Russell Street Bar-B-Que
325 NE Russell St. Portland, OR 97212
Rating: 2.0 / 5.0
Russell Street Bar-B-Que is another restaurant that often enters the discussion when talking about Portland barbecue. Russell’s has been around for over a decade and does a mix of barbecue and other comfort food dishes like meatloaf and chicken fried chicken. As with many of the barbecue restaurants on the Portland BBQ Tour, I had to see for myself if the food lives up to the attention it gets from the locals and Yelp.
As usual, check out the “Quick & Dirty” section for a quick summary of my visit. Otherwise, see the “Long & Winded” section for a full account of my visit.
The Quick & Dirty
Mac & cheese and smoked sausage; if you are looking for either of these, you can find good renditions at Russell Street Bar-B-Que. However, if you are looking for some killer ribs or indulgent slices of brisket, then you may want to find a different barbecue establishment in your area. The mac & cheese is deliciously cheesy and the sausage a flavorful and smoky treat. Sadly, both the beef and pork ribs were the worst of the tour so far and the brisket was dried out and flavorless. I came, I saw, I ate, and I determined that Russell Street Bar-B-Que doesn’t live up to the hype for me.
The Long & Winded
Russell Street Bar-B-Que, a Southern kitchen. With warm yellow walls and cast iron pans hanging in the spaces between rooms, I do get the feel of being in a Southern kitchen. The lighting is cozy and the ambiance comfortable. Russell Street gets high marks on Yelp, so I am hopeful that I have a delicious plate of barbecue in my near future.
I’ve ordered up the “Meat-A-Palooza” plate from the Bar-B-Que section of the menu. Russell’s does more than your standard barbecue. They also have Po’ boys, meatloaf, chicken fried chicken, and some other Southern standby’s on menu, but I’m focusing on the barbecue. My Meat-A-Palooza includes brisket, sausage, pork spare ribs, coleslaw, meaty beans, mac & cheese, and cornbread. I also add on a beef rib since I am still on the hunt for a decent one. While I wait for the food to join me at the table, I take a look at the sauces they have on the table.
There are four different sauce options on the table: North Carolina Vinegar, Classic, Derby Mustard, and Killer. The North Carolina vinegar sauce is good. It has that nice acidic cider vinegar bite I look for and brings some spiciness along for the ride; it would be good on some pulled or chopped pork. The Killer sauce, with its smoky chipotle chili pepper heat, is also delicious. The remaining sauces are okay, but nothing to write home about. The Classic sauce has a pleasant smoky character, but the tomato base is taking over, reminding me of a smoky ketchup more than a barbecue sauce. The Derby Mustard sauce reminds me of honey mustard with a spicy kick. Ah, good news, the food is here! I’ll start with the sides.
The mac & cheese looks tempting, so I scoop up a bite. The macaroni noodles are a perfect al dente and the cheese sauce is packed with flavor and nutty undertones, reminiscent of asiago. The waitress tells me the dish has blue cheese with white & yellow cheddars. It could use a little more sharpness, but this is pretty good stuff. I can only fault that the sauce is slightly grainy, but this is a minor flaw. All that rich cheesy goodness is calling for something to cleanse the palate, so I reach for the coleslaw.
Lacking depth, the coleslaw is creamy, with a mild sweetness, but I’m missing that vinegary punch to help cut through all the rich smoked meat and sides. The coleslaw has that crunch I love though and still serves its purpose, so I’m not terribly disappointed. The “meaty” beans are calling my name, so I grab the spoon and dig in.
The meaty beans are indeed meaty, with shreds of smoked meat layered in with the tender pinto beans. These beans are smoky and flavorful too, but they have an odd finish that I can only describe as tasting like the SpaghettiOs of my childhood. Tragically, the canned pasta with meat sauce flavor is not something I look for in my adult years, so I move on.
I finish off tasting the sides with the cornbread. Unfortunately, it is dry with a nondescript flavor. A bite or two is enough and I decide it is time to dig into the meat. The smoked sausage looks delicious, so I start with that.
This sausage is a revolving door of flavor, by turns sweet, smoky, and spicy. The texture is perfect, it isn’t too greasy, and the rich pork flavor is coming through. I’m loving this sausage and hoping for more of the same from the rest of the barbecue here at Russell’s. I eagerly move on to the beef rib.
Somebody gave this beef rib a bad haircut, because I can see it is a shiner; that is, the rib bone is showing where there ought to be meat . This rib is lacking that impressive hunk of meat I look for in a good beef rib. On the first bite, I am getting a good beefy flavor, but this rib needs more seasoning to really make it exciting. It is also on the tough side and needs more time in the smoker to help melt down all that collagen. I just cannot love this beef rib, so I move on to the brisket in hopes of better times ahead.
It is surprising how difficult it is to find a decent slice of brisket on this tour. Russell’s brisket has good bark development, but the good news ends there. Both the flat and the point slices are dry as a bone and disappointingly lacking in flavor. I am not getting much smokiness coming through either. I would have to resort to drowning this brisket in BBQ sauce to make it interesting. This brisket is a big miss. Eager to end the suffering, I grab a spare rib off the plate.
Sadly, these pork spare ribs are the worst of the tour so far, dry, sooty and lacking in flavor. I am also getting an odd sweetness to them, almost like they are sprinkled with sugar prior to grilling them. I suspect that these ribs have been sitting cold somewhere and were thrown on the grill at the last minute upon ordering. My suspicions are confirmed on the way out of Russell Street, when I see one of the employees carrying a sheet pan stacked with ribs back to the walk-in fridge.
Unfortunately, this is another Portland barbecue restaurant I will probably not visit again. The smoked sausage is good, and the mac & cheese is on point, but the rest was rather disappointing. Unless you are just looking for mac & cheese and a plate of sausages, I’d look elsewhere for a good plate of barbecue.