Red Gum BBQ review

"Pitmaster selection" platter (clockwise from top right) pulled pork, buffalo hot chicken wings, brisket, house-made ...
"Pitmaster selection" platter (clockwise from top right) pulled pork, buffalo hot chicken wings, brisket, house-made sausage, smoked chicken breast with Alabama-style white sauce, pickles and coleslaw. Photo: Simon Schluter

87 Arthurs Seat Rd Red Hill, VIC 3937

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Opening hours Lunch Wed-Sun; Dinner Wed-Sat
Features Licensed, Accepts bookings, Family friendly, Groups, Gluten-free options
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 5989 3156

I used to have an adorable theory about American-style barbecue that went: regional barbecue is specific to its location – and that's fine. It's okay if you have to travel to Texas to get proper Texas-style brisket, or North Carolina to get the best pulled pork. Isn't that part of the joy of travel?

Well, that thinking held up when I was living in the US, and could get a decent approximation of almost any kind of barbecue in Los Angeles or New York – and where I often travelled to in the South where the best stuff was. It doesn't hold up as well now that I live in Melbourne and won't be going to Texas any time soon.

I love a Bunnings snag as much as the next girl, but sometimes that definition of barbecue – as regionally correct as it may be – doesn't quite do it for me. And so I've searched far and wide for decent American-style barbecue, often to much disappointment. There are several places that scratch the itch, but the best of those by far is Red Gum BBQ in Red Hill.

Red Gum BBQ is housed in a former mechanics shed in Red Hill.
Red Gum BBQ is housed in a former mechanics shed in Red Hill. Photo: Simon Schluter

Red Gum was opened in 2017 by Martin and Melissa Goffin. She's from Florida and he's Australian: he became obsessed with barbecue while visiting her family in Florida and other parts of the South. Martin spent years obsessing, travelling and learning to become a pitmaster, eventually leaving his job in government to dedicate himself to barbecue. The pair sank their savings into a large Texas offset barbecue, which now sits in the back of the large restaurant. The name "Red Gum" comes from the Australian wood they use to smoke their meats.

One of the pitfalls (pun intended) of many barbecue restaurants outside of the American South is the urge to be all barbecue to all people. You are no more likely to find brisket in a North Carolina barbecue joint than you are to find quesadillas on a sushi menu – regional American barbecue is highly specialised, and the skill it takes to master one or two kinds of meat is often a lifetime in the making.

Red Gum falls into this trap somewhat, offering Texas-style brisket ($23), Carolina-style pulled pork ($19), and even chicken with Alabama-style white sauce ($12). But Martin Goffin manages this broad range better than most. (You can try all of these on one plate if you order a "Feed Me" platter.)

Red Gum's Texas-style offset smoker.
Red Gum's Texas-style offset smoker. Photo: Simon Schluter

His pork is juicy in all the right ways, his sausages snappy, and his brisket is sometimes a dream of tender, smoke-ringed wonder. I say "sometimes" because on one of several visits it was a little dry, a little chewy, though the flavour was still great. This will not deter me from ordering it again.

I would be disrespecting the laws of barbecue snobbery if I didn't have a few quibbles, and my main one has to do with sugar. While sugar plays an important role in many styles of barbecue, and particularly the Texas-style sauce that most people think of as barbecue sauce, it should not be deployed in quite the amount and with quite the frequency it is used here.

The pulled pork would be better if it were less sweet: North Carolina-style barbecue generally has very little sugar, and gets all of its kick from vinegar, chilli flakes and sometimes a hint of tomato.

Some sides may be on the sweet side, but the mac and cheese is pitch-perfect.
Some sides may be on the sweet side, but the mac and cheese is pitch-perfect. Photo: Simon Schluter

Mayo-based coleslaw ($9) often does have as much sugar as the version at Red Gum, but I prefer it with less. Would I be a complete jerk to complain about the sweetness of a cocktail with the words "apple pie" in the name? I would. But it was the only bourbon cocktail on the list, and I would have loved something a little less dessert-like.

However, the mac and cheese ($10) is pitch-perfect, all creamy and gooey and cheesy, and offers a lovely counterbalance to the more sugary sides.

Part of what I appreciate about Red Gum is that, despite its American inspiration, the restaurant and its food still feel true to the place: the use of Australian wood gives the meat a distinctive flavour that you wouldn't find elsewhere, and the Goffins have avoided the overly hokey Americanised décor and branding that is so prevalent in other barbecue restaurants.

Indeed, the bright, airy dining room (which used to be a mechanic's shed) is decorated with native Australian flowers along with a mix of subtle nods to the American South, celebrating the true nature and multiple origins of this marriage and restaurant.

In that way, perhaps my original theory stands. It's okay if you can't get true Texas-style barbecue in Australia, as long as you can get Australian-American barbecue this good.

Vibe: Big, airy and fun, with the bones of the old mechanic's garage adding industrial appeal.

Go-to dish: Pitmaster selection platter ($69).

Drinks: Great selection of beers and a decent wine list that showcases Mornington Peninsula producers. Short and sweet (literally) cocktail list.

Cost: Hard to spend more than $100 for two people unless you're serious gluttons or heavy drinkers.

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine