I had really great barbeque at the monthly Flanagan’s Table dinner in Buxton this past Monday night. The event featured the food of guest chefs Jay Villani and Garry Bowcott of Salvage Barbeque, and so I was craving carefully smoked and pit cooked meats all week. To satisfy that urge, my wife and I took this weekend to explore the barbeque options available to us in the Granite State.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was at the event as part of my work with Knack Factory. Our client, in that case, was Flanagan’s Table itself and not Salvage Barbeque, Mr. Villani, or any of his restaurants. And so I don’t feel any pressure to tell you that the dinner was absolutely delicious, which it very definitely was, or that Villani and Bowcott outdid themselves, which they very definitely did.
I don’t know about the rest of New England, but great barbeque can be extraordinarily difficult to find here in Maine. One of my business partners is from Texas, and so when I don’t have to hear this repeated lament from him, I often find myself embarrassed on his behalf when we try local “barbeque” places together. Either the food is cooked incorrectly—the meat cooked too fast or cooked to death—or the flavors aren’t subtle enough, or the establishment is too sanitized, or whatever.
Of course, as I mentioned above there was Villani’s delightful fare, but the only other great barbecue I have enjoyed here in Maine comes by way of Crazy Dave’s in Ellsworth, which can also be found at the Fryeburg Fair (in my opinion, it is the only worthwhile barbecue venture there). But it is not fair season and my wife and I didn’t want to head 5 hours Downeast strictly to put meat in our bellies, so we decided to head to Goody Cole’s Smokehouse in Brentwood, NH, and Moat Mountain Smokehouse in North Conway as we had heard a handful of good things about each.
There are things to recommend about both establishments, but I encourage a visit to Goody Cole’s immediately. It is located an hour and a half south of Portland, and it is both very good and very inexpensive by local restaurant standards. We got a full rack of ribs, a plate of pulled pork, kielbasa and brisket, 2 giant chunks of cornbread, 5 sides and 4 Long Trail beers for $53 dollars. For normal, civilized people, that’s more than enough to feed four, but we ate nearly all of it ourselves. To be fair, we had not had breakfast before partaking, but that only explains so much.
The food was great, the meat perfectly cooked, the sides all substantial and satisfying, and sauces versatile and tasty. Like a true barbecue place, you order at the counter and go back to a picnic table inside or out to sit and eat. The service was sufficient, which is all you can ask for when giving someone money in exchange for a pile of food. Goody Cole’s is sort of dingy and disheveled while not feeling filthy, which I enjoy in a place, and it felt a bit homey too. In all, it easily hit the spot, and I can’t wait to truck my Texas-rooted partner down there to let him know that all hope is not lost when it comes to barbecue in Northern New England.
Moat Mountain, which is located in North Conway, offers more by way of service in that there are actual servers, though our bartender appeared more or less annoyed that she had to tend to us. At times, she seemed to be fighting with another server, and there was a great deal of contention over a keg that was going unchanged. We were ignored immediately after we ate our food and we had to explain that we were done a few times before we saw our check.
You can’t judge a place by one bad experience with the waitstaff, though, because you never know what people are going through at any given moment. They were probably bummed that they had to wear shirts that read something about “grabbing a big can,” which is at once a reference to the fact that Moat Mountain beers come in big cans and, of course, that breasts are sometimes referred to as cans and…
Back to the cans (and hunks of meat) at hand: Will very likely return because beers were, as they often are with the folks at Moat Mountain, fantastic and the food was solid.
But really, in totally cool, fully consensual situations in which can-grabbing is on the table, who only grabs one? It just doesn’t make any sense.
We again ordered a full rack of ribs, which were served atop two thick-cut pieces of white bread placed over heaps of mashed potatoes and coleslaw. Of the sides, I especially enjoyed the coleslaw, which was crisp and mayo free. The meat fell off the bone, it was well cooked, and the Kansas City style barbecue sauce they were served slathered in was good. My wife got the brisket nachos, which we both understood to be a nontraditional choice, but we felt that two days in a row of several platters of meat would be overkill. She was much fonder of these than I was, as I found the brisket was overcooked, presumably due to being cooked twice. The salsa was nice and fresh though, and seemingly one of the many locally sourced menu items they offered. Not including tip, we paid $56 for a little less food than we got at Cole’s. Overall the meal showed promise, and again, the beers were great. If we find ourselves looking to eat meat and drink beer in North Conway again, we’ll definitely be back.
Of the two, Cole’s is certainly the more authentic option. They both refer to themselves as smokehouses, though Cole’s feels like it fits the bill more than Moat. The latter feels more like a family bar that happens to cook meat well. This is not a slight to Moat Mountain, it’s just that the establishments are very definitely two different beasts. Next time we will give the meat at Moat more of a chance, and hope that our server is in a better way that day. If I had to choose between the two, I would go for Cole’s. Beyond offering an all around better experience, they are conveniently not in North Conway, which—with all the traffic heading into Storyland, the Mountains, and the outlets—is one of my least favorite places in Northern New England to explore by car. That said—and not to confuse matters—the beer at Moat, which they brew there, is most definitely better and worth exploring.
But they’re both in a state it takes an hour or so to drive all the way through, and given enough time on a weekend you really shouldn’t have to choose.