“God, it smells good in here,” I said as soon as Edward and I stepped into Blue Belly BBQ, a cash-only BYOB.
The aroma that wafted through the small restaurant made me pine for all the marvelous barbecue I have enjoyed in the South. Blue Belly has a few wooden counter stools and simple tables and chairs, but it also does a busy takeout business.
The small menu features sandwiches and platters. All of the sandwiches come with french fries and red cabbage coleslaw. For a platter, a choice of three sides is a most generous offer.
We decided to take dinner home on an early, cool evening. The smoked meat kept its heat while the fries required a few minutes in a dry sauté pan.
The slow-roasted pig sandwich ($13) was the big winner. Juicy shreds of pork, filled with flavor, were piled high on a soft bun and topped with pickled fennel and mustard sauce. One bite and I was hooked. The use of fennel slaw in place of a mayonnaise-based coleslaw was right up my barbecue alley. The combination of tender pork, crunchy fennel and a homemade mustard sauce prompted me to remember this recipe in order to mix up a batch at home the next time I roast some pork. The reheat on the fries worked well. They were not too salty.
The St. Louis spare ribs ($16) retained a smoky flavor and aroma. I liked the seasoned dry rub used in their preparation. We found the texture OK; the pork did not fall off the bone, but it wasn’t chewy either.
The big disappointment was the Painted Hills beef brisket ($15). Everyone has his or her notion of how barbecued brisket should look and taste. For me, the beef must be tender and juicy. It should be thinly sliced against the grain in long slices. Blue Belly BBQ serves chunks of beef, which, although tasty, did not earn merits in the texture department. It would be difficult to make a sandwich with any leftovers.
Classic side dishes help the beef or pork shine at any barbecue restaurant. I liked the flavor and mouthfeel of the mac and cheese. The pasta was cooked al dente and prepared with cheese that melted with ease as I gently reheated it. I found the corn cakes bland and underwhelming.
The braised greens took me right back to North Carolina. Collards are rolled into a chiffonade, placed in a big pot with a piece of pork, covered with water and gently cooked until they literally melt in one’s mouth. Bits of shredded juicy pork mingled with the greens to produce a balanced taste. These hit the mark, although I thought there was a bit too much hot sauce in the mix.
Fingering potato salad was another side I recommend. Small rounds of potato were perfectly cooked, seasoned and tossed with the right touch of mayonnaise. Sometimes potato salad turns to mush, but this one held up nicely.
Red cabbage slaw imparted a slight pickled flavor and could have been pepped up a bit with the addition of celery, carrot or onion. Baked beans can be tricky. They are sometimes too sweet, but Blue Belly BBQ simmers them with the right amount of ketchup and spice.
While we watched the chef prepare our dinner, we were given small ramekins for take home sauce. Blue Belly BBQ prepares three from scratch: sweet, hot and vinegar.
“Make sure you taste the beef and pork before you add any sauce,” the chef said.
Both the sweet and hot sauces were thick and rich. I preferred the sweet one because it was not cloyingly sweet.
Blue Belly BBQ fills a much-needed void in Bella Vista. The moderately priced restaurant is a place I would frequent if I lived nearby. We enjoyed the pork sandwich so much, I would like to try the smoked lamb with jicama and radishes and the Korean beef with kimchi and crispy shallots.
Three tips of the toque to Blue Belly BBQ.
600 Catharine St.