The Picky Glutton ventures into deepest, darkest Hoxton in search of quality BBQ
I have a great fondness for barbecue, but sadly there’s a dire lack of quality American barbecue eateries in London. The vaunted Bodean’s is deeply mediocre while Barbecoa is overpriced, especially for the shockingly variable quality of its food. I have yet to try the Chicago Rib Shack, but unless my ribs are actually served amidst a recreation of grinding Depression-era poverty in the American Midwest, then I’m not interested.
I was therefore intrigued by the opening of the Red Dog Saloon in Hoxton Square. I try to avoid going to Hoxton whenever possible, but the lure of barbecue was too great, so I rounded up the Jolly Giant, Youngling and Wicket to try it out the day after it opened during its soft launch week.
Service and Decor
Unlike other restaurants I’ve been to during a soft launch, the service at Red Dog was unfailingly polite, helpful and generally efficient. Our waiter, who bore a passing resemblance to Che Guevara, wasn’t entirely familiar with the menu and what was and wasn’t available, but at least he was an amiable and affable chap.
The décor is steeped in clichéd Americana – wood panelled walls adorned with black and white photos of cavorting rednecks and hicks and ceiling fans slowly whirring overhead. The downstairs bar, where live music will apparently be on tap on certain nights, is less chintzy but also more staid with the usual chrome and black trappings.
Chintz U-S-of-A style
I’m not a drinker, but the Jolly Giant seemed satisfied with the selection of beers available. The usual expat American bottled beers, such as Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Anchor Steam are available – all three of my dining companions seemed to lap up the booze quite happily.
I opted for a milkshake instead which is made from two scoops of ice cream chosen from an extensive list of slightly eclectic options. My epic mash-up of chocolate ice cream, pecans, white chocolate crisped rice, toffee, oat cookies, chocolate chunks, cinnamon ice cream, grape, amaretti and roasted pine nuts made the gastronomically conservative Wicket slightly queasy, but the combination wasn’t at all bad in my opinion. The cinnamon and grape flavours overwhelmingly dominated the shake while the chocolate chunks helped make it very thick and viscous – it’s more like a dessert in a cup than a mere milkshake.
Epic milkshake mash-up
Wicket seems to have a predilection for buffalo wings. Red Dog uses a lot of Tabasco sauce in its wings, but it’s not overpoweringly spicy despite Wicket’s puppy-like whelps of discomfort. The spiciness is much more cumulative and doesn’t drown out the tomatoish and citrusy flavours also present in the sauce. A small pot of nondescript blue cheese dipping sauce was included which we all had the good sense to avoid. Apart from that avoidable crime against cheese, the buffalo wings were a success.
Wicket now thinks buffaloes actually have wings…
Both the Jolly Giant and Youngling went for potato skins which turned out more like miniature jacket potatoes. There was a fair amount of actual fluffy potato on each skin as well as a liberal helping of smoked bacon that was so dense I initially mistook it for sausage, as well as American cheese. Not bad, but ultimately forgettable.
Vegetables never looked so unhealthy
I opted for the clam chowder which had some beans and tasty chunks of potato in its watery broth. There was very little actual clam meat or flavour though, while the broth itself was quite salty, almost certainly due to the liberal amounts of bacon lurking in it. If I wanted bacon chowder, I would’ve asked for it. Disappointing.
Clam chowder or bacon chowder as it’s known at the Red Dog Saloon
Since we went to Red Dog during its soft launch week, the menu was incomplete with some dishes, such as the beef ribs, unavailable. Even with this in mind the menu was dominated more by burgers and sandwiches then large platters of barbecued meat and there was no sign of cornbread or beef brisket, some of my personal BBQ favourites. All of our dishes were accompanied by red cabbage coleslaw, which wasn’t too creamy or stodgy which was a pleasant surprise, and barbecue beans. The beans tasted quite mellow and slightly smoky, due to the use of drippings from the barbecued meats, but the beans themselves were small and bitty and too soft for my taste.
Youngling wolfed down The Punisher, a burger topped with bacon and pulled pork – it’s tiring and filling just thinking about it, never mind actually eating it. The Youngling’s adjectives were mainly guttural, but he eventually conceded that without the pulled pork it was a rather average and uninspired burger.
The Jolly Giant, as his name suggests, is not a diminutive fellow but even he was taken aback by the large meaty pork ribs. He initially disliked them, but they eventually grew on him. I was disappointed though. Although tender, they were almost too soft and had lost much of their texture and meaty flavour. Whatever marinade had been used was quite bland and didn’t have much flavour beyond a gentle sweetness.
Wicket came to the same general conclusion with his pulled pork sandwich. The pig meat was unremarkable and flavourless and he’s the same man who was impressed by the deeply average pulled pork at Barbecoa.
Pull the other one
I was underwhelmed by the smoked, blackened barbecue chicken was didn’t look blackened nor did it taste at all smoky. The slightly sweet, one-dimensional taste of the marinade didn’t extend beyond the slightly supple skin. Unimpressive.
I also ordered an extra side dish of onion rings. The coating was surprisingly soft and doughy, rather than crispy or crunchy but at least it was surprisingly grease-free. The onion ring underneath was a proper, whole slice of onion rather reconstituted mush but had been sweated a little too much and was too soft and too flavourless. They’re still better than some of the deplorable onion rings I’ve had elsewhere, but they’re not a patch on the ones at Byron.
The problem with all of the barbecued meat dishes at the Red Dog Saloon is that they lack the intensely smoky, salty, fatty, deeply chargrilled flavour of the best American barbecue. At best, the meat is equivalent to what you’d get in a chain restaurant. I was expecting and hoping for so much more given the restaurant’s claim that they are the only ones in London to use a hickory-and-mesquite-burning smoker imported from the US.
The Red Dog Saloon is at least very filling and inexpensive too at around £20-25 for one person with booze and if you go with a good bunch of mates then at least you’ll have a laugh. However, unless you like slumming it in Hoxton, you can get equally mediocre barbecue at the more easily accessible Bodean’s.
I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s currently impossible to get quality American barbecue in London and that you’ll have to make a trip across the Pond to get it – impractical advice for most, but ultimately true. If you just want a hit of quality meat, try a burger at Byron instead or, even better, a burger or steak at Hawksmoor.
Name: Red Dog Saloon
Address: 37 Hoxton Square, London, N1
Opening Hours: contact the restaurant for details
Reservations: yeah, if you want.
Total cost for one person including booze: approx. £20-25