MELBOURNE | Bluebonnet BBQ have been smoking meat in the Texas style for a couple of years now and have had a number of stints at locations including The Beaufort in Carlton and Forgotten Worlds in Collingwood and also various one-off appearances at festivals and beer events. They are always a smash hit and their food is in high demand, In August 2014 Bluebonnet finally opened a permanent location in a heritage listed building on the far side of Collingwood.
Sadly though, Bluebonnet BBQ and executive chef Chris Terlikar have been through the proverbial wars over the last 18 months. On 1 December 2014, vandals broke in and completely trashed the premises, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. Thanks to the determination and hard work of the Bluebonnet crew and the generosity of the public via a Pozible campaign they were able to get back up and running, only to be derailed again when in May this year their magnificent smoker caught fire overnight destroying the smoker and causing significant damage to both the restaurant and the furniture store next door.
However, as fortune would have it, Bluebonnet BBQ had secured a three-month residency in the kitchen at the John Curtin Hotel in Carlton (just north of the CBD) that commenced literally the week after the fire and this has turned into an ongoing arrangement which is an excellent result for the Melbourne meat-loving community.
The inside of the John Curtin is not quite the Texas-style saloon of Bluebonnet BBQ’s previous location but retains a casual look and a warm, inviting atmosphere with the combination of simple brick and wood fittings. Online bookings are available but we have never found ourselves having trouble getting a table when we have made a snap decision to seek out a meat fix on an evening.
The Bluebonnet menu provides diverse coverage of the gamut of American barbecue fare, ranging from the “holy trilogy” (pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket), to a regularly changing sausage made in-house, mushroom and thyme stuffed chicken and both pork and lamb belly. Unfortunately the mammoth 600g Angus beef rib which was their signature* has not been available at the John Curtin but we are hoping that it re-appears when Bluebonnet BBQ eventually re-opens its own restaurant. Sides include the ever-present cornbread, a few salads, potatoes and jalapeno cheese grits instead of the more commonly found mac and cheese.
The John Curtin also offers a solid drinks list with a decent craft beer selection including a number of bottled beers from Louisiana-based brewery Abita and West Coast hopheads Sierra Nevada as well as a range of local craft beers.
Texas Chilli Fries (Special Of The Day), Slaw ($8.00), Cornbread ($9.00)
We started our meal with a range of side dishes – the chilli fries, slaw and cornbread. The chilli fries were nothing special to be honest but the other two sides were excellent. Te slaw was a simple mix of apple and kohlrabi with a sherry mustard vinaigrette that gave it a refreshing flavour that cut through the intensity of the meat and the cornbread was crumbly yet moist (unlike many cornbreads in Melbourne which can be quite dry).
Riverina Angus Black Brisket ($11.00/100g), Hot Smoked Berkshire Pork Belly ($10.00/100g), Sausage ($10.00 each), Smoked Porter Braised Beef Cheek ($10.00/100g) and St Louis Pork Ribs ($10.00/100g)
For the main event we ordered a plate covering the full range of meats on offer – beef brisket, pork belly, sausage, beef cheek and pork ribs.
The pork belly was definitely the highlight. We had not tried pork belly in smoked form before and this was a very pleasant surprise for us. The ratio of fat to meat was perfect, the meat itself was very juicy and the smoked flavour was great, a better and more refined version of the smoked ham many of us ate as kids. The pork ribs were done without a marinade but were accompanied by a bottle of Bluebonnet’s tasty house-made barbecue sauce. The meat didn’t fall of the bone quite as easily as the beef rib and there was probably more bone than we would have liked but nonetheless the flavours definitely met the high standard that Bluebonnet BBQ set for themselves.
The beef brisket, which is often the benchmark by which barbecue places are judged was flavoursome and had a good crust, although perhaps ever so slightly on the dry side compared to the best briskets that we have had (but was still well up there amongst our favourites). On the other hand while the beef cheek was very tender we found it to be a bit saltier than we would have liked.
Overall we were extremely impressed with Bluebonnet BBQ and consider them to be one of the very best American barbecue operators in Melbourne. As mentioned above it looks like what was originally a pop-up kitchen at the John Curtin has turned at least into a medium-term arrangement so we recommend that you get on down there soon to get your smoked meat fix.
* I originally wrote this post literally a few days before the fire in May and it wasn’t right to post something until Chris and his team had set themselves up again at another location. This said this post would not be complete without the story of my first visit to Bluebonnet BBQ.
What ultimately lead to our first visit to Bluebonnet BBQ (and there have been several since!) was a complication that one encounters when first embarking on the journey down the barbecue rabbit hole – the day when you turn up at your venue of choice only to be told that your meat of choice has sold out. When this inevitably happens it is sad and disappointing in equal measure but it is unreasonable to be angry as the reason this happens is entirely obvious – the method of preparation is 12 hours in the smoker starting at 6am every day so it is not like the head ‘cuer can go and fire up another pound of brisket for you after they have exhausted the day’s supply.
In our experience, by far the most common item to run out at a barbecue establishment is the beef rib, which is due to the cost of supply which means they have to keep daily quantities relatively low. Having experienced a frustrating fortnight involving multiple failed attempts to consume said meat it seemed only logical to head to a place where beef rib is the star item on the menu. When we finally did get it we were not disappointed (we got the last rib of the night!), there was enough meat for two people and the meat was probably the most tender of any beef rib we had tried before and fell right off the bone, there was very little fat and the flavour was amazing and combined well with the outside char.
Inside The John Curtin Hotel
29 Lygon Street
Sat – Wed: 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Thu – Fri: 12:00pm to 4:00pm; 5:00pm to 10:00pm