River Road BBQ has expanded and is celebrating five years in business. Photos by Kevin Gibson
River Road BBQ has expanded and is celebrating five years in business. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

When I first stepped into River Road BBQ, it was a tiny hutch next to a bicycle shop planted in the shadow of the Water Tower on River Road. The food was good, but I worried the location was going to be the death knell of the little carry-out business.

Five years later, River Road BBQ is still serving, is open seven days a week and now has a clean, welcoming dining room, having expanded into the old bike shop two years ago. The giant black smoker out front, which could be mistaken for a locomotive if one isn’t paying close attention while driving by, marks the spot perfectly.

The informality of the place is part of its charm — it’s a fast-casual setup (emphasis on “casual”) wherein you order at one station, your food is plucked from the warmers and into your Styrofoam box as you watch, and then you pay just steps away. Carrying out? You’re all set. Eating in? There are paper towels on every table and plastic silverware nearby.

While River Road BBQ might qualify as a “dive,” the place is actually quite clean and modern, with red walls, black and white tables and chairs, stainless steel ceilings, and smooth concrete floors.

I stopped by for a late lunch recently with my girlfriend Cynthia. As usual, Cynthia changed her mind about six times as we stood in line, wavering between pulled pork and brisket.

The mighty half and half, with slaw and potato salad.
The mighty half and half, with slaw and potato salad | Photo by Kevin Gibson

“You want half and half?” the smiling young lady taking our order asked. So it was settled — a sandwich of half pork, half brisket.

I had been gearing toward getting pork spare ribs, but the same young woman noted they were down to their last few ribs, and they weren’t as meaty as usual. So I opted for brisket instead, firmly inserting my foot into my mouth after having teased Cynthia for her indecision.

We decided to eat in the dining room, and I chatted with another woman who reminded me the place had hit its five-year mark. She also confirmed my hopes that River Road BBQ still had the same house-made sauce. In fact, it’s the only sauce they serve because, well, it’s pretty darn good. (I asked for extra, and needed it.)

The sauce is sort of a cross between a vinegar barbecue sauce and a tomato-based red sauce — so if you are keeping score, it’s almost a hybrid of eastern and western Carolina barbecue. It has a unique, tangy flavor with a hint of sweetness, and yet there is also a touch of peppery heat that lingers on the tongue once you’ve had a few bites. It really is its own thing.

The brisket is cut into thick slabs and served that way (some places will chop it up), so one nearly gets the sensation that it’s a roast — but with plenty of crisp bark, and served on a bun. The beef is nicely tender, not overly smoked, and right on the money for an oversized sandwich. Adding two sides, I managed to get two meals from mine easily.

Thick cut brisket.
Thick cut brisket | Photo by Kevin Gibson

I also had skin-on potato salad, a traditional family picnic experience, with a fluffy, fresh texture and a clean potato flavor. Hand-chopped onions and celery blended to make a nice light complement to the dense meat. And the barbecue baked beans, packed with peppery spice, was a different kind of complement.

Cynthia, meanwhile, eyeballed her half-and-half, which was a monstrosity to behold.

“This might be too much meat,” she said. After my obligatory “that’s what she said” joke, I offered to eat any of the barbecued meat she didn’t.

“Oh, I’m going to eat it,” she responded. “I was just saying.”

Cynthia also added an order of potato salad to her order, along with some of the tasty River Road BBQ slaw, a vinegar-based version not entirely like the goopy stuff most people associate with coleslaw. The River Road version features thick strands of cabbage with a few red onions blended in, bearing a light sweetness and an overall sense of clean freshness — a spin on eastern Carolina slaw, if you will. Regardless, like the potatoes, it makes for a light option to balance the meat.

Observing another Carolina tradition, Cynthia decided to plop some of the slaw onto her sandwich as a topping, after which she returned the top of the bun and devoured the beast post haste. I know she enjoyed it because, as I noted to her while she ate, it has to be good if she stops talking for five minutes straight.

And while she did have some stray brisket left over, it was impressive, and she finished more of her lunch than I did. Still, she had leftovers for the next day.

We spent about $25 (including two soft drinks), which isn’t bad considering we wound up with four meals. Five years in, and it looks like River Road BBQ is primed for another five, especially given the residential development taking place just down the road. Located at 3017 River Road, River, the restaurant is open daily from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies. Email Kevin at [email protected]