Banking the Coals

Getting fired up for the summer's last look at local barbecue joints

One of the more colorful theories on the origin of the word "barbecue" is that it stems from the French barbe à queue, meaning "beard to tail," a reference to whole-animal roasting. In that whimsical if apocryphal spirit, this, the third installment in our random walk down Barbecue Street in St. Louis, will be the tail end of our 2000 tour. The 15 or so places we've covered since Memorial Day certainly didn't come near to smoking out the entire local barbecue scene, but we hope they've at least provided you with a couple of new discoveries and reintroduced some old favorites.

As we mentioned back in May, we're not really sure whether there's a definitive "St. Louis style" of barbecue, although there is clearly a definitive "St. Louis cut" of pork spare ribs, weighing 3-and-a-half pounds or less and with the breastbone removed. Nonetheless, those who strive for such things will be happy to know that St. Louis-style ribs have officially been canonized to hiphood by no less than Los Angeles magazine, whose current-month annual restaurant issue lists a place called Mama Adelle's in Long Beach, a "funky new spot (that) specializes in 'St. Louis-style' cuisine," as one of La-La Land's "affordable feasts."

And maybe the magazine's description of Mama Adelle's ribs -- "slowly simmered in a brothy, onion-laden barbecue sauce that's neither too thick nor ketchupy" -- provides a hint of how some folks characterize this area's approach to ribs. Although it's not a universal practice, the tendency either to finish the ribs briefly in the sauce after roasting them or even to stew them at length before does seem to be a common St. Louis trait.

Mama's Coal Pot: barbecue like it oughtta be
Jennifer Silverberg
Mama's Coal Pot: barbecue like it oughtta be

Most of the spots in this final grouping of barbecue joints are real old-timers, dating back 40 years and more. We didn't plan it that way, but in the process of wandering from shack to shack, we discovered that Fat Matt's, the parish barbecue outlet of St. Matthew's Church in the Ville neighborhood, had closed but was apparently planning a resurrection for early September; and Roberta & Co.'s Barbecue and More, at the corner of Union and Dr. Martin Luther King boulevards, was closed for vacation for two weeks in August.

But that just meant that we needed to travel a little farther and make our waistlines a little wider.

Our favorite of the current batch, and quite possibly the best of our entire summer's tour, is Mama's Coal Pot (6655 Delmar Blvd., outdoor stalls in the Market in the Loop, 314-727-8034). This is, quite simply, barbecue like it oughtta be, with only the smoke to provide any atmosphere because there's only an order window and no real "restaurant" to speak of (although you can cop a table either indoors in the Market passageway or outdoors at the open-air tables).

You'll only find Mama's open Thursday-Sunday, usually indicated by the plumes and the aroma emanating from a barrel grill off to the side. The ribs here ($16.05 for a slab) are richly smoky, with almost a sweetness in the meat itself, complemented by a gentle sweetness in a sauce that's subtly applied rather than slathered on. The texture, too, is nigh unto perfect -- dense without slipping over into chewiness, and loose enough to be pushed off the bone with just a nudge but not so loose that it simply falls apart. We were quoted a "four-minute" wait at the counter, and the order came out right according to that schedule.

At the other end of the atmospheric and geographic spectrum is Ethyl's Wildwood Saloon and Smokehouse (409 Old Highway 40, O'Fallon, Mo., 636-978-7755), which, as the preceding address indicates, isn't actually in Wildwood (or, ironically, very close to the current Highway 40 -- it's actually roughly adjacent to Interstate 70, just east of the Highway K exit). Ethyl's is part theme restaurant, very similar in some ways to the Route 66 Brewery, which was reviewed last week, with highway signs and old gas pumps and similar America-on-the-road paraphernalia. But it's also part roadside picnic area, with a sprawling grounds including a patio, game courts and even a parklike seating area.

The place, or at least the property on which it sits, has quite a history, duly documented on the menu, dating way back to 1925, when Highway 40 really did run right past the front door. It started life as the Wildwood Saloon, then went through incarnations as diverse as Gene and Marge's Tavern to Bubba and Coy's Catfish House before settling on its current identity.

There's actually an extensive menu, but for this trip we kept it consistent by sticking with a carryout slab of ribs ($16.50), which came out in a bit more than 10 minutes. Ethyl's describes its sauce as "sweet and smoky," and that's pretty accurate -- interestingly enough, the aroma seems to indicate the presence of vinegar, although that kind of tang didn't come through at all in the flavor. The meat itself was only moderately smoky in flavor, with most of the taste driven by the sauce, and here again there was an excellent balance in the texture, falling at what I think is the ideal point between fall-apart and ham-to-jerky dense.

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