When I first fell in love with real barbecue – meat transformed by wood smoke, transmitting come-hither signals to my caveman DNA – I lived in Concord, N.H.
The nearest source of top-quality spare ribs, pulled pork and brisket was 75 minutes away. My friends and I would pile into a car and head down I-93 to Redbone's, in Somerville, Mass. I could do that drive in my sleep, which resulted in a thicker midsection, a thinner wallet and urgent pleas to let someone else drive.
Years later, I was accused of planning an entire vacation, airplane tickets, rental car and all, around eating barbecue. As the indictment was returned inside the third barbecue restaurant of the day in Lockhart, Texas, I had to plead guilty. Which is the long way of explaining why my reaction to hearing of a newly emphasized barbecue menu at a restaurant I respect was to jump in my car and head for Grand Island.
Riverstone Grill is one of the more ambitious restaurants on Grand Island, with a deep bench of house-made ingredients, like bacon and potato chips. It's better known for the Bone in the Stone, a behemoth steak that brought a visit from the "Man vs. Food" television show in 2010.
The 50-ounce bone-in ribeye ($52), is still there, surveying the dining room from a throne built of two pounds of fries, regular and sweet potato. But that wasn't the meat magnet pulling me to East River Road.
Riverstone had barbecue dishes before, but its regular lineup now includes baby back ribs, pulled pork, pulled smoked chicken, brisket and beef ribs.
Appetizers built on barbecue were first up. Chicken fried ribs ($13) channeled two Southern classics, barbecued ribs and chicken fried steak, into one glorious dish. A half-dozen smoked baby backs were battered and fried in a crunchy coat. Smoky pork with a crackly crust, dunked in tangy white barbecue sauce, was a successful innovation in the tradition-bound barbecue sphere.
The meat came clean off the bone with each bite, my standard for properly cooked ribs. I still couldn't help wondering if meatier full-sized spare ribs would have offered a better crust-to-meat ratio.
A Burning River Garbage Plate ($12) started with well-cooked house-cut fries, topped with barbecue sauce, beer cheese, jalapenos, beef chili and a drizzle of ranch. Then came the meat, brisket or shredded smoked pork, my choice.
When the mountainous platter arrived, I took a few bites and pushed it out of arm's reach in self-defense. The saucy, cheesy, smoky combination coated all the fries in an addictive matrix that a younger me would have had for dinner. In fact, it was better than any Rochester garbage plate I've tried – not exactly a fair fight with moist, smoky pork on its side.
A thick slice of housemade bacon, deep-fried till crispy-chewy and served with whipped maple butter ($7), remains a sublime act of bacon worship.
Fried dill pickle spears ($8) were another expertly fried dish, four tangy batons in a greaseless crunchy jacket. The star of the fryer, though, was the house-dipped chicken tenders ($9/$15). The Riverstone's tenders are my new argument-ender for people who insist all chicken tenders are the same. If one bite of these tender-hearted poultry fingers don't settle it, nothing will.
Eaters keen on assessing the restaurant's barbecue can simply order The Pit ($45), every meat plus every side. The server arrived with two paper-covered quarter-hotel pans bearing a half rack of ribs, pulled pork and chicken, sliced brisket and a custom beef on weck sausage, with slices of white bread and dill pickle chips. When I pointed out the beef rib was missing, she returned to the kitchen to procure one.
Ribs went first, deeply crusted, with a husky whisper of hickory. Chicken pulled from the bone was moist and tangy with a cider vinegar sauce. Pulled pork hit the spot, though I would have liked more on the tray.
Beef was, well, my beef. Brisket was leathery at the edges even at slices tender in the middle. Several pieces approached jerky territory. Another helping of brisket, sandwiched between two potato pancakes in the Meat N Potato sandwich ($14), proved doubly disappointing.
[Related: Galarneau's review of Riverstone Grill from December 2013]
Horseradish sauce supplied an upgraded beef on weck touch, but the German-style shredded potato patties arrived past brown to nearly burnt at the edges and undercooked at their centers.
The huge beef rib was suitable for gnawing, but underdone for barbecue. Instead of pot-roast-tender meat slipping off the bone with a nudge, I took a steak knife to it.
Sides that shone included collard greens, alive with vinegar and a lick of heat, loaded with bacon nubs. Riverstone's chili is worth a detour, built on beef braised in broth redolent with chile, even if they do add big ole kidney beans. Macaroni salad, potato salad and mac and cheese were solid but sedate.
Grilled salmon ($23) was well-cooked, moist and flaky under a maple bacon glaze. (Can you have too much bacon? Can too many angels dance on the head of a pin?)
Desserts ($6.50), carrot cake and hot fudge cheesecake, had spent too long somewhere cold, and they were tired.
Don't go to Riverside Grill for dessert. Go for the ribs and the pulled pork and those chicken tenders. Don’t think of the Bone in the Stone as Riverstone's best meat. That would be a misteak.
Riverstone Grill – 7 plates (out of 10).
Location: 971 E. River Road, Grand Island (775-9079)
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: starters, $7-$18; burgers and sandwiches, $11-$17; and entrees and combos, $14-$45
Gluten-free options: many items, ask server.
*Read last week's dining review, on The Greystone: