Above, a smoked-brisket sandwich, left, and a pulled pork sandwich. Below, smoked maraschino cherries at the bar. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
By SUSAN ERICSON
PieHole had been itching to try Surf BBQ in Rumson for lunch, but the newly opened East River Road restaurant and bar hasn’t yet expanded its hours and is only serving lunch on weekends.
Last Saturday, we finally made it there, and found the place not too busy at mid-afternoon, with no wait at the counter and plenty of available seating at the bar and picnic tables. Maybe everyone was attending their kids’ T-Ball games or working on landscaping, but we think we’ve found a sweet-spot in this smokin’ hot restaurant’s schedule.
Sides include, clockwise from top left, Surf Slaw, Nana Mays Collard Greens, Baked Beans and Mac ‘n Cheese. (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
A fun and easy-to-read menu on the back wall is filled with homey descriptions: pickles are “Whiskey Sour Pickles,” and baked beans are “Stout Oak Wood Roasted with Burnt Ends.” “Nanna Mays Collard Greens” caught our attention. Who is Nanna May? It’s a lot to wrap your hungry mind around.
We put in our order — one brisket sandwich, one pulled pork sandwich ($12 each) and four sides — paid the tab, grabbed the proffered number sign and bellied up to the steel-wrapped bar.
While many down-home southern barbecue joints don’t offer alcohol, this one does, with some fine options. The craft beer selection is impressive, including local choices such as Herb’s Rye by Belmar’s Beach Haus Brewery.
Our eyes didn’t deceive us when we spotted a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on the shelf with several other whiskies. A little out of our price range and maybe not for lunch, but fun to find the elusive hooch here.
Our bartender is informed, engaging and curious as to what we think of the food, telling us owner Victor Rallo and company are looking for feedback. “We smoke the maraschino cherries used in cocktails such as a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned,” he tells us, offering up a taste. The cherries did indeed impart a smoky sweet flavor, and are an indication of enthusiastic attention to detail.
A maybe too-subtle depth of smoky essence on both the brisket and pulled pork didn’t quite hit the mark on our sandwiches. The Balthazar rolls for the sandwiches, though, were above par.
The tender, juicy mound of brisket had just the right amount of fat to elicit a moan on the first bite. Looking for a little acidic zip, we first tried the Surf BBQ sauce, and then the Spicy BBQ sauce. Both, made in-house, were disappointing: not vinegar-based like you’d find in the Carolinas, nor hot and spicy. Neither offered any astringency. The hot sauce also didn’t deliver any real heat.
Alex Smith, the restaurant’s pitmaster, informed us that the sauce “is an amalgam of styles from different areas. It’s not the thick, sweet, tomato type that you get in Kansas City.”
Rallo, who also owns Undici, on West River Road, and Birravino, in Red Bank, said this is his version of Jersey BBQ. The meat is served Texas-style, without sauce, and the menu doesn’t point to any specific region of the country.
Small containers of sides at $5 a pop are copious enough to share. The macaroni and cheese was straight out of our childhood: definitely not gourmet but happy, comfort food. A smoke scent perfumed the collard greens with flecks of pork but again, lacked the vinegary zip and peppery heat we like. Baked beans were an unexpected recipe of butter beans, more pork than bean and weirdly appealing.
We recommend the Surf Slaw. It’s a tangy fresh counterpoint to the smoked meats, with green and red cabbage, shredded radish and lemon juice imbue a welcome slightly bitter flavor and a crunchy texture.
Surf BBQ is open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday at 12:00 p.m.