3047 Sheridan Dr., Amherst, NY 14226
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American Barbecue Bars
There's no getting around the fact that Hucklebuckets is an odd name for a restaurant, though it sort of makes sense once you've actually visited the place. Formerly an upmarket Asian fusion restaurant called O Restaurant and Lounge, Amherst's Hucklebuckets has shifted into a lower-end American "family grill and sports bar," serving dishes with a huckleberry barbecue sauce, and using colorful plastic buckets to carry both food and garbage. The changes are initially somewhat jarring, but due to slow service from the kitchen - not a great sign given how few people were in the place when we visited - we had plenty of time to sit around and take everything in. Below, we share our preliminary, pre-rating thoughts on this new venue, which may or may not be updated into a full review in the future; read on for all the details.
Odd Concept. We don't envy anyone tasked with converting a space as large as O's into something like a sports bar: O's sheer square footage, combined with the fact that it previously occupied two separate rooms - half lounge, half dining area - surely didn't ease the task of conceptualizing what could and should be done inside. Yet there's an overriding sense that Hucklebuckets is the product of some less than optimal choices. Temporarily put aside the super-short menu, which fits on two sides of a thin laminated card, and features bar foods such as nachos, onion rings, and potato chips, plus wings, burgers, and a handful of seafood choices. It's the place.
The cavernous, once stylish restaurant now looks like a converted warehouse inside - one room has a surprisingly quiet TV-laden sports bar and a handful of tables, while the other - presumably the "family grill" - has a larger collection of tables, all spread out across a fairly open-looking area. Even if all of the tables were filled, the place would still probably look like it wasn't packed, and that's generally not a good thing. More important, however, are problems with the tables themselves: every one has a huge hole in the top for an oversized plastic bucket that sits in front of you while you eat, collecting trash. This should go without saying, but pails full of garbage aren't the sorts of things people really want to be seeing as they dine; they might make sense for patrons who are looking to order buckets of beer, but for the "family grill" crowd, it's just plain off-putting. Other good-for-the-owner, not-for-the-patron touches include paper towel rolls as alternatives for napkin dispensers, plastic forks, knives, and spoons, and finally, the all-female crew of college-aged servers, who are dressed in sports bar uniforms that aren't as low-class as Hooters but aren't as clean cut as at, say, Chili's or T.G.I. Friday's. Hucklebuckets feels like a place that's attempting to appeal to two different crowds - a bar crowd and families - but doesn't quite hit the marks for either group.
Shaky Food. Though it's too early to make any final judgments on Hucklebuckets' food, we will say that our first impressions were decidedly mixed. It should say something that the most universally praised item at our four-person table was the Cornbread, which we ordered as a $3 side and also received alongside one of our meals. Arriving in one of the restaurant's numerous branded plastic buckets, the cube of Cornbread was cut into two triangular slices that had been individually wrapped in tin foil - ready to toss in another pail - but they were really good: warm, moist, and sweet. One person commented that he'd never met a piece of cornbread he didn't like, but we've had a few bad pieces over the years, and Hucklebuckets' was the opposite; it tasted fresh, true to the expected corn flavor without being overbearing, and in no need of butter or additional seasoning.
Two meat entrees from the menu were both in the "passable" category. Since they were amongst several items made with the restaurant's namesake barbecue sauce, we felt obliged to try the Huckleberry Ribs ($12/half rack, $19/full), which arrived pre-sliced in one bucket with a piece of cornbread, accompanied by a smaller side bucket with french fries. Our hope was that there would be something distinctive about the sauce, which the menu indicated was made with 44 North Huckleberry Vodka, but whatever fruit or alcohol flavor was supposed to be on the large, meaty ribs was burned off during the cooking process. They were like the ribs served at Chinese restaurants, only with a less distinctive barbecue flavor.
Another plate, the "3 L'il Pigs" ($9), similarly sounded really interesting but turned out to be bland. Described on the menu as "a pulled pork, a pork chop, and a thick bacon slider served with fries," we'd expected to receive three little sandwiches, each with a different take on pork - a cool idea. Instead, another bucket showed up with a tinfoil-wrapped item inside, and when we opened it, we found three buns joined together, and three identical sandwiches topped with all three meats, bacon atop chop atop pulled pork. To be clear on one point: we love all three of these pork variations when they're served separately, and we were interested in sampling the pulled pork, which is another of the huckleberry vodka-sauced menu items. But without other ingredients or especially distinctive individual preparations, the three meats tasted muddled and indistinct. Absent proper separation into the three buns, a single Big Pig sandwich with all three items added to lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on a regular roll would have been a lot better.
Two of the three members of our group liked the entree-sized salads they ordered from the "Rabbit Food" section of the menu: the Asian Salad, the Mexicali Salad, and the Grilled Pear Salad each sell for $9 and arrive in faux newspaper-lined trays rather than buckets, with decent proportions of vegetables and dressing. But none includes meat for that price; each can be upgraded with chicken, steak, shrimp, or fish for a small upcharge, and the $2.50 portion of chicken that arrived with the Asian Salad was plain, but reasonably sized and grilled. The third person in our group dismissed her Mexicali Salad as mediocre, noting that the sour cream, guacamole, chilis, and olives tasted like they'd come out of jars or cans, and that the four tortilla chips on top were too sparing; she wished she'd ordered something else.
We were prepared to order the Portabello Fries, a $5 portion that was described as "tempura battered," but when our server surprised us by saying that they didn't have much mushroom flavor, we skipped them in favor of the Onion Rings ($3/small, $5/large), which were also described as tempura battered. Like other items, they arrived in a lined plastic bucket, and were basically forgettable - a little sweet, half crisp and half soggy, with batter hanging off the rings. Similarly, the fries included with our meals were soft, still with some potato skin on their sides, and seemingly unseasoned. We wouldn't have reason to order either again. Only one dessert, deep fried cheesecake, was being offered during our visit, and we decided to pass on it.
To be fair, there are other items on the small menu that we could have ordered - the regular $8 to $12 burgers with names like "Gooey Looey" and "Slop Bucket," which didn't really appeal to anyone in our group, or the fried shrimp, clams, fish fry, or wings, which we suppose could be had anywhere else, but might just be interesting here. At some point, we might return to see whether they're something special, but then again, maybe we won't. Unlike most of the new restaurants we visit, Hucklebuckets didn't have anything that really made us want to come back, and there were a bunch of things about the experience - the tableside buckets, the glacial pace, and the so-so food - that would actually make us hold off on a repeat visit. Hopefully, this new restaurant will make some positive changes in the weeks and months to come; if so, we'll update this article and let you know.