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May 22nd, 2013 MARTIN CIZMAR | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Lay Off the Sauce

No, Lake Oswego’s Pine Shed Ribs is not the best barbecue in Portland.

dish_pineshed_3929SPARE ME: Pine Shed Ribs’ racks are its best ’cue. - IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Earlier this month, Stephen Colbert’s sister lost a congressional election to philandering former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. In response, the TV host shunned his home state, declaring allegiance to its northern neighbor. To mark the switch, Colbert set aside South Carolina’s beloved mustard-based barbecue sauce, force-feeding himself a forkful of the North Carolina “sauceless, vinegar-based meat product that they call barbecue.”

It sounds silly—but that’s how seriously some people take barbecue. I’m among them, which is why Portland Monthly’s declaration that, “Surprise! The best barbecue in PDX lives in Lake Oswego” grabbed my attention.

The restaurant the Monthly anointed, Pine Shed Ribs, has never been the subject of a full professional review. Portland also has several very good barbecue restaurants, including Northeast’s Podnah’s Pit, WW’s 2011 Restaurant of the Year, and Northwest’s Smokehouse 21. Pine Shed serves a few nice slabs. But after two trips to the old suburban plaza that houses it, I’m certain the only way it would have the “best barbecue in PDX” is if it opened a location at the airport.

Barbecue is, of course, a controversial and provincial foodstuff where personal preference is often presented as orthodoxy. But, regionalism aside, pulled pork is supposed to be pulled or chopped, not slopped out with one piece of uncut black bark nearly the size of the sandwich bun it sits on. Likewise, serving a pulled-pork sandwich ($10 with one side) on ciabatta bread isn’t traditional, but I’d look past that if the bun was toasted enough to prevent the interior from turning into mush. And, in Texas, where you specify “fatty” or “lean” brisket, even the fatty cut of brisket (at Pine Shed, $10 for a half pound or a plate) is usually trimmed of thumb-sized hunks of white lard.

The restaurant is outfitted to look like a garden shed and has an odd but functional layout. Patrons order while standing at the counter in a small room in front of the kitchen, then choose between a raft of picnic tables situated on wood chips out front, or head to an indoor dining area a few doors down. Cheerwine and Coke are available at the main counter; you can get real wine and beer from the nearby Plaid Pantry. Service is brusque. The clientele is what you’d expect in a conservative-leaning suburb, down to the teenage boy in an NRA shirt. Diners eat with disposable utensils and dump their trash into one big bin.

Pork ribs ($12 for a small order) are the best meat option: moist and meaty with a perfectly blackened bark. Beef ribs ($12 for a small order), on the other hand, are skimpy on firm, smoky meat. That’s a common problem with beef ribs, of course, but given that Pine Shed advertises them as  “extra meaty,” I’d hoped for better.

Order the pork ribs with spicy ranch beans ($3) and a hunk of cornbread ($2), which has the texture of fluffy grits inside a dark, crispy crust. Avoid the smashed potatoes, served with a thin and salty dark brown gravy that gets boring after a few bites, and the chalky macaroni and cheese.

Brisket was hit and miss on both visits. Half our slices were perfectly juicy and smoky, a few were a little dry, and several were about one-third fat. Sausages, lightly smoked and otherwise typical, are good. Two chicken quarters were big and moist but light on smoke and heavy on the house’s syrupy sauce.

And then there are the desserts: They might be good when fresh, but after spending some time being mummified by the cool, dry refrigerator, the berry cobbler’s stale crust had all the flavor of sugar-free cake, while a snickerdoodle cookie was hard enough to pound a nail.

All those flaws aside, in much of the northern half of the country, Pine Shed might still stand among the better barbecue joints in any given town. Thankfully, though, PDX isn’t among them. 

  • Order this: Spare ribs ($12) with ranch beans and cornbread.
  • I’ll pass: Desserts, fatty brisket and syrupy barbecue sauce that tastes like ketchup mixed with a little Worcestershire sauce.

EAT: Pine Shed Ribs, 17730 Pilkington Road, Lake Oswego, 635-7427, pineshedribs.com. 11 am-until sold out. $$.

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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