When the Chips Are Down

When a barbecue restaurant in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was recommended to writer Calvin Trillin, a true barbecue enthusiast, his first instinct was to ask whether it used plates. "Of course they have plates," he was told, at which point Trillin lost interest. "I have eaten fine barbecue on plates," he explained, "but I would hesitate to eat barbecue in a place that has plates 'of course' or 'naturally' or 'certainly.'"

Very likely, then, Trillin would be disappointed by two local barbecue joints, Shorty's and People's. Not because they use plates (though they do), and not because their respective food isn't good (it is); rather, it's a matter of time. Real barbecue places, which are few and far between, cook their meats slowly over wood chips -- imagine ribs smoldering over an open pit for half a day or more. And yet most barbecue spots, Shorty's and People's among them, cook their ribs and chicken on a grill for considerably less time than that, and therefore don't, strictly speaking, serve what purists consider the authentic article. Still, the meats do get cooked in a relatively slow manner, becoming imbued with the smoke of specific wood chips. This process creates flavors quite distinct from those of back-yard barbecues, where chicken or burgers sizzle on gas grills or char quickly over an inferno of fat drippings, charcoal, lighter fluid, and the hair on Dad's arm. (The charcoal that Dad uses, incidentally, has nothing to do with coal. These briquettes consist of wood, along with various filler, that has been "charred" in a kiln without oxygen.)

In truth, Shorty's started out as something of a back-yard barbecue. Georgia native E.L. "Shorty" Allen moved here in the late Forties. While driving his meat-delivery truck between Miami and Homestead he noticed a dearth of places to eat. Not long afterward he set up a barbecue stand just south of Miami, which at the time was undeveloped to the point of resembling one big back yard. In 1951 a log-cabin-style restaurant called Shorty's Bar-B-Q replaced the successful stand. Back then some diners still hitched their horses outside, and food was cooked over an open pit. The place burned down in 1972; two years later it was rebuilt in a manner faithful to Shorty's original Western motif, with screened-in windows, cement floors, and weathered log walls adorned with rusty stirrups, cowboy hats, American flags, stuffed animal heads, wagon wheels -- you get the drift.

Other aspects of Shorty's have remained constant through the years, such as sweet, personable, and ever-hustling waitresses, a lively turnover of diners, the buzz of people enjoying themselves communally at long, family-style picnic tables, and an overall good-timey environment. Of course not everyone is into the communal thing, and it's possible that an uncomfortable situation could arise if fate seats one such person next to a chatty, hyperactive eater with sharp elbows.

The look and feel of Shorty's may not have changed much, but in the Seventies a tightening of the codes regulating open pits precipitated a new means of cooking. Nowadays the flavors of Shorty's old pits are simulated in large, gas-fueled, wood-burning convection ovens with rotating shelves. After absorbing the swirling hickory smoke, the meat is transferred to a grill to finish cooking. Technology marches on.

A generous platter's worth of food comes crammed on a plastic oval plate, the main course cushioned by a piece of bread and supported on one side by a large stack of crinkle fries nearly hot enough to melt the plastic. Clinging to the other side of the overburdened plate is a cup of fresh, creamy cole slaw, a fundamental version of finely chopped cabbage tossed with mayo, vinegar, celery seed, sugar, and, according to one of Shorty's veteran managers, "a couple of other things" (Mulder and Scully would have a hard time getting to the truth behind many of Shorty's "confidential" recipes).

Another mystery: Is barbecue sauce applied to the meat before cooking? Shorty's claims a small amount is brushed on, but our chicken was clearly unsauced, as well as underseasoned. On the positive side, it was juicy, crisp of skin, and infused with the deep, smoky aroma of hickory. And one can easily remedy the bird's nakedness, either with a squirt of commercial barbecue sauce from a squeeze bottle on the table, or with a splash from a shaker of the homemade variety that's brought out hot (temperature-wise) with dinner. The former has a sweetened ketchup/chili sauce taste; the latter is a stick-to-the-ribs combo of horseradish, tomato paste, numerous spices, and a pungent, smoky flavor, either derived from meat drippings or from droplets of Liquid Smoke (another of Shorty's secrets).

Speaking of sticking to the ribs, choose the meaty, succulent pork baby backs (the pink Cadillac of the menu at $12.99), not the regular pork ribs, which carried more fat than flesh and, like the chicken, were insipidly seasoned. No such problems with the pork steak, a large, thin cutlet whose robust flavors owe more to soaking in marinade than smoking with chips. Nor with the sliced beef or pork, either of which can be ordered as a platter ($5.99 for beef) or tossed with sauce between two halves of a soft white roll for a terrific sandwich ($3.65 for beef). Wash it down with a cold beer or tall cup of pink lemonade.

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