Our Gourmet -- Fresh from the South: 'fast casual' and good
January 10. 2017 8:18PM
The St. Louis Style Ribs were a hit, along with a side of Brunswick stew, at Willie Jewell's Bar-B-Q in Nashua.
Willie Jewell’s is a franchise operation in the “fast casual” restaurant space. We usually steer clear of chain restaurants, but since the Nashua outlet is the only Willie Jewell’s north of the Mason-Dixon Line (there are a total of seven in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida), we felt a policy variation was justified.
“Fast casual” is generally defined as a class of restaurants that don’t offer full table service, but do offer more fresh ingredients and a higher caliber of food than fast-food restaurants. That’s an apt description of Willie Jewell’s.
The restaurant is tucked in the rear building of a little retail center that recently opened on busy Amherst Street, right next door to a big Ford dealership. While there’s a temporary sign for the restaurant beside the road, the better landmark is Convenient MD, which is right along the road in the front of the plaza.
Before we took notice of anything else (actually, as soon as we opened the front door) we were struck by the aroma of smoking meats — an encouraging sign that made us confident we were in for something better than a McRib experience.
Inside, the space is designed to look rustic, with dark wood framing and lots of old license plates and rusty old advertising signs decorating barnboard walls. It’s mass produced, but it establishes the theme and it’s comfortable.
When you enter, you’re greeted at the cash registers, where you’ll place your order. If, like us, you aren’t ready to order immediately from the the big menu over the register, you can grab a paper menu and take a seat at one of the 20 or so booths and tables in the dining area, or at the beer-only bar to the left of the registers.
The menu is thorough and very reasonably priced. Everything is appropriately Southern and only a couple of items are more than $16. There are a few appetizers, some sandwiches, barbecued meats by the pound or in combo plates, and a long list of side dishes.
In the interest of making as broad a sampling as possible, Mrs. G and I brought along our equally hungry son, The Bottomless Pit, who’s still home on winter break from school. After some strategizing to avoid any duplication of dishes, we approached the register to place our orders.
TBP started with an order of onion rings ($5.49), followed by the Pulled Pork Platter ($10.49). The rings were thick cut, with a crumb-style breading that was nicely seasoned and slightly crunchy, while the onions within were soft and sweet. I prefer my rings batter breaded, but Mrs. G and the boy thought these were excellent.
His platter contained a heap of nicely smoked, mildly seasoned shredded pork, slightly larger than the slice of garlic toast that came with it. We couldn’t estimate the serving in ounces, but it’s certainly more than enough for a generous pulled pork sandwich.
Each platter comes with two sides. He got the cole slaw, which we all thought was fresh, crunchy and very good, with just a hint of sweetness in the dressing. His other side was the macaroni and cheese, which we thought looked good, but was fairly bland and nothing to write home about.
Mrs. G ordered the Fried Pickles ($5.49) for her starter. We’ll order these things whenever we see them on a menu, and this version, served with ranch dressing for dipping, was as tasty and tangy as any we’ve tried.
For her main course, she chose the half-slab St. Louis Ribs Platter ($15.49). Like the pulled pork, the ribs were mildly seasoned and wonderfully smoky. The slightly blackened crust was the toughest thing about these ribs, which were fall-off-the-bone tender.
Mrs. G chose the Brunswick Stew and french fries as her sides. The stew featured a melange of beans, shredded pork, corn and greens in a tasty tomato-infused chicken broth. Nice choice for a cold winter’s night. The fries were just fries.
I drew skeptical comments when I chose Fried Okra ($5.49) for my appetizer, but I figured if I’m going for Southern flavors, I should pick this Southern classic. Neither of my Yankee dining companions liked it, but I thought it was pretty good. These chunks weren’t gooey, as cooked okra can be, but they could have used a bit more seasoning. Surprisingly, the leftovers seemed spicier the next night eaten straight out of the fridge.
I picked a two-meat combo platter ($12.49) with chicken and beef brisket as my entree. The brisket was tender and moist, with a nice spice rub. The chicken (a leg quarter) was smokier and perfectly cooked. My sides were baked beans and collard greens. (The beans were good, and now that I’ve tried collard greens, I won’t feel the need to order them again.)
A lineup of four barbecue sauces (from sweet to smoky to hot) are served warm from a “pump station” along the back wall. All were very tasty. Having them at the table would be more convenient, but then they couldn’t be kept warm, so it’s a tradeoff.
The service, though limited, was friendly and fast. Our appetizers were delivered to the table within 5 minutes of ordering, and the timing on the arrival of our entrees was perfect. And the prices are hard to beat: For three hungry people with two beers, our tab came to about $78.
Is Willie Jewell’s the best barbecue in town? No — not in a town that’s home to the excellent and recently expanded Riverside Barbeque on Main Street. But still, it’s pretty darned good.
We were very happy with the quality and quantity of the food and the value quotient, and we will definitely be back.