Embrace the Sauce
The Village Smokehouse in Brookline Village has the look of an old time saloon that's been around for years. Normally I'd call it a throwback to 1980's barbecue, but there's one flaw with that line of thinking: Village Smokehouse started in 1987, so you you could say it IS 1980s barbecue. The building is old, the ceilings are ornate and the walls are filled with a combination of framed cowboy photos and posters, vintage mirrors and breweriana, and framed T-shirts and self-congratulatory ephemera.
You enter into a bar area that has a pair of TVs, stools against the long bar and a counter along the opposing wall.
The dining area, most of it set behind indoor wooden fences, consists mostly of long, tightly packed communal tables. They let you seat yourself, but be wary of the six-seat tables: you may wind up with strangers next to you before the meal is over. There's nothing wrong with making new friends, but if you're on the inside, you'll have trouble getting out. If you're on the outside, servers reach across your face with plates for those sitting inside.
The visual highlight is the centrally located grilling station between the dining room and bar. Here, meats previously smoked and refrigerated get brought back to life by virtue of an open pit. The high rising flames give thrills to the kids and kids at heart. The hotel pans of gray-from-congealed-fat ribs awaiting the sauce-and-flame treatment give chills to the faint of heart.
Despite rumors to the contrary, there's an Alkar smoker in the kitchen.
The visual clues all point to Texas barbecue, so it's no surprise that beef ribs, brisket and sausage are all accounted for. Pork ribs (babybacks) and pulled pork are also on offer, as are smoked chicken, smoked chicken wings, Southwestern chicken breast and grilled shrimp. The ribs are available in regular and "Texas size" portions. Two- and three-meat combos are available, as is a "Texas Hawg" sampler that includes a beef rib, babybacks, chicken, brisket and sausage. Sandwiches include the above boneless selections as well as a few different burgers.
Southern apps include chili, shrimp, fried wings, grilled wings, chicken tenders, Buffalo tenders and a few combinations. Garden and Caesar salads can be had with or without barbecue meats. There are also four different steak options, fajitas and grilled salmon.
Cornbread: At most places the cornbread comes with a meat platter or must be ordered as an add-on. Here, it's brought to the table as a show of hospitality before the meal begins. Large blocks were slightly warm, slightly coarse and slightly sweet.
Wings: We went with the smoked variety ($7.95 for six), lightly sauced, since the best path for enjoyment—not counting the path out the door—is to simply embrace the sauce. Despite the supposed smoking, they didn't taste smoky. Despite the flame grilling, they didn't get crisp. There were crispy spots here and there with punctuated char flavor, but beyond that and the tomatoey sauce, the flavor was that of chicken skin—some of it ripped and much of it rubbery, The meat within wasn't quite dry but wasn't quite moist. Overall, a halfhearted effort.
Sausage: You've heard of farm to table? This appetizer ($4.95) is fridge to flame, You can see the grill man open up the fridge, grab a liink, slice it on the bias and toss it on the grill. This warms it up, adds some grill marks and more of that signature char flavor. The sausage itself seemed a hybrid of classic Italian and the familiar breakfast version, Juiciness wasn't in play, but the slices did have some tenderness and inherent moisture.
Beef Ribs: Beef ribs have been a rarity on Boston barbecue menus, but Village Smokehouse is one of only two (Redbones is the other) to offer what I believe is uninterrupted beef rib availability for the past three decades.
Tried on a 3-meat combo ($25.95), the beef rib representation was two lengthy bones from the back of the animal—these would equate to babybacks if on a pig, but much bigger. Ever the gentleman, I waited to allow my dinner companion first dibs, but after a minute with no resolution I grabbed the top one, which not coincidentally happened to be the meatier of the two
After some discussion, we learned that the two ribs were pretty different. Mine was cut in such a way that there was ample meat on both sides of the bone; the other one was smaller but still fairly sizable. Mine was more than adequately tender under the crisp, charred crust; the other was equally crusty but gristly and tough beneath—requiring a knife. Neither was juicy but both were sufficiently moist. Neither had any glaring fat issues that are so common to beef ribs. Flavor came from two sources: the charry, charcoaly crust and the tomatoy sauce. Rub and smoke (very different from the grill-happy flavor here) were far in the background if there at all.
One tough rib aside—and I know that's not insignificant—it all comes down to how you feel about the char and the sauce leading the way. Hell, they pretty much are the way. I'm happy with any style, so I came in with the embrace-the-sauce mindset. If you can do likewise and also develop a fondness for all that char, these beef ribs can be enjoyable. Mine was the best item of the meal.
Pork Ribs: The one cut available here for pork ribs, a half rack of babybacks sat under the two beef ribs on the 3-meat combo. They matched the beef ribs in the crustiness department, but could not keep up otherwise. Okay, maybe fat was again not an issue, but is it ever with babybacks? The diminutivity of the babybacks was not only a problem of its own but also a key catalyst in making the crustiness less of an asset and more of a liability. What little meat lying under the crust was splintery, tongue-scrapingly dry. Once again, rub and smoke could not be detected. So whether for texture or flavor, the sauce became a necessity. Even with the sauce, and my best attempts to embrace it, these babybacks remained both dry and bland in every bite. Disappointing.
Brisket: Have you ever seen a cartoon where a chicken loses all of its feathers and stands awkwardly naked? This is what the brisket looked like on the plate with all of the fat, all of the color and all of the bark removed. One bite in and it was obvious that the flavor—even the expected char—was removed as well. While I can't say that it was juicy or even moist, I also can't say that it was dry. And it certainly had some decent tenderness going for it. In a sandwich with some creative condiments or even the barbecue sauce, this brisket could be serviceable. But on its own, not so much.
There's just one sauce available, and none of it is on the table. The menu presents the options of sauced, heavily sauced, lightly sauced and sauce on the side. That last option is brought to the table warm in a small bowl, with cheerful refills to follow. The sauce is a thin, tomato-based number that's closer to marinara than ketchup. There's a little zing and some spice flecks to add character.
Baked Beans: A light, soft, soup mix with a little onion to round out the flavor. Similar to if not actually canned. This is the standard side that comes with every platter; you get to choose the second side.
Cole Slaw: Pretty standard, pretty similar to storebought, not really noteworthy for being either positive or negative.
The place might seem a little hokey at first, but fans of architecture might want to take a second look. It's an old space in an old building that's been preserved rather well. And it's spotless throughout.
Service was excellent. All of the staff were attentive and friendly. Our server made suggestions, brought sauce refills when needed and checked back regularly but unobtrusively throughout the meal.
The Village Smokehouse's second location in Lowell is still indicated on the website even though it has since morphed into a few other concepts.
Embrace the sauce. It's the only way.
The Bottom Line
What passed for barbecue in 1987 might not get the same pass in 2015, and even for an old school style, Village Smokehouse doesn't quite measure up. But it is not without its charms: the beer is cold, the staff is friendly and the space is festive.
If you only seek beef ribs or like a less smoky brand of 'cue that favors char and sauce, Village Smokehouse might be worth an occasional look. Otherwise, go only for the nostalgia—and remember to embrace the sauce if you do.
Full review here: http://www.pigtrip.net/review-VSH2015.htm