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Aug 7, 2004 03:41 AM

[PDX] Russell St. BBQ

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Thought I'd hit one of the few BBQ spots that I haven't tried in Portland.

The restaurant is pretty nice for a BBQ joint inside. It's clean, open, and pleasant.

I got there at the end of the lunch rush and made a takeout order and was told it would take 20 minutes. 45 minutes later, I had my food. They gave me a free pecan praline to apologize. 45 minutes, though, is a hell of a long wait for BBQ.

However, for really good BBQ, I'd gladly accept the wait. But Russell Street's Q isn't really good. It's okay, though.

I got the meatapalooza ($15, overpriced), the three meat combo. I chose the pulled pork, baby back ribs, and beef brisket.

The worst of the three were the ribs. The texture reminded me of poached chicken -- not braised chicken, poached chicken. The ribs weren't adequately smokey, imo, and I suspect that they're par-boiled. They were also small and not very meaty. I generally prefer spare ribs, though.

The next best item was the brisket. One of their mistakes may be explained on the back of their menu: "We provide the freshest natural meats, very lean and never fed animal proteings or hormones." It's the lean part that raises my suspicions. This is BBQ folks -- a method of cooking, like braising, where you are, essentially, purposefully overcooking the meat. It needs fat to render and lubricate the sinews. RS's brisket is too dry. It's tender (probably too much so, since it's in lots of little pieces) and adequately smokey. There's a slight bark, but not enough to make up for the dryness.

A little better is the pulled pork. It wasn't really any less dry, but the flavor was a little nicer and the texture a little better.

The back of their menu holds another clue as to why their Q may not be as good as one would hope: "In our pursuit of regional barbecue, we have found that while different meats are regional, the real difference lies in the sauce."

Sauce should not be the first thing mentioned when you talk about your BBQ. It's like basing an opinion of McDonald's french fries on the ketchup. Their passion for sauce was apparent when I received my meats covered in sauce even though I asked for it plain.

Again, it's not bad (it's no Big Daddy's, that's for sure), but it's not LOW or Campbell's. It's mediocre BBQ.


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  1. That's too bad, Nick. I have eaten there four times and found it fantastically good three out of those four. On my fourth and most recent visit, the brisket was a little dry. Hmm. I wonder if they are tinkering with (i.e., screwing up) the recipe. You are right about the standing of sauce in BBQ, but nevertheless, I'm telling you, their mustard/vinegar sauce is delicious.

    The amount of time you had to wait is abysmal, though. I never had service problems like that. I would still encourage chowhounders to give them a try and judge for yourselves, since until this last trip I was prepared to give them the mantle of best BBQ in town. I will have to make another trip before I strip them of the title.

    What I really want to know is if any chowhounders have a report from either of the other two soul food places in the neighborhood. Doris Cafe, which used to occupy the Russell Street space, is now open on N. Vancouver. (Or is it N. Williams? Whichever one of those two is northbound.) I also heard a rave from a friend, who heard it from Paul DeLay, the blues man, about the ribs at Tropicana. Tropicana is a funny little place on an empty lot on the same northbound arterial, but just south of Fremont Street.

    4 Replies
    1. re: benschon

      I'm planning to hit Doris soon, possibly this week. Maybe I'll check out Tropicana, too.

      A bigger problem for me with RSBBQ is that the ribs weren't very good, imo. Ribs are my favorite. I like brisket and pulled pork, but ribs are what I really go for.

      BBQ is notoriously inconsistent, though. LOW has a small operation and even their stuff varies. (Although they seem to have solidified their brisket recipe since the last few times have been the same, and imo, just right: slicable but tender, moist and smokey.) Even the absolute worst rib I've had from LOW, though, was a monsterous stride ahead of the RS ones I had. Same with Campbell's.

      I wouldn't mind going to RS if I was in the area again, but I'd stick with the pulled pork. (I wasn't a fan of the sides I tried either.)

      And if I'm going to have to wait 45 minutes, at least it was a pleasant place to wait.

      1. re: Nick

        Yes, it is very pleasant inside Russell Street. Ironically, I think that hurts their street cred from BBQ people who believe you can only get the good stuff from divey shacks. One of the reasons we keep returning is that I can wait for my dinner while following around 1 year-old son who toddles through the place, grabbing at the pig sculptures with impunity. No dirty looks from the friendly staff.

        Cannon's Ribs Express on NE 33rd and Killingsworth looks like it would be good, but is the worst BBQ I've had in Portland. Dry as shoe leather, and not much smokiness either. I took a road trip to Reo's Ribs on TV Highway in Hillsboro (I think) and I was unimpressed by the food. I was impressed that the proprietor is somehow related to Snoop Dogg.

        Report back about your trip to Doris Cafe. My memory of the place is that it was overpriced and not that good, but that was based on a visit almost 10 years ago. I'm sure things have changed.

        Someday I'm going to plan a family vacation around a tour of west Tennessee BBQ places. Check out the link below.


        1. re: benschon

          I've only had ribs at Cannon's and Reo's, I think. They weren't dry any of the times I had them. The complaint with both, for most people, seems to be that they are fatty.

          I'd say the ribs -- just from one visit to RSBBQ -- are worse than either Reo's or Cannon's. But I thought the ribs at RS were easily their worst item.

          The worst BBQ I've had in Portland is easily Big Daddy's. No contest. Their ribs were like ribs that had been baked on a high temperature for twice as long as they should be -- all gray and dry. Gross. Almost inedible. Talking with others, we can only determine that they survive by their location and scantily clad, tattooed waitresses. But if I wanted flesh with my meat, I'd just finally try the Acropolis. (It's like people who go to bad R-rated comedies so they can see some boobs. Just go rent some porn and quit wasting theater screens with crappy movies.) I'd rather go get Safeway deli ribs than what Big Daddy's was serving.

          Memphis is certainly a BBQ destination. The other I'd like to do some time, and probably will before Memphis, is central Texas (since I have a friend who lives in Texas). I do have a sister who lives in Arkansas, not too far from Memphis, so maybe when she graduates from college, I can make a Q trip out of it.

          So far, the only two I really like to go to are LOW and Campbell's. I do like Yam Yam's for their buffet, too, but it's not so much the BBQ that I eat then.

          1. re: Nick

            We've been to RSBBQ twice--both times the food, the staff and the music (piped in blues w/o commercials--nice) were all good. Their vinegar sauce is a bit tart but I believe it is supposed to be that way. I got the pulled pork both times with the original sauce--it was great. My companion got the ribs once and chicken and ribs once. He tried two or three sauces and said all were good but he liked the original best. We never had to wait long for the food...but we go on the weekend mid or later in the afternoon...the place is deserted--which is also nice. Their sides are not the best (coleslaw is fresh but not made the way I'm used to having coleslaw--not bad just different). I do like their mac-n-cheese (it's homeade for sure) even though it isn't as cheesy as it could be. (Sidenote: Noodlin' on Hawthorne makes a 5-cheese mac that's very tasty with a big portion and a low price.) We liked, too, that they actually serve the food many places do that anymore? We haven't been to any of the other BBQ places and probably won't go now based on all the info from the posts here. Let's ALL just be thankful that Tony Roma's has left our area--now THAT was nasty BBQ to be sure!!! :-P

    2. Had brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork sandwich, mac and cheese, fries, and bbq beans. The pulled pork and brisket were dry, tough, stringy and bland. Didn't have enough smoke flavor either. The ribs didn't have enough meat on them, although I like baby backs better than spares. Every thing was kinda bland and the sides lacked imagination. Best thing on the table was mac and cheese. Fries, although twice cooked were not crispy. Sauces were just OK. Corn bread tasted like it was out of a box. Service was inatenttive. Food was slow getting there and the place was almost empty. She disappeared into the kitchen most of the time. Never asked if we liked our food or if we needed anything else. Had to flag her down for the check. I've read a lot of good reviews of this place and was disappointed after finally going there. I realize this is more of a Virginia/North Carolina style, I know it's not a favorite on this board but, but I like Buster's better.

      2 Replies
      1. re: stmeece

        Sorry to see the negative reviews of this place, as I've loved it in the past.

        Buster's is indeed a darn good option, so don't be afraid to say it.

        However, if you're in the Raleigh Hills area on Saturday afternoon, you should try the guy who sets up outside that weird nightclub place across Beav-Hills from the Safeway. He used to be in the Thai Roses lot, now he's down the road a notch.

        Delightful food, very generous portions, and extremely nice people - him and the girl who helps him out.

        1. re: AlbertaHound

          I tried him for the second time this last week. He's doing sandwiches now which makes things easier, though I got ribs. Better than Buster's or Russell St, but not Podnah's. Ribs were too chewy and bland. Needed salt. Still haven't tried brisket because you have to buy so much meat. If you want another mediocre, but consistently acceptable BBQ place, try Harold's.