I’m not saying I could have barbecue every day, but whenever I suggest going out for barbecue, my wife tells me she has a headache. When I was a work-trip bachelor for a week earlier this year, I binged on barbecue for four days, hitting a number of joints I’d never tried before. City Barbeque, an Ohio-based chain with a Madison location between West Towne Mall and Vel Phillips Memorial High, was far and away the winner.

So convincingly did it run smoke rings around the competition, I was inspired to give it the official review treatment. I’ve reviewed eight barbecue establishments for Isthmus since 2011, and eaten at even more — some local, some imported; some impressive, some less so. After putting City through its paces, I can say comfortably that the food — to say nothing of the vibe — is anything but corporate.

My motto has long been that barbecue in a region without a local style of its own should still pick one. Don’t try to do everything.

But City Barbeque changed that rule for me. I believe a restaurant can serve a bunch of different barbecue styles, but it has to pay attention to what makes them different and give each its due. It’s not a matter of offering seven different sauces. It gets harder with each attempted style. City handles the challenge surprisingly well.

My first love, as always, is brisket. I like it simple, with strong bark and properly softened fat, and if it’s right, I’m a happy boy. The best slices of City’s brisket didn’t need a knife, definitely didn’t need sauce, and were equally at home on a bun or a butcher paper-lined metal tray. I did get a couple that were on the dry end, maybe the last slices off one brisket before the next one came out, but nothing was so vulcanized that I had to fight for a bite.

North Carolina vinegar-dressed chopped pork usually involves whole hog, and it’s harder to find in smaller barbecue markets. City offers its Lolo’s pork sandwich with pulled pork, and the Swine Wine house sauce delivers ample vinegary zing. And for not being chopped whole with all that incorporated fat, the pulled pork at City is gleamingly, lip-smackingly moist.

Nashville is home to the barbecue-adjacent concept of the meat and three, and City offers plenty of sides to fill that tally. Collards with pork should be collards and pork; the meat is no second fiddle here. Mac and cheese is gooey, cornbread is lightly sweet and more moist than an individual mini-loaf would lead you to expect. Even potato salad, so easy to overmayo and underseason in a mass-production restaurant setting, was sturdy and enjoyable.

I liked the cheesesteak-ish More Cowbell sandwich (also available made with turkey, which is how I tried it) — think peppers, onions and provolone. I liked the turkey “taqo” too, though the turkey barely made an appearance through the cacophony (qaqophony?) of loud and spicy toppings. Fans of the Ohio Tavern’s overstuffed tacos will dig it.

Ribs, advertised as St. Louis cut, pull clean off the bone and I even found myself enjoying the cartilage-heavy bits on the end, usually too tough to chew.

Not everything is an unqualified success. I had high hopes for the sausage link, but as at the nearby Doc’s Smokehouse, the City link is basically a char-marked smoked sausage, not the symphonic combination of soft interior and snappy skin of eastern Texas. Good flavor, but a less-than-transportational experience. Same with the Nashville hot-ified chicken tender, which was dry and harsh. Honey helped. And if I wasn’t a huge fan of the half chicken, that’s mostly because I don’t get the same enjoyment eating bone-in chicken as I do beef. The chopped chicken, as found on the hefty smokehouse salad, spares you the effort.

City Barbeque, which opened in Madison in 2021, operates more than 50 locations, mostly in Big Ten states (though that term is becoming less meaningful these days), as well as Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina. You wouldn’t know how big the chain is from how personable and accommodating the staff is.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all three desserts I tried — triple chocolate cake, a massive peach cobbler, and a travel-friendly banana pudding in a cup — are terrific. And now I see from the menu website there’s a pretzel s’mores pudding. I’ll have to see if my wife, who wrote that headache joke up top by the way, is game for another trip to the west side of the city. 

City Barbeque

7015 Sligo Drive

608-302-3001; citybbq.com

11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Sat.


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