By Tara Mahadevan
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Gut Check
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Gut Check Guides
I'm at a sports bar, right? It says so on the sign outside: Flavors BBQ Sports Bar & Grill. Even though no sports are playing on the TVs above the bar — it's a show on the History Channel called MonsterQuest in which actual people reenact actual encounters with actual monsters; today's episode involves something called the Hillbilly Beast, whose purported existence seems like a pretty strong argument for gun rights — I should order some wings.
4317 Manchester Ave.
Maplewood, MO 63143
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The wings here are smoked, not fried, and they are massive. Each is served as one whole wing, all three parts (tip, middle wing and drumette) still attached, and even the typically scrawny tip is plumper than usual. Would I be surprised to see the chickens from whence these wings came on a future edition of MonsterQuest?
Best not to answer that question and enjoy the wings. They are terrific. The exterior has a peppery dry rub that negates the need for barbecue sauce. The meat is juicy and rich with the flavor of hickory smoke. I snap the bones to get at every last morsel, and even though the Hillbilly Beast remains undiscovered, I finish my meal utterly happy.
More than any other food, barbecue has the power to transcend its surroundings. In most cases, this is the sublime pleasure of meat cooked low and slow eaten off a paper plate in a place politely described as a joint but more accurately called a shack. Sometimes, there is no restaurant, only a battered barrel smoker on a street corner or in a parking lot.
Flavors BBQ displays this power in somewhat unusual fashion. It opened three months ago in the Forest Park Southeast space that was home to the bistro Five before it moved to the Hill last summer. The layout remains essentially the same: You enter into the bar, which features multiple TV sets and high-top tables. A short hallway leads to a smaller, more sedate dining room. While the décor no longer suggests a higher-end restaurant like Five, it doesn't suggest a sports bar and grill, either. There are TVs, of course, and a dartboard, but I didn't see any sports memorabilia. And the place certainly doesn't scream barbecue, joint, shack or otherwise.
Really, its name aside, the restaurant feels like a blank slate. Until your food arrives.
Owner Bill Green has been barbecuing for a long time, but Flavors BBQ is the 56-year-old's first restaurant. ("It was my passion to do this when I retire," he explains.) Hickory is his woodsmoke of choice, and he uses a secret dry rub passed down to him by his father. The results are almost uniformly excellent. If it isn't the best barbecue in town, it certainly belongs in a discussion of the top five.
The wings might be my favorite — they were certainly the biggest surprise — but the ribs run a very close second. You can order both spare or loin back (a.k.a. baby back) ribs here. I prefer the loin-back ribs, which give you more meat on the bone as well as an extra layer of meat atop the ribs. That is a matter of personal taste, though. Both slabs were perfectly tender, the meat pulling easily from the bone but not falling off it. In each case the dry rub added a subtle spicing to the meat. The ribs, with that unbeatable combo of woodsmoke and pork's natural flavor, don't need much help.
Beef brisket is another standout. I've written before of my uneasy relationship with this cut, which in the wrong hands is tough and flavorless. The brisket at Flavors BBQ is as tender as any I've had, though. The kitchen slices it paper-thin so that the meat seems to dissolve on the tongue. Here the dry rub plays a much greater role in the flavor, giving the brisket a very sharp edge of black pepper and salt. (I might have toned down the salt just a smidge.)
The pulled pork is quite good, moist and flavorful. If I sound hesitant, it's only because the pork ribs offer so much bang for your buck. Among the barbecue meats I tried, the only disappointment was the pulled chicken, which was dry. The house barbecue sauce is on thin side and not very distinctive, a little tangy, not much sweetness or heat. Except on the pulled chicken, I used it sparingly.
As at most barbecue joints, most meats are available as a sandwich or a platter. The former comes with one side, the latter two. These sides were a mixed bag. The French fries are average, but the sweet-potato fries are crisp and flavorful. Onion rings are big and fried to a beautiful medium brown but are a bit too much to pair with a big plate of meat. Green beans are overcooked, a barbecue inevitability, but the flavor is amped up with bits of smoked turkey.
In terms of service, the restaurant is still finding its feet, with the floor staff and the kitchen not quite in sync. Multiple orders arrived at staggered times. On one occasion my server didn't tell me that kitchen was out of pulled pork until fifteen minutes after I placed my order.
Still, it is the power of barbecue that once I had my ribs or wings in front of me, any small annoyances quickly faded into the background. Sad to say, there is a lot of subpar barbecue out there: improperly cooked, doctored with liquid smoke, swamped with syrupy sweet sauce. Finding the good stuff, whether in the archetypal shack or here, in a bistro-turned-sports bar, is nearly as challenging as finding the Hillbilly Beast somewhere in the dark backwoods of Kentucky — and a far greater cause for celebration.
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