Lets get one thing straight: grilling is not Bar-B-Que (BBQ). Grilling is what you do in your back yard with high, direct heat (300+ degrees) on a coal or propane fire. BBQ implies low temperature (200-250 degrees) slow cooking of meats with indirect heat and smoke from aromatic hardwoods. Due to the time-intensive cooking process and skill involved, very few restaurants can turn out a plate of true BBQ at a price that anyone would consider “cheap.” So most of what you get from many restaurants, especially the national pub-style chains, isn’t actually BBQ at all. It is usually grilled or braised meat served with BBQ sauce. For real BBQ eaters, that just won’t do. Luckily for Providence diners, there are a number of honest to goodness restaurants that smoke up their meats on the premises in the low and slow tradition at a price that won’t break the bank.
United BBQ is an East Side restaurant that has been making noise since it opened in 2008. United is located in a small brick building on a residential street, has a tiny dining area and a comparatively large kitchen. Since it is in an out of the way location, United is not likely to benefit from the turnover of patrons in a busier, flashy part of town. As a result, they have to rely on building local repeat customers, a task that they have apparently been doing well. As you would expect, they do the vast majority of their business as take-out and delivery. Even on a hot, sleepy summer Sunday at 4 pm there was a steady flow of customers coming for takeout, and delivery orders were going out the door while most seats in the dining area were still empty.
United specializes in a dry rub BBQ preparation complemented by a touch of homemade sauce, as opposed to some of the wet methods of BBQ where the meat is virtually swimming. We started with Pork Ribs ($10.99/$21.99 half/full rack). They opt for the meatier St. Louis style cut rather than the more prevalent baby back variety. You get more meat and a little less fat than the baby backs. The ribs were very nicely done, showing a mellow pink smoke ring in the flesh. The meat was not quite falling off the bone, but yielded easily to the fork. The BBQ sauce was a tomato-based recipe with a well-balanced sweetness and acidity–overall a very satisfying example of the St. Louis pork rib.
In the BBQ world, beef brisket is the great equalizer. Pork, being more fatty, is a much more forgiving meat to smoke. Beef on the other hand, needs a little more time in the cooker to get really tender, and if not done right can (and more often than not does) get stringy and dry. The Beef Brisket ($6.49/ ½ pint) is smoked low and slow for 18 hours and comes out with a nice flavorful crust on the outside while staying moist within. The Chicken Tamale ($3.49/order of 2) featured corn flour with spiced chicken steamed in a corn husk. Tasty but a bit dry, the tamale benefitted from a big dollop of the medium-hot salsa. Both the Onion Rings ($3.25/$4.40 sm/lg) and the Sweet Potato Fries ($2.75/$3.75 sm/lg) were hot and crisp, if not revelatory. For a real treat, be sure to try out the home made Potato Chips ($1.15) sliced and fried daily on the premises.
BBQ’d Wheat Gluten. Really?
Whatever you might say about a BBQ meal, it’s hard to apply the word “healthy” in any form outside of describing the size of the portions. But United BBQ goes the extra mile to cater to the health conscious, rabbit-food-chomping members of the community. They start with vegetable shortening for anything fried, then offer a generous selection of vegetarian and vegan items. The House Vegan Chili ($4.29/$5.49), Red Beans and Rice with Vegan Sausage ($7.25), Tofurkey Kielbasa Sandwich ($7.49), and BBQ Seitan Sandwich ($7.29) provide a delicious and healthy alternative for those people not partaking in the pleasures of the flesh. And since United only uses pure vegetable shortening in the deep fryers, many of the fried sides are vegetarian, if not low fat. Either way, the vegetarian and vegan options are called out on the menu for ease of ordering. Check out the entire menu here.
United BBQ is the real deal. Quality ingredients, cooked with great technique yielding fantastic food and a great value. Call them to see if they deliver to your part of the city, or come by to eat in or take out. And keep an eye out for the RibMobile, a cool Smart Car delivering to a neighborhood near you. United BBQ is located in at 146 Ives St. Providence, (401) 751-9000. Check them out on the Web.