Wes' Rib House in Providence is located in one of those neighborhoods that you'd swear was the hideout of some underworld crime boss. You walk up a flight of stairs to the dining room whose host stand faces away from you, so it may take some time (as I experienced both times) to get acknowledged, much less seated. Once you do, the service is both friendly and efficient, even when a single server manned the dining room and small bar area.
The good news is that in addition to the country/western art, numerous awards for their barbecue hang on the entry area walls. The bad news is that none of them were awarded in this century. According to the restaurant's website—which hasn't been updated since 2009—they serve Missouri style barbecue. As for the smoker, I'm also from the Show Me state.
Barbecue selections include spare ribs, "chopped BBQ" (pulled pork), "beef" (thin deli meat), chicken, ham and pork chops. These are available individually with beans, slaw and cornbread, or fitted into hokily-named 2-, 3- and 4-meat combos. Additional sides can be had in various sizes for as little as $1.50 per (and chili as little as $1.99), so there's a lot of flexibility. A la carte options for ribs by the piece include 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 24 or 40 pieces. Sandwiches include all of the meats above, even the ones with bones—served boneless, of course. Burgers, steaks, roast lamb, smoked pig, beef kabobs, shrimp kabobs and chicken kabobs round out the entrees. Appetizers slant toward the 1980s with chili, Buffalo wings, garlic bread, nachos, mozzarella sticks, loaded potato chips and three kinds of potato skins
I made two lunch visits seven year apart (I'll admit that I'd be a little afraid hanging out here at night).
Cornbread: Served well before the meal arrived, this makeshift appetizer was a stunner: thick, wide, coarse, warm, tender and fresh. Twinkie-meets Jiffy flavor suggested a mix, but all of the other positive attributes made this a winner.
Ribs: Two extra long full cut spares arrived on my Kansas City Platter (3 meats, $14.99) bearing crispy black char under a generous coating of sauce. Below the char, the meat was borderline tender with a grilled texture and flavor. The tanginess of the sauce, the intense charcoal finish and the burnt sugar crunch all eclipsed the meat, whose lack of flavor brought more of a pork chop or country style spare rib feel than a barbecue spare rib. Moisture aside from the sauce was minimal.
Were they smoked? I'm guessing no. Flash back to the 1980s and this is a somewhat competent state-of-the-art example for a Northeast barbecue restaurant. For 2012, it's well below average—though a significant step up from the stiff ribs I tried there in 2005.
Chicken: A small thigh and leg had the same heavy sauce treatment as the ribs, with a more reasonable crust that avoided black char and overly intense grill flavoring. Yet the limp, overtender pieces seemed reheated, as was soon confirmed when I hit a few semi-cold bites. Flavor and moisture were both decent, though both coming principally from the old school barbecue sauce and not the chicken itself.
Pulled Pork: Now this was an adventure. I saw the pulled pork on several plates bring delivered to other tables but from a distance thought it was fried chicken, which isn't even on the menu. When my plate hit the table, I was startled to see a molded scoop of pale pork that up close looked more like shrimp fried rice. The steamy mound had numerous bits of onion and carrot to give it color and texture (I would have preferred a smoke ring and bark, but what do I know?), and a vinegary barbecue sauce to give it flavor and moisture (I would have preferred smoke, rub and liquid pork fat, but what do I know?). Aside from the vegetable additions, the pork was mushy—as much from overchopping as overcooking and oversaucing.
Sounds horrible, right? I've actually had worse, and far too often. Now there's no way I'm calling this good—or even average—but it was better than it looked and at least had some personality. If a diner served this and called it Pennsylvania Dutch Country Pork Surprise, I might actually like it. But as barbecue pulled pork? Not so much, but give them credit for originality and balls.
Two barbecue sauces are available at the table in the handled, slide-open syrup dispensers typically found at an IHOP. The sauces within are both the old school maroon sweet/tangy variety, with one packing much more heat.
Mac and cheese: Stiff, orange cheese coated shells had a gummy consistency that stretched into stringy mozzarella.
Cole slaw: The most notorious side from my 2005 visit literally had more mayo than cabbage back then. In 2012 it was still overly dressed, but less drastically. The condiment this time seemed to be a mix of mayo and sour cream, with some black pepper and celery seed to give it a little more life. Probably below average but no longer a disaster.
Beans: This sweet and tangy rendition probably doctored up a canned version with some of the house barbecue sauce. Below average.
Collard greens: Large leaves retained much of their color (very green), texture (slightly al dente) and flavor (accented with a brothy condiment but essentially unfussed with). I'd call these well above average.
The Bottom Line
Wes' Rib House is one of those joints that's stuck in a time warp. The style evokes the 1980s, but that's not where the problem lies. Execution (cold, dry, overcharred, overmashed, undercooked) is the real turnoff here.
My 2006 review of Wes' Rib House
Yelp reviews of Wes' Rib House
Urbanspoon reviews of Wes' Rib House