By JIM WILLIS
Lately, as we’ve been driving down Shrewsbury Avenue on our way to pick up son-of-PieHole from Red Bank Primary School, we’ve been hit with a heady noseful of hardwood smoke just as we turn onto River Street.
Our keen inner caveman immediately recognizes this as the smell of barbecue, and pairs it with the restaurant on the corner, Lino’s Mexican Cafe (the “Authentic Mexican Barbecue” sign out front helps our primitive brain make the connection).
After causing a bit of rubbernecking by trying to spy where out back behind the restaurant this aromatic pyre of promising gastronomy burns, we finally stopped in for lunch. It was only upon entering the restaurant that we are able to trace the smoke to its source: a huge, gaping furnace of a fire pit, with flaming logs, thick plumes of smoke and sparks of incendiary chicken fat just sitting there, resplendent in glowing coal and ash, right behind the counter at Lino’s.
Slowly rotating over the pile of burning logs and glowing embers is rack after rack of whole chickens, crisp skin bubbling and popping as it absorbs the hardwood smoke. This, of course, makes for a far more appetizing scene than the rows of surgically skewered birds spinnig in the local grocery store’s industrial rotisserie.
We promptly ordered up the Parrilla Mexicana (aka, mixed barbecue for two, $16.95).
We were accompanied by frequent PieHole lunch companion Brian McCourt. And it’s a good thing, too. After a 20-minute wait, we were presented with a tableful of food that would easily feed a crowd: pork ribs and chops, chicken, shrimp, sausage, grilled cactus, grilled jalapeños, rice, beans, corn tortillas and guacamole.
Even if the food were just average, $16,95 would be a steal for a meal of this size and scope. But that’s just it: there was nothing average about it.
The barbecue was extraordinary (this, coming from a guy who wishes to modestly inform you that he spends his weekends fabricating custom modifications for his home smoker).
In our opinion, truly exceptional barbecue requires a balance between smoke and seasoning: too much smoke, and you can’t pick out the notes from the dry rub. On the other hand, an overpowering dry rub can hide the nuances of hardwood smoke. From the first tentative bite of flame-crisped chicken skin to the last gnaw of rib bone, our tastebuds danced to the often-sought but rarely achieved harmony of smoke and seasoning. Again, this for under 17 bucks.
The clearly freshly-made guacamole was also noteworthy, and we wish we had ordered a side of chips to finish it off, but will note that the barbecued shrimp make an excellent delivery vehicle for the guacamole, too.
The place was doing a brisk takeout business while we ate lunch at noon, and several of the tables were full. The wait for the large meal was worth it, but might be a tough squeeze if you’ve only got an hour for lunch.
Lino’s is open for dinner, but we could see that indoor fire pit really heating the space up, so takeout may be a good option on hot evenings.