Editor’s note: Last week, Gov. Tony Evers called for the immediate closure of all bars and restaurants in Wisconsin in an attempt to keep gatherings to less than 10 people in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Though consistency might wane in the coming weeks, Kicks will continue to provide restaurant reviews when possible with the understanding many establishments remain capable of providing food on a carryout or delivery basis.
Sometimes, it feels like Madison’s barbecue scene is a big-ole zero-sum game. One place closes (think That BBQ Joint, which is currently stuck in crowdfunding limbo) and another one opens to fill the vacuum (Doc’s Smokehouse, which recently went into the spot vacated by the shuttered Granite City Grill in West Towne Mall).
In these suddenly uncertain times, it makes us appreciate the joints that have remained stable, quietly and reliably purveying smoked meats. We’re talking about places such as Fitchburg’s Thirsty Goat, which has been tucked quietly at the edge of the Cahill Main strip mall since 2016 in a spot that used to host a Mexican restaurant.
It’s been a good fit for owner Dave Schutz and his chef Jeff Whitford. The Goat’s secret advantage is its massive smoker, a truly hulking thing that ensures most of the meats on the smokehouse menu—a list that includes everything from pork and chicken to corned beef and kielbasa—are unlikely to run out before the end of a night. It also means the Goat doesn’t skimp on serving sizes—a perk any barbecue lover can obviously appreciate.
You know how you have that one friend who likes to put a certain condiment on everything? At the Goat, the beef brisket is that condiment. It can be used to punch up more than half the menu: Add it to the already mountainous pile of nachos, anchored with thick and hearty chips and buried beneath black beans and jalapenos, and it’s like an extra snowstorm has hit the culinary equivalent of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Sprinkle it on top of a deep bowl of the spicy buffalo mac and cheese bake and you’ve turned a spicy take on comfort food into a carbs and protein one-two. You don’t even have to ask to add it to one of the menu’s best stealth brisket delivery systems—a crock of the brisket chili—where the meat thickens a hearty bowl into a delicious sloppy-joe-esque mix you could conceivably put on a bun.
Or, better still, just take the direct route and order the brisket straight up. Available solo or as the cornerstone of a multi-meat platter, the brisket arrives at your table in thick, symmetrically cut strips, tender and crusted with dry-rub spices. It’s perfect to devour plain or, if you prefer, doused in one of four sauces made in house. Two of those stand out from the pack—the sweet and tangy, which balances deftly between the two poles, and the house blend, which is bold but not too spicy.
Other meats from the smokehouse menu are slightly less successful. The rub on the baby back ribs is certainly flavorful enough, but the meat itself is chewy and dry—a far cry from the rest of the offerings. I don’t expect my ribs to land within the falling-off-the-bones cliché, but the toughness of these was off-putting.
If pork is more your barbecue jam, you’re better served opting for the pulled pork which, like the brisket, can be used to leaven more than half of the restaurant’s menu options.
Sides are often a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The drunken peaches, cut fruit served in a sweet liqueur, are the big curveball—a dessert option masquerading as a side dish. You would expect your meat to come with a chunk of cornbread—and it certainly does—but you don’t necessarily expect it to be this good. The bread is light, fluffy and sweet—the sort of thing that, when you’re in the right mood, could conceivably replace your entrée choice. At the very least, put in an extra order.
The Goat’s ambience remains modern brewpub sports bar with an open and sprawling layout of light-colored wooden booths and tables bracketed from above by a fleet of TVs now tuned to talking heads in the absence of live sports. It’s the kind of place best suited to an unexpected trivia night or a post-Badger game outing.
While Schutz’s original plans to brew beer on-site have fallen by the wayside, you’re unlikely to notice or care, given the bar’s deep and varied bench of tap and bottled options. The Magners pear cider is still on the drink menu, which means a Black Velveteen—a sweet combo of Magners and classic Guinness stout—can be your perfect smoked-meat companion.
Like a lot of restaurants navigating the current COVID-19 crisis, The Thirsty Goat is now offering curbside service to patrons, and delivery through DoorDash is available. Given how great this barbecue tastes, we’ll take it any way we can get it.