Wagon Train BBQ, 671 Mariaville Road, Rotterdam, 356-0650. wagontrainbbq.net. Serving 11-8 Sun-Mon, Wed-Thu, 11-9 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: barbecue and burgers
Entrée price range: $7 (burger with fries) to $18.25 (huge pork-brisket-ribs combo)
Ambiance: cheerfully overdecorated
About halfway through my meal—a pulled pork sandwich and half-rack of ribs ($17)—I napkin-dabbed my brow and considered my status. My that’s-enough voice was murmuring, somewhat despairingly, but it was obscured by the need to continue to assault my senses with smoked meatstuffs.
It gets on your fingers; its aroma delights your nose. It awakens dormant neurons in the limbic brain. Although our species in general and this human in particular require little provocation to eat more than what’s needed, barbecue may be even more persuasive than ice cream and cake.
I considered the half-sandwich, still huge, and the several meaty ribs remaining and decided to pack it in. My thoughtful wife whisked the leftovers into a container she’d secured. Her own—the remains of a chicken, of course—already was packed. I allowed her to enjoy the illusion of me as someone proud to exert a measure of self-control. What I truly am is a failure, because I never shall tackle Wagon Train BBQ’s Graveyard Burger.
Nearly a hundred have tried, and all but two of them have failed. “And the guys who did it weren’t huge or anything,” our waitress, Jen, assured us. No, there’s a skill—an art, no doubt—to marathon eating, and the $35 Graveyard Burger, which is free if you finish it in half an hour, is carefully crafted to thwart the tyro. It’s surely not the pound of Angus beef topped with bacon and cheese. Any determined trencherman can get through that. The specially baked roll, however, will help take you down, as will the half-pound of macaroni and cheese. And you’re looking at two eggs, a half-pound apiece of pulled pork and beef brisket, a half-pound of coleslaw, onion rings, French fries, jalapeño poppers and still more onions.
As a publicity-garnering item, it’s genius. It was to have won the restaurant a spot on a national TV show, although the ADD-driven vagaries of that business erased the opportunity. But you’re more likely making the trip to Rotterdam for ribs and/or brisket and/or pork, and returning because there’s an impressive rest-of-the-menu to try.
The restaurant is located near the Price Chopper distribution center in Rotterdam, surprisingly close to another barbecue joint called North Country BBQ. Wagon Train is kind of behind Frank DelGallo’s pool-sales emporium, and you’ll recognize it by the covered wagon and other western-themed statuary outside. Inside is even wackier, with enough artwork and tchotchkes to persuade you that there might even be a connection between barbecue and the covered-wagon west.
A large institutional smoker dominates the open kitchen; the specials are blackboard-indicated; the side dishes and homemade desserts are displayed in a glass-fronted cooler.
There’s a $6 garden salad if you want to start small, but you can goose it with pulled pork or smoked brisket or chicken for three dollars more. A burger with fries is $7; add cheese for a buck. The Rodeo Burger gives you bacon and cheese and onions, with fries; the Mushroom-Swiss is, well, I don’t have to tell you. Each is $10. But you can warm up for the Graveyard with the Tombstone, a $12 burger (add $2 for fries) on which the beef is joined by pulled pork and bacon, a fried egg and cheese and coleslaw.
Other sandwiches feature pulled pork ($7.50), beef brisket ($10), Italian sausage ($7.75), grilled chicken ($8), pulled chicken ($9.75) and more, but you have to add something in the neighborhood of $2 to get a single side dish and cornbread, and $2 on top of that for fries, which is more expensively intricate than I like to deal with.
The Train Wreck ($8.50), which my friend Malcolm sampled, is a superb array of roast beef and ham with Swiss cheese and coleslaw and a very tasty combo of horseradish mayo and chipotle ranch. He paid the $2.25 extra for cornbread and a side. The cornbread is like dessert; the macaroni salad ($2.50 if ordered alone!) is standard deli fare. Also among those sides are “settlers beans,” coleslaw, potato salad and mac & cheese, with the last-named my wife’s choice of a side for her brined-and-smoked half-chicken ($9). What’s most impressive is the moistness that remains in the meat, an elusive thing when you’re smoking. Greens and beans was a side-dish special of the day, which I ordered with my pork-and-ribs platter. Good flavors, with a nice hit of vinegar, but in a too-watery setting.
No complaints about the meats, however. That pulled pork sandwich alone is worth the trip, infused with just the right amount of the house-made barbecue sauce. I ordered the ribs without sauce, preferring to mix from the tableside containers of the same house sauce and their spicier companion, a citrus-chipotle mix.
I’m afraid I won’t be going back for the Graveyard, but I think there’s a burger possibility calling my name.