Hidden at the rear of a small shopping plaza, Tar River Barbeque is a takeout-only operation that shares the same kitchen as A Catered Affair. That affiliation may explain the more ambitious menu than most similar joints offer. The cramped entry area is more like a kiosk, set in a 7x10 foyer that has more space dedicated to stacked ice coolers than barbecue-related kicknacks. There's a small stand with menus, but no room for the cash register, which is instead housed in the kitchen. Outside, there are three picnic tables for outdoor dining and a huge mobile smoker.
The menu look impressive, with more upscale touches than you'd expect, but not as much flexibility as you'd expect. Ribs are St Louis cut pork spare ribs available in half racks, full racks and on the Smokehouse Sampler that also includes pulled pork (none of these options includes sides). Pulled pork is also available on a sandwich with one side but not on its own platter. Barbecued chickens are available as half birds with no sides and whole birds with two sides and cornbread. There's no brisket, but there is a smoked sausage trio (Andouille, kielbasa, chicken with garlic and parsley) and a hot smoked pit ham sandwich with cheese, lettuce, tomato and maple mayo. Non-barbecue options include Jamaican jerk chicken, Jamaican beef patties, a turkey sandwich, a meatloaf melt, a BLT and a roast beef sandwich with horseradish barbecue sauce.
I stopped in on a weekday (no surprise, since they're not open on weekends) for a late lunch. During that visit two other parties arrived after me but were served before me because they took advantage of the call ahead option that ensures food ready upon arrival. Little did I know that this option is more of a necessity: I was told after ordering my lunch that it would take 20 minutes to prepare, and I'm pretty sure the wait exceeded that. There was a major catering order being prepared at the same time, so this may have accounted for some atypical distraction.
I was tempted to try some wings, but snce my order would be takeout, I passed on these and instead ordered barbecue chicken so that I could survey the core barbecue items.
The Smokehouse Sampler ($10.75) supplied a good sized pile of pulled pork and four ribs as promised. The ribs were long, slender and coated with a red/brown barbecue sauce. Under the sauce, the meat was very tender, bordering on overtender. The naked meat was moist but white, with no noticeable rub and only a hint of smoke. The agreeable but nondescript flavor really relied on the sauce to take it to the next level. A light layer of bark that peeled back from the meat wasn't fully restored to its original crisp texture during the obvious reheat. After a 20 minute wait, that's a problem.
Cooked to a tenderness even more gentle than the ribs, the pork was mostly white meat with some brown shreds and minimal bark. Smoke level was minimal. The sauce, though sweet, worked well with the meat and was applied in just the right amount to give it a good texture.
When I lifted the lid on the half chicken ($6.75) I was impressed. At first glance it appeared as if the chicken had the crispness that was missing from the ribs, and lacquered with sauce that was closer to a glaze. That elation was fleeting, as the skin proved to be as rubbery as the would-be rib crust. Fortunately, the meat beneath was quite moist—even the breast—and proved to be the smokiest of the three meats.
Beans were similar to a canned variety in style, with some onion and bacon used strategically to give it some tastiness. Mac and cheese supplied soft, overcooked elbows lathered with a thick, sharp cheese whose creaminess and subtle addition of black pepper made it the highlight of the meal. Cornbread was cakey, sweet and pretty good. The cole slaw I ordered was missing even though I double checked with the server that all three sides were included in the bag.
The typical red/brown barbecue sauce combined sweet and tangy but was muted; it succeeded more as a lubricant than as a flavor enhancer.
The bottom line: The barbecue at Tar River isn't horrible, but it's not even close to good enough to endure the long wait and the lack of seating.
Urban Spoon reviews of Tar River Barbeque