Three Little Pigs

You don't necessarily have to hail from the Deep South, Texas, or the far western perimeters of the Midwest to have stronger opinions about barbecue than politics, but it helps.

We cantankerous Americans argue not only about whose barbecue is best, but about the very meaning of the culinary term. According to renowned foodie Calvin Trillin, in the Southwest barbecue means ribs, while in North Carolina, "the word is a noun referring only to chopped pork that has been flavored with a vinegar-based sauce." Some devotees don't care what type of meat is used, he adds, as long as the sauce is sensational.

On a recent trip to St. Augustine, my dining companion and I leisurely gorged our way north by routing ourselves through towns that had Fat Boys Barbecue restaurants. On the way in, we saw a real fat boy - of such incredible girth that he was forced to tuck and fold to get himself through the entrance. But he seemed to know the drill, and went straight into the kitchen once inside. As for us, we feasted with relish on heaping platters of ribs, beans, corn-on-the-cob, and taters - and returned home with a new Florida marker by which to measure Miami barbecue.

A close contender with the sublime barbecue experience we had at Fat Boys is Shorty's. Styled to resemble a log cabin, with open beams, screened windows (which do little to keep the flies out, since the door is open), cement floors, and picnic tables inside, Shorty's takes a bare-bones approach to atmosphere that directs the focus away from ambiance and toward the featured fare. Here you'll eat with plastic utensils from plastic dishes, drink from paper cups, and take in down-home surroundings that include a saddle, bull horns, and beer signs, plus the American flag. The service is fast and, like the food, authentically Southern. Waitresses address patrons as "honey," "sweetie," and "dear," and they mean it.

For $7.25, I worked my way through a plate of somewhat greasy, though very meaty, ribs. Of the two sauces on the table, a warm, dark, sweet-and-sour, brown-sugar recipe was highly superior to the room-temperature red gunk in a squeeze bottle. (For spice freaks like myself, a container of hot sauce provided any further doctoring necessary.) Alongside the ribs were a dollop of more-mayo-than-cabbage slaw and dry-as-a-bone, crinkle-cut French fries. The prices, however, don't warrant complaining; they range from $3.75 for a child's portion of ribs to $10.49 for a full rack of baby backs, and brews that run from $1.35 for a Bud or Bud Lite to $2 for a Heineken.

Also on Shorty's bulletin-board menu are chicken, pork steak, baby back ribs, combination dinners, sandwiches, and extra sides such as barbecue beans (99 cents) and corn-on-the-cob ($1.20). I suggest you cap off your repast here with the outstanding key lime pie, lined with a delicious graham cracker crust and topped with a layer of real cream ($1.99).

Meanwhile, over at the New Hickory Barbecue Restaurant, which touts on its menu the fact that it has thrived for 36 years at the same location, meats are distinctively smoky in flavor. Cooked over wood chips are the standard barbecue items, plus lamb and veal. (A special on the night we visited was barbecue chicken livers.) In the Latin mode, New Hickory also features lots of wood-grilled bistec dishes, and sides of rice and black beans. There are also a few Asian and Polynesian dishes, among them pork chops, chicken, or steak with sweet-and-sour sauce.

Full dinner prices at New Hickory begin at $6.95 for barbecue beef or lamb ribs, and top out at $10.95 for combination spare and beef ribs or a fourteen-ounce New York strip. All dinners are served with a loaf of fresh bread, cole slaw, and your choice of fries, baked potato, or rice. While the bread is outstanding, other sides are plain and underseasoned. As is the case at most barbecue restaurants, the meat is the main attraction, and it is given the most attention. Spare ribs ($7.70) were lean, yet moist. The single red sauce on the table was not significantly better than the bottled variety sold in supermarkets, but these ribs didn't need much embellishment anyway, thanks to the smoky flavor imparted during preparation. And though lamb ribs may not fit the American stereotype of barbecue fare, the strong, distinctive taste of lamb lends itself well to New Hickory's barbecue style. We washed the meal down with beer ($1.75 for Miller Lite or Budweiser; $2.25 for imported beer) and - another surprise at a barbecue shack - wine ($1.50 a glass, $7.50 a pitcher of wine or sangria).

Our last pit stop was at the newly opened addition to the Bar-B-Q-Barn chain (this one way out on Bird Road). In sharp contrast to the aforementioned rustic environments, this is an air-conditioned, carpeted establishment, replete with comfy booths, red brick walls, and cheery green plants. The wait staff is friendly and earnest, as is the manager. When on a previous visit I ordered some barbecue ribs to go and asked how many I would receive for the price, he offered to bring out the raw rack. And while there's no aroma of hickory and oak in the air, the Barn has an exposed kitchen, so you can check out the open pit for yourself. Unfortunately, flavor does take a back seat to the amenities here. Just as the Bar-B-Q-Barn does not look, feel, or smell rough-and-tumble, the food tastes a bit on the sterile side.

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