A 40-year-old school bus hidden away within a huge tent on a Hollinwood industrial estate may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of classic American-style dining, but for the past six years, the Old School BBQ Bus has won admirers for its smokehouse food, live country music performances and the atmosphere that comes with it.
Originally based on a pub car park in Failsworth, in 2016, the eatery eventually outgrew its roots and moved to a dedicated site in Alford Street, just off A62 Manchester Road. Crucially, it is based a very short drive from the Manchester Evening News offices and as someone from outside of the area, it seemed only right that I went along to see why it’s so popular.
Earlier this year I went to Dallas, Texas, so it’s fair to say that when it comes to BBQ food, I’ve been spoiled recently. However, it was actually something else on the menu that initially caught my eye.
Surrounded by a barbed wire box and in red capital lettering was the ominous question: “DO YOU DARE TO TAKE ON THE HANGMAN?” – the challenge is accompanied by five red skull-and-crossbones and a warning to not “give it to your kids” as it is “ridiculously hot” and “only for the brave”. Costing £11.95, the Hollinwood Hangman burger consists of a butterflied chicken breast, seasoned with cayenne pepper, and topped with jalapenos, chilli cheese, fresh rocket and a drizzle of the ‘hangman hot sauce’.
I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as ‘brave’ when it comes to spice. I like a madras as much as the next man but hotter curries such as vindaloo have never really appealed to me, so for those reasons I’ve never really dabbled with ‘ridiculously hot’ sauces like the hangman claims to be.
After much umming and ahing, I eventually decided to order it, but also went for the Jack Daniels BBQ pork belly (£12.95) to try and salvage the meal – just in case the sauce was really as unenjoyably spicy as the menu made it out to be.
My server was incredibly friendly and, completely unaware that I was planning a review, commented that I ‘must be hungry’. She did make sure to check if I was ‘sure’ that I wanted to order the Hollinwood Hangman and reiterated that it was extremely hot.
During the 15 to 20 minute wait for my food, I took in the surroundings of the venue. As it was only 6pm, it had not got rowdy yet by any means, country music was playing at a pleasant volume and the unmistakable scent of BBQ cooking filled the tent.
The floor was covered in AstroTurf and the wooden panelled walls were adorned with nods to the States, including saloon-style doors leading to the toilets, while bunting of the USA flag is also draped around the restaurant. In the far corner of the venue is the star attraction – a 1982 Bluebird International American school bus imported from Arizona and converted into a fully-functioning kitchen.
All the food came out at the same time and I immediately clocked that the hot sauce was in a pot, rather than ‘drizzled’ on the burger as the menu suggested. “We had to start doing that because if you don’t like it, at least you’ve still got a burger then,” my server told me.
As the pork belly and burger both came with fries, I opted to swap one of the sides out for the ‘donut onion rings’ (£4.95 if you buy them separately). The onion rings were a bit too thick for my liking and the batter did indeed have a taste of fairground-style ring doughnuts, which did not really work for me. The fries, on the other hand, were very good – crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with red salt/chip spice giving it an extra kick of flavour.
I tried the pork belly before the burger, while my taste buds were still fully intact and it seemed to be a great choice as it was packed with flavour, really tender and the Jack Daniels BBQ sauce had caramelised, giving it a delightfully smoky aftertaste.
The corn on the cob was juicy and the beans were just that; they weren’t quite the pit beans that I’d fallen in love with on my visit to authentic American diner Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, in Dallas, but the pork belly certainly wouldn’t have been out of place there.
After delaying the inevitable, I finally moved onto the Hollinwood Hangman. I tried the burger without the sauce first and it was a genuinely good burger. The chicken was cooked excellently, while the cayenne rub, jalapenos, and chilli cheese gave it just the right amount of heat.
I dipped a chip in the very red sauce and to be honest, I was initially underwhelmed, so much so that I proceeded to pour it onto the burger. This was a mistake.
After taking a couple hefty bites, the spice really started to take hold. My lips were burning, I was sweating and my decision to order a Fanta (£3.25) rather than a milk was evidently a school error of epic proportions.
The heat was a grower and only got worse as the seconds, which felt like minutes, passed. It really lingered as well, meaning that I couldn’t even offer my taste buds the the delicious pork belly as something of an olive branch.
Eventually it ceased and I managed a few more chips before calling it a day and collecting the bill, which came to a reasonable £28.15.
Despite the temporary pain that the Hollinwood Hangman put me through, I’d definitely visit the Old School BBQ Bus again. It seems a fantastic place to spend an evening and unwind with a few drinks, and if the pork belly was anything to go by then I still need to sample the ribs, the pulled pork, the brisket, the wings, the loaded fries… you get the idea.