Bubbly conversation and the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd are bouncing off the high, wood-beamed ceiling, and the basketball playoffs are on televisions above the bar. Fried jalapeños come with a side of ranch dressing, and the potato salad is at least half mayo. Squint and you almost believe you’re in Texas. But it doesn’t take long for the illusion to wear thin: The smoked brisket slices are arrayed with precision on mod, rectangular white plates. The waitress, who tells us she’s a ballet dancer, deposits the check on the table, and the tally is steep by barbecue standards. Then she puts her tiny hands on her tiny hips and exclaims, wide-eyed, “I can’t believe how much you ate!”—which marks her not only as a barbecue neophyte, but a rude barbecue neophyte.
B.R. Guest, Steven Hanson’s company, has sunk a lot of time and money into the old Barça 18 space, transforming it into a barbecue joint that’s remarkably credible at first glance. The room is large and echoey, with timbered walls, a concrete floor, and blackboards listing the beer choices. The aroma of wood smoke wafts through the air. But up close, the restaurant starts to feel disingenuous and contrived—all the money in the world can’t buy the easy, convivial authenticity of a great barbecue joint. And Wildwood is making no secret of its desire to become a franchise. Marketing opportunities abound already, with Wildwood Ale (tasty) and Wildwood Sauce (too syrupy).
At least the B.R. Guest folks had the good sense to get a pitmaster who knows what he’s doing. “Big Lou” Elrose is a retired motorcycle cop who turned to barbecue as a second career. Elrose learned his chops on the barbecue-competition circuit and opened a lunch cart in Ozone Park, Queens. Then he was hired at Hill Country as the deputy pitmaster, before moving to Wildwood as the head pit honcho. I’m not saying Big Lou doesn’t know his way around a piece of meat, but it’s certainly possible that he isn’t up to the task of quality control for a 222-seat restaurant that is always absolutely packed, because the pan-regional barbecue at Wildwood is wildly inconsistent. Want the good news first? The pork spare ribs are wonderful: Dry-rubbed with a spice-sugar mix, they are sturdy, pink, meaty specimens infused with smoke. The ribs are smoked to that perfect point between firm and tender (the meat is not “falling off the bone,” which is actually the last thing you want in a barbecue rib). They remind me of the pork ribs from award-winning Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City. The addictive hot wings are first smoked, then deep-fried, and finally slugged all over with Frank’s Red Hot. (Do not, under any circumstances, choose the chipotle-raspberry sauce option.) These might be the best wings in town—smoky, with crispy, crispy skin and the vinegary burn of Frank’s. My mouth went numb and my fingers turned red, and I couldn’t stop eating them.
Some sides are worthwhile. The “bottle caps”—batter-fried jalapeño slices with ranch dressing—are trashily good. The creamed spinach is gloppy but agreeable, and the potato salad—mainly red potatoes and plenty of mayo—is well-seasoned and benefits from being made out of two items which can generally do no wrong.
Of the sauces on each table, the chipotle-raspberry tastes like raspberry candy. The Wildwood Sauce is serviceable, but too sweet. Luckily, there’s a delicious hot sauce on offer, called Dirty Dick’s Hot Sauce. Mix equal parts of the Wildwood Sauce with the Dirty Dick’s sauce, and that’s just perfect—but I don’t go out to a restaurant to make my own sauce. Things go downhill from here. At most barbecue places (including Hill Country), you can order your brisket lean, moist, or a combination of the two. That’s because the brisket is actually two muscles, one very lean and one very fatty—most people have a preference for one over the other (I like the combo of both). Here, there’s no such choice. So one night, we got lean, which tasted great but was truly austere, flirting with dryness; on another night, we got slices only from the fat end, which was overwhelmingly jiggly—so fatty that we had to leave a third of the portion on the (white, rectangular) plate. The barbecue chicken, covered in a sickly-sweet apricot glaze, has pallid, rubbery skin. Maybe the meat underneath it was fine . . . but who would know, when it’s covered in such an unappetizing mess of sticky orange flab? The pulled pork is dry, and came lacking the promised vinegar mop sauce. The baby back ribs are fine but came slathered with the too-sweet chipotle-raspberry sauce, which actually has no chile heat. The beans are underdone and undersalted, and the chopped salad manages to have almost no flavor at all. The homemade salt-and-vinegar potato chips are greasy and not vinegary.
The problem with Wildwood is in both scale and concept—it’s an enormous restaurant with a pitmaster who has never helmed a big restaurant before. But most importantly, the concept is flawed from the start: Barbecue is intensely regional, and yet Wildwood is lumping all those styles together, trying to be everything at once with its pan-regional menu. Just because the pitmaster at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City makes swoon-worthy burnt ends doesn’t mean you can pick him up, drop him in North Carolina, and expect him to make swoon-worthy pulled pork. Or expect that a veteran Santa Maria barbecuer, who smokes tri-tip over red oak, can do justice to a whole-hog barbecue in Arkansas. That’s not how barbecue works, and to think that it’s all the same is to underestimate the finesse and passed-down skill that goes into each sort. A restaurant that tries to encompass every variety of regional ‘cue is asking for trouble. Hill Country, to give a counterexample, does what it does so well because it’s trying to re-create the very specific barbecue of Kreuz Market, in the hill country west of Austin. The best way to enjoy Wildwood is to order some hot wings, fried jalapeños, and pork spare ribs (if they’re not sold out) and get yourself a beer or cocktail (the wine is overpriced). And if the waitress tells you that you’re eating too much, tell her there’s a vegan restaurant right down the street that’s hiring.