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Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Hickory River Smokehouse (Mary Esther, FL)
The weather decided not to cooperate with us, putting our planned beach outing on hold for the time being. Oh well, that gave me a great excuse to suggest a barbecue lunch instead. I initially had my sights set on finding some new non-chain barbecue to try around Destin-Fort Walton Beach, but honestly, the pictures I saw of the deliciously-smoky, Texas-style meats pouring out of Hickory River Smokehouse were enough to change my mind. Besides, with only seven locations (six of which are in Illinois and Ohio), we're not exactly talking Dickey's Barbecue Pit or Shane's Rib Shack here.
It was just a quick pop onto the Panhandle mainland from our digs out on Okaloosa Island. Hickory River has a distinct log cabin feel to it, and the warm woods made me feel right at home. Everyone working here was super friendly, especially our server, and the country music hits blaring over the speakers made things rather lively. In short, there was a great atmosphere all the way around.
Even though I had a big scrumptious doughnut for breakfast, I was certainly in the mood for an appetizer. We ordered a round of fried pickles to warm up our palates.
The pickles came out piping hot, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Their housemade batter was beautifully crisp and well seasoned. I also appreciated and enjoyed the acidity of the pickles themselves. It was certainly a great way to start things off, and needless to say, they didn't last long.
Hickory River has a three-meat "Create Your Own BBQ Plate" option, and you'd be a fool not to order it. I got mine with sliced brisket, pulled pork, and baby back ribs, as well as sides of potato salad and white cheddar mac and cheese. I didn't have any real intention of eating barbecue sauce, but I did get a sampling of their Mixed (not quite hot, not quite mild) sauce on the side just in case.
I love white cheddar, and this macaroni didn't disappoint. There was just enough cheesy goodness without being drowned in goo. The white cheddar offered sharper flavors than the standard yellow variety. I also enjoyed the big hunks of skin-on spuds in my potato salad, which had just the right texture. It was creamy and delicious, with a good crunch of pimentos and pickles. I think there may have been some bacon mixed in as well, but I was inhaling it too fast to know for sure.
The brisket had a prominent smoke ring, which was a good sign. I could tell right away that this was a leaner cut of beef. It was very tender, if only a tad dry for my liking (that sounds oxymoronic, I know). On the plus side, the brisket was quite smoky and had a flavorful spice blend on the bark. I still would have preferred a fatty cut, but it was pretty decent nonetheless.
My eyes were instantly drawn to the red smoky bits scattered all throughout the equally smoky pork. It was more what I would call chopped than pulled, but that lent to its tenderness. The meat was also really juicy from the light drizzling of thin sauce, which thankfully didn't do much to mask the natural pork taste. I had to exercise some serious discipline to leave enough pork behind for leftovers.
The ribs had a good dark crust with perfectly pink meat beneath. This was probably the smokiest of my three meats, making the ribs extra savory. The semi-sweet rib glaze was good, although not really Texas-style. I think they also could have spent a little less time in the smoker so as to avoid the "falling off the bone" thing, but otherwise they were very good.
Mrs. Barbecue Fiend ended up with a smoked turkey BLT sandwich, which she found to be exceptionally tasty. She was kind enough to share some of her poultry, and I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. The turkey was tender and juicy, with a mild yet distinct smokiness.
Hickory River is a few tweaks and touch-ups away from having some really phenomenal barbecue. Even in its current state, it's still a good lunch option that gave us a nice break from seafood.
Hickory River Smokehouse
321 Mary Esther Blvd
Mary Esther, FL 32569