(01/04/09) (02/14/09) (07/26/09)
Located in the funky Fox Point area of Providence, United BBQ is a tiny brick building that pumps out a surprisingly wide array of barbecue, mostly for takeout and delivery. The over-the-counter setup affords a panoramic view into the equally surprisingly clean kitchen. For those who elect to eat in the restaurant, there are two hightop tables with bar stools and several additional stools that line the dining counter along the front windows. There's no bar or alcohol, but BYOB is a nice option, as are the handy parking lot and delivery feature.
United BBQ offers St Louis cut pork ribs, dinosaur bone beef ribs, brisket, pulled pork, barbecue chicken, pulled chicken, smoked turkey and smoked sausage, plus hamburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and some specials like smoked pastrami. Appetizers include chili, BBQ wings and "potato boats" stuffed with a choice of smoked meats, chili or smoked seitan (a soy product). The menu is quite accommodating to vegetarians, offering a seitan sandwich, a vegan chili, tamales, a Tofurkey kielbasa sandwich and Boca burgers.
There's some menu flexibility, with any two items available for inclusion in the BBQ combo. Beef ribs can be ordered as a platter or by the rib at $2 each. If you order any sandwich, you can add as many sides as you want for $1 each.
I made two weekend lunch visits with different barbecue buddies, both within United BBQ's first two months of operation, then visited again for another weekend lunch a few months later.
The beef chili didn't really impress me as a barbecue chili, but it's a good straightforward ground beef variety, with just enough meat, just enough heat and plenty of cheese.
Wings are a strong suit here. Smoked then flash-fried, then coated with a choice of sauce (BBQ, Buffalo or hot), they offer decent size, crispy edges, light smoke, perfect doneness and a good overall flavor with a balanced sauce. I liked them enough to include United BBQ in my January 2009 Favorite Wings list, and my most recent try was just as good as the first.
Pork ribs have been good each time, with one visit bordering on great. I'm not a fan of the presentation, where a half rack is laid face down into the sides beneath, and I thought the saucing on the first visit was a bit heavy handed (I now order them unsauced), but that's where the criticism ends. United's ribs are as generously rubbed as any I've had, and that rub succeeds not only in its balance of sweet and savory (you can taste both in spades and neither dominates) but also in that rare case of a heavy rub being served perfectly crisp (usually a heavy rub risks getting slushed into an ashen mess due to storage and condensation). The flavor here isn't just on the well-formed bark but deep into the meat, and it's quite pleasant. Smoke is light but noticeable. The texture edges slightly into overtender, but is a good compromise between competition tenderness and what mainstream customers are probably seeking.
At United the beef ribs are the star of the show. At first they appear to not be as meaty as elsewhere, but the lack of thickness is offset by the unusually long rib (at least a foot long on my last visit). Texturally, this is quite advantageous. The first bite hits a crunchy, rub-filled bark, which yields to a very thin, silky layer of hot fat, which yields to the supremely tender meat beneath. Like the pork ribs, the generously applied rub not only perks up the crust but also works its way into the flavorful meat all the way down to the bone, and the thinness of the cut ensures moistness and tenderness throughout. Even if you think they could be meatier, they're a steal at $2 a bone.
Brisket has been up and down. None of what I've seen has resembled brisket in the classic sense (it's more chopped here), but the early visits showed good color, decent moisture, some bits of smoky bark and a generally pleasing if mild flavor. I thought the heavy application of sauce overwhelmed the meat, so I ordered it without sauce on my most recent visit. This time the meat had a pot roast consistency, with a little less moisture and pop than on the earlier visits.
Smoked pastrami, offered as a special on my most recent visit, looked more like the classic sliced brisket that shares the same cut. It had flavor bursting from deep within each slice thanks to weeks of pickling.
Pulled pork is the weak link here. I've tried it three times and two of those three times the meat was slightly to very dry, and with minimal "chicken breast" flavor that really needs some sauce or slaw to wake it up. I do like the generosity of the meat, which is piled high and wide to fill out the unique Portuguese roll sourced at the bakery next door. There's also good bark content and a good selection of various sized chunks and strings, so there is promise.
Two sauces are available in squeeze bottles on the tables. The regular is a standard Kansas City style (brown, sweet, thick) sauce that boasts a little more flavor, heat and nuance than most sauces of this ilk. The hot barbecue sauce is redder, probably made with ketchup. I normally gravitate to the hotter of the two sauces, but in this case I prefer the regular. In conversations with the pitmaster, I learned that vinegar and mustard sauces are in development.
Sides are all over the map, with some changes in recipe from visit to visit, but for the most part the sides have been adequate without being noteworthy, and there's been some improvement. Homemade potato chips succeeded in texture but were light on the seasoning the one time I tried them. Cole slaw was dry and lacking flavor on the first two visits but crisp and creamy with a likeable, faintly sweet condiment on the third. Collard greens offered big leaves each time and increasing meat and flavor (brothy rather than tart) with each successive visit. Light, puffy onion rings were a frozen product but a very good rendition thereof. Green beans, a special that's been boosted to near-regular status, supplied a bright, al dente texture with hints of Asian flavors on one visit and a little butter and garlic on another. Mashed potatoes were dry the one time I tried them. Mac and cheese progressed from a Southern dry and tight style on the first visit to Northern style loose and creamy on the second visit, with a slightly sharper cheese. Corn was studded with chopped green and red peppers, elevating a standard into something special. Cornbread is dense, with a refreshing flavor and texture closer to biscuits and bread than the sweet cakey style served just about ecverywhere else.
United BBQ is committed to environmentally conscious practices. They use containers made with recycled paper, provide recycling stations inside the restaurant and use a Smart Car for deliveries.
The bottom line: There's still a learning curve in play as the long lead-time items like brisket and pulled pork work their way through improvement. But I'd easily call the wings, pork ribs and beef ribs the best of Rhode Island BBQ, so I'll gladly be coming back for more.
Gail Ciampa's Providence Journal review of United BBQ
Johnette Rodriguez's Providence Phoenix review of United BBQ
Yelp reviews of United BBQ
Urban Spoon reviews of United BBQ