As we all learned way back in grade school, the definition of the word “liberty” centers on the freedom and ability to do what you want, and it’s not hard to argue the owners of Madison’s first Liberty Station Tavern & Smokehouse are doing just that.
Where most barbecue restaurants—certainly the ones in the Madison area—lead with their beef brisket, Liberty Station inverts the formula—for better and for worse.
The Madison Liberty Station is the third one opened by a hospitality group that also owns and operates steakhouses in Nebraska and Arizona. The other two are in Scottsdale, Arizona, of all places.
The building itself is eye-catching both inside and out. The brick exterior and angular architecture are a welcome offset to the boring state office buildings and hotels nearby—not to mention the Dane County Coliseum, still somehow enduring as a testament to ‘70s-era architecture.
Liberty Station’s insides are even more impressive with an open and exposed fireplace, central bar and several clever barbecue- and pig-related decorative touches. While waiting to pick up a curbside order, at least two couples came inside—eyes wide and heads on a swivel—marveling at the shiny newness of it all. Outside, people enjoyed the expansive patio area even though it is a mere stone’s throw from a busy Beltline on-ramp.
Three smoked meats form the axis of Liberty Station’s smokehouse menu: the aforementioned beef brisket, Carolina pork shoulder and Kansas City-style pork ribs. Each can be ordered separately, together as part of a Tavern Barbecue Platter ($42), as the centerpiece of a sandwich or as garnish on a salad or appetizer. And here’s where Liberty Station goes its own way—it’s the pork shoulder and ribs that are the worthwhile investment here.
The Texas beef brisket was surprisingly fatty (as in more than a third of each slice was pure fat) and not nearly as flavorful as expected. On most pieces, it’s the fat that nestles near to the coffee-and-pepper rub, so if you choose to trim one off, you likely lose the other. That’s not a great option.
The good news is the pork shoulder ($14) and St. Louis spare ribs ($22) are much better. The former is tender and flavorful, drenched in a Carolina vinegar-based sauce that provides a nice tang. The phrase “falling off the bone” is one you’ll hear often in discussions about pork ribs.
“Fall off the bone” is the operative phrase here: Of the four ribs that came in the curbside meat platter order, the meat arrived having separated from the bone already on three of them. It was delicious, but it’s hard to not feel cheated when you’re denied the thrill of a little bone-gnawing. The ribs are glazed with Liberty Station’s other sauce, a tangy number with a base that includes Dr. Pepper and orange juice. It works much better on the ribs than it does as a dipping sauce.
Portion size is an issue. That meat platter only comes with two measly sides, neither of which filled the plastic container in which it came. That’s the same amount that would have accompanied a single-meat order.
The sides themselves are hit-and-miss. The best of the lot is easily the macaroni and cheese, which isn’t anything like the traditional presentation you’ve experienced elsewhere. Instead of elbow mac, you get thick, spiral cavatappi doused in a spicy jalapeno and cheese-based sauce that tends to succumb to gravity—i.e., dig your way to the bottom of the container and mix things up a little to get the full effect. From a flavor perspective, it’s almost more entrée than side dish—and that’s a good thing.
Pub chips come dusted with barbecue spices that don’t necessarily seem to hit the entire pile of chips. They’re crispy enough, to be sure, but not remarkable enough to unseat the mac and cheese as the best app.
As someone who appreciates a good pile of mashed potatoes with barbecued meat—if for no other reason than its sauce-soaking properties—it’s disappointing to see that the mashed potatoes that come with the fried chicken ($19) and Idaho rainbow trout ($22) on Liberty Station’s nonsmokehouse menu are not among your side-dish options. The baked beans are sweet and well-balanced, with (thankfully nonfatty) shredded pieces of beef brisket boosting their smoky taste. The honey butter corn muffin arrives with actual visible kernels of corn, but it is oddly flavorless.
It’s not hard to argue that liberty’s a good thing to have in your life. But sometimes, going your own way creates as many problems as it pays dividends.
While Liberty Station gets several things right, there’s not yet enough that works here to move it ahead of other Madison barbecue establishments.