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You know how they say good things come in small packages? Chalk up one more point for that old adage, because Porky Pete's BBQ in Essex offers another case in point.
One half of a nicely turned-out gas station/convenience store complex (it has its own entrance), Porky Pete's set up shop on Valentine's Day of 2004. Apparently, local folks are thrilled to have delicious barbecue in the neighborhood, because if you blink, you'll miss this smokehouse oasis as you cruise down Route 153 (if you hit the IGA plaza going west, you've gone too far). For an eatery in forgettable geography to last this long, they've got to be up to something good. Something very, very good.
But just a note: There's absolutely no room for tables; what we've got here is a spacious take-out counter. Assorted sodas and beverages are available in a freezer case, along with sundry fresh-food items like pasta salads and wrapped deli sandwiches, so be prepared to take your feast home (or at least to the car).
But Porky Pete's is primarily a purveyor of smoked meats. Save the sandwiching for anywhere else, and get your barbecue on instead.
The BBQ menu offers your choice of hand-pulled pork or chicken, St. Louis cut pork ribs, brisket, and a slew of Southern sides. That's it for the main dishes, but chili appears to be a reliable regular menu item, as well. Get the brisket, pulled pork and chicken by the pound, as a sandwich, or as a platter (two sizes of platter available). The big one, the Porky Pete's platter, comes with delicious corn bread (moist, like tamale filling) or a warm bun; coleslaw; amazing, amazing, amazing baked beans; and your choice of potato salad or mashed potatoes, depending on the size of the platter. Rest assured it's a ton of food that'll feed two very hungry people for $8.99.
A word or two on those beans: they were sweet; they were savory; they were tender and delicious all on their own. Some special alchemy happened when I loaded up a fork with the beans and a bit of the mashed potatoes. Together, those champion comfort foods became the pinnacle of deliciousness.
The hand-pulled pork unleashes the perfect amount of smokiness per bite. Plus, if you get the sandwich, you get it on a soft, yummy roll. It's juicy, flavorful and could absolutely stand on its own without the house vinegar-base BBQ sauce, which is used sparingly. The smallest bit of sauce is brushed on the pork ribs to keep the meat moist, according to the gentleman who assembled my order. He explained that good cuts of meat don't need to be doused in rubs and sauces. "It should stand on its own," he said. And it does. The rib meat, inherently flavorful, is perfectly enhanced by hickory smoke and falls right off the bone. A half-rack goes for $9.99 and is filling, indeed. (A full rack is $18.99.)
The brisket was good, not great. To some, I'll bet it would be great, but I've been spoiled by Texas barbecue, which is a blessing and a curse since it's hard to find anything close to it in these parts. I suspect with a little less sauce, the brisket at Porky Pete's could be a contender. There was a nice beefy flavor going on, and the cut of beef was tender and sniggle-free, but too much tang from the sauce confused the flavors a bit. However, I would try it again in hopes of a less saucy specimen. As it is, the brisket sandwich we bought did not survive the car ride home.
Much, much later, we sampled the apple cobbler we picked up for dessert, and even hours after it was made, it was de-li-cious. For something that sweet to be that nuanced in flavor is something special. Desserts vary by the day (our other option were Chess bars, which we sampled and enjoyed immensely. P.S. My eating partner, the husband, hates sweet desserts but loved both the cobbler and the Chess bar), and a case of what looked like giant home-made turtles and other chocolate pieces offer treats for the truly sweet-toothed.
On its website, Porky Pete's says it offers "the best BBQ above the Mason-Dixon line," and that seems plausible, although tricky to prove. But there's much to be said for it and the folks who prepare it, who know that hickory smoke, time, and great cuts of meat will just about always result in a delicious, hearty meal. There's no need for gimmicks, fancy menus, and a slew of sauces when the basics are naturally tasty - tasty enough to win over the local masses and keep them coming back. When's the last time you stopped at a gas station and didn't fill your tank? Ask a Porky Pete's fan, and they can probably tell you they do it all the time.
90 Plains Road (Route 153), Essex
Cuisine: Slow-cooked barbecue; Southern specials.
Atmosphere: No tables; take-out only, but interior is cheery and bright. Enjoy the cover art of dozens of record albums on the walls as you wait for your order.
Prices: Most expensive item on the menu is full rack of ribs at $18.99. A small pulled pork/chicken sandwich is $4.25; a large is $5.95.
Service: Friendly and accommodating.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Handicapped access: Decent; no steps to navigate.