Let’s get this out of the way right now. The ribs at North End Barbecue & Moonshine,
the new restaurant from local chef Ryan Nelson
at 1250 E. 86th St.
, are not “falling-off-the-bone” tender. And that’s a good thing.
That is, I think it’s a good thing. I tasted a lot of ribs to get certified as a Kansas City Barbecue Society judge, and the nice folks at the KCBS made it clear during the certification process that if the meat falls off the bone, it’s overcooked. Case closed. Points deducted.
But I know there’s disagreement among rib aficionados. Some want the meat to slide right off the bone, and that’s that.
Now if you’re talking oxtail stews and braised short ribs, the kind that award-winning cookbook author Jean Anderson covers in her book Falling Off the Bone
(Wiley, 2010), then I’m with you. I’ll happily enjoy a cheaper cut of meat that’s been made super tender by hours of braising. But spareribs that have simmered on top of the stove for two hours before being doused with sauce and slid under a broiler? I’ll pass.
So the ribs at North End suited me just fine. They’re well cooked and tender, with a nice smoke ring and meat that stays attached to the bone until you pick it up and take a bite. And they do not come slathered with sauce. We tried a half rack of the Memphis baby backs
($19.95), and the ribs arrived at the table simply seasoned with salt and pepper; four bottles of sauce on the table offer diners plenty of sauce options. Sweet, tomatoey, vinegary, spicy…we tried them all.
And don’t get all hung up on whether the sauce is truly an authentic Texas style or Carolina style – they’re good and different enough to make it interesting. Just try them and find one (or more) that you like. The classic was my favorite, though I mixed it up a bit with a spicy style and a mustardy version.
In addition to the ribs, we also ordered the Texas brisket ($12).
I paid particular attention to whether or not it was dry, since I recalled a few complaints about that when the North End first opened in May. The generous serving was tender and juicy – definitely not dry. In fact, I preferred it plain rather than topped with sauce. Brisket leftovers also made an excellent sandwich the next day. There’s a brisket sandwich on the North End lunch menu that would definitely be tempting on a return visit, although the Carolina pulled pork sandwich would be a contender as well.
So now that we’ve gotten the whole fall-off-the-bone thing and the sauce issue out of the way here, I can get back to appetizers, sides and the very appealing bar menu.
Although I’d tried and enjoyed the restaurant’s signature moonshine punch on an earlier visit, I couldn’t resist the spicy Texas mule cocktail ($6), which gets a kick from habanero bitters and chipotle agave nectar. Served in the classic Moscow mule copper cup, it was great hot/cold cocktail – no surprise with bar manager Jason Foust in charge of the drinks menu. And I have to mention the North End’s admirable whiskey list, particularly the extensive bourbon selection.
But back to the food. At the advice of our excellent server, we opted for the pimento cheese app ($7).
Served with johnny cakes and a relish of green tomato chow chow, there was plenty to share. Definitely not subtle, the southern classic, which was tasty spread atop the warm johnny cakes, fits right in with the barbecue menu. Next time, though, I might opt for the smoked Alaskan salmon dip ($8) or the shrimp and grits app ($10).
Sides too play up the down-home theme. Entrees come with two, and again thinking of early complaints I’d read about a lack of seasoning, I have to say that the four sides we tried were all hits. And while the hand-cut fries with jalapenos and bone marrow butter ($5 if ordered separately) were delightfully addictive, the local collard greens with house bacon ($3) might have been my favorite. Tender and flavorful, though not overcooked, the greens were delicious and, like the brisket, stood up well to reheating the next day.
Hoppin’ john ($3) was also well seasoned, and I liked the mac and cheese ($3) too. But I might have become a mac-and-cheese purist, since I preferred the creamy side without its sweet, meaty topping of rib jam.
As you might expect, there’s not much that’s not meaty on the North End menu, although vegetarians will find a smoked portobello sandwich and a couple of hearty salads under the “not BBQ” portion of the menu, as well as a couple of meat-free sides. And the pecan pie parfait dessert is not to be missed.
But the focus at the North End
is clearly meat and smoke, and while rib aficionados might argue over technique, the restaurant, which strikes an appealing balance between its upscale looks and casual fare, seems destined to win over even the most dedicated fall-off-the-bone fans.
Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com.
You can follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.