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Fat Toney’s gives Soulard a ribbing

My friend David is a career coach. When working with new clients, he uses a nifty little diagram to help them start figuring out where their true callings might lie and their most blissful vocations may await. It's broken down by three verbs: do, have, be.

Usually we approach our life's work by first doing menial, teenage jobs like babysitting and lawn-mowing, so we can earn the money needed to have an education, and then we plunge into the field most closely related to our credentials — we try to "be the degree." Some folks aim to have many degrees (bachelor's, master's, M.D., M.B.A., J.D.) so they can become doctors, lawyers, shrinks, titans of industry, so they can devote their lives to doing meaningful work.

David tries to rejigger people's hard-wiring so they start with be. What are your natural talents that take no training or education to coax out? Which parts of your work come to you instinctively? Who are you, really?

My friend Robert, for example, is a barbecue man. Robert's really a nice guy, but if you ring him up and say, "Hey, we're about to barbecue some ribs, come over in an hour," he'll hang up on you, because there's a difference between 'cueing and grilling, and anybody who thinks you can barbecue a rack of ribs in an hour shouldn't be allowed to handle (or stand next to) raw meat. Patience and molasses glide through Robert's veins. He'll get up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday to start a brisket or a slab of spareribs, and only twelve hours later does he send out the call to come on over. To him, barbecue's like a religion: You are, and then you barbecue.

Toney Goucher is Fat Toney, proprietor of Fat Toney's Bar-B-Que. In some ways he's always been a barbecue man. At age fourteen and a half he embarked on his first real job, at a barbecue restaurant in Stillwell, Kansas, starting out on mop duty but soon graduating to the kitchen equipment. Goucher stakes claim to that year, 1963, as the inauguration of what would be Fat Toney's, which means the enterprise is unofficially celebrating its 43rd anniversary even though it only opened in Soulard in January.

Between those two bookends, who Goucher be has skipped around. He earned his bachelor's from Kansas State, but he's such a University of Arkansas fanatic that his restaurant's Web site offers a link to the local Razorback alumni association, the Gateway Hogs, of which he's an honorary lifetime member. For the bulk of his adulthood, he resided in northwest Arkansas, and for a time he lorded over the Fat Toney's empire around Fayetteville, where he personally owned two locations and franchised out three others. Then in 2002 he closed down his barbecue joints to try his hand at the hot-hot world of home mortgages. Three years later, as the real estate biz turned chilly, he was sent to shutter his company's outpost across from the Soulard Farmer's Market.

That Ninth Street storefront now serves as Fat Toney's point of resurrection. Goucher, a polite, "yes, ma'am," Southerner who resembles a jovial cross between Santa Claus and Raymond Burr, still dabbles in home loans, making Fat Toney's perhaps the only place in the world where you can get a half-slab and refinance your mortgage.

Soulard is a great location for a barbecue joint. (Hard to believe there isn't another one there, come to think of it.) And Fat Toney's offers summer-friendly outdoor seating and a pleasant, countrified atmosphere. Scraps of country humor grace the walls — "Out of My Mind, Back in 5 Minutes," "Give a Man an Inch and He Thinks He's a Ruler" — and aluminum-topped tables are outfitted, as tables at barbecue restaurants often are, with rolls of paper towels and cardboard six-pack cartons as condiment holders. Near the counter where you place your order, a placard lists the barbecue basics: brisket, pork, chicken, sausage and ribs, served as sandwiches or plate dinners, with sides like baked beans, slaw, potato salad and fries. A cooler contains bottles of A-B and Schlafly beers; next to that, the fixings table offers complimentary slices of jalapeños, raw onions and pickle spears.

A cold raspberry hefeweizen and a paper towel-full of pickles are great complements to a barbecue meal, but barbecue isn't about the accessories; it's about the process. Not just the long hours of slow smoking, but the before, during and after. Painstaking consideration is required when selecting your wood chip mix, your heat source, your optimal time and temperature, your pre-smoking seasonings, your post-smoking sauce, what you're going to do with that meat to enhance its flavor and texture once you've burned it off on the smoker (a bit of grill time seals in the moisture and lays down those char lines; braising's a widely accepted alternative), and how long to cool it down before serving (barbecue enjoys a rest at room temperature, followed by a slow, dry reheating). A barbecue man will chew over these variables for a lifetime, and discuss and/or debate them for nearly as long.

Fat Toney's smokes on a great combo of chips — oak for durability, hickory to impart a nutty aroma and temper oak's acrid essence. Cooking time and temp is fast and hot: six hours max at 275 to 325 degrees. Fat Toney's ribs are pretty tasty. They're tender, generously portioned and not oversauced. They're also baby backs, which means they're suited to a shorter cooking time than spareribs would require.

Which brings me to my beef with Fat Toney's beef. You can get away with cooking beef short ribs for four or five hours, but not brisket; you end up with something closer to roast beef than barbecue: no smoked-in pink color, no smoke rings (those tree ring-like harbingers of deep-down smoke flavor). Unfortunately, brisket is the only beef on the menu here, and it comes out grayish, with hardly any flavor. Worse, like all of Fat Toney's hot foods, it's been kept warm on a steam table instead of being sliced and reheated to order. Whatever smoky flavor that imbued the meat gets canceled out by the steam, which literally pulls out the flavor, and the slow-cooked juiciness.

Chicken is a challenge to any barbecue enthusiast. On one hand, it requires less smoke time than beef and pork. On the other, you don't want to see any red juices, lest you engender a salmonella panic. Fat Toney's way around this conundrum is to over-smoke his poultry — two and a half hours! — which doubtless allays fears of food poisoning, but the tradeoff is a dried-out bird and a bad case of cottonmouth.

Inconsistencies extend to the side dishes. A vinegary house-made coleslaw is pleasantly kicky, but the potato salad is store-bought and swimming in a dispiriting yellow mayo soup. On one visit baked beans were choked by so much brown sugar they reminded me of "brown bread" (a canned Maine delicacy that defies description beyond blargh); on another try the starch shot to the fore, with better results. The fries might be sickly and soggy one day (steam table), firm and sprinkled with a tongue-tickling seasoning the next.

With his prime location and lazy-hazy ambiance, Goucher has a good thing going in Soulard. Should he choose to tweak a few things, Fat Toney's could emerge as an ideal place to be.

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