Smokestack Urban Barbeque
By Bernie Whitmore
90 Harding Street, Worcester
From the moment I heard Romaine’s of Northborough was opening a barbecue place on Harding Street, I had a feeling something big was in store for dining in Worcester. After all, their undisputed reputation for superior quality and service has long anchored Romaine’s at the top of my short-list of dining recommendations. If they could apply that formula to barbecue, well, something exciting was about to happen.
And it did.
Over the course of the summer, I’ve dined at the Smokestack several times and it already feels like home. The large dining room is airy and stripped down to essentials with a few whimsical touches such as the shiny metal pails used as lampshades. The absence of visual clutter makes it easier to appreciate the sweet fragrance of wood smoke and an impressively selected playlist of vintage blues and country classics. Blackboards list specialty drinks and what they’re offering on tap.
The list of draught beers is graced with some fine regional offerings. We’ve already tried Coffeehouse Porter from Berkshire Brewing Company in South Deerfield. Rich in chocolate and coffee flavors, it establishes new ground for American porter.
But this evening we focused on Worcester’s own Wormtown Brewery. My friend described his glass of Seven Hills Pale Ale as clean and refreshing. I wanted something to hold its own with barbecue, so I ordered Elm Park Amber Ale. Amber in color, it’s much spicier than Seven Hills and just bitter enough to assert itself through the food courses. Check Wormtown’s website for more offerings.
Now for the cuisine. All too many appetizer menus have become predictable and boring. Not so at the Smokestack. With each visit we’re sampling our way through unusual offerings such as Fried Pickles and Over-the-Top Fries (piled on with pulled pork, brisket and cheddar cheese). Shrimp and Grits was, perhaps, our favorite appetizer, with juicy shrimp in a spicy brown sauce poured over creamy grits. It’s too bad most Northerners seem to scorn grits; this was a dish we wanted to lick clean.
Tonight we tried a new addition: Barbecued Mac ’n Cheese. A large cereal bowl was half filled with brisket and pork drenched in BBQ sauce and covered with creamy macaroni & cheese. Conceptually solid, this dish will be a keeper when they cut back on the BBQ sauce; there was so much it made the meat cloyingly sweet. Megan, our server, made note of our advice.
The Smokestack has an impressive array of “Between the Buns” sandwiches, listing seafood Po-boys and several different burgers. For the mega-appetite, their “Smokestack Mammoth Sandwich” is a stack of everything, including a souvenir tee-shirt.
But when I think barbecue, I think ribs. The Smokestack offers simple choices here: St Louis or Baby Back. After trying both, I’ve settled on St Louis ~ they’re bigger, juicier and more appealing to the eye ~ each rib has a end-piece of bone sticking out, like a little handle. They’re also much more difficult to come by.
And there’s the all-important barbecue sauce debate ~ Kansas City or Carolina. Deep in color, KC is sweet and a touch smoky. But I actually prefer the mustardy-tang of Carolina sauce. Smokehouse puts a squirt bottle of each on the table.
A half-rack of St Louis ribs seems plenty and is served with a chunk of moist cornbread and your choice of sides. I usually choose BBQ Beans and tonight I tried their Cucumber Salad ~ the thin-cut cucumber slices were marinated in sweet vinegar sauce with shreds of carrot and red bell pepper ~ very refreshing.
My friend ordered “‘Not Your Mamma’s Fried Chicken.” It’s swiftly become a favorite for its thick crunchy coating and moist flavorful meat. Plus it’s huge ` the Smokestack loads up their dinner plates with four or five big pieces plus mounds of macaroni & cheese and collard greens braised with bacon. Precious few Mammas north of the Mason-Dixon serve up this dish!
With leftovers packed to go home, we were far too full for dessert ~ until Megan brought menus and tempted us with a slice of Chocolate Pecan Pie. It was an easy sell. Served with a scoop of ice cream, it was warmed up so the chocolate bits were soft and gooey.
Can a new restaurant be considered a classic in its first months of operation? Of course it can, especially when it’s filled a gap left achingly empty in Worcester for too long. And this is exactly what the Smokestack Urban Barbecue has accomplished with their mix of vintage blues, tasty ribs and microbrews.