1620 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda, NY 14150
Rating: [learn more]
Good barbecued pork, particularly the shanks and ribs, and a relatively large list of other options ranging from steaks to sandwiches, salads to desserts, some better than others.
Some of the meats come out on the dry side, requiring sauces and drinks that aren't always brought out as they should be; healthier dishes are especially bland. Meals can be pricey and not totally satisfying, depending on what you're looking for.
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"The Pulled Pork Sandwich came out on the dry side, and... garnered another 2-star rating, versus only one of us at the table who would have leaned closer to three for his meal."
What Western New York lacks - and it does - for authentic barbecue joints, it makes up for with chain restaurants with decent enough renditions to accept in their absence. Case in point: Montana's on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Tonawanda, and Smokey Bones on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga. Neither place is going to win any awards, particularly if you're not a fan of pork, but if you're willing to cough up $20 for a plate of ribs, you'll leave reasonably satisfied. Updated February, 2009: Shortly after our review, Montana's unexpectedly closed. We've left the text of our review, as well as the details on Smokey Bones, untouched below.
Our recent meal at Montana's started out right: a complementary plate of truly delicious cornbread, which came out hot, moist, and sweet - three things that all restaurant cornbread should be, but far too little actually are. Following a discussion of how often cornbread needed honey butter, each person was given a decent-sized piece, which quickly led to one of those "are you going to eat that?" discussions, and even sooner to the emptying of the common plate without any use of butter at all. It was an early good sign of what was to come.
Sadly, the rest of the meal was spotty. Diners at our table who wanted to eat healthy were disappointed; their side House and Caesar Salads ($4-$4.50) were on the bland side, if reasonably sized, and from a decent list of sandwiches, steaks, and chicken dishes, they picked Grilled Chicken Sandwiches ($8 each). The opinions were also the same: they were forgettable, served essentially dry and with their choice of sides; both people also picked baked potatoes, and rummaged through a requested collection of sauces to try and wet down the chicken. When asked for their opinions of the food, they registered votes of 1.5 to 2 stars - not exactly a great vote of confidence in Montana's.
But, they volunteered and we agreed, perhaps they had somewhat missed the point. Sure, Montana's bills itself as a "Cookhouse Grill and Bar," and yeah, they'd ordered grilled sandwiches and not been thrilled, but if they'd ordered the ribs, they said, it probably would have been a different story. That was mostly true. We ordered the so-called Montana's Rib Sampler ($19.50), a large platter with "Pork Shanks," a half pound of Rib Tips, and a quarter Rack of Ribs, all pork - great news for our pork fan, but not so great for our table's fan of beef ribs, who had seen the Canadian chain's menu and expected to find beef there. No such luck; at the U.S. locations, the ribs are all pork.
Were we to do it again, we'd probably order a full plate of the Pork Shanks, long pig bones with large chunks of thick, tender, and perfectly grilled meat, glazed in Montana's sweet, tangy Texas Bold Sauce; the other sauce alternatives, Honey Garlic and Apple Butter, didn't excite us as much. By comparison, the ribs were meaty and tasty enough but not outstanding or as tender, and the rib tips were plentiful and similar in taste, but packed with fat and small bones. Included french fries were fine, but we were far more taken with the meat, particularly the Shanks.
The last member of our group ordered a Pulled Pork Sandwich ($8) with an included side of rice - an easy enough way to package a traditional barbecued meat with some bread. Surprisingly, like the Grilled Chicken Sandwiches, the Pulled Pork came out on the dry side, and would have been close to inedible if we hadn't pulled our server aside to ask for some extra sauce; for some reason, the server seemed surprised at our need for replenished sauces and drinks. We were equally surprised by the plate, which due to the presentation seemed more empty than full. This order garnered another 2-star rating, versus only one of us at the table who would have leaned closer to three for his meal.
Some of the issues were forgiven with the arrival of the Mile High Mud Pie ($7), an expensive, oversized brick of mocha and peanut butter ice cream topped with a thick, hard mixture of crushed Oreos, chocolate, and meringue. We felt like we had to knock down the piece of pie and chisel through its top with forks and knives, leading one of us to say that it was too much work for a dessert; still, every bit of the thing save for small traces of whipped and ice cream disappeared from the plate. Consequently, the meal ended on a high note, and we'd give Montana's a 2.5 star overall rating; it's definitely not for everyone, but if you like pork and desserts, you'll find enough to like here.
Then there's Smokey Bones (2007 Walden Ave., Cheektowaga, NY 14225; 716.683.0724), which was once part of the same restaurant management chain that owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden, two names that don't necessarily inspire confidence in foodies, yet manage to satisfy plenty of people. For the last year, Smokey Bones has been owned by a different company, which has apparently tried to enhance the chain's "rustic mountain lodge meets sports bar" theme and expand its presence in the United States. Based on what we ate, we wouldn't bother going back.
Here, we sampled everything from beef to pork to fish and dessert: two of us ordered Flame Seared Salmon ($12.79), one with included baked beans, the other with baked beans and a baked potato ($14.29). As with the Montana's pulled pork plate, both of the white Salmon plates arrived unapologetically bare, a piece of charred fish left alongside a potato and/or a cup of beans. The taste? Both diners threw up their hands in a "whatever" gesture, as if to say it was merely food.
Once again, the saving grace - of sorts - was the ribs, served here either as rubbed and smoked Baby Back Ribs or marinated and smoked St. Louis Ribs. We went with the Baby Back version ($18.50) and the original "famous" rib glaze, though Memphis Dry Rub, Jerk, and Brown Sugar flavors were also available. We found that the ribs looked big and tasted pretty good - soft and smokey, as expected - but were on the fatty side. Included onion rings were quite good, and the steamed broccoli was as expected. It was clearly the most satisfying dish at the table.
There were a couple of other items. One of us ordered a Stacked Baked Potato with Beef Brisket ($7.79), which arrived looking pretty gross on an otherwise empty plate, its sour cream topping having slid off the slimy, cheese-covered top. It was a basic, bland baked potato with nothing special fixings; the brisket was off to the side and similarly boring. By comparison, the dish's included Side Caesar was beautifully presented - the only dish here we could say that about - and was nicely flecked with black pepper on top of its traditional dressing and croutons. It didn't make up for the potato and brisket, but it was pretty good.
We finished the meal at Smokey Bones with a dessert that for some reason was called the Leaning Tower of Chocolate ($5.50), a slice of chocolate cake that apparently had already been knocked over before its arrival, half-topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and some chocolate sauce. It was the two-star highlight of the meal for the three of us who had been dissatisfied before, but nothing more than a two-star plain piece of cake for the one who had generally enjoyed the ribs.
Overall, none of us liked Smokey Bones enough to come back; between the sizes, tastes, and prices of our entrees, the dishes seemed to have some of the same over-attention to cost-cutting that once characterized Red Lobster, minus the biscuits and semi-compelling seafood offerings that make that place more of a draw. With TVs mounted everywhere, control panels at the tables, and menus written with 'tude (read: 1990's vintage spunk, like the "Who you callin' a shrimp?" appetizer and "Flippin' Fingers" chicken entree), it felt like Smokey Bones was trying too hard to be a destination and not hard enough to win people over on the strength of its food. We'd give it 1.5 stars overall. If we were picking places for a similar meal, we'd go to a local place like Kentucky Greg's first, Montana's or the like next, and Smokey Bones last, but there's no doubt that Rochester's Dinosaur Bar-B-Que remains well above the pack in pretty much any conceivable way save for convenience.