Smoke gets in your eyes, and mouth
The Village Smokehouse
98 Middle St., Lowell
Open Sun. through Thurs., 4 to 10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 4 to 11 p.m.; bar open later.
Reservations for eight or more and major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Barbecue - even here in blue-state land - is not a food, it is a religion. It can even be a recipe for national harmony, as blues diva Marcia Ball declares in the title track of her Grammy-nominated album "Love, Peace & BBQ." Yet, like politics and other topics best not for company, barbecue will ignite fierce discussions about who makes the best ribs or has the best sauce.
Into this smoky fray comes the Village Smokehouse, a four-month-old Lowell version of the 22-year-old Village Smokehouse in Brookline, owned by Alan Kaplan. With a spacious, 70-seat dining area and 24-seat adjacent bar (equipped with no fewer than nine HD TVs), the newer smokehouse brings Texas taste to the former mill city.
Walk in and you immediately sense this is cowboy country. Cowboys, that is, by way of Hollywood, as attested by the wall of black-and-white photographs of the likes of Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and a young Clint Eastwood. Exposed red brick-wall - a motif that screams Lowell with a color that says Southwest - is a backdrop for cactus paintings and other decorations. There is little else in the way of either kitsch or pretense, except for the selection of funky-named margaritas (such as The Duke and the Mae West) served in a glass cactus-stemmed glass. Our waitress was cheerful and accommodating on a recent visit and happily brought seconds of the moist and flavorful cornbread. We get down to business with the Smoked Sampler starter: two barbecue wings, two shrimp, and sliced beef brisket ($7). The wings are fine, the shrimp so-so, but the brisket is melt-in-your-mouth wonderful. Picky eaters will revel in the Homemade "Tater" Skins ($7), which meld crispy slices of potato with a heapin' helping of golden melted cheese. The stuffed jalapeños ($6) start out slow, the crisp, crunchy pepper contrasting with the creamy filling. By the time you finish, your mouth will be begging for mercy.
Other starters include grilled shrimp ($6), fresh fried catfish fingers ($7), and the Firestarter: two Buffalo shrimp, two boneless Buffalo tenders, and two stuffed jalapeños ($7).
Then the rodeo really gets started: You can order the baby back pork or beef ribs ($18, $20), sliced beef brisket ($14), half barbecue chicken ($14), or Texas sausage ($13), all slow-cooked and hickory-smoked. The brave will opt for the Texas Hawg ($23), a plate piled so high with all of the above that even the hungriest carnivore will be glad there's such a thing as a doggy bag.
And now we get to heart of the issue: the sauce. Barbecue fans who crave a sauce that leaves your mouth on fire and your belly burning might be disappointed here, unless they pour on additional hot stuff.
The rest of us, however, with less taste for the gastronomically nuclear will revel in how the Smokehouse's sweet but tangy sauce is used judiciously, not slathered indiscriminately - allowing the smoky flavor of the well-cooked meat to come through. The beef and baby back pork ribs are meaty and filling; the chicken is satisfying; but the real surprise is the Texas sausage, a sensation of taste and texture.
The boneless center-cut pork chops ($14) had a nice flavor and a dry texture, which was countered by the accompanying applesauce and the unexpectedly fine sweet and sour sauce. Fish lovers can opt for the serviceable grilled salmon ($16) or the catfish ($14).
There's also a selection of burgers, fajitas, sandwiches, and salads, but our advice is to leave your vegetarian friends at home.
The Village Smokehouse lacks some side dishes associated with Southern barbecue, such as collard greens and hush puppies. You have a choice of a baked sweet-potato cooked into a creamy, almost caramelized delight, coleslaw, corn on the cob, baked potato, beans, rice, Texas fries, and the vegetable of the day - which, on our visit, was cooked with as much attention to detail as the meat. If you can handle it, there's pie for dessert - apple, pecan, blueberry, and peach praline - for $4.
The restaurant's slogan is "ain't nothing fancy, mind ya" and we agree; but its friendly setting, which features live music on Thursdays, and deft barbecue style made us converts.