings and not the chipotle honey. A bourbon sauce has an interesting sweetness. A thin Asian sauce is mostly soy. There are no vinegar- or mustard-based sauces.
Mac and Cheese: A homestyle version keeps to the classic elbow and a fairly mild cheese, applied lightly like pasta condiment and kicked up with a heavier dose of breadcrumbs. Very light on the cheese flavor and feel but nicely done.
Onion Rings: Heavy on the crunchy batter, this feels kije a frozen product,
Collard greens: A simple arrangement with the finely chopped vegetable left mostly on its own.
Cole slaw: An even simpler arrangement with a thicker-than-usual condiment but lighter-than-usual flavor.
Cornbread: Available a la carte just like everything else, this mini loaf is dry and stiff, crumbling upon contact with the stiffer honey butter.
Service is quite friendly but quite slow, even when there's nobody else waiting for food. If you are considering dining here during your lunch hour, consider calling ahead.
I acknowledge that the ratio of hits to misses might be higher with a nighttime visit.
The Bottom Line
I saw some highlights and glimmers. I see potential. I'd like to research a more comprehensive review, but at Smoke Not Just BBQ the ordering is too complicated, the wait too long, the experience too slow, the cost too high (both in price per item and degree of commitment via the a la carte menu construction) and the food too inconsistent to soldier through a deeper monitoring of the progress.
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