WHO’S IN CHARGE James “Sully” Sullivan got his start working in restaurants three decades ago, washing dishes at the Herrick House in his hometown of Ipswich. Now 45, after dozens of different jobs in the business, the Wenham resident, 45, is finally his own boss, as proprietor and head chef of the Rusty Can in Newbury.
“I’d been knocking the idea around about getting my own business,” said Sullivan. “I decided to go with a food truck. It’s affordable, and I figured I could scrape up the money.
“That was my plan, to do sandwiches and barbecue off a food truck. But then someone told me about this place. I came over and took a look at it, and it really is perfect for what I was looking for.”
So last May, Sullivan opened the Rusty Can. Though barbecue was always part of his vision, it quickly took center stage at the restaurant. You almost expect to spy the Food Network’s Guy Fieri of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” sneaking around out back.
“He goes to the kind of places that I would want, a place that’s been in town for a long time, and all the locals swear by,” said Sullivan. “That’s perfect for over here. It’s a small town. The people I have coming in here who have already become regulars are a bunch of mechanics and plumbers. And everybody’s super friendly.”
THE ATMOSPHERE Situated in the Byfield section of Newbury right off Interstate 95, the Rusty Can is straight out of Southeastern central casting. Patrons can find it easily just by following the thick plumes of smoke billowing from behind the single story, pale blue plaza.
“It looks like a barbecue joint,” said Sullivan. “When you drive into the parking lot, it looks like you’re down South. There’s piles of dirt and wood, and an old hardware store and a convenience store and a hairdresser. It looks a little hick.”
Inside, the place is rough cut but warm. A long, high-top table separates a lively bar (complete with two large flat-screen televisions) from the dining area, with booths featuring distressed vinyl seats and wooden tables. A separate dining room, with an additional 20 seats, is open on Friday and Saturday nights. Fans of the Delta blues and the Rolling Stones will love the restaurant’s soundtrack.
ON THE MENU You won’t find fancy, gourmet options at the Rusty Can. This is a good ol’ barbecue shack, with an all-wood smoker burning local red oak.
“There’s a million ways to barbecue, and everybody’s right,” he said. “After trying different stuff, you just decide what you like.”
My wife Lauri and I are both unapologetic carnivores, and the Rusty Can delivers meats in spades. We were initially intrigued by two specials — a Fried Bologna Sandwich ($10) and a decadent-sounding Double Spicy Burger ($12) – but ultimately focused on the dinner plates. Lauri decided on the Pulled Pork Plate ($15), with a side of fresh coleslaw and fairly pedestrian McDonald-style french fries. The lean, Tennessee-style pork, served chopped with a sweet, vinegar-based barbecue sauce, was moist and tender, if just a tad salty.
I went big, ordering the Two-Meat Combo Plate ($18), with St. Louis Pork Ribs and Chopped Brisket. The ribs featured a sweet, smoked bark and were – forgive the cliché – literally falling off the bone. Absolutely delicious. The Texas-style brisket was smoked perfectly, and smothered with a tangy sauce that accentuated the meat’s natural flavors. The sides of BBQ black beans and mac and cheese were just the right complements.
Neither of us came close to finishing our meals, which meant leftovers for the next two days. I didn’t mind one bit.
Rusty Can, 6 Fruit St., Newbury. 978-462-1204, rustycanbyfield.com.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.