Banking the Coals

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

Aug 30, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

C&K Barbecue (4390 Jennings Station Rd., 314-385-8100) takes a notably different tack in its sauce, which has heavy tomato overtones in its aroma and a visible, particulate dose of black pepper and other spices.

The location we stopped in at, designated "No. 3," is housed in an old service station (a recurring motif in numerous local barbecue joints) just south of I-70, directly accessible by way of the Jennings Station Road exit or Natural Bridge from the south. (C&K No. 1 is located at 4334 N. Newstead Ave.; there is currently no No. 2, although for a while several years back they ran a strip-mall outlet in Overland).

Another amazingly long-lived veteran of the local scene, C&K has been around for almost 40 years. A slab here ($13.75) is served very wet, so most of the overall flavor comes from the sweet-and-spicy (and unavoidably messy) sauce. The meat is full-bodied, moderately dense near the bones but especially chewy down around the left-intact flap piece, making this a good choice for those who gravitate toward this unique style of sauce or toward the gnaw-the-bones style of meat. Our order came out in a little more than five minutes.

Phil's (9205 Gravois Rd., 314-638-1313) is also pushing the big 4-0 in age and has always struck me as the patron saint of the St. Louis stewing style, which is blatantly displayed at the carryout counter just to the left of the front door. There you'll see subsections of rib bubbling away in pots of dark, brownish-red sauce.

This style of cooking tends to cause variations in the finished texture of the meat. On this particular visit, it was still clinging consistently to the bones and more chewy than fall-apart. The sauce at Phil's is truly one-of-a-kind, with an aroma and a subtle finish of pumpkin-pie spice, and the cooking style obviously causes it to be a blatant participant in your slab ($16).

A second Phil's is located just off I-44 at 115 W. Fifth St. in Eureka (636-938-6575). Because of the kettle-finishing style, carryout at Phil's is virtually instantaneous.

Our final stop on this particular tour is Chaney's (8224 Olive Blvd., 314-993-1716), a sentimental favorite of mine, owing to my U. City upbringing and the fact that they still use that same late-'60s faux-Peter Max flower-child logo.

With a heritage dating to 1945, Chaney's may just take the title as oldest continuously operating barbecue joint in St. Louis. Its current building was opened in 1962, but it has expanded multidirectionally in the years since, adding a roof over and a screen around the barbecue pit when overzealous health regulators objected to the former open-air cooking approach and later tacking on a group of outdoor tables out back.

Chaney's meat takes the ribs-simulating-ham approach, even extending to a hint of saltiness in the finish. The sauce isn't powerful in any given direction -- a hint of sweet, a hint of spice -- but this balances nicely with the cooking style.

While you're waiting for your order -- we were quoted a 10-minute wait, but the ribs came out in just over five -- be sure to browse the pictures, mementos and clippings on the back wall, which include ticket stubs to Cardinals' World Series appearances in the late '60s. With Hogan's Heroes reruns playing in the family room while I chomped on Chaney's ribs, my trip down memory lane was complete.

CORRECTION: The general manager of the Bacchus Brewery Co. called to correct the statement in last week's column that it hadn't started brewing its own beer before ceasing operations in Union Station. According to the general manager, Bacchus had in fact brewed beer and had also sold it to numerous bars and clubs.