Growing up in the North Western suburbs of Melbourne, opportunities to sample exceptional cuisines were always few and far between. With the most talented of chefs never venturing far beyond the boundaries of the inner city, gastronomic salvation was too much to hope for. Strangely, it was the most memorable dining experiences though that would always come from the most unexpected of sources. Case in point: Hoffman Street Pizza, Pasta and Ribs. Flanked on either side by a Fish and Chippery that radiated grease onto the footpath and a Milk Bar you wouldn’t enter on a bet, this now long defunct hole in the wall, sat in a quiet parade on a minor thoroughfare in the outskirts of sleepy Essendon. It was here as a young boy had my ‘chasing the dragon’ moment; a beast that came in the form of the perfect pork ribs, the flavour of which has eluded me ever since.
Peddling racks the size of your arm, the pork would fall right off the bone and melt in your mouth, marinated in the smokiest of sauces for what tasted like forever, dearest reader, you can imagine how my tiny heart shattered when suddenly and without notice, I came to learn it had shut its doors for good. Fuelled by a burning desire to experience ribs even half as good, my appetite has lead me through kitchen experiments with an assortment of store-bought sauces to the adaptation of all my travel itineraries to include some of the world’s most sought after rib joints, all to no avail. Now I know that the dragon, by virtue of its very nature is unattainable. That it’s likely a warped sense of nostalgia that has elevated the quality of these ribs in my mind to a level of preternatural goodness. I must admit though that this year I’ve finally found ribs that come pretty damn close and for all the jet setting, it turns out the best BBQ going is actually only a short stroll from home at Fitzroy North’s Bluebonnet Barbecue.
Bluebonnet is headed by pitmaster Chris Terlikar, who after coming up in New York’s fine dining scene has
spent over twenty-years developing a distinctive style heavily influenced by the great tradition of Texan BBQ – and it shows. After a chance encounter with Hill Country Barbecue at Fette Sau in Brooklyn, Terlikar spent eight weeks in Austin learning all the tricks of the trade from pitmaster extraordinaires Tom Micklethwaite and Evan LeRoy. Upon returning to Melbourne he set up the first Bluebonnet in Collingwood, which tragically went up in flames after his smoker caught fire. Since then, Terlikar took temporary residence in Carlton’s Curtin hotel before finally deciding to revamp 140-year-old pub, The North Fitzroy Star in 2016.
Paying respect to the building’s rich history, Terlikar has fashioned a space that is both convivial and inviting, always filled with patrons of all ages. Much of the furniture that adorns the space has been noticeably upcycled, from the sanded-down tabletops to the luxurious and still functional cast-iron fireplace from yesteryear. Warm glowing light fittings (repurposed from the very casters that once supported them) line the walls, which still feature some of the building’s original floral tile work. While the building is literally steeped in Melbourne history, it’s a collection of traditional American appurtenances, like the slightly peeling McLure Pickles signage outside or a pair of authentic Texas license plates that hang in a corner, that impregnate the space with its American junkyard-chic charm. Glass panels also open upon onto the small courtyard where Terlikar’s hulking 500-gallon tank barbeque sits, smoking meat on glorious display.
This is where the magic happens and perhaps magical isn’t superlative enough a term to do the meat here justice. While an assortment of platters including ‘The Feast’, ‘You Bloody Rib-ber’ and ‘The Pitmaster’s Pick’ are all available, a variety of smoked meats can also be ordered in 100g portions, served up on a silver tray topped with butcher’s paper – perfect for sharing or group dining. As with the approach to décor, Terlikar is a student of history when it comes to barbecue, producing meat that rivals the very best his American contemporaries have to offer. The Baby Back Pork Ribs are unsurprisingly, this reviewers highlight; the one dish you’ll go back for every time and which works a treat accompanied with the smokey house sauce. The succulent ribs, the very definition of bien cuit, are sumptuous and a single bite reinforced that Bluebonnet was a winner.
The Black Angus Brisket is smoked to perfection for fourteen hours over ironbark and oak infusing it with a delicious, woody flavour. The Smoked Berkshire Pulled Pork is another tender and juicy Texan favourite. Further bolstering the restaurant’s inclusiveness, Bluebonnet also offers a vegan-friendly Smoked Jackfruit option that is both texture and flavour-wise, the equal of all meats on offer. The small plates here will suit those who prefer not to share but also offer a light and refreshing contrast to their much heavier, meaty counterparts. Standouts include the seared Asparagus with Miso Glaze (which is substituted for equally delectable fried Brussels Sprouts in the winter months) and the creamy Kipfler Potato Salad with Blackened Jalapeno Crème Fraîche and Gribiche Aioli. Here, 500g of assorted meats and two side dishes should sate the hunger of parties of two.
Once done, if not by the lure of some of the world’s finest elixirs, then the sultry jazz tunes that saunter
through the air into Bluebonnet will be sure to have you visiting neighbouring Loretta’s after your meal. Adorned with taxidermy art from collective Talons of Death, the space resembles a bonifide dive-bar without sacrificing any of its class. Cocktail maestro Oscar Eastman (formerly of Eau de Vie) takes his seat behind the bar, a finely curated reflection of Terlikar’s love of American whiskey that also boasts a selection of bourbons and craft beers to please even the most discerning of palettes. Don’t take my word for it – pull up a stool and down a glass to see just why Loretta’s was the deserving winner of ‘Best New Bar’ at the Timeout Awards in January 2017.
You can visit Bluebonnet Barbecue at 32 St Georges Rd S, North Fitzroy VIC 3068, or hit up their website the menu, opening times and more.
Feature Image Credit: Bluebonnet Barbecue Facebook