Working a restaurant dinner shift often means eating your own supper very early. That's one reason Squeal Bar-B-Q stays open so late.
The restaurant is run by brothers Brendan, Patrick and Gene Young, who all worked for years at chef John Besh's Restaurant August. They know well the rhythm of 4 p.m. staff dinners and shifts followed by hungry after-hours foraging at diners and taverns.
They opened Squeal in November to fill a void of quality barbecue in the city, while also appealing to compatriots in the service industry with a kitchen that stays open until 2 a.m. on most nights.
The short, straightforward menu doesn't adhere to any one regional type of barbecue, but rather borrows from many. The result is unlikely to sate a serious barbecue hound's specific tastes, but Squeal still puts out a satisfying meal.
The barbecue sauce is a bit of an enigma. It's tomato-based, like a Memphis sauce, but it's also thin and vinegary, like North Carolina's eastern derivation. It's spicy with flavors of both black pepper and ginger, and it's smoked.
The meats also are said to be smoked, but the effect is so subtle as to be downright undetectable, which is my biggest qualm with Squeal. Ribs, chicken, brisket, pulled pork — none of it tastes particularly smoky, nor does the restaurant itself radiate much evidence of a robust smoking operation.
Ribs are the kitchen's strongest offering. They have a solid inch or so of meat rising above the bone, and the skin is caramelized and crisp at points, while the interior texture is lean and as dense as country ham. Order the chicken and an enormous half bird fills the platter, elbowing aside the two accompanying side dishes. The lack of discernable smoke flavor and a soft, wobbly skin were partially redeemed by very juicy flesh. Brisket also is exceptionally moist, but in a fatty rather than juicy way. It worked better as a topping for the nachos or encased in a soft torpedo roll with plenty of sauce for one of Squeal's mammoth barbecue sandwiches.
Smoke makes the strongest impact on an appetizer, Squeal's chicken wings, which also are fried and then coated in a pepper sauce that is intense without being sadistic.
The aggressive spice-level runs through many of the side dishes, most of which find some way to stand out. Peppery spice and sour vinegar flavors mix in the collard greens. Bubbles of sweet corn set off rich grits, which also are speckled with black pepper. Baked beans come out al dente and are clearly the result of scratch cooking, with abundant ribbons of bacon fat. Corn maque choux sits in a soupy juice bound together with red- and black-pepper seasoning. Soggy and plain coleslaw was the only letdown among the side dishes. Crumbly crusted, berry-sweet cobbler with ice cream will take care of whatever could possibly be left of a normal appetite after a meal here.
If you can live without a conspicuous amount of smoke, Squeal's heavy hand with pepper and portions and its night owl hours recommend it.