Operating out of a barbecue trailer Thursdays through Sundays throughout the year—even in serious snowstorms—is the award-winning Vermont Maple Barbecue. That phrase "award-winning" often rubs me the wrong way because it's so vague, but in this case at least one of the awards is specific: second place ribs at the 2011 New England BBQ Championships at Harpoon in Vermont, against some of the top pitmasters in the country. The Vermont Maple BBQ trailer is parked right off I-89's exit 4, between Rinker's Mobil station and an impossible-to-miss McDonald's. Either of those landmarks is easier to locate using GPS and online maps. The dining area consists of a few picnic tables, and there's always the sneak-it-into-McDonald's option that I took advantage of—with permission—after I learned that one of the managers is a big fan of Vermont Maple BBQ.
The barbecue menu consists of babyback pork ribs (by the rack, half rack, individual bone and on a combo), pulled pork (sandwich, platter, combo), smoked chicken (two over fries or in a combo), hotdogs, chicken tenders and chili. It's a nice mix of streamlined and flexible.
My first attempted visit to Vermont Maple BBQ was the weekend before the Fourth of July 2012, but they were taking time off. Joined by a few well seasoned barbecue fans both times, I hit Vermont Maple BBQ in the fall for a late weekday lunch and in spring 2013 for a Saturday lunch.
I didn't try any appetizers, but the one that arouses some curiosity is the chili. If they sold beef brisket, I might surmise that there's some in the chili and might have already tried it by now. I should have asked; if it's got pulled pork as a base I'd try that too.
Chicken: A "thighs and fries" plate ($6) included two gargantuan thighs atop a pile of surprisingly respectable fries (more on that later). But these thighs had more going on than just size. The still-crisp skins carried a profusion of rub and light brick color fusing with chickeny brown. After cracking through that top layer, the bite slid into some extremely delicate and juicy inner meat. I'd give this chicken a perfect 10 for texture (or a perfect 9 for you KCBS types). Flavor included some fragrant smokiness and a bit of the rub, winding up not as potent deep down as on the rubby surface, but overall this was one of the best chicken samples I've tried in a while.
Pulled pork sandwich: A doughy, flaky, lightly toasted soft roll that's a quantum leap above what you'd expect off a trailer comprises the framework of this pork-packed sandwich ($6). Inside, the mix of chunks and strings is well-lubed by the barbecue sauce, coming in right around the border of being oversauced—just over (hand raised here) or just under, depending on your preference. Fortunately, the meat not only pokes its way through but comes through swinging. There's enough flavor from both the smoky and porky subdivisions to work well with the slightly-sweet, slightly-more-tangy coating and that unexpectedly pillowy roll. Bark level is merely decent. This is another good value; I can think of some joints that might have attempted two sandwiches with the quantity of meat Vermont Maple BBQ puts into one of theirs. Be forewarned that the pulled pork sandwich here is NOT to be eaten in your car, while driving or otherwise, unless you first place your floor mat over your lap to protect yourself (and your pants).
Ribs: The ribs here are babybacks, but they don't feel like babybacks at all. The first visit's half rack had only slight bone curvature, so they could easily be mistaken for St Louis cut from the opposite side of the pig. That and the wall of meat that rose high above the bones—easily making them the meatiest babybacks I've ever encountered (SoulFire in Boston, the recently departed RUB in Manhattan and the long departed Willie B's on Long Island previously vied for that distinction). Equally imposing was the sauce, which might have obscured the meat if some of it were not brushed away, but I liked the combination of fruity and chunky along with the usual barbecue backdrop. The next thing that impressed me was the thick crust that you could bang on like a turtle shell, coupled with a more yelding interior beneath. The meat here was very tender while allowing a clean bite without buckling. Moist for sure, but not quite juicy. Flavor picked up the slack with a powerful (and again still fragrant) smokiness that mingled with the natural porkiness. These were some very likeable mid-afternoon ribs that might have been loveable just a few hours earlier.
I had hoped to revisit sooner, but it wasn't until six months later that my chance arrived. This time our group of four ordered eight ribs: seven unsauced, one sauced (yep, I had to have them both ways). This visit brought some changes. This time there was no doubt that they were babybacks—larger than your average babyback by a good margin but not jawdroppingly massive like that first half rack. This time the crust was a little less pronounced but still above average for crispness. This time the sauce was lighter, smoother and thinner. Smokiness was down a bit too but still well above average. This time we caught the meat in its sweet spot of freshness. Same clean bite, but this time with moistness that emitted juices with each one. If I could combine all the qualities of the two visits, I might have a rib for the ages, but what I had both times was delightful.
There's just one sauce, designed to be the best compromise for palates young and old alike, but it was slightly different on the two visits. Last fall, the sauce had salsa chunkiness with berry sweetness leading the way. This spring it was still sweet but a little thinner and tempered by additional tang.
Corn: You can't beat farm fresh corn, but to have it as late in the season as October, and have it smoked, and have it off a trailer, and have it be really good, is remarkable. I gotta be honest: I didn't notice any smoke, but I liked this corn anyway.
Fries: Again, fries off a trailer? Expectations naturally were set pretty low, but the fries under the thighs were excellent in their own right: warm, slightly crisp outside, slightly fluffy inside and very well seasoned with a barbecue style rub. A thousand times better than the commercial fries next door.
The menu is flexible, the value is incredible and McDonald's is just a few steps away if anyone in your group needs it.
The Bottom Line
Vermont Maple BBQ has the best barbecue I've had so far in Vermont, with ribs and chicken that would rank somewhere among my favorites. It can get a little saucy at times, but there's enough going on underneath that it's never a desperate crutch. Combine flavor and freshness with beyond-reasonable prices and easy access off the highway, and you've got a can't-miss pit stop between Montreal and Boston.
Yelp reviews of Vermont Maple BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of Vermont Maple BBQ
||'Like' PigTrip BBQ Reviews on Facebook to keep up with all of the reviews and much more content not available on the site.