2865 SE Division Street, Portland, OR 97202
Rating: 2.5 / 5.0
We all have our own ideas about what constitutes good barbecue. Some prefer a peppery beef brisket — hold the sauce please — while others seek out sweet and sticky ribs. No matter your preference, there is an underlying theme; properly seasoned meat, cooked low and slow with real wood smoke. Clay’s Smokehouse is one of the oldest barbecue joints in Portland, so you might assume they would have perfected this story by now, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Clay’s suffers from an all-too-common approach to barbecue — smoke meat until it nearly disintegrates and drench in sauce for flavor. Remove the barbecue sauce from this equation, and all that remains is an uninspiring pile of meat. At Clay’s Smokehouse, this methodology is evident in soft, stewy ribs and a brisket that could masquerade as pot roast; both dishes bathed in sauce and neither offering more than a wisp of smoke flavor.
Slightly better, the chicken gets points for being tender and juicy, but detecting smoke in this chicken would require laboratory instruments not available to most of us. And, like the brisket, this chicken depends heavily on the sauce for flavor. Perhaps most successful, the smoked sausage stands well on its own, delivering a powerful heat with good porky flavor.
The sides at Clay’s fare well overall. Perfectly executed garlic braised greens delicately balance bitter, tart, and spicy notes. A sliced almond snap adds a pleasant contrast to the tender greens. The baked beans are sweet with a slight kick, but otherwise ordinary. Finally, the potatoes endure the same fate as the barbecue — under-seasoned and bland — but a creamy garlic sauce manages to prop them up.
I get the appeal of exceedingly tender meat awash with a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce — it’s familiar and conceals under-seasoned, overcooked meat. And Clay’s loyal following indicates that this style is desirable for some patrons. But if you want really good barbecue — the stuff you’d drive hours for — then the smoked meat must stand on it’s own. Barbecue sauce should enhance an already exceptional dish, like a green peppercorn sauce that takes a perfect filet mignon to another level. If Clay’s can embrace that concept and improve execution, they might just break into the upper echelons of Portland barbecue.