Ever since they opened this Spring, I’ve been getting people asking me if I’ve tried out 3 Guys yet, and if so, what I thought. I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get over there and try it. First, I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (as I write this, I’m sitting at a gate at BWI…), and I’ve barely been around Hanover to check it out. Second, I’ll be frank, it wasn’t my top priority—I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more than a bit of a BBQ snob (check out my various BBQ reviews for a sampling). In particular, I’d recently completed two trips to Texas, both featuring pretty good BBQ.
Meanwhile, my general experiences with BBQ here in New England have generally been…. very, very disappointing. To the point where I believe that the phrase “New England BBQ” needs to trigger “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” sort of alarms, and an accompanying adjustment in one’s expectations. Oh, it’s not completely dismal, there actually are a few decent BBQ joints hiding out there, but they are interlaced between some truly horrendous places (here’s where I need to plug the excellent Northeast BBQ review site, pigtrip.net, which has allowed me to find several of these gems in my travels). So New England BBQ joints don’t exactly trickle up to the top of my priority list.
But last Thursday, I found myself needing lunch, and with an important choice on my hands: go find lunch someplace, or attend our corporate Wellness seminar on “how to pack a healthy lunch.” My choice was made for me… I grabbed a handful of coworkers and we went to 3 Guys to finally check them out.
3 Guys opened this Spring, in the basement location that used to be the home of Five Olde Nugget Alley. The owners (who also run Murphy’s upstairs, if you look, you’ll see that the 3 Guys on the signage are the same three guys as the beer-drinking Irish dudes in the photo that Murphy’s plasters all over the place) heavily remodeled the place, and set up shop as a BBQ joint. So we went in, were greeted by the hostess, and shown to a table in back.
One thing that 3 Guys got right is that you can just order bulk meat by the pound. I like it when BBQ places do this; it’s a nod to the fact that many BBQ joints started out as butcher shops (and in Texas, some, like City Meat Market still are). And it allows the BBQ-savvy diner to focus on the meat, without a lot of distractions on side dishes (I’m a firm believer that saying a BBQ joint has “okay meat, but good sides” is damning with faint praise at best, and a thorough insult at worst. It’s like saying a pizza place has terrible pizza, but the breadsticks are good). So we ordered up three pounds of meat: A pound each of burnt ends, brisket, and pulled pork. And there we hit our first snag: burnt ends are available “until we run out”, which, apparently, was 5 minutes after opening, since we were one of the first groups in the door. So we adjusted our order to 1.5 lbs of brisket, 1 lb of pulled pork, and half a pound of smoked pork belly. We also ordered a few salads, a side of beans, and a plate of “tiny ass cornbread muffins” (literally, that’s what they are called on the menu).
About 25 minutes later, our BBQ arrived (which made me wonder a little bit about was going on: you don’t exactly make BBQ to order, it has to be already done, and simply sliced for serving… that shouldn’t take 25 minutes), along with our sides.
So, how was it? I won’t keep you guessing any longer… it was a bit of a mixed bag. I’ll start off with one of the better results: the brisket. Having been to a rather healthy number of world-class brisket joints in Texas, I know that you can judge a lot from the brisket, and it’s not the easiest cut of meat to BBQ correctly; it dries out easily, and often doesn’t take up smoke well. Well, 3 Guys did a decent job on the brisket. There was a good crust on it, although it did have an odd green onion mince applied to it. There was decent smoke flavor, although it was a little on the light side. The meat was rather tender as well, but it was a little on the light side. Don’t get me wrong, it was actually pretty decent, and I’ve had worse in Texas… is that “praising with faint damnation”? In any case, this was a rare case of “BBQ Brisket” that I’ve had outside of the South that was actually BBQ brisket and not some terribly not-quite-BBQ knockoff. It’s no Franklin or JMueller brisket, that’s for sure, but few places truly are that good. If I was seriously craving some brisket and got this? I’d be pretty satisfied.
Then we come to the pulled pork. The pulled pork was a bit of a disappointment. Pulled pork is supposed to be about the pork: nice torn chunks of pork with a rich smoke flavor complementing the nice rich fatty pork notes. If there’s a sauce, it needs to complement the pork, and not cover it. Well, our pound of pulled pork at 3 Guys came out as a 1 lb pile that was literally half pork, and half really-thick BBQ sauce, so thick it was more like a tomato sauce with a heavy pork content. This was definitely a case of hiding the pork instead of showcasing it. I’ll be honest, if you put a bunch of this on a sandwich bun and served that up to me, I’d be a little disappointed… but for pulled pork ordered by the pound? This is the sort of “cognitive gap” I’m used to with New England BBQ: it’s like someone read a description of pulled pork and gave it their best shot without ever sampling the real thing. This needs work. A fair bit of it.
But then with the pork belly, things took a turn for the positive: the pork belly came out as a little half-pound slab of pork belly with a nicely crosscut and charred fat layer. This had a lot going for it: the meat was moist (being half fat, that’s easy to do with pork belly), it had a good spicy rub on it, a nice crisp, and thorough smoke penetration. I rather enjoyed my little chunk of pork I got from this, if I had to fault something, it had a really strong cure to it, making this a bit more ham-like than pork belly, but it was a minor issue. This pork was, well, good. I’d definitely try this again.
As far as the sides? The “tiny ass cornbread muffins” were actually pretty good, with a jalapeno bite and a nice crisp. Definitely not the star of the show, but a good, solid side. The beans weren’t remarkable, but they weren’t bad… except for the price. For $4, I expect a bit more wow from a dish like beans…
Which takes me to my final impression of 3 Guys. Of our three meats, one was really good, one was okay, and one was dismal. Overall, I actually enjoyed my meal a fair bit, since it’s better than most of the BBQ alternatives around here. But my share of our bill crossed $20. For BBQ, that price tag should wow me, and not just leave me feeling “well, that wasn’t bad”.