This review of a Manchester restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
Despite its obnoxious pseudo-religious marketing schtick and occasional wobble in the kitchen, the Shoreditch branch of Red’s True Barbecue was one of the best American-style barbecue restaurants in London when I reviewed the place. That made its unexpected closure all the more saddening, but Red’s other branches in northern England – where the mini-chain originated – continue to soldier on. All of this meant that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Red’s Manchester branch on a recent flying visit to the city, passing up several other potential dining options in the process. That turned out to be a mistake.
The pitmaster tray allowed to sample all of Red’s key barbecue staples. Unfortunately, the headlining brisket was a bitter disappointment. Although the bark was modestly dense and the occasional strand of connective tissue could be teased out, the majority of the beef was a dry, characterless husk.
Pulled pork was far better. The moistness of the tender pig was no doubt helped along by the wet rub, its umami sweetness and vinegariness indicative of a northern Carolinas-style preparation. While perfectly enjoyable, it would’ve been even better if as much flavour had been derived from the pork itself as it had been from the wet rub.
Smoky and modestly meaty pork sausage had a mild chilli warmth to it and was preferable to the chicken. While tender and lightly smoky, chicken is almost always the least interesting meat to smoke in the American low and slow tradition and so it was here. Ejecting it from this tray in of favour of more pulled pork or sausage would have been preferable.
Pork spare ribs no longer appears to be available at Red’s which is immensely disappointing given that they are by far the most enjoyable of all the ribs found in a pig. I found some contentment in the modestly dense and chewy bark of the baby back ribs, but the ever meagre and lean meat and the otherwise surprisingly dull rub failed to follow through on this initial promise.
An optional extra of burnt ends was, in terms of portion size, surprisingly generous which makes me wonder how many briskets Red’s must go through to harvest enough. Some chunks were pleasingly dense and chewy, but most were somewhat generic in their sinewiness. All had a mild chilli heat. While not the best example of burnt ends that I’ve ever had, they’re not the worst either. A somewhat middle of the road effort.
Tenderised beans were lightly sweet and moreish with added meatiness in the form of equally tender pork shreds. Crackling was thin and crunchy, but the pickles were sweet and only modestly briney. The fries were shrug-inducingly generic, but then an American restaurant is one of the few venues where it’s passable to serve fries rather than proper chips.
The largely dismal mediocrity of Red’s True Barbecue in Manchester is all the more galling and disappointing given how delightful Red’s smoked meats once were. I can only speculate as to why its kitchens now debase and embarrass themselves with such poor quality, Bodean’s-level barbecue. But the lengthy ongoing promotion at the time of writing – a ‘festival’ with 40% off food Monday to Thursday from June to the end of the August – almost certainly doesn’t help. If the implosion of so many national restaurant chains has taught us anything, it’s that endless discounting not only makes it harder for a restaurant to survive in what are already economically cutthroat times, it teaches your clientele to place less value on what you serve and how it’s prepared and instead place too much emphasis on what it costs.
This visit to the Manchester branch of Red’s True BBQ coincided with the news that London’s Pitt Cue had gone into administration. The two are obviously very different from their styles of barbecue to their respective locations, making any attempt to draw a link between the two an inherently tenuous endeavour. But I’ll make a brief attempt anyway. Putting aside the question of whether Pitt Cue still fell within the tradition, American-style barbecue is an inherently labour and time-intensive process. Slow smoking meats in this style not only requires countless hours to get it right, but precious, hard-won expertise too. If Manchester restauranteurs and London restaurant goers alike won’t appreciate and recognise this, then I fear for any restaurant in this country – not just barbecue restaurants – that isn’t serving easy-to-make, unicorn-coloured Instafilter-friendly hashtag food.
Name: Red’s True Barbecue
Branch tried: 22 Lloyd Street, Albert Square, Manchester M2 5WA
Phone: 0161 402 0142
Opening Hours: Sunday-Thursday noon – 22.00; Friday noon – 23.00; Saturday noon – midnight.
Reservations: probably a good idea on and around weekends
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and tip: £25-30 approx.