If you know me or have read this blog or my bio at all, you will know that I am a barbecue aficionado.
OK, I’m a barbecue nut. Not only do I barbecue extensively at home (usually year-round) and experience with various sauces, rubs, woods, and charcoal, but I am also Certified as a Barbecue Judge by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. I have judged the New Hampshire State Championships (twice), the Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut State Championship Barbecue Contests, as well as the New England Championships (twice). I have eaten barbecue in 14 states.
What I’m trying to say is that I know my barbecue. Purists may scoff at the notion of a northern boy knowing good ‘que, or maybe even disagree with my preferences, but I feel secure in saying that I know what good barbecue is.
I just returned from dinner at LJ’s BBQ’s new location in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and I am happy to say that THAT was good barbecue!
LJ’s recently relocated from a real "hole-in-the-wall" type of place in a somewhat seedy part of Providence to a nice strip mall on the Providence/Pawtucket line in a an area inhabited by young professionals, college students, college professors and old-money wealth. The strip mall is shared by a vegetarian restaurant (which is kinda funny, being next to a place that serves nearly nothing BUT meat) and an upscale deli/bakery that is well known for its bagels, if that gives you an idea of the sort of area they are in.
Even though the location has improved and the menu expanded, the food has stayed as good as ever. John, Erock and I started off with an order of wings with hot sauce on the side. The wings are barbecued, but rather perfectly fried, fully cooked with super-crispy skin. I love to combine the hot sauce and LJ’s signature sauce to create a spicy/sweet flavor burst.
We then followed up with our main courses – a pulled pork and cheese sandwich for John, a chili cheeseburger for Erock and a pork ribs and pulled pork combo plate for myself. John said his pulled pork sandwich was excellent and Erock said that not only was the burger good and the chili excellent, but it was one of the only chili cheeseburgers that could be eaten with your hands, not needing a knife and fork to a get a sloppy joe-like "sandwich" (in the loosest meaning of the word) shoveled into your mouth.
My barbecue combination platter, I am happy to report, is one of the best I’ve had. Seriously. Again, I know my ‘que and have had championship-quality competition barbecue and plenty of good and bad restaurant barbecue, and this was some damn good stuff. Pulled pork can be a surprisingly difficult dish to get right in a restaurant, since it can dry out rather quickly. LJ’s trick of tossing chucks and shreds of pork (it is really more chopped than pulled, purists take note) with his sauce and heating it up in a hot cast iron pan before serving takes that dryness factor out, while adding a nice caramelized glaze to the pork.
The St. Louis-cut ribs were not only delicious, but perfectly presented, cut 3/4’s of the way through and spread slightly to prevent a messy pulling-apart. They were moist but not fatty all, plenty of meat, and well-smoked but then nicely char-grilled for the finish. Together with the pulled pork, it made for some of the best restaurant barbecue I’ve had, and some of the best BBQ I’ve had, period. I told Bernie (one of the co-owners and the "cook" between the two) that the food was actually even better than it was at the old place, and it was pretty darn tasty there!
Sides of mac and cheese, baked beans, and corn bread were excellent. Their home-made mac and cheese with bread crumb topping is truly authentic, the baked beans were exceptionally good and the corn bread was so good, even I enjoyed it, and I’m not a big corn bread fan.
I also thoroughly love LJ’s barbecue sauce – it has a truly unique flavor, owing it spiciness and flavor to some non-traditional spices: on top of the usual savory flavors of garlic and onion lies some hints of allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg, which adds depth and flavor. It also makes you want to put it on everything. Hell, it makes you want to ask for a shot glass so you can drink the stuff. It isn’t spicy but is filled with flavor so that everyone can enjoy it.
LJ’s now has a full liquor license and even though they don’t have a draught beer system, their bottled selection makes up for it. The decor of the new place is gorgeous – a perfect "upscale barbecue" motif, with pictures of the various knick-knacks from their old place sitting in for the actually tchotchkes. A nice touch and a nice recognition of their roots. We ended the evening with a Carameltini for John, who said it was excellent, and a a couple of small batch bourbons for me and Erock. The bill was $92 for the three of us, including four beers, the appetizer, two sandwiches, a full entrees, and the three after-dinner drinks, a reasonable sum for a great meal with large – but not over-whelming – portions.
One caveat was the service: it was quite a bit slow, but we entertained ourselves with conversation, as the noise level was high enough that we could be our usual crude n’ crass selves but not so noisy that we couldn’t laugh at those same jokes. However, that caveat comes with another one: that this was only their SECOND night open! We waited about 20 minutes for a table, as the place was absolutely packed, and Linda (the other co-owner) said that it was like that the opening night. I’m sure that once they work the kinks out (they were out of some sides and BRISKET, a disappointment for Erock, but a good reason to go back) and the service gets up to the speed of the business, things will be just fine. Even with a long wait for our meals, it was well worth it and encourage all of you within a reasonable driving distance of Providence to check out LJ’s, as I think it is the best barbecue in the area!