The mercury is soaring past 95 degrees and the section of Lowell where Mill City BBQ & Brew is serving up mounds of smoked brisket and mac and cheese has no electricity.
“I’m as hot as fish grease,” chef-owner Renay Wolterding exclaims, vowing to get on the phone with National Grid and get to the bottom of the outage.
Her frustration melts away like the fat on a slow-cooked pork butt as soon as conversation turns to her passion — her food.
You won’t find any boxed mixes or can openers here. The cornbread is made from scratch. So are the BBQ sauces. The beans are baked low and slow. Pork butt brined, cured, and rubbed is smoked for 12 hours over apple wood, the beef brisket for 14 hours over hickory, the ribs for six hours.
“You’ve got to really bring it,” Wolterding says. “Bring the love. Food is love and I love watching people eating my food.”
Renay, one of 10 Wolterding kids, grew up on Anderson Street and graduated from Lowell High School in 1984. She hit the road at 18 and traveled extensively living in California, Las Vegas, Jamaica, Florida and North Carolina over the last three decades.
She and her sister Rita, who works alongside her at Mill City BBQ, sold plates of food out of their home and later opened Natural Juices and More, a juice bar, in Florida. And then it was on to North Carolina where she opened and ran Taste of New York, a restaurant specializing in New York-style cuisine.
“I brought the north to the south and then turned around and brought the south to the north,” she laughs.
The goal was always to make it back to her hometown.
“I’ve always been a Lowell lover,” Wolterding says, adding she saved for 10 years to make her dream come true.
“I knew I wanted to come back to Lowell, but I also knew I couldn’t do it without a master plan,” she says.
For a decade, when she came back to visit, she would talk to her friends, John and Martha Resendes who own the building at 1018 Gorham St., fanning the flames of the dream.
“They had the building, I had the vision,” she says. “Lowell is the only city I’ve been to that didn’t have good BBQ,” Wolterding says. “There was no real comfort food. Some people call it soul food.”
This food will certainly feed your soul and not empty your wallet. For $13.75 you get a heaping helping of the meat of your choice, cornbread and one homemade side. Have a bigger appetite? How about two meats, cornbread and two sides for just $19.75. By the way, there is also chicken and waffles, a southern comfort food staple for $13.
Beer and signature cocktails are available including the Tito’s Cucumber Lemonade made with Tito’s vodka, cucumber, lemon and lemonade and the Mill City Fruit Cooler, a concoction of white rum, coconut rum, fresh fruit and ginger beer.
BBQ is about family, so for those with picky little ones, the kids’ menu includes grilled cheese and hot dogs, but also ribs, fried and BBQ chicken, with a side and a box of animal crackers for $6. And you can’t leave without having a slice of sweet potato pie with whipped cream.
A self-taught cook, Wolterding has a library of BBQ books she has studied extensively over the years, learning and experimenting with different techniques and gaining an understanding of what kind of equipment she would need to be successful. She knew it was time to come back to Lowell and start smoking some brisket when her savings account hit $160,000, the result of years of scrimping and saving.
Mill City BBQ opened in June, closing its doors early several nights the first week because they ran out of food.
“I knew it was going to be a hit in Lowell, but not like this,” she says. “The more food I make, the more customers I make.”
“This is it,” Wolterding says looking around Mill City BBQ. “I will be here for 30 years.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Mill City BBQ & Brew
WHERE: 1018 Gorham St.
INFO: Open 12-9pm Tue-Sat, 12-6pm Sun, closed Mon.