American barbecue will always belong to the South. Commercially though, it’s been everywhere recently, popularized by reality TV and fueled by a wave of domestic migration to the heart of barbecue country in the Carolinas, Georgia and Texas. Much like comfort food, barbecue has been embraced and co-opted nationwide in equal measure. Now, no matter what state you live in, there are backyards given to chasing perfect smoke rings and pit masters gone pro, doing it so you don’t have to. Nothing more underscores this expansion than Preppy Pig BBQ, whose very name winks at the contradiction-in-terms of barbecue deep in the heart of New England.
I visited their location in Warren and brought along our friends and their five-year-old son. The dad is a polite Georgian who I wanted to watch enjoy every bite. I’m sure he’s never been in a barbecue restaurant with wainscoting or trail maps for Taos and Telluride before. The restaurant is housed in a blue barn that’s attached to McBlarney’s Tap, with the two restaurants maintaining distinct identities. It’s bright pink with white rail fencing – every bit the cartoon farm. The branding at work throughout the interior is likewise consistent and fun, featuring pigs and pink and green argyle. The whole place confronts what it is and what it is not. There’s no well-traveled longhorn taxidermy.
I had to debate what I wanted on draught, as it was a much harder decision than at most barbecue joints given the craftier selection. I found Harpoon’s Sweet Spot ($5) an easy-drinking golden ale suitable for washing everything down.
The menu covers many bases and in some cases goes its own way rather than attempting a particular regional style. The platters are the best value on the menu, which suits a room built to handle some large groups. With four adults and a kid, we still had leftovers after tackling the smaller of the platters, the Lil’ Rhody ($60). The only thing missing from this smaller platter was chicken, but we were reeling at the end anyway. There’s no more visceral challenge to the gut than a huge tray featuring a full rack of ribs surrounded by cornbread (which the five-year-old gobbled up by the pawful), four tubs of sides, two sausages and half a pound each of brisket and pork.
Each eater gets a mini tray, signaling that when it comes down to the eating, the place is more casual than preppy: you’d best fold up your French cuffs and spin that paper towel. Their slogan reads “eat sweet meat” and this is reflected in their flavors. If what you are after in barbecue is varying combinations of sweet and heat, then this place is for you. We were all in agreement that the pick of the platter were the ribs. They had a nice dark bark and they fell off the bone and were the only meat that I found myself eating without adding sauce. The crust of the ribs featured a bit of spice and many sweet and caramelized notes, rather than lots of wood or tang.
I love brisket and here it was good, but we ended up with a fattier piece, so if you’re picky, chat with the carver – that’s why he carves it in public. The sauces likewise were variations on a theme, from the sweet to the spicy. If you like the vinegary style of pulled pork or are into mustard-based sauces, you won’t find that in this argyle barn in Warren.
For once the hot sausage link is a real treat for true heat-heads, and not just an empty threat. I found myself even pausing for some comforting mac and cheese while tackling this. On the subject of sides, these were a hit, especially the quick pickled mix of carrots, jalapeños and red onion. This was a crisp counterpoint to our slow dance with the meat. Personally I love baked beans, and these had great texture and delicious dark notes from the caramelized ends they were stewing with. Our Georgian transplant grumbled about the cakeyness of New England cornbread. This variety was honey-soaked, but his son seemed to find this a feature and not a bug.
Preppy Pig’s dessert game was really strong, unlike most barbecue joints. We split their seasonal dessert offering: Pumpkin whoopie Pies ($6). But the real winner was the Ice Cream Sandwich ($5). I’ve had a lot of ice cream sandwiches this year, with some really clever and ambitious flavor combinations, yet this kid-friendly classic was up there with the best. Scooped and sandwiched to order, the huge golden brown cookies bookending it were soft and fresh, not frozen. Despite our fullness, the ice cream did not survive.
Our Southern friend happily took whatever was left of the meat home, indicating to me that although little was said during dinner, he knew good barbecue when he ate it, and he wasn’t about to let it go to waste.
Preppy Pig BBQ
632 Metacom Avenue, Warren