Brian Ahlquist has managed many restaurants in his career, but he never had a place of his own. Last November, he opened The Carolina Barbecue Co., a meaty new restaurant and bar in Cranston. The ribs and pulled pork are closely modeled on Southern traditions, but with its sleek furnishings and bright interior, Carolina is a far cry from a back-country BBQ shack. Ahlquist also offers seafood like barbecue salmon, Cajun popcorn shrimp, and Creole mussels. We talked with him about this exciting new chapter.
How did you decide to open Carolina Barbecue?
I’ve been managing restaurants for 30 years, mostly chain restaurants. I started when I was 16, and it just became something I did. There are a lot of good things about chains, like good managing systems, but there’s not much creativity involved. Before I got too old, I wanted to give [my own restaurant] a shot. This is kind of a 30-year dream.
You’ve managed so many types of restaurants. Why barbecue?
I’m passionate about food, all kinds of food, and barbecue is probably my favorite. I’m also a student of the history: Carolina is the birthplace of barbecue. I never lived in the South, but I look at barbecue as a great American cuisine, and our food is authentic. I think some people, like the guys on Guy Fieri’s show, exaggerate their style a little bit, with the overalls and everything. We’re not looking for license plates on the wall – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I grew up in Warwick, and we’re a Rhode Island restaurant. We want it to reflect a certain honesty.
How did you develop the menu?
I wanted to make a lot of people happy, and you can’t go only by your own palate – you have to see what other people like. We host a lot of functions at my home, and I’m always polling people about the food. One relative said, “I’ve been a guinea pig for you for the last five years!” The brisket is the hardest. We tried a lot of different rubs. It took a lot of experimenting and time. But I think we’ve figured it out.
How has it been, finally having your own place?
It’s been fantastic. It’s terrifying, but it’s really rewarding. You can’t question every decision you make, but it’s nice not to be questioned about every decision you make. I have a really good corps of people, and it would be impossible to do it without them. I hired a lot of people I knew. My opening serving staff had only two people I haven’t worked with in the past.
What makes Carolina different?
[Carolina has] a more traditional, sit-down restaurant style. We have some fun with the second side of the menu – traditional barbecue on the left, and on the right, a few different items, like shrimp and grits, mac and cheese with chorizo. And I really feel like we have the best wings in the world. We marinade them for at least 24 hours, and then they’re smoked, and then they’re grilled. You can order them fried, but it keeps that smoky flavor. Fall-off-the-bone isn’t what you expect from wings, but my goodness, is it a good time. It’s something we’re really proud of.
Carolina Barbecue Co.
1265 Reservoir Avenue, Cranston • 401-437-6350