POTSDAM No signs, no ads, and on the Thursday we were at the Potsdam IGA, no tent set up in the parking lot.
But inside, back at the deli counter, a well-kept secret some of the best barbecue anywhere in the north country. Melt-in-your-mouth-tender chicken halves, mounds of pulled pork, racks of ribs and sliced brisket along with tasty homemade sides and sauces.
Every Thursday year-round for the last several years, Rick Cross has offered his fantastic barbecue at the Potsdam IGA. In good weather, the operation takes place outside, under a tent. This particular week, due to extremely hot weather, it was moved inside to the deli counter.
Ricks parents own the IGA; hes the manager. Rick is a professional chef who honed his barbecue skills while working at a huge Marriott resort in Orlando, Fla. It was nothing for him to serve barbecue at banquets for upwards of 1,000 people at a time.
When he came to Potsdam to work with his folks, he arrived with a little $200 Weber smoker strapped to the bed of his truck. When he started doing barbecue at the IGA, it wasnt uncommon for his tasty smoked meats to be sold out in less than an hour.
It wasnt long before he invested in one of those huge mobile smokers that you hitch to the back of a pickup truck. Now he begins the smoking process behind the supermarket several days in advance and still usually sells out every Thursday. Any remaining barbecue is packaged and sold in the deli the next day.
We arrived at the deli counter just before noon, hoping to beat the lunch rush. There were already a dozen people ahead of us, but with four employees taking orders and bagging barbecue-to-go, the line moved along quickly.
Heres the deal: A half rack of ribs or a portion of beef brisket with one side or a soft drink costs $7. For $8.50, you can get two sides and a drink with your order.
For the half chicken or the pulled pork, prices are $1 less.
We went for the ribs, the chicken and the brisket, each with two sides and a drink, and commandeered a picnic table in a nearby park. The only thing better than Diet Pepsi would have been a round of Blue Light, but my working friends had to be back on the job by 1 oclock.
Ricks smoked chicken might have been our favorite. Its so very moist almost juicy we were guessing that he brines the chicken first. Either that or he has the slow cooking thing down to a science. It has a nice, not overbearing, smoke taste to it. Its so good, it doesnt even require the sauce that comes on the side.
On the subject of sauces, Ricks are the best. He makes a regular tomato-based sauce, a spicy sauce and a vinegar- and mustard-based Carolina sauce.
The ribs were excellent. Theyre dry-rubbed and cooked for just the right amount of time for them to almost fall off the bone. When you bite into the rib, the meat just barely adheres to the bone no gnawing required. The highly seasoned meat was cooked to perfection. There was a nice smoke ring and a flavorful bark, or crust, on the outside with all the right spice flavors. All traits of an experienced pit master.
Beef brisket is difficult to do. Its hard to keep the meat from drying out in the 16-to-18-hour smoking process. Ricks brisket has the proper smoke ring (produced by penetration of the smoke), and the fat cap was cooked to the point that youd hardly know its fat. But even so, it seemed dry to us.
Enter the sauces. We were picking up the slices of brisket with our fingers and dunking them in the great sauces. These are sauces that easily rival any of the bottled Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauces that are now readily available on supermarket shelves, including the shelves right there at the Potsdam IGA.
We didnt get the pulled pork. We had all had it before, and its one of our favorites. The pork is always tender but not too fatty. Its never dried out and has just the right amount of smoke. Its great slathered with the spicy barbecue sauce.
We got to try all the sides.
n Cole slaw: No. 1 on our list. Shredded cabbage and carrots and all the necessities. Enough vinegar to give it a nice zip.
n Baked beans: A very close second. Three different kinds of beans, bits of tomato and red bell pepper, chunks of pulled pork and probably some of his regular barbecue sauce mixed in. Very tasty.
n Cornbread: Particularly delightful. It could completely stand on its own. Moist and not too sweet.
n Mac salad: Elbow macaroni cooked al dente, plenty of finely diced veggies and just the right amount of good quality mayo. Maybe a little heavy on the diced green pepper.
n Potato salad: Potatoes cooked just right with the addition of hard-boiled egg. The balance of mayo was right on, too.
n Mac and cheese: A separate option that we picked up at the deli. Weve all had it before and agree it always seems to lack something. Maybe more cheese? A sharper cheese?
Barbecue lunch for three at the Potsdam IGA cost $28.92, $3 of which was the cost of the mac and cheese.
For dessert, we stopped across the street at the Potsdam Food Co-op and picked up three delightful triangles of bakalava ($1.49 each), loaded with nuts and fruits, the phyllo dough just dripping with honey. The extra napkins we grabbed with the barbecue came in handy.
Rick Cross has a winning thing going on with his fabulous barbecue. We dare say his preparations easily rival and often surpass those of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse, the benchmark for top-notch barbecue in upstate New York.
Next time youre in Potsdam on a Thursday, stop by and give it a try. Or if youre interested in Rick bringing his barbecue to you, he does catering. You can contact him at the IGA Monday through Friday.
Sergis Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Potsdam has reopened at 38 Market St., a location previously occupied by Julians Restaurant. Sergis 10 Market St. location was severely damaged in the July windstorm.
You can enjoy their popular menu once again with either sit-down or take-out dining. Sergis has been a fixture in downtown Potsdam for over 40 years.
We wish Sam Spagnola, his family and staff continued success.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.