Monday, May 5, 2014
Burnt Ends and More at Bar-b-qsa in Saratoga
When I stepped down from doing the Eat This articles for All Over Albany in March, necessitated by the busyness of teaching full time and preparing for a wedding (not to mention trying to slim down for it), I still had a couple restaurants on my list of hopefuls that I hadn't yet gotten to try.
Fortunately, I still have this blog (even if it has been in hibernation lately), so I can still talk about PJ's Bar-b-qsa in Saratoga, which might now be my favorite barbecue joint in the area, thanks especially to an old favorite of mine, burnt ends.
You don't see burnt ends on the menu at every barbecue restaurant, and to many the name wouldn't exactly be enticing. They're a regional specialty, a staple of Kansas City barbecue, and after spending two years in that area, I was thrilled to see them on the menu at Bar-b-qsa. Tasting them--and a number of other items at this casual hangout on Rt. 9 just north of Exit 13N on the Northway--was even more exciting.
I've been to Bar-b-qsa twice now, and I can now comfortably and confidently vouch for the burnt ends there, plus the State Fair chicken, Kansas City style ribs, and collard greens.
After entering the restaurant, you step ahead to a wide counter at which you order and pick up your order (and to the left there's a frozen custard station, which is super exciting and will be taste-tested on a warmer day this summer). To the right you'll find a seating area with a small bar with a few beers on tap, most notably the QSA Red Ale from Davidson Brothers, which I tried on my second visit. This is a perfectly serviceable, malty, slightly bready ale that was fun to drink from a plastic cup while the DJ behind us spun tunes from the mid-40s to early-60s.
All these elements add to the atmosphere (likely even moreso when it's warm and not raining and the seating outside can be utilized), but the key here is, of course, the food. Before I get to the main items, I want to mention the cornbread, which was soft, moist and slightly sweet, almost like pound cake, which is in contrast to what I read about in a review on Yelp. The changes in the cornbread show me that Bar-b-qsa is willing to listen to feedback, reevaluate their food, and make sure that what they're serving is all of good quality--something I know isn't the case at many area restaurants whose owners/chefs are either too ignorant or stubborn to make any alterations.
The Burnt Ends
The burnt ends at Bar-b-qsa, as with most items, can be ordered on their own (in a couple different sizes) or as part of a platter. A half pound of burnt ends is $8.50, and I'll talk later about why this might be the best way to approach ordering here (as opposed to the platter). The burnt ends arrive as some kind of thrilling mystery package, fully wrapped up in paper streaked with grease--a good sign that these are going to be some tasty burnt ends.
Indeed they are, even if that flavor is distributed a bit unevenly. That's the nature of this part of the brisket; some pieces end up laced with fat that just melts in your mouth, while others are a bit drier and chewier. None of the pieces, however, are lacking in the taste of mesquite wood smoke from the barbecue, the single most important element of good barbecue.
Burnt ends are burnt ends of brisket. That's why they end up with so much wonderful smokey flavor. And at Bar-b-qsa they're served unsauced, which is just fine by me. They're cooked with a rub, too, and boy do I love a good rub. I don't know what all was in it--pepper was most prominent, and maybe there was some cumin and paprika in there, too--but it was immensely flavorful, especially when combined with the smokiness and fattiness.
State Fair Chicken and the rest
I've never been to the New York State Fair, and I'd never actually had State Fair chicken before (I was familiar with it from picking up a bottle of the sauce in the supermarket and trying it on chicken at home, however), but I can safely say that Bar-b-qsa does a very nice job with their version of this upstate specialty.
The restaurant's rotisserie (over charcoal) is on display behind the counter, and that's one of the keys to this chicken turning out well. The skin was full of flavor, while the meat inside was juicy. The skin had great taste from the State Fair spice rub, which had been applied liberally, highlighting the herbs that make up the poultry seasoning and, once again, pepper. I got hints of sourness--maybe from lemon juice, maybe from the cider vinegar in the recipe?)--along with some garlic. Overall the flavor here was complex and very enjoyable.
On our second visit, K got the Kansas City style ribs, which were seasoned well and covered in the restaurant's Kansas City style barbecue sauce (tomato-based and sweet). These were good ribs: the meat was tender and pink, and the sauce was a good complement (not overwhelming) to the fattiness and smokiness.
Speaking of the sauces--because any good barbecue joint needs to have good sauces that they make themselves--there's the aforementioned Kansas City style at Bar-b-qsa, plus a Memphis whiskey sauce and a hot sauce (not a barbecue sauce) that seems like a thickened version of something like Texas Pete. My favorites were a hickory sauce--kind of smokey, not too sweet--and a spicy take on their regular sauce. There's a whole sauce station at Bar-b-qsa which allows diners to get small cups of as many sauces as they like. With the variety offered, there's no doubt everyone will find at least one to their liking.
As far as the sides go, the ones that come with the platters aren't terribly exciting--this is the one way in which I think Dinosaur Bar-B-Que holds their own in a comparison of these two restaurants. You receive two sides with a platter; among those we've tried are the mac and cheese, the fried okra, the corn on the cob, and a couple recent additions--a black eyed pea salad and a cup of cheese grits.
These were all fine. In particular, I thought the black eyed peas, which were interspersed with some small bits of red onion, were quite refreshing when eaten alongside the fatty burnt ends. But none really stood out as special.
On our second visit I decided not to get a platter because of the ordinary nature of the sides; instead I got a half pound of the burnt ends ala carte, plus a side (not from the sides menu, but from the "joint favorites" section of the menu) of collard greens. A small cup was $3.25, which seemed like a fair price, and these were quite good--the greens clearly cooked low and slow with bits of pork in a vinegar-based broth. I love the way Southern greens pair with meaty, fatty barbecue, and these didn't disappoint in any way. I only wish they were available as one of the platter sides.
Overall, there's no argument that Bar-b-qsa is one of the premier barbecue restaurants in the region. Dinosaur is in contention for that top spot, I'd say, though it's hard for any smaller restaurant to compete with Dinosaur, which has the ability to churn out a wider variety of items (particularly sides) because of the practically guaranteed crowd of patrons visiting daily.
Bar-b-qsa is a fun place for a real barbecue meal, and I say that without even visiting once the weather has warmed up and crowds are filling the place (and the tables outside) up. The burnt ends alone are worth driving for, no matter where you are in the Capital Region in relation to Saratoga, but to talk only about them would be a disservice to the other excellent barbecued meats being served at Bar-b-qsa.
PJ's Bar-b-qsa is located at 1 Kaydeross Ave. West in Saratoga Springs, NY