Muddy River Smokehouse
21 Congress St., Portsmouth, N.H.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
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There's no doubt about it. The Muddy River Smokehouse in picturesque downtown Portsmouth has been a popular favorite since it opened. We can see why. It's a cool, dark respite where barbecue reigns supreme, and the blues and jazz are live on weekends.
The restaurant recently changed its menu so we thought we'd pop in and check it out.
We were pleased to see that the interior still had the feeling of a backyard cookout on a warm summer evening. And the menu, while tweaked, is still smokehouse all the way.
First off, you have to love a place that lists deep-fried pickles with Texas tarter sauce ($7), and the intriguingly named fowl balls ($7) as appetizers. The latter, the menu admonishes, is "not to be taken literally" -- it features boneless strips of chicken breast rolled with bacon, hickory smoked and served with honey-Dijon sauce.
A cup of the lumberjack chili ($4) is served with melted Monterey Jack cheese on top and a hunk of cornbread on the side. Muddy River says this is an award-winning chili but the teensy judges in our taste buds are still deliberating. It does, as promised, have a sweet smoky flavor but it also has another odd taste that we can't identify, something like cumin perhaps. The consistency -- nice and chunky -- was just right. We didn't hate it, but we didn't love it either. That unidentifiable flavor threw it off a tad. The cornbread, however, was heaven.
For those of us with nonmeat-eaters in the family, it was nice to see that Muddy River offers a vegetarian version of the chili ($3.50 a cup) made with 15 types of beans. We'll definitely try that, the next time we're in.
But it was the carnivore among us who not only ordered a half-rack of the St. Louis ribs ($15) but traveled an hour to Portsmouth for the pleasure.
He loved the dish, which is rubbed with spices then hickory smoked. And raved and raved about the cole slaw, which was creamy and tangy. We didn't like the ribs quite as much. We've tasted better and worse and rank then firmly in the middle. To date we believe KC's Rib Shack in Manchester has the best ribs.
The one dish everyone seems to universally devour at Muddy River is the pulled pork sandwich ($8), which is made with hickory-smoked pork shoulder then slow simmered in the house barbecue sauce and served on a grilled roll. This is perfection and worth a trip to Portsmouth just for lunch.
Another member of our party, while wanting to eat Southern, did not want to eat meat. So the catfish and chips were a perfect choice for him. He loved the beer batter and thought it was fried perfectly to a golden crisp. The Texas tarter sauce with the peppery bite was a nice twist on the tried and true and the chips -- french fries -- were also above par.
For dessert we decided to go with the Toll House cookie pie ($4), a warm chocolate-chip pie with a flaky crust and layer of fudge, served a la mode. You'd think this chocolate confection would be too heavy an ending to a barbecue-centered meal but instead was a delightful way to cool down our mouths.
We liked our lunch at Muddy River. It was good, not great, and moderately priced. We'd go back again for the pulled pork sandwich and to try the cornbread pork pie.