Taste: Reviews: On Fire

BBQ’s booming — but can these new pit stops live up to their blustery barbecue brags?

Chef Adam Gertler, a glutton for feedback good or bad, continues to tweak the product. Complaints that the pulled pork was dry made him switch to a fattier cut that’s still succulent after 15 hours in the smoker, but I actively dislike the strong, ­tobacco-like flavor infused through the meat during that lengthy cooking time. The smoked eggplant in the baba ganoush has a similar bitter taste, which killed my enjoyment of the dish.

The beef short ribs, on the other hand, are impressively fork-tender after six hours of smoking, two hours of steaming, and a warm-up on the grill with a splash of the lively tomato-based house barbecue sauce. The brisket is thoroughly relaxed, yet firm enough to slice one-eighth of an inch thick. The reuben is a messy delight, packing smoked pastrami, melted gruyère, coleslaw, and house-made Thousand Island dressing between two slices of grilled rye bread.

There’s an overload of sweetness in the baked beans cooked with root beer and cinnamon sticks, and the sweet potato fries need to be salted while they’re still hot, not later. I’d like more sauce on the barbecued chicken pizza, and a chewier crust than the thin flatbread currently in use. The dill-flecked flatbread chips that come with the smoked salmon and the baba ganoush taste tough and stale, even though they’re made in-house. But collards with a peppery kick are fine as they are, and the colorful coleslaw made with green and red cabbage gets extra points for incorporating house-made mayo and fresh jalapeños. Cheese-rich macaroni and cheese makes no sense as a groaning $10 appetizer, but since it’s big enough to serve four, order it as a side dish, and split it accordingly.

Famous Dave’s brims with chain-­restaurant cheer, generated by clean-cut servers who introduce themselves, without embarrassment, as Famous Mark or Famous Heather. They’ll pull up a chair and softly up-sell food and drinks, smiling all the while. They’ll stop by your table too often, but they’ll be nice to your kids.

The namesake Dave is Dave Anderson, a Chicago-born entrepreneur who made a fortune as a salesman and casino management executive, then gained barbecue credibility by winning first prize for his mild sauce at a big-deal cook-off in Kansas City. One IPO later, Famous Dave’s franchise was born. Dave remains the public face of this rapidly growing restaurant group, but he has moved on to philanthropic pursuits and no longer has a role in the operation.
The hunting-and-fishing-lodge decor — a strange context for barbecue — is very Lake Wobegon. Chandeliers fashioned from antlers dangle overhead, a mounted moose head draws attention to a fireplace, and faux-antique outdoor gear fills every nook and cranny.

First-timers are urged to try one of the “feast” dinners, samplers of hickory-smoked meats and sides sized for sharing, served on inverted trash-can lids covered with red-and-white-checked paper. Now, I wasn’t expecting Limoges, but this choice of serveware seems inappropriate in a city where homeless people rifle trash cans for food every day. In any case, our feast was generously portioned, and unfortunately pedestrian. The barbecued chicken was dry; the pork spareribs were ultra-tender, but so shrunken from long cooking that only a scant amount of meat clung to the bones. Overcooked mini-ears of corn on the cob and unremarkable corn muffins, baked beans, and coleslaw flecked with celery seed were included. However, the pleasantly smoky beef brisket merits ordering on its own, and the fried potato wedges with a ridged exterior crisp up nicely.

An attempt to return on a Saturday night was futile — the line at the Northeast Philadelphia location stretched into the parking lot, owing to an advertising blitz and a dearth of barbecue in that section of the city. Considering that FD/NE can accommodate nearly 250 people, that’s impressive.