Summertime is BBQ season no matter what part of the country you’re from, but for many of us New Englanders, “barbecue” is most often preceded by the word “a” to indicate a cookout in someone’s backyard with burgers and hotdogs on the grill.
This is not so for anyone who grew up in the American South, and for the thousands of Rhode Islanders who’ve attended the annual Ocean State BBQ Festival, who know the demand is ever increasing for legit barbecue: the low-and-slow smoked meats, the dry rubs, the sauces.
Each region of the US has a distinct style, and perhaps what makes Rhode Island barbecue unique is its willingness to blend these methods, to get experimental, and to use their culinary expertise – which overflows in the Ocean State – to offer an outstanding barbecue of its own. Whatever your preference is, you can find something to suit your taste buds, and who knows – maybe one day smoked calamari will become a RI staple. But until that day, there’s a bit of Memphis, Kansas, Carolina, and Texas to go around.
Two Rhode Island-based barbecue enthusiasts, Brent Mancuso and Adam Croft, who started Kick Back Kitchen and BBQ YouTube channel (@kbkbbq on Instagram), offered some insight about navigating the four main regions of the BBQ Belt.
Carolina: One size does not fit all here. In South Carolina, as well as eastern North Carolina, “whole hog” barbecue reigns, where an entire pig is splayed out above the flames. Sauces in the north/east are thinner and vinegar based. Western North Carolina (AKA Lexington) is known for pork butt/pulled pork, with a tomato-based sauce
Missouri (Kansas City/St. Louis): What most New Englanders think of as barbecue, this is a “no meat left behind” region where everything goes, though pork ribs are a specialty. The classic “Americana” sauce is sweet and tangy, thick and molasses-y – made with ketchup, brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce.
Memphis: Known for dry rubs (some containing up to 40 spices), this style has an emphasis on pork ribs and shoulder. When they do wet rubs, it’s a tomato-based tangy sauce. Alabama is similar to Memphis style, except they have their own unique “white” sauce, which is mayonnaise-based.
Texas: Brisket and all things beef. The typical rub is a 50/50 salt and pepper mix, cooked low and slow over wood. Depending on where you are in Texas, you’ll find hickory (East TX), oak and pecan (Central), and mesquite (West), which has a strong flavor and is better for quicker cooking items, like chicken.
The owner of Black Beans PVD, who goes by Bean, grew up on the West End of Providence, and all the flavors of her “soul food” are influenced by her upbringing: Southeast Asian, West African, Spanish, and her own father’s North Carolinian background. “My dad would barbecue all year long. Winter snowstorm? Doesn’t matter. He’d be grilling on the front porch,” Bean says.
While Black Beans PVD has a rotating menu, Bean whips out her best barbecue in August. You can expect to find a BBB Burger: beef patty, beef bacon, and beef brisket, on a sweet cornbread brioche bun. Everything is made from scratch, from the mayonnaise to the relish. “I will pickle anything,” Bean explains, including watermelon rinds and her own red onion jam. “I don’t like slaw, personally, so I make a spiced pickled cabbage instead. But all the other sides you expect to find – potato salad, mac and cheese, BBQ beans – I’ve got those.”
In terms of sauces, Bean offers a Carolina-style sauce made with apple cider vinegar, chilis, and sugar – a thinner, “wet” sauce, which is great with pork. She’s also proud of her Malta sauce, which is thicker and tomato-based, and has a deep molasses flavor.
As a “Black Bean” staple, the black bean-based chili, topped with barbecue brisket or beef ribs that are slow-cooked and shredded, is another must-try item.
BlackBeansPVD.com • @bakedbeanpvd
Durk’s Bar-B-Q was an instant hit when it opened in January of 2017 on Thayer Street. Since then it has undergone several changes, including a new location – they’re now in the heart of Downcity, across from Gracie’s – and new executive chef, Ed Davis, formerly of Birch and Oberlin.
“If there was a proper Rhode Island barbecue, it’d be squid and maybe chicken,” Davis comments. Seeing as this isn’t likely to draw large crowds, Durk’s sticks with what people are looking for when they think of barbecue, but adds some unique touches. For example, the house BBQ sauce uses Autocrat coffee syrup as a sweetener, and his dry rub blend includes Bolt coffee, “to give it some kind of Rhode Island identity.”
Although Davis doesn’t claim ownership of the Texas-style barbecue the original location boasted, he has perfected the art of all things smoked. He begins prepping the brisket days before it even enters the smoker by chilling in the walk-in refrigerator, then rubbing it with a salt-and-pepper blend 12-24 hours before it cooks. Using a blend of cherry, oak, hickory, and maple wood, the meats smoke all day. The brisket’s “smoke ring” comes out textbook perfect, and the point cut is chock full of flavor.
Order the brisket, St. Louis ribs, or the kielbasa stuffed with cheese and brisket, a slice of sweet cornbread, and your favorite side. Though you won’t need it for the meat, the Alabama white sauce is definitely worth trying – a combo of mayo and horseradish, it’s as addictive as ranch dressing.
33 Aborn Street, Providence• DurksBBQ.com • @durksbbq
The first time Great Northern BBQ Co. entered the inaugural Ocean State BBQ Festival, they won for the best brisket, and last year they were the #1 Judge’s Choice for RI Food Fights’ “Lord of the Wings” competition. According to owner Daniel Becker, “We must be doing something right.”
Becker, whom you might also be familiar with from Ogie’s Trailer Park and Duck and Bunny, is excited for the post-pandemic enthusiasm he sees happening in Providence. “Everyone is running out of their houses to get food and drinks like this is the first time they’ve ever seen it. And right now we have the best combination of people in the kitchen – including an excellent pit master, a rare commodity.” He’s speaking about Sean Bender, pitmaster and head chef of Great Northern, and a universal traveler who’s made his way from Alaska to the deep South and up to Rhode Island.
The aim here is not to compete with the South but to create a unique New England-style barbecue (hence “Great Northern”) that’s a hybrid of Memphis, Texas, and West Carolina styles, as well as a nod to seafood – like salmon – which is charred to perfection on the wood-fired grill.
Come for Wing Wednesday, and don’t forget to try the Highland Game: burnt orange bourbon, smoked simple, and bitters.
9 Parade Street, Providence GreatNorthernBBQCo.square.site @greatnorthernbbqco
Wes’ Rib House was the first restaurant in Providence – and greater Rhode Island, according to owner Michael Solomon – to start smoking meats Southern-style. They opened in 1973 on Broad Street but relocated to Olneyville in 1982. They use an open wood fire pit to cook their ribs and meats, including pork, beef, lamb, and chicken. This is Missouri-style BBQ, in which they baste the meat with a molasses-y barbecue sauce, let it marinate, and then douse it in some more sauce.
Their most popular dishes are the Baby Ribs and the Smoked Brisket Platter, and thankfully they provide wet naps because your fingers will get sticky when you tackle those ribs. This spot is also known for its late hours, which pre-pandemic stayed open until 2am weekdays and 4am weekends, making it the perfect spot after a late night on the town.
38 Dike Street, Providence • WesRibHouse.com
“We started with one little food truck, just my wife and me – and we built a flavor profile that seems to be successful,” Mike Strout says of Gotta Q BBQ, which he and his wife, Janice, started in 2013. What began as a two-day festival in Connecticut selling only pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, and water, has turned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Cumberland, a permanent smoker trailer in Smithfield, and a food truck that has been voted the #1 BBQ Food Truck in the USA three years in a row by Mobile-Cuisine Magazine. “Everyone around here is chasing me [and my barbecue],” Strout laughs, but the quality of his food is no joke.
In addition to Strout’s own prowess in the competition circuit, his pitmaster, Chris Clegg, is also an award-winning name (he competes as Rhode Hog BBQ). Together, they’re a dynamic duo operating multiple cookers and smokers. With Cadillac cookers that can hold 60 racks of ribs at one time, they had everything in place when the pandemic hit to produce high-volume take-out. They used their production space to serve those in need, offering lunches to students and 1,500 meals to families for Thanksgiving.
When it comes to barbecue, the beef brisket and the St. Louis style ribs are among their award-winning meats. “I cringe when people put sauce on brisket. I especially cringe when they put it on the ribs – these are our competition ribs. We wrap them in foil to lock in the flavor,” Strout explains. But the house sauce, a blend of a Kansas City sweet sauce and an Eastern Carolina vinegar sauce, is the Goldilocks of sauces – it’s just right: “A little sweet, a little heat, and a little tang.”
In terms of sides, try the collard greens. They’re bound to become award winning, too.
2000 Mendon Road, #10, Cumberland • GottaQ.net • @gottaqbbq
Ian and Morgan Gormley made a pivot to barbecue in 2020 when the pandemic hit, after they’d been popping up at Long Live Beerworks with charcuterie grazing tables. “I always really liked barbecue, but I never attempted to make brisket when I was younger,” Ian says, explaining that he started cooking as a kid alongside his mom in the kitchen. But after he and his wife visited Austin, Texas for a wedding, he realized, “it’s another world down there – people camp out for hours to get their barbecue at 10am. I want to create that kind of culture here.”
Modeling their brisket after the James Beard award-winning chef, Aaron Franklin, Our Table has been in high demand for barbecue since debuting at Buttonwoods Brewery last May. “People kept asking for it, so we haven’t stopped making it!” Gormley says. Using a traditional Texas-style dry rub, their prime beef brisket is smoked, via a traditional Texas offset smoker, over whole cherry and hickory logs for 16-18 hours. Ian barely sleeps, but it’s worth it: The brisket comes out tender and juicy, packed with a flavor that goes beyond its simple salt and pepper rub. You might even get lucky with some burnt ends. The only problem (“problem”) is that the meat is so good, you’ll need to grab a straw for the homemade barbecue sauce and drink it separately.
Until they find a brick and mortar of their own, you can follow their brewery pop-ups on Instagram and their website.
Pawtucket • OurTableRI.com • @our_table_ri
Since opening a food truck in 2017, JWU graduate and US Veteran Adam Batchelder has been using modern smoking techniques and equipment to deliver authentic smoked barbecue to Rhode Islanders. For months, Batchelder researched the best barbecue smoking equipment and selected the Southern Pride SGR400 smoker, which is a gas smoker that uses whole wooden logs (in this case, hickory and oak) and allows more precise temperature control.
“It’s a long process,” Batchelder says, as all barbecue aficionados can attest to. “We season the meat 24-48 hours in advance, then smoke it for 17 hours.” They dry rub all of their meats and offer different sauces as a complementary side to replicate the different styles: Memphis Sweet & Spicy, Kansas City Red, Carolina Yellow, BBQ Fire, even a Pickled Pig Juice.
The pulled pork and brisket are staples on the menu, but they also have short ribs and pork belly. The Smokey Mac & Cheese, topped with green onions, BBQ sauce, and choice of pulled pork or brisket, is a fan favorite – in 2019 Smoke & Squeal went through 8,000 pounds of it!
881 Main Street, Pawtucket • SmokeAndSquealBBQ.com • @smoke_and_squeal_bbq