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In the summer of 2010 Smokestack Urban Barbecue opened on Harding Street in Worcester's Canal District with one large divided dining room and a small bar. Because it was owned by Richard Romaine of the popular and successful Romaine's (New American) in Northborough, expectations and anticipation were sky high. After eight visits, I weighed in with my first review, liking it overall but calling Smokestack "an otherwise above average restaurant with below average barbecue."
Two years later Smokestack moved shop around the block to Green Street in the space that previously occupied Block Five and Square One. The current configuration has a split entry with a larger bar area and smaller dining room than the original. On the plus side, it's one of the few Worcester restaurants with a parking lot.
As significant as the location change is the succession of smokers. They opened with a Cookshack, added a mailbox-sized Ole Hickory in 2011 and in early 2013 more than quardrupled the cooking capacity with an unidentified custom built beast of a smoker stored in the fenced in location to the left of the building.
Smokestack Urban Barbecue is open for dinner seven nights a week and lunch Wednesday through Sunday.
The short roster of barbecue meats includes St Louis cut pork spare ribs
by the rack and half rack, pulled pork, sliced brisket and a smoked
half chicken. These can be had as individual platters with two sides and cornbread;
order a Combo Plate and you can pick any three. Sandwiches utilize the
pulled pork and brisket individually, as a brisket Reuben, as a pressed
Cuban, as a trio of pulled pork tacos and as the multi-meat Kitchen Sink
Smoke also makes its way into the appetizers with smoked wings, smoked chicken quesadillas, a barbecue meat-topped mac and cheese, barbecue meat-topped fries and a chicken-sausage gumbo.
Beyond barbecue, there's a Southern and seafood slant to the menu. Non-barbecue appetizers and specialties feature fried pickles, fried oysters, shrimp and grits, potato chips with blue cheese and bacon dip, nachos, vegetarian chili, vegetarian chili nachos and four different salads. Entrees include steak tips, chicken fried steak, fried chicken, fish tacos, Creole grilled catfish and Louisiana fried catfish. Five different burgers are available, mostly differentiated by their toppings.
After my first review, I've visited Smokestack for four dinners with barbecue-savvy friends and five lunches with barbecue-savvy coworkers. Yeah, nine visits is a lot, but I work in the area. This review is for only these nine more recent visits, although there'll be inevitable comparisons to earlier product.
Gumbo: Also available as an entree ($8.99), the bowl ($4.99) makes a nice add-on to a lunch sandwich. The broth is thinner and not as rich as others I've tried, so I do rue the lack of roux but also embrace the enhanced smokiness and dense collection of sausagey nuggets. There's just enough spiciness to let you know it's there.
Wings: A mixed bag at best in the original location in the early days with the original smoker, these flappers and drums have steadily progressed to the point where they've not only swung from weakness to strength but have become some of my favorite smoked wings ever. You get a dozen pieces ($9.95), garnished with fresh pineapple slices and a dipping sauce that works best with the Buffalo style and makes less sense with the Chipotle and Habanero Honey. That's actually moot, because the wings thrust enough multidimensional flavor upon you that no dip is required. First, the wings themselves: they started out being about average size or maybe a smidgeon below, but they've grown at least 25% in the last month or so. The exteriors are unfailingly crisp, with saucing restrained enough to let the natural chicken flavor and unmistakable smokiness shine through. For pure flavor, the combination of chicken, rub, smoke and sauce is as reliable as it gets, and even verge on bacony, which is as high in praise as it gets. The moistness let up a bit on one recent visit right after the growth spurt, but even that batch would make my Wings List. I'd recommend the Habanero Honey first, Chipotle second and Buffalo third, but whatever you do, make sure you get at least one order of wings on every visit.
Onion strings: Listed as a side ($3.99) but just as easily an app, these are super thin and super light, which I like, but deal an exceptionally high batter-to-onion ratio, so there's not enough onion flavor to go around, which I don't like. I would like to see a dipping sauce.
Bucket of BBQ Chips: Probably the most underrated item in the place, this bowl of rub-spiced homemade chips ($5.99) takes a backseat to the accompaniment: a sharp, thick, chunky blue cheese and bacon dip that I fantasize as a hamburger topping. This is a go-to appetizer that's probably best reserved for pairing with beers at the bar than as a prelude to the barbecue offerings, but I can see myself at the bar ordering a steady stream of beer, wings and these.
In the beginning, all meats on platters were served sauced unless you requested otherwise. Now they're served unsauced, with sauces on the table if you need them.
Brisket Reuben: Tried on the first visit to the new location in November 2012, this familiar barbecue twist on the deli classic ($10.99) delivered a serviceable sandwich thanks to high quality Swiss cheese, fresh and tasty grilled bread and one of my favorite cole slaws. Unfortunately, the brisket brought up the rear in the pecking order, coming in both bland and steamy. But taken as a whole, still satisfying with nice crunch and cole slaw creaminess.
Brisket sandwich: A simple inquiry on a recent Wednesday lunch visit netted the erstwhile brisket sandwich that menuwise has been replaced by the busier Brisket Reuben. "Sure, what do you want on it? Cheese?" "No, just brisket." Well, close, sort of: several slices of brisket, some sauce (Carolina Q, I think) and onion strings. The brisket looked good (some pink, a midrange slice, some good crusty bark), felt mostly good (perfectly tender without being steamy or floppy, but dry aside from the sauce) and tasted okay (nice beef flavor, some spice, minimal smoke). A soft and flaky roll was a big upgrade from the typical burger bun. Overall, hardly a world beater, but definitely doable, and it showed much promise for what the brisket could be on a night visit.
Pulled pork sandwich: Tried mostly on lunch visits, the pulled pork sandwich ($9.99) has for the most part been a white meat version of the Brisket Reuben. The captivating roll has been soft, flaky and fresh. The cole slaw has wonderfully combined creamy and tart with good seasoning. The Carolina Q sauce has artfully melded tangy and spicy with a hint of sweet. Once again bringing up the rear is the meat. The pork is plentiful and sometimes also flavorful but all too often bland, steamy or both. It's as if it's literally been white meat instead of the "other" white meat—a slightly disguised chicken sandwich, albeit a very well complemented one.
BBQ Kitchen Sink: This sandwich conglomeration ($11.99) stuffs a hoagie roll with chopped meats including pulled pork, brisket, chicken and sausage, tossed in Smokestack's Kansas City Kick barbecue sauce and topped with melted cheddar and unchopped bacon. It's the kind of sandwich I'd never think of ordering on my own, as it's too busy and likely to be a sauced up version of last night's barbecue. But when you go out to lunch with coworkers, sometimes you order two different sandwiches and split em, and that's what one such coworker ordered. I have to say, it was a lot better than I expected, and ironically enough, partly thanks to the chopping that was one of the biggest turn-offs in the menu description. The mouthfeel morphed cheesesteak and burger, with the moistest possible version of a crumbly feel. Flavor under the uncrumbled bacon didn't scream out any of the individual components; instead it was a meaty mass with a tangy, spicy kick and an interesting crunch from the bacon. As with all of the other sandwiches, the bread was soft and fresh. The overall enjoyability might be low if taken strictly as an interpretation of barbecue but surprisingly respectable if taken simply as a sandwich.
Pulled pork: The difference between the pulled pork on the lunch visits' sandwiches and the night visits' platters is like the difference between night and day. Instead of washed out flavor (or lack thereof) and a steamy quality, the platter pork has twice delivered more porkiness, more rub, more bark and more woody smoke with no steaminess. It's assembled into a small pile of large chunks, each well glazed but not wet. Tenderness and moisture have varied between chicken breast territory (earlier, drier, less tender) and turkey thigh territory (more recent, more moist, more tender). Solid flavor has been the constant, dating back to a few visits at the old location after they got the second smoker.
Brisket: Night visit platters have brought a similar upgrade to the brisket. The slices are thick, sometimes taken from the fattier deckle and sometimes including some fat around the rim, but nothing outrageous. The meat includes flavor from the liquid fat that's seeped in, along with some healthy (okay, maybe not so healthy) smoke. My final night visit in the old location had gorgeous pink color, decent moistness and good, woody flavor. One night visit in the new location had mixed moistness (well lubed on and near the fatty edge, a little dry on the rest) and another was moist throughout but just a tad steamy. Smokestack's brisket is now decent to good on average, with flavor a near lock and texture the wildcard. When both are good, it can be very good.
Chicken: It's not often that I've had the chicken here, so I decided to include it on my most recent 3-meat platter, which delivered a dark meat quarter. I tried the thigh and was impressed by the bumpy, rub covered skin, though less impressed that it was only on the cusp of crisp and barely hanging onto the meat. A quick pull-back, junior high school biology class style, revealed some exceptionally pink meat beneath—pink from the smoking process, not from being underdone. This thigh might not have gushed juices, but I gushed for a few minutes over how moist and tender it was. Flavor came through with good smokiness that again was just as much about the wood. Crisp up that skin just a bit more and we might be talking top 10 chicken.
Ribs: Originally available as St Louis cut spares or babybacks, these switched to just babybacks for a while, and now they're just St Louies. I've had them only twice in the new building, but the results have been only decent—nothing to get excited about but nothing as disastrous as some of the ribs pumped out on Harding Street. The crusts have been impressive, with a thick bark weilding a bumpy rub provision, though that rub is not as potent as the volume would have you believe. Tenderness is on point, though there's more of a turkey thigh bite and moistness than the best examples of rib meat. One batch was greasy. Flavor has been mostly good, with a noticeable smoke for sure. Served unsauced, these ribs don't technically need sauce but they certainly improve when added. Overall, these are some about-average ribs that I'd rank ahead of nearby Westside Steak and BBQ and Buck's Roadside BBQ, but behind Texas BBQ Company, Firefly's and BT's Smokehouse. I like the improvement and will keep a watch for further progress. The potential is definitely there.
Burger: Seasoning is decent, crusting could use some work and the cooking time can be a challenge at lunch, but the voluminous and juicy burgers here (most $9.99 to $10.99) are still among the better ones around Worcester. The same light, flaky bun that makes the pulled pork sandwich successful works just as well with ground beef, which seems like a better-than-basic blend.
Fried Chicken: Plenty of crunch and moist meat. That's about all I can say about my small sample from a friend's plate in the summer of 2012, but I'd say the fried chicken ($14.99 with collards and mac and cheese) is worth a try.
Three sauces are now offered in squeeze bottles at the table. "Kansas City Kick" is a typical dark, sweet sauce with a little more spice to round it out. The very similar and sometimes indistinguishable "Bourbon Molasses" is closer to the Kansas City style, with more sweetness and a slicker mouthfeel. "Carolina Q" is a complex mustard sauce with a little heat and some other flavors countering the mustard itself. All are medium thickness and with visible spices lurking within the liquid.
Fries: Available a la carte and with burgers and sandwiches, this $1 upgrade from chips have been a highlight: thin but a little thicker than shoestrings, skins on, crisp and liberally salted.
Sweet potato fries: These are a $2 upgrade from standard potato chips. Crispness is there but only minimally; everything below the surface is mashed potato soft. Flavor is strong. I think they're frozen.
Apple Slaw: Smokestack's apple slaw is already one of my favorite cole slaws. The very thinly sliced apple supplies both crunch and sweetness that's balanced by heavy use of pepper and a creamy, tangy condiment.
Collard greens: Cooked well past wilting and aggressively seasoned, with more of a brothy feel than just straight vinegar.
Beans: I'm guessing these soft beans were taken from a can and doctored up with a combination of Kansas City Kick and Carolina Q sauces.
Cucumber salad: A mix of still-slightly-crunchy cukes, onions and sweet red peppers sat in a condiment similar to Italian dressing but a little sweeter.
Mac and cheese: Unchanged from the earliest visits, the thick creamy style supplies boatloads of richness, very faint sharpness and a hailstorm of crunchy breadcrumbs.
Just as on the day they opened in the previous location, service has been a strong suit. The servers are friendly and seem to know the menu well.
One could interpret the progression of smokers as replacements, but I recently learned they are additions. All three smokers are used for specific meats.
The Bottom Line
The joint I called "an otherwise above average restaurant with below average barbecue" after my first eight visits has made some significant progress over my last nine. There are still some flavor gaps that need to be bridged at lunch, but at night the flavor's more than respectable and the overall quality of the 'cue is at least average now if not a cut or two above. Though not yet destination 'cue, Smokestack Urban Barbecue is certainly a worthy neighborhood hang and a certifiable destination for great smoked wings.
My 2010 review of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Worcester Magazine review of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Yelp reviews of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Urbanspoon reviews of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
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