Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Red Dog Saloon, Hoxton
Timing is everything. You have to feel sorry for the guys at Red Dog Saloon, who battled through a soft opening week blighted by a broken smoker (a not inconsiderable issue for a barbecue restaurant), only to have their limelight stolen away from them by a van parked under Hungerford bridge. A few months back, in fact even a couple of days back, I would have approached Red Dog with only the expectation of something better than what I'd already had in London, and let's face it, that's not setting the bar very high. Yesterday though, as I took planted myself in a spacious booth in the attractively refurbished room in the corner of Hoxton Square (I've never been to an actual Southern USA BBQ joint but I'm willing to gamble that Red Dog does a decent impression), it was, unfortunately for them, with the memory of a stunning lunch at the Pitt Cue Co. as a gastronomic benchmark.
Things did start very well though. I'd be the first to admit that when it comes to buffalo chicken wings, I'm very easily impressed. Or perhaps they're just very easy to get right - I even quite like the version at TGI Friday's (look, you try and find something to eat at Gatwick Airport, OK?), and everything else they serve is completely bloody inedible, so that might tell you something. Either way, these were crispy outside, moist inside and doused in enough of Frank's Hot sauce to make the whole thing very enjoyable indeed. I also liked the blue cheese dip they came with, which was refreshing and salty.
My friend's cheeseburger was good enough to be worth the money, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise then you only have to poke your head out of the door in London and see just how many terrible pub burgers are being pushed on unfortunate punters for £10 or more each. This version, at £7 including fries and beetroot slaw and presented authentically in a greaseproof paper-lined plastic basket, wasn't bad at all - not a Meatwagon beater obviously, but it did at least contain American cheese, the bun was soft and held its shape, and was cooked nicely medium rare. The beef was a bit lacking in flavour - Red Dog use never-frozen chuck but it's not aged, which I think is often the difference between a nice burger and a great burger - but the pickles were good and there was a pleasing absence of any kind of salad; how many times does a great big lump of iceberg lettuce, or, even worse, rocket (bleugh), just make it all more annoying to eat instead of adding anything positive? More often than not, I'd say.
And so to the main event: the BBQ meat. For a place that makes a big show of its "World Championship", "award-winning" smoker, you'd hope that at the very least this area of the menu would be worth the entrance fee. And indeed it was - just about. The pork rib was huge and moist, and did have a nice earthy note of mesquite alongside the mix of spices they'd used for the rub. My only real issue was the lack of texture contrasts, as despite having a good firm flesh (none of that horrible "falling off the bone" nonsense that seems to pass for authentic slow cooking in most restaurants in London serving ribs - I'm looking at you, Hard Rock Café) there was no crust. How much better it would have been with a thick, dark coating of smoky, caramelised goodness - like for example these babies that Simon Majumdar of Dos Hermanos enjoyed on a recent trip to the States.
Chicken was, again, moist and firm and perfectly edible but I do wonder about the logic of slow-smoking chicken at all - surely this isn't an animal that really has enough of a fat content to make slow rendering down over so many hours necessary - a quick blast over the coals would have given a nice crispy skin (sadly missing here) while keeping the flesh inside juicy. I could be being overly critical; this huge plate of food was only £12.50 (well, it would have been had I been paying for it) and it is a better standard of BBQ than I've had anywhere else in the city... with one exception, of course. Don't blame me, then, blame Pitt Cue. As I said, timing is everything.
I am going to struggle to sum up my meal at Red Dog Saloon without sounding either hugely patronising (though that doesn't often stop me) or hugely disappointed, and believe me, I'm not. By the standards of the city, and let's remember it's a very big city, Red Dog does very nearly the best BBQ money can buy - I ate all of it, more or less enjoyed all of it, and I would probably go back. Service was efficient and friendly, the American beer selection is top-notch (Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn East IPA and more) and even a margarita was as good as I've had from most places. But it is still, sadly, a BBQ restaurant serving ever-so-slightly dissatisfying BBQ, and though it's not bad, it needs to be better. Perhaps, one day, it will be. Time will tell, and timing, as I said, is everything.
I was invited to review Red Dog Saloon