It's pretty much axiomatic that behind every barbecue joint there's an interesting story: a former Memphis in May "Super Bowl of Swine" champion settling down; a recipe passed down from someone's great-grandma in North Carolina; a grill jockey with nothing more than a barrel smoker, a vacant corner and a dream. Plush Pig Barbeque is no different — though its particular story says as much about the modern entrepreneur as it does about hog cooked low and slow.
Founder Larry Lampert was in the auto-parts business until AutoZone and other national chains descended upon St. Louis. He then opened a pizza restaurant, only to face...the national chains. Same thing happened with his Fatman's Sub Shops (the name a reference to his former girth). He turned the sub shops into Fatman's Barbeque. Eventually, he sold the barbecue business and retired.
Lampert unretired in 2005 to open Plush Pig Barbeque in Clayton. A barbecue joint in the heart of white-collar country? From the big metal tub filled with ice and Budweiser to the complimentary roasted peanuts, the incongruity was part of the Pig's charm. More important, Plush Pig's 'cue, smoked over cherry wood and served (appropriately!) with sauce on the side, was very good, earning a rave review from this newspaper.
(It should be noted that the text of this review, written by my predecessor Rose Martelli, is now used more or less verbatim — and unattributed — on the back of the Plush Pig's menu.)
The Plush Pig closed late last year. In late March of this year, Lampert and his daughter and business partner, Angie, reopened in the old Café Brasil space in Rock Hill. While the new location doesn't stand out in the way the Clayton digs did, a nose-thumbing aspect is again involved: A branch of the Bandana's Bar-B-Q chain is located right across Manchester Road.
The most striking aspect of the new Plush Pig is its cafeteria-size dining room, which must be twice (and maybe even three times) as large as the Clayton space. There is a bar at one end of the room and a little stand where diners can help themselves to chips and salsa — is it gauche to complain about free food? At any rate, I miss the peanuts — but otherwise the look is no-frills. Contemporary country music blasts from the sound system.
The least striking aspect of the new Plush Pig is the barbecue.
Now, the St. Louis barbecue scene certainly has advanced since the Plush Pig debuted five years ago. Since barbecue legend Mike Mills opened an O'Fallon, Illinois, location of his 17th Street Bar & Grill in 2007, aficionados no longer have to drive all the way to Murphysboro to sample his acclaimed handiwork. Pappy's Smokehouse set a new standard for St. Louis barbecue as soon as it opened its doors two years ago. But this isn't simply a case of the Plush Pig being outpaced. It seems as though the Lamperts left something behind in Clayton.
On my first visit, I ordered a half-slab of spare ribs. What arrived at my table looked as if it had been smoked — and then mauled by a bear and left to dry in the sun. The slab had been cut in the kitchen into individual ribs — not my preference, given that one of the best ways to judge ribs' doneness is to see how easily each bone gives (though the meat should not, contrary to the cliché, fall off the bone) — with other additional pieces that may or may not have been ribs thrown in, all of it piled haphazardly atop a slice of plain white bread. The ribs weren't tender, and several pieces of meat were as thin and tough as jerky.
On a return visit, I again ordered a half-slab. This time the ribs, though still cut into individual pieces, were identifiable as ribs. The meat was more tender than what I got the first time around, with a good smoke flavor over the fatty sweetness of the pork. That said, the ribs weren't as tender as I'd have liked — they weren't dry, but they were too chewy, as if the meat hadn't been smoked long enough.
Your best bet might be the pulled pork. This was quite tender with a solid, smoky, sweet flavor, if a little heavy on the salt. Pulled chicken was appropriately moist but so over-seasoned with ground black pepper that, were this not a barbecue joint, I might not have believed it had been barbecued. The brisket, a standout at the old Plush Pig, was nearly as disappointing as the ribs. The meat, sliced paper-thin, bore a lovely rose-colored smoke ring but was dry, dry, dry.
The spicy barbecue sauce, served in giant squeeze bottles, was a saving grace. (There is also a milder version.) Tangy, ever so sweet and just fiery enough to dampen your brow, it countered even the black-pepper bluntness of the chicken and added some moisture to the brisket.
The aforementioned meats essentially make up the menu, though you can order them in any number of combinations: as sandwiches, as platters of two or three meats with sides, as combination sandwiches (the "Dixie Combo" with brisket and pork, the "Big Jake" with brisket and chicken). Sides are the expected — fries, barbecue beans, green beans, cole slaw — and generally bland; the barbecue beans were quite sweet, the fries up-from-frozen pale. If you're with a group (or very hungry), split an order of the onion rings from the appetizer menu. The batter is light and crisp, the onions sweet and tender.
The Lamperts have succeeded before, so I wouldn't be surprised if the new Plush Pig rights the ship. It would be only fitting for a family whose story has been a succession of comebacks.