Barbecue: Hamburg's Big Belly BBQ + Angola's Desperados

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Big Belly BBQ
4819 Southwestern Blvd., Hamburg, NY 14075
Web: Big Belly BBQ
Phone: 716.649.2141
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"After dining at both places, it was obvious that Big Belly BBQ and Desperados Barbecue have two things in common - a similar core of barbecued meat dishes and a locally atypical concern with the quality and freshness of those meats."

As a thank you to our readers, we wanted to take care of one piece of unfinished business - a look at a couple of local barbecue restaurants that you asked us to check out - before we make a big and exciting change to the Buffalo Chow web site. So without further ado, we look now at Hamburg's Big Belly BBQ and Angola's Desperados Barbecue & Catering, two places that have substantial menu overlaps but very different venues. Most of our readers are geographically a lot closer to Big Belly than Desperados, but if you're a serious barbecue fan or in their areas, both places are worthy of at least one visit.

A Little Background. Though we've been trying to cut down on eating the notoriously fatty, greasy barbecue, it's pretty close to an addiction - we've sought it out at Clarence's Oinktoberfest and Rochester's Big Rib festivals, local places such as Fat Bob's, Kentucky Greg's, and One Eyed Jack's, chains such as Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Famous Dave's, and famous out-of-town venues from Seattle's Dixie's BBQ to Chicago's Smoque. What we've learned over the years is that it's not always good, or worth the cardiac damage it's causing; the stuff we tried recently in New Orleans wasn't worth writing about, and frankly, much of what we've sampled in Buffalo isn't all that hot, either. Overcooked or greasy meats, weak flavors, and stale or super salty sides are easy to find around here, a reason that we'll occasionally drive an hour out of the way to visit Rochester's Dinosaur Bar-B-Que rather than down the road to someplace closer.

Big Belly BBQ. Of all the restaurants mentioned above, Hamburg's Big Belly BBQ is the smallest, and it was also the least accessible up until this past month: it's now open from Wednesday through Sunday starting at 11am, rather than only from Friday through Sunday at noon. This increases the chances that you'll find a table in the narrow, roughly 30-person dining room, which sits in front of the Sweet Spot Golf Driving Range on Southwestern Boulevard, marked with a roadside sign touting its hours; a smoker hangs out a side door into the parking lot. It's not fancy; the wood-paneled walls, plain laminate flooring, and converted cardboard beer carriers for sauces give the place a "start up" feel - a major contrast with most of the decidedly more decorated restaurants mentioned above, and the surprisingly charming Desperados below.

Yet one thing Big Belly has on its side is truly very good meat, plus a little touch that is going to win just about anyone over from moment one. Cornbread's the first thing on the table whether you order it or not, and the basket includes both a soft "original" version and a slightly darker maple cornbread that will snare any fan of maple syrup. Neither was amazing, as they lacked in niceties such as fresh corn kernels, and the maple version actually crumbled as we pinched off pieces to share, but starting the meal with sweet cornbread is a nice, distinctive touch for Big Belly, and we had to limit ourselves to one basket; more had been offered, apparently without an additional charge.

The cornbread took enough edge off our hungry stomachs to make the large plates seem that much bigger on arrival, which took little time given the attentive server, Big Belly's small dining area, and its readily available items. One of us ordered the Beef Brisket Sandwich ($6 alone/$11 with sides), a tall stack of tender meat that had been dry rubbed for saltier edges than its moist but comparatively neutral core, with just enough fat to keep it from being even close to health food. If the roll wasn't from Costanzo's, it was equally good - big, soft, and fresh - and the slices of brisket were thicker and tastier than the ones we had at Desperados. Big Belly's on-table dispensers included a fine sweet barbecue sauce that gave the sandwich a nice goo of tang and sugar, as well as a smoky, spicy sauce that saw more use on our other plate, and several different hot sauces - multiple types of Tabasco and Frank's among them. We weren't as pleased by our side selection of Salt Potatoes, which consisted of two and a half plum-sized, red-skinned potatoes in a pool of flavorless butter. The Desperados version with white potatoes had just as much flavor and a softer, creamier texture without as much obvious fat.

Our other order was Big Belly's Three-Meat Combo, atypically expensive for this place at $18 for the plate, which we'd picked with plans to try Big Belly's ribs, pulled pork, and smoked chicken in one big shot. Unfortunately, our server explained that the chicken wasn't ready yet, and wouldn't be available until later in the day - we learned that Desperados similarly offers chicken only in the evenings. So our order was switched to a set of four ribs atop two big stacks of pulled pork and beef brisket, the latter identical to what was on the sandwich, only more generously apportioned. The mound of moist pulled pork looked like it had come right off of a rack of ribs, including pieces that were much larger than the thin, dried shreds served elsewhere, plus a few strips of pure fat; without other accompaniment, the pork and the Combo's included two sides alone would have been enough to fill the average person. Like the brisket, it was completely tender, but also a little sweet, and oilier - a little too greasy, unlike the other meats - while tasting like the product of just enough spice to let you decide whether to add more on your own.

Big Belly's ribs turned out to be the highlight of the meal. Unlike the brisket, which was bereft of sauce, and the pork, which had a somewhat stronger flavor, the ribs arrived dripping from the top - but not overloaded - with a thick, tasty barbecue sauce that was clearly added just before serving, and significantly after a rubbing and basting process that left the meat nicely crusted rather than chewy or brittle. Every bite of these large ribs yielded a satisfyingly thick chunk of tender meat, and we strongly preferred their flavor to the ones at Desperados Barbecue; adding extra sauce here was optional, rather than necessary.

Where Big Belly really fell short, however, was in the side dishes - two are included with each dinner, or sold separately for $1.75 a piece. The BBQ Baked Beans were bland, heavy, and didn't taste especially fresh, moist, or light, while the Spicy 4-Cheese Mac & Cheese turned out to be surprisingly bland, clumpy, and dry - closer to leftovers than any of the other items, most of which seemed like they had just been made. Even when factoring the two types of cornbread in, and considering the so-so Salt Potatoes, Big Belly's clearly a lot better in the meat department than in the sides.

Big Belly BBQ on Urbanspoon

Desperados Barbecue (29 Commercial Street, Angola NY 14006, 716.549.5413). If you haven't heard of Angola, New York, it suffices to say that it's a village of roughly 2,000 people located 40 minutes South of Buffalo. The village describes itself as quaint, but the quiet streets of its small business district offer no indication that there might be impressive stores hiding inside. That's why we were genuinely surprised to walk into Desperados and discover a place that was impressively decorated in keeping with its Old West name, suitable for roughly 100 patrons, maybe more. Off to the left was a bar fit for an old saloon, complete with a cowboy hat-wearing barkeep; to the right was the main dining room, complete with a rolling fireplace, period wooden chairs and tables, and nicely appointed restrooms, all coming together to make a great first impression. We've been in so many crummy-looking barbecue restaurants - some deliberately so - that finding one with some class around here actually comes as a surprise.

Desperados' menu isn't deep, but it's broader than Big Belly's; the larger restaurant offers a wide array of desserts, birch beer by the glass or pitcher, and extra sides to choose from. Our meal started off on the wrong foot with the Buffalo Wing Chicken Soup ($2.25/cup, $3.25/bowl, $4.75/large bowl), a creamy soup with shredded chicken wing meat, plus a bottle of Frank's Red Hot on the side. Without that hot sauce, no one would have had any idea this wasn't a standard Cream of Chicken; even with it - a lot of it - it was sort of iffy. Other appetizer and side options included chili, a house salad, and corn pudding, the latter of which we sampled and really liked. Served as a square, it was softer, moister, and seemingly fresher than Desperados' corn bread, plus packed with corn kernels. It was sweet enough to be a dessert, but worked well alongside the saltier entrees. Since Desperados sells corn bread as a side, we ordered it, too, and thought it was okay - a little dry, even by comparison with Big Belly's - but we both preferred the smaller, less buttery State Fair Salt Potatoes and Homemade Mac and Cheese to the versions at Big Belly BBQ. Overall, we'd give Desperados a slight advantage on side dishes.

But Big Belly was the better of the two in the meat department. We agreed that Desperados' Texas Beef Brisket Sandwich ($5.75/small, $7/large, each with one side) was good, but not quite up to Big Belly's level; here, it was a fine stack of thinner-sliced beef on a comparatively plain, flatter bun that didn't taste quite as fresh. What brought it up to the "very good" level was Desperados' collection of bottled sauces: the Sweet & Tangy BBQ was the easy winner of the bunch, living up to both words with a less gummy consistency than the similar sauce at Big Belly, while the Hickory Smoke BBQ wasn't as sweet, but full of dusky, smoky flavor, and the Hot & Spicy BBQ was partially a tangy barbecue sauce with some medium-grade spice and little sugar. Desperados apparently sells these by the bottle, and based on what we tried here, we'd call at least the first two and possibly all three worth buying.

Unfortunately, we found the sauces to be all but necessary on this restaurant's St. Louis Style Ribs. We ordered them on The Combo ($13.45), a plate with a half rack plus a Pulled Pork Sandwich - we'd wanted to try the Kansas Chicken, too, but were told that it's only available in the evenings. Desperados' ribs weren't quite as huge as the ones at Big Belly, nor seasoned as well: a rub had obviously been applied, but hadn't permeated the tender but taut meat; most likely by design, Desperados didn't finish the ribs with a final glaze before delivery. Some places leave you to do the final flavoring work, others do it for you poorly, and others do it well. In our view, Desperados was on the "do it well" extreme, and Big Belly on the "do it yourself" side. The value of this approach was demonstrated with the plate's Pulled Pork Sandwich - another of those plain buns, filled with thin-sliced but tender meat and bits of fat - as we wound up taking each bite with an alternating squirt of barbecue sauce, and enjoying different bites with different flavors. We couldn't have pulled this off on a sandwich that arrived dripping with flavor, but then, we wouldn't have had to consider doing so.

Desperados Barbecue on Urbanspoon

After dining at both places, it was obvious that Big Belly BBQ and Desperados Barbecue have two things in common - a similar core of barbecued meat dishes and a locally atypical concern with the quality and freshness of those meats. Neither one offered the best barbecue we've ever had, or a perfect overall dining experience, but each will appeal to certain people. We'd recommend Big Belly to fans of brisket, ribs, and cornbread, but not to patrons looking for a large, fancy dining room or a broad selection of choices; for the time being, Big Belly's clearly focusing on doing a few things well on limited hours in a small venue. By comparison, Desperados offers a nicer, bigger restaurant with better - if inconsistent - side dishes, solid entrees, and delicious sauces that you'll be expected to apply yourself. Should you have room for dessert, you'll find more to choose from in that department, too. We couldn't even consider such a thing after our meals at either of these places; if they were more centrally located, we'd surely return to both for seconds.

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