The road to beer and barbecue
In Brookline, a new spot for an American food classic and domestic brews
The chili is great. Catfish fingers are fish sticks gone to heaven.
For Roadhouse in Brookline, the road has been a bumpy one. The sister establishment to the beer-centric Publick House down the street, it had fans of both brew and 'cue champing at the bit to get in. In the world of food enthusiasms, there may be none more all-consuming than beer and barbecue. Both rely on ancient processes that can be endlessly varied and debated; both satisfy on a gut level. And there was Roadhouse, looming large in black and red paint over Beacon Street, a dethroned Vinny T's. The new regime announced its presence via a large smoker visible through the windows, issuing occasional meat-and-smoke belches. (They use green hickory wood, if you're wondering.)
But when Roadhouse finally opened in September, the barbecue was not right, something owner David Ciccolo is the first to admit later by phone. By his account, they struggled, they stressed, they switched chefs. Barbecuing - bringing out the essence of meat with smoke, low heat, and time - should be a beatific pursuit. Acrimony and tenderness don't go together.
Right now, the taste of the barbecue at Roadhouse is the taste of transition. A new chef, Brent Mimeault, is in place. His enthusiasm could rival that of any barbecue aficionado (though most of them didn't formerly work at Clio). I was unaware of the back story when I ate at Roadhouse, but I could sense something through his food: Why were some things so good, some so mediocre?
The Roadhouse chili is packed with plump, tender beans, ground beef, and spices. Sprinkled with cheddar, with tortilla chips poking out the sides, it's perfect with any one of the nearly 40 beers on tap and about 25 more bottled. Appropriate to barbecue, most are American craft brews. With such an array, and a beer-geek sensibility behind the place, you'd expect the servers to be well schooled in the selections, but none of our waitresses are. When asked a question about a beer, one jokes, "You'd probably know better than I would." They're going to get asked for recommendations; they should be better equipped to offer some.
An appetizer of shrimp comes with a barbecue sauce nearly French in its rich complexity; it's all that and a stick of butter. Cajun fried catfish fingers don't taste particularly Cajun, but they are light and have a lovely crunch. An entree of chicken fried steak is a good rendition of this Southern classic, topped in what's billed as mushroom gravy but tastes more like bechamel.
But the brisket is so dry you don't have to taste it to find out; you can tell by looking at it. Pork ribs are chewy; the meat is difficult to get off the bone. At least they taste good - beef ribs have an acrid flavor, like mustard powder gone nuclear. We check for the pinkish ring that's the sign of long-smoked meat - there's an explanation of it on the menu - but it's too dark in the restaurant to see much. A pulled pork sandwich on one visit is moist and vinegary, but on another visit the meat looks dried out, as if it's been sitting for a while. It comes with fries and pickles, but it also needs coleslaw, and a lot more sauce.
The all-important sauces are a work in progress, too. Ciccolo says everything at Roadhouse is made from scratch, but some of the sauces taste prefab, fakely sweet or fruity and unbalanced. Let's hope Mimeault tunes them all up. It sounds like he aims to.
Barbecue platters come with a choice of one side and cornbread. The coleslaw is basic and good, with just enough tang and not too much mayo. Pinto beans echo the chili in texture and flavor; collards are fine, if not particularly smoky or tender. The macaroni and cheese is grainy and tastes more of flour than of cheese. You can choose plain cornbread or cheddar-jalapeno cornbread; the latter has a nice amount of heat from the baked-in chilies.
Roadhouse doesn't serve dessert, but the plain cornbread is plenty sweet enough to double as it. Non-Yankees should steer clear or it will give you nightmares. The cornbread has an almost vanilla note to it; it might make a nice base for a Southern-style tres leches cake.
Despite having a way to go with its meats, Roadhouse is quite popular, with a good crowd at the room's two bars and parties of friends dining with babies in tow. It's always a good time for barbecue, but particularly so when the economy is slumping. This is food born of necessity, cheap cuts of meat made tender with a little coaxing. With some more time, it's to be hoped that Roadhouse can make things right. Good barbecue won't be rushed.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.