Barbecue, I’ve found, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Some people like their meat sticky with sauce, or smoky, or spice-rubbed, or straight-up grilled with a little bit of sauce on the side for dipping. (And even then, what kind of sauce do you mean: sweet, or vinegary, or somewhere in between?)
Some people are all about the meat, with the side dishes being little more than plate-fillers, while others would give the sides equal billing. And many people seem to be really passionate about barbecue, insisting that their favorite place is the best place, or the only place that knows how to do it right, or what have you.
So I’m not about to argue that everyone should immediately abandon their favorite barbecue joint forever and go to North Country BBQ instead. But I will say that it’s definitely a place worth trying.
North County BBQ is in an industrial-looking part of town, tucked behind Bellevue Builders Supply in a structure that looks like it used to be a garage. We were a little wary as we got out of the car, but inside we found a small but charming dining room, all done in blond hardwood, rustic but very bright and inviting. The man working behind the front counter greeted us as we came in and made friendly chit-chat as we looked over the large chalkboard listing the menu options and contemplated our orders.
North Country BBQ
WHERE: 3351 S. Thompson St., Rotterdam, 355-4636; www.facebook.com/pages/North-Country-BBQ/315224791908016
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays
OTHER INFO: Cash only; kids menu available
My husband settled on the three-meat combo platter with brisket, chicken and ribs; I ordered the brisket dinner and requested burnt ends, as I usually do when ordering brisket (burnt ends are oddly shaped chunks from the end of the brisket that usually have more smoky, crunchy bark on the outside, while still staying moist from the rendering fat).
The man behind the counter said that they don’t usually have burnt ends, which struck me as odd, but he said he’d had someone order them before and could probably put something together that would make me happy. Fair enough. Both dinners came with two sides and a biscuit, which seemed like it would be plenty of food.
My husband and I grabbed our cups and filled them at the soda fountain, then sat down at a table to wait for our orders. It didn’t take long for our food to be brought over to us, piled on thick paper plates sitting atop red plastic trays.
To me, when judging a barbecue joint, the side dishes are as important as the main dish — after all, the meat only makes up a quarter to a third of the total food on the plate. And goodness knows there have been plenty of places I’ve tried that had good or even great meat, but the side dishes were just dreadful, seldom even rising to the level of mediocre. But this, this looked promising.
I’d ordered fries and macaroni and cheese as my two sides, and I dug into the fries first. They were fantastic, crispy and chewy in all the right ways, the kind of fries you could just keep eating and eating if you had a big enough pile in front of you. The macaroni and cheese was also a delightful surprise — it was really good, with cheese that wasn’t overly sharp but had a pleasant cheesy flavor.
You wouldn’t think that this would be a big deal, but you’d be surprised how many bland, tasteless sides of mac and cheese I’ve been served at barbecue places.
The biscuit, too, was good, the sort that I always wish I could make at home, but somehow, mine never come out tasting as good as ones like this.
As for the brisket . . . well, it wasn’t really my thing. I usually really like brisket, but this was spice-rubbed within an inch of its life, caked heavily with a pepper-based mix that overwhelmed the flavor of the meat. I could taste a subtle smokiness to the meat when I really looked for it, but it was often hard to detect under all of that pepper. Many of the pieces were a bit too chewy as well, a bit tough in texture.
But truthfully, some of this could have been my fault: I had asked for burnt ends, but I didn’t realize that their brisket was spice-encrusted, meaning that I’d be getting an overwhelming dose of spice. And cutting brisket into chunks, like mine was, can render it less tender than it could be if it was cut across the grain.
My husband had sliced brisket on his combo plate, and he said that it was more tender than mine and a bit less spicy. So if pepper-encrusted, sliced brisket sounds good to you, I wouldn’t advise asking for burnt ends.
My husband’s plate also held a quarter-chicken, which was simply done, not overly spiced and not sauced. It was tasty, though a teeny bit dry in spots. He also got a third of a rack of ribs, which were similarly unsauced, slightly smoky, very meaty and fork-tender, falling off the bone, as the expression goes.
We had three different bottles of house-made barbecue sauce on the table, one of them more vinegary, one of them more sweet and one a spicy raspberry-chipotle sauce, and we experimented with all three on both meats. The chicken was quite good with the sweeter sauce, but my husband thought that the ribs were best all by themselves.
Next to his trio of meats were the two sides he’d ordered: bacon ranch potato salad and sweet potato tots. He enjoyed the potato salad, which consisted of red potatoes in creamy dressing with bits of bacon, though he noted that the bacon was the best part (of course, bacon makes most things better, doesn’t it?).
As for the sweet potato tots, he didn’t really care for them, pushing them over toward me while poaching some of my fries. That was fine by me, though, because I thought the tots were fantastic, crispy and deliciously sweet.
There’s no dessert menu at North Country BBQ, but that was fine by us: By the time we were done eating, we could barely waddle out to the car. A very filling dinner for two set us back $36.72 in cash (they don’t take credit cards, though there’s an ATM inside the door if you need one).
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