Barbecue comes with a certain mythos: imagery of roadside shacks, billowing smoke, and country folk in rustic garb. None of that really pertains to our local urban barbecue restaurants, with the possible exception of billowing smoke, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
On the South Side, Twelve on Carson Whiskey Barbecue is full of weathered barnwood, vintage signage and porcine silhouettes. But collaged together with subway tile, corrugated metal and Edison bulbs — signifiers, all, of a certain brand of hip so ubiquitous, we wonder if it can possibly be hip anymore — the message seemed to be less about the iconography of barbecue than about the decor preferences of the target demographic.
At least that was the vibe we were getting as we sat to order. The menu was stripped down, with barbecue front and center, flanked by non-barbecue appetizers, wings and burgers. Four kinds of smoked meat — chicken leg, pulled pork, brisket and ribs — were offered with a half-dozen traditional sides, plus salad and pickle on a stick. The options were tight enough that our family of four managed to sample just about everything.
Loaded nachos came with a choice of smoked chicken or pulled pork. Knowing there was going to be plenty of pork to come, we went with chicken here, and found it juicy and well flavored with grill smoke. The other toppings — cheese, pico de gallo, lettuce, jalapeño and sour cream — were par for the nacho course; they were heavily heaped upon the top chips, as is ever the case with nachos, leaving the bottom ones bare.
Fried green tomatoes made for a suitably Southern option, and the kitchen did a credible job with them. A uniformly crunchy, not shaggy, coating surrounded nice, thick slices. A Cajun remoulade was unnecessarily sweet, but not cloyingly so.
Whenever we see a dozen wing sauces, we never know which ones are housemade, but here at least a couple stood out, including the “Bee Stinger.” With honey, lime and chili, this was more Thai-style than strictly barbecue, but we appreciated the subtle yet satisfying way the sweet honey was balanced against tangy citrus and savory soy. The wings themselves were just so-so: on the small side and crispy outside, but not especially juicy within. A buffalo-blue burger brought a good, beefy patty, but too little hot-and-cool buffalo-blue cheese flavor.
It was once the main meats came out that we began to reconsider our assumptions. They were legit. Pulled pork — available on a plate or a bun — was good, with both shreds and meaty chunks, but the brisket and ribs were great. The brisket was, in places, a bit salty, but it was also bursting with smoky flavor, and the texture was perfect, with soft, fatty edges and juicy, luscious meat. In the best ribs, the meat falls off the bone, but isn’t mushy; it’s meaty, but not tough. Twelve hit this elusive sweet spot and, because the ribs hadn’t been heavily basted during cooking, the pork’s flavor came through even when they were sauced.
As for that sauce, its thick, dark character looked worryingly like ultra-sweet Kansas City style, but revealed much greater depths to our palates. Whiskey provided a flavor backbone, sweetness faded and a slow burn developed without ever overpowering the smokiness of the meat. Insofar as Pittsburgh does have a barbecue tradition, it tends toward sweet, tomatoey sauces; this was similar yet much, much better. Jason used waffle fries to scrape some off his brisket, and the sauce worked with the fries as well.
Sides were pretty good, led by a new-to-us item: KC cheesy corn. It’s essentially macaroni-and-cheese with corn in place of pasta. But at least as made at Twelve, that substitution makes all the difference, because the bright, sweet, juicy corn lightened the cheesy sauce where macaroni thickens it. Southern baked beans consisted of pintos and black beans with smoky bits of pork, hardly any sugar, and a bit of zing from barbeque sauce. Cole slaw benefited from Cajun flavors.
Ultimately, Twelve may look like another trendy bar with a half-hearted barbecue theme, but its commitment to the cuisine goes deeper than its barnwood veneer. The menu and ingredients were compiled with care. And while smoke may not have been billowing from the kitchen, it was present where it counted: in the meat.