Years ago, before moving here, I found myself on Douglas Road in the Gables, half an hour early for some business meeting I had flown down to attend. With time to kill, and my knees practically buckling from the relentless intensity of the summer sun, I stumbled into an unassuming lunch spot close by, which turned out to be a superior Caribbean- and Deep South-influenced barbecue chicken-and-ribs joint. I munched down what little I could in my limited time, recall being particularly taken with the cornbread and requesting many refills of lemonade, and then raced to the meeting, entering the office all sweaty from my harried dash, doggie bags in hand. The overwhelming barbecue aroma escaping from those bags is high on my list of most conspicuous olfactory-distraction memories, topped only by the time my wife and I brought fragrant rotisserie chickens and rosemary roasted potatoes on to an overnight ferry to Sardinia that was overbooked with hungry Italians, and, as a little kid, when my mother packed chopped liver sandwiches for my brother and I to take to Yankee Stadium. On a very hot day.
It's eight years later and that restaurant, Islands Bar-B-Que, has since shifted from Douglas Road all the way south to Cutler Ridge. The owners are the same and, I'm pleased to report, so is the food. Mostly. Different atmosphere, though; this new location is shinier and more fast-foody -- you even order your meal at a counter with a large plastic menu hanging above it. Then you grab a seat at one of the wooden-bench-backed booths with green-vinyl cushions, and a waiter brings it over it's when ready. The workers are friendly, the choices uncomplicated: chicken or ribs, the former a decision between light or dark, the latter between baby-back, beef, or spare.
Well, maybe not quite that simple. Chicken, for instance, comes à la carte; as a value meal with rice and beans; as a family pack of whole bird with choice of two sides and four corn muffins; or as a regular meal, the quarter-chicken served with coleslaw and French fries or mashed potatoes. The chicken is crisp and smoky on the outside, moist and tender within, the barbecue sauce on the side sweet with an underlying piquantness. Not bad at all, but I'd recommend sticking to the spectacular stick-to-the-ribs baby-backs, which come with menu options similar to the ones offered with the chicken. They're slowly cooked, practically fat free, meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy. If Harry Belafonte cooked ribs in the same style that he sang, they would taste just like these.
U.S. 1 and SW 184th St, Cutler Ridge; 305-254-3515. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday through Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday noon till 10:00 p.m.
Chicken value meal $3.25
1/2 rack baby-back ribs $8.99
Ribs and chicken combo $8.79
Side sampler $3.29
Corn muffins $2.20
Cucumber salad, potato salad tangy with mustard and gherkins, and finely chopped coleslaw sweetened with golden raisins (and a generous dose of sugar) make up the cold sides. Hot accompaniments get dished from a steam table -- no problem for mashed potatoes and gravy, collard greens, red or black beans, tasty spicy baked beans, and yellow calypso rice flecked with carrots and peas. Dampens the fried plantains and conch fritters, though.
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The now famous corn muffins are pretty good, but nothing special; I'm not sure if it's the baker or my memory that's slipped. And were they always so bite-size small? Islands Bar-B-Que still is special, mostly for the ribs. I just don't suggest carrying them into any serious meetings unless you're willing to share.