Barbecue lovers don’t mind a good challenge — a bumpy road to follow, a tiny building to find. As long as there’s good brisket and ribs waiting for them, they’re game.
Pickles BBQ & Icehouse presents a different kind of challenge. Open since October, in the space most recently occupied by the Watauga outpost of Papa G’s Sports Bar & Grill, Pickles is more of a sports bar, less of a ’cue joint. You will encounter servers who aren’t necessarily familiar with barbecue, in a noisy Game Day atmosphere that is more Pappadeaux than Angelo’s.
But if you can maneuver the restaurant’s idiosyncrasies, you’ll find some great ’cue.
The small menu comprises sliced and chopped brisket, jalapeño sausage, pork ribs, and half and whole chickens, along with burgers and a handful of salads. No butcher paper or little red baskets here; food is served on pristine dishes, and attractively presented.
Owner Dana Burlin, who also owned Papa G.’s, says the kitchen is equipped with a Southern Pride, gas-fueled, wood-burning smoker. Brisket and ribs are smoked over hickory, chicken over oak. Using a gas smoker can be dicey, but the results here are typically good.
A fine example was a brisket sandwich ($7), piled with five thick brisket slices, each brandishing layers of peppery black crust and glistening fat. The meat was so tender and flavorful, we didn’t care that there wasn’t much of a smoke ring — the ID card of well-smoked brisket. It tasted like it had a good ring.
Instead of the usual hamburger bun, the brisket was served on a kaiser roll, soft on top, crisp on the edges. Sauce came on the side, allowing us to decide whether to ignore or pour. We poured on the excellent “Icehouse” sauce — dark, thick and gently sweet (a spicier sauce is also available).
There was only one problem: An outrageous amount of shredded cheddar had been dumped all over the brisket. With brisket this good, it doesn’t need any toppings; tell your server to ax the cheese and you’ll get a great sandwich.
A half-rack of ribs ($11) were of the baby back variety, small but with ideal proportions of meat, well-rendered fat and black, crunchy crust. With a jerky-like texture, the meat required a tug or two — a sign it had been cooked properly. The addictive spicy rub was a show-stealer: The more we ate, the more we hurt, but the less we cared; this was a really good rub.
Less thought-through was the chicken. Meat on our half-chicken portion ($6) was moist and juicy, no easy feat when it’s smoked. Skin, however, was difficult to eat it was so gummy. And that’s where most of the flavor from the garlic-y dry rub came to rest, leaving us with meat heavy on tenderness yet light on flavor.
Sides were mostly good, although there was either too much or not enough. At lunch, we tried the mac and cheese as a side with our sandwich, and were served a tiny ramekin of it; we counted four bites. We could have used a few more. It was thick and rich and had a pleasantly smoky flavor.
At dinner, sides of Brussels sprouts ($4) and potato salad ($5) were ridiculously large for one and more than enough for two. We preferred the chunky potato salad, which was pleasingly salty thanks to a sprinkling of bacon pieces. The sprouts were too mushy and suffered from an overload of tangy blue cheese sauce, so strong it made sure all you tasted was blue cheese.
The restaurant’s namesake dish is flavored pickle chips, served individually or as a sampler ($6). We tried the sampler, made up of five piles of pickles, 10 pickles per pile, divided by sugary flavor: watermelon, grape, mango con chile, apple and mixed berry. Oh, the fun we had trying to figure out which was which, since our server wasn’t really sure and some of them tasted alike. You really have to like pickles. There were 50 and by about 15 each, the two of us were getting a little queasy.
Desserts aren’t made in-house, but we did like the presentation and simple flavors of the bread pudding ($6). A square of it had been cut into tiny cubes and drizzled with sweet caramel and vanilla sauces; its edges were nice and crisp.
Service was friendly, if uninformed. One server described the pork ribs as “beef ribs”; another said she wasn’t sure if the sausage was house-made (it’s not). Another quirk: There’s no such thing as a “Holy Trinity” barbecue plate here that allows you to sample all the meats for one price — a barbecue restaurant staple. The closest you’ll come is a weekend brunch offering of brisket, ribs and jalapeño sausage, along with two eggs and hash browns — a good deal for $12.
Despite its nuances, Pickles is worth the hike to Watauga, which, these days, is perpetually surrounded by construction and traffic. Getting through that mess — now that’s a challenge, but in this case, one worth taking on.