NOTE: This is an older review, kept on the site for historical purposes only. For my most recent review of Smokestack Urban Barbecue, click here.
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Opened in early June 2010 in Worcester's Canal District, Smokestack Urban Barbecue is an offshoot of the upscale casual Northborough restaurant Romaine's. The space (hardly a "joint") has a similar near-upscale vibe, with a clean look and none of the pig-related or faux western decor often found in barbecue joints trying too hard to establish meat cred. There's a large, open dining room with about a half dozen booths, one VIP-style alcove banquette and a plethora of standard tables and chairs. The bar area is in a separate room, with a midsized bar, a few TVs and all hightop tables. The smoker is a Cookshack. Parking is easy in the restaurant's huge private lot.
Smokestack's menu is as diverse as any I've seen in a barbecue restaurant, with as much surf as turf: fried oysters, fried calamari, shrimp and grits, fish tacos, grilled salmon. Two kinds of pork ribs (babybacks and St Louis cut spares) are available as full racks, half racks, or part of 3-meat combos (curiously, there are no 2-meat combos). Other barbecue items include pulled pork, sliced brisket and pulled chicken (all available as platters, on combos or sandwiches), plus smoked chicken (platter or combo). Burnt ends (pork or beef) are available on a limited basis and only as a platter (it's not a sandwich or combo option).
I sprinkled eight visits over Smokestack's first two months of operation: one Saturday night visit, two weekday lunch visits (lunch is no longer offered) and five weeknight visits, usually accompanied by one or two friends of varying barbecue acumen.
Pork belly sliders ($8.95) arrived three to a plate, with just enough of the bacony meat to barely cover the bottom of the high quality mini bun. A peppery apple slaw provided good contrast to the fat, but it did obscure the flavor and crispiness, which were more noticeable when eaten apart from the bun. I'm not sure, but I don't think this is a smoked item.
Chipotle wings ($8.95) provided seven wing pieces that weren't particularly spicy but did have a pleasing flavor. On the first try, smokiness was apparent before the first bite and combined with the intense "chickeniness" (not always a given) to make these wings a winner. On another visit, the wings were prepared a little differently, fried way, way past crisp and well into charcoal crumbly. Grilled pineapple was more of a garnish than integrated into the dish; a somewhat obligatory bleu cheese dipping sauce didn't really go with the other flavors.
Homemade warm barbecue chips ($5.95) are served in a deep bowl, arguably making them more of a calorie splurge than the wings or pork belly. Its bacon ranch dip, which succeeded big time both in flavor and texture, won that argument. This is a go-to appetizer that's probably best reserved for an accompaniment to beers at the bar than as a prelude to the barbecue offerings. I like that there's a lot of the barbecue spice rub on these chips, and I love the richness and baconiness of the dip. If only the ribs had this much rub, but I'll get to that in a bit.
Gumbo (cup $3.95, bowl $6.95) is a thin, brothy interpretation with plenty of heat, plenty of sausage and chicken, and a nice addition of okra.
Fried pickles ($4.95) combine tart pickle chips with a light, crisp cornmeal batter. I liked the texture and mostly liked the flavor, but a seasoning transfusion was needed the one time I tried them.
Onion rings ($3.95) offer thin cut onions with a cornmeal batter that was devoid of seasoning on the first try and perfectly seasoned on the second try. One thing I've noticed with Smokestack's fried foods is that the draining could stand a little more time.
Brisket hash ($4.95) is listed on the sides menu but for me is better suited as an appetizer. The mix of tiny brisket chunks (smaller than burnt ends) and potatoes is a meatier version of home fries. On the first try this was smoky, aggressively seasoned, full of flavor and a do-not-miss item. On another try it was just bland meat and potatoes, with not much else going on.
A bucket of habanero ribs ($10) is an appetizer version of the ribs offered as a special during football games. The half dozen or so well coated ribs present a good value and a sauce that's superior to the standard ones. The heat is formidable but dissipates quickly; well rounded flavor goes beyond just the heat.
Pulled pork tacos ($9.95) come three to a plate and are a good way to repurpose the pork that doesn't make it to barbecue platters. They're dressed with Kansas City Kick sauce for sweetness, then topped with a mildly spicy (green chiles, herbs) corn salsa for a savory counterpoint. The combination of texture and flavor succeeded, and outshined anything I've had for straightforward pulled pork here, either in or out of a sandwich.
Appetizer summary: Overall, I really liked the appetizers when executed to their potential. The appetizers should be the nucleus of any meal here.
Brisket, ordered without sauce on the first four tastings and my most recent tasting, arrives in long hefty strips, sliced about 3/8" thick. There has only been a hint of a smoke ring and has only occasionally had a hint of a crust. On the first of the samplings, the meat was rigid and somewhat dry. On the second try, it was more moist and exhibited a more flexible texture. Flavor was typically beefy, but without any complementary flavors to help it along. Return tries all had the same characteristics: tender enough, but dry without flavor. Both rub and smoke should have been on milk cartons, because they were missing. As a vehicle for the sauces, it did alright, and might have worked better in a sandwich, but the brisket thus far is far from a strength.
Pulled pork received its first two tastings sans sauce. Pulled into long chunks, the meat both times was what I call "turkey thigh moist" and if I didn't know better, I might have even thought I was eating turkey. It was twice cooked to ideal doneness and had more natural moisture than the brisket, but like the brisket, the pork really had to rely on sauce for flavor if not moisture. Bark was present but extremely minimal; smoke and rub weren't detectable. A third try with sauce was basically dry pork sauced, with the sauce providing all of the flavor and moisture. A pulled pork sandwich on the fourth try was a little stiff in the texture department but vastly improved in the bark department, with the majority of the large chunks from the outer shoulder providing a step up in flavor. The apple slaw was a nice touch in the sandwich, but the too-sturdy roll was the dominating element. A fifth sample with sauce had perfectly fresh, velvety texture but was missing the previous visit's bark that helped the flavor. The sixth (lunch, platter) and seventh (dinner, sandwich) were dryer and again depended on sauce for flavor as well as moisture. After all these tries, I'm still not convinced that Smokestack's pulled pork isn't turkey.
Ribs—both the babyback and St Louis cut rib types—are smallish but meaty enough; fat level has been consistently low on both cuts. Also ordered unsauced the first few tries, these had a noticeable surface bumpiness from a heavier than average flurry of rub. Interestingly, the babybacks had this characteristic two times while the St Louis cut spares were well rubbed only the first time and more lightly on two follow ups, then rebounded on the fourth and fifth tries before backsliding again with less rub (and less flavor) than ever on recent visits.
Rib texture on the earlier visits was uniformly good, with a firm crust yielding to tender, slighty moist meat beneath. Smoke has always been extremely light, with the coloring on the cross sections fairly pale. On the few nights when the rub was in full force, it combined with satisfactory moistness to make the ribs work in spite of their size and smoke deficiencies. On the other nights—and especially lately—they have been very disappointing, falling short in texture as well as rub, with no surface crust and a steamy consistency.
Smoked chicken two times was the standout among the meats. Also ordered unsauced, it had a surface that implied dryness, but under the hood it was moist as can be. Surprisingly, the chicken those first two times had more smoke than all the other meats combined. There wasn't as much rub as on the ribs, but this chicken had a flavor intensity (and a pleasant mix of sweet and heat) that suggested both brining and basting in addition to the smokiness. Three recent samplings of the chicken paled in comparison, and literally: the meat had less surface color, less rub and was once borderline raw near the bone. Breast quarters succeeded in moisture but had none of the flavor, either inside or outside, that impressed me early on.
Burnt ends are offered only "while available" (that's good) and only on its own platter (not on combos or sandwiches, not so good). On the first try a few visits in, these were large cubed chunks of beef, seemingly from the fattier brisket point, with a good bark that reflected doneness more than rub or basting. Flavor was beefy and helped by the liberal saucing; texture was somewhat pot roasty but not bad, with some juiciness in that well marbled meat. A second try a few visits later had the advantage of a choice between beef burnt ends and pork burnt ends, but the disadvantage of both renditions being ridiculously dry to nearly jerky texture. The beef was completely devoid of flavor but the pork was more heavily rubbed, yielding a correspondingly pleasing spiciness.
The Smokestack Burger, a 10-ounce affair served on a hefty, crusty ciabatta roll with fries ($9.95), was well seasoned and perfectly cooked to the requested medium-rare on two different visits. The meat was extremely juicy; the cheese was light; bacon was not yet listed as a topping but was added upon request (better yet, offer that bleu cheese bacon dip as a topping). The roll was stiff, but overall, this was a good burger, and within the context the rest of the Smokestack menu pricing, this burger is somewhat of a steal.
Meats/entrees summary: Overall, I like the burger but I don't like the barbecue at Smokestack Urban Barbecue. There have been a few bright spots, such as the early chicken's appealing briny flavor (which they've abandoned for some unknown reason). But in several tries on most of the meats, Smokestack came up dry (literally in many cases) more often than not, never achieving good flavor and texture in the same bite. Most disheartening is that the barbecue seems to be getting worse, not better, as time goes along.
Two sauces are available at the table in squeeze bottles: a typical Kansas City style sauce with a strong molasses component and a more complex "Carolina Q" mustard sauce that had a little heat and some other flavors countering the mustard itself. Neither was too thick or too thin.
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. A cucumber slaw supplied full slices, making it more of a cucumber salad, refreshingly tart with a little sweetness from the addition of sweet red pepper. Baked beans have been different in each of my visits, with the molasses and meat components varying drastically. Crumbly cornbread started out uniquely neither sweet nor doughy, instead veering more towards spongy and salty; more recent samples have leaned more toward the more familiar cakey. I really liked the mac and cheese, a thick creamy style with a nice sharpness and a hailstorm of crunchy breadcrumbs. Onion rings are thin cut and crisp, using an innovative corn meal batter that has a nice delicate crispness; on one visit they were devoid of seasoning but have been fine ever since. Collard greens are finely chopped, not overcooked, and aren't lacking in either seasoning or bacon cubes. Fries started out as thin cut, skin-on and seemingly homemade; the most recent skinless sample struck me as frozen.
The hospitality component has been excellent. There is a noticeable friendliness at the hostess stand; the servers have been knowledgeable, affable and eager; there's even a full time water girl who walks (counter-clockwise only) around the room to check on tables throughout the dinner service.
Pricing can be a little steep in areas. The $9 tarriff for 7 small wings (technically 7 wing pieces or 3.5 wings) is the most glaring example.
The Bottom Line
Atmosphere has impressed, service has been exemplary, appetizers and sides have been mostly satisfactory, seasoning has been inconsistent and the barbecue is at best a work in progress. So depending on what you're looking for, Smokestack Urban Barbecue has the potential to be an enjoyable experience or a disappointing one. For now, I look at Smokestack as an otherwise above average restaurant with below average barbecue. Stick with the burger, the tacos and appetizers and you'll have a good time. But there's no getting around it: the 'cue is the glaring weak link in an otherwise promising restaurant.
Worcester Magazine review of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Yelp reviews of Smokestack Urban Barbecue
Urbanspoon reviews of Smokestack Urban Barbecue