Smoke Signals

Touring area 'cue joints proves to be a saucy experience

Although a few of the great "seasonal" barbecue shacks still exist (most notably Barney's in Ellisville, which opened last weekend, just past the deadline for this article), most barbecue joints are year-round now, rendering moot the Memorial Day weekend quasi-official opening of the barbecue season.

Nonetheless, I need minimal excuse to seek out and write about new barbecue experiences. Probably ever since Og discovered that fire-roasted woolly mammoth was vastly superior to woolly-mammoth sushi, the smoke of grilling meat has set off a primal instinct among carnivorous humans. (Even vegetables often take on their best qualities on a grill, but that's a debate best left to smolder on a different day.)

More so than perhaps any food, though, barbecue insinuates itself through your nostrils and into your brain long before the first morsels touch your lips. You'll just be driving along, minding your own business, when a normal breath turns into a wood-and-spice-filled sinus buzz, soon followed by excess mouth-watering and serious 'cue craving.

Smoki O's: The Walker family purveys delicately sauced ribs in a white-glove spick-and-span establishment.
Jennifer Silverberg
Smoki O's: The Walker family purveys delicately sauced ribs in a white-glove spick-and-span establishment.

Location Info

Map

Barney's Sports Pub

6027 Chippewa St.
St. Louis, MO 63109

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - St. Louis Hills

We're not quite as cultish about barbecue around these parts as the folks on the other side of the state, but we do, in fact, have a specific style of ribs named after us. "St. Louis cut" generally means a slab of "3-and-a-half-and-down" (denoting the weight in pounds) spare ribs (the part that comes from the belly side of the little piggie) with the breast bone removed. The part that's cut off is the "rib tip"; further trimming of a St. Louis cut results in what's called a "Kansas City cut," which may explain why Kansas Citians are considered so meticulous about their rib preparation.

As for the cooking and sauce approach, it's always seemed to me that "St. Louis style" in actual cooking means minimal if any spicing in the dry rub that's put on the meat before cooking; a sauce that's tomatoey and sweet (resulting in, as a barbecue-nut friend of mine who also happens to be a Ph.D. in physics puts it, a "high carbon content" when you choose to baste on the sauce while cooking); and, finally, the tendency by some restaurants to poach the cooked ribs in sauce on a steam table while they're waiting to be served (certainly not all places do this, but it does seem to be a local idiosyncrasy).

Then, of course, there's the local delicacy called the pork steak, virtually unknown in various other parts of the country, but we choose to focus this particular effort solely on pork ribs.

Armed with this knowledge and some spring fever, we recently made a partial tour of the local scene, stopping in on barbecue joints from West County all the way over to Maryville, Ill. Even though all had varying degrees of sit-down facilities, we kept it to a carryout basis, so as not to confuse atmosphere (which is often inversely proportional to the best barbecue) with product. Some recommendations:

Smoki O's (1545 N. Broadway, 314-621-8180. Whole slab: $15. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat.): Starting just after the doors open at 10 a.m., a steady stream of workers from the surrounding heavy-industrial zone, later supplemented by downtown office folks who have discovered this little outpost about eight blocks north of the Trans World Dome, starts filing into this nondescript old structure for a taste of the Walker family's take on the art of smoke.

The motto here is "We keep it clean, so you can eat it lean," and the place is white-glove spick-and-span, with brown sauce-colored walls, a couple of park benches on which to wait and a small U-shaped lunch counter in front if you choose to eat in.

Smoki O's was my favorite of the five places sampled because of a variety of little things. The individual ribs were cut in advance, saving the messy task of slicing them myself. The sauce, a thick, deep-brownish-maroon, had hints of spice but, more important, was delicately layered on, rather than randomly slopped. The mandatory stack of white bread was actually yellow-orange, imparted with the little extra of a cheesy flavor. And the rib meat was dense and rich, with any fat having distinctly separated from the meatier part but still providing a proper amount of juiciness during the cooking process.

Total time for a walk-in carryout order was between five and 10 minutes.

Red'z Rib Shack (Corner of Highways 159 and 162, Maryville, Ill., 618-288-1111. Whole slab: $18. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun., Tue.-Thu.; till 9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.): Red'z is actually an odd conglomeration of two buildings -- the aptly named wood "shack" portion and an adjoining old house -- tied together by a walkway. A location at the crossroads of Highways 159 and 162 puts Red'z within easy striking distance of a large part of Madison County (and about 15 minutes from downtown or North County); as such, the joint's usually jumpin' at mealtimes.

The sauce in this case was again a deep red, but it leaned more toward the tangy side than the spicy side. The meat had a lot of body to it, with a very pronounced hickory taste -- a style of gnaw-it-off-the-bone, chewy rib as opposed to a fall-off-the-bone, tender texture.

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