Where There's Smoke

Clancy's Rib Co. draws on a notable pedigree to present upscale barbecue

The concept of "upscale barbecue" is right up there with "plastic glass," "jumbo shrimp" and, more recently, "software product deadline" in the pantheon of oxymorons. Nonetheless, a significant segment of the dining-out marketplace apparently hesitates to engage in the most appropriate barbecue ritual, which involves sitting in a barely if at all air-conditioned, smoke-scented diner or shack, usually at a picnic table or on vinyl chairs, mummifying oneself in paper napkins and simulating the dining behavior of ancestors at least a couple of rungs down the evolutionary ladder.

Thus venerable practitioners of the gnaw-on-the-bone style — like Phil's, McCrary's, the original SuperSmokers in Eureka, C&K, Mama's Coal Pot and Barney's — have gradually been joined by places like K.C. Masterpiece and the new Bandana's on Manchester Road, where folks even occasionally show up in ties that they obviously got as unwanted Father's Day presents.

Clancy's Rib Co., which recently opened near West Port Plaza in a space that formerly housed the Bombay Bicycle Club and Nelson's Landing, boasts a pedigree that dates to the shack style back in old Memphis, but the location and interior are decidedly more genteel. The restaurant takes its name from a family patriarch, "Squire" C.L. Clancy, who opened a grocery and later a saloon in 19th-century Memphis, then became a justice of the peace, along the way getting quite the reputation for classic slow-cooked Southern 'cue.

The cooking technique at Clancy's involves a "dry rub" (a spice mixture rubbed onto the meat before cooking) and marinating during the slow-grilling process. As has been the case with many new local barbecue spots of the past decade or so, the application of "wet" sauce is left to the diner, who is provided an on-the-table choice of Clancy's regular, Missouri sweet, Carolina mustard, sweet-and-spicy and Clancy's hot, plus one extra-hot selection available only by request.

This technique results in a rich flavor to the meats, especially the pork ribs, with the dry rub adding some herby flavor but also a hint of a salty taste. My own personal bias should be stated plainly here: I prefer less richness and smoke content in the meat taste of my barbecue. Nonetheless, almost all of the sauces (I would have liked a bit more tang and punch in the Carolina version) were more than concentrated enough to balance out the meat's richness.

Special mention must be made of the extra-hot sauce, which of course I had to order and which left my lips, nose and throat tingling for a good 15 minutes after we left the restaurant. Whereas the five standard sauces are set on each table in industrial condiment-squirters, the special one is apparently mixed to order only when a brave-enough soul dares to inquire, then brought to the table in a small soup cup. It's a basic reddish-brown, slightly sweet base, but the second it touches any sensory element of the human body, it ignites every nerve ending within an inch of the contact. If you just can't get hot enough, this may test your limits.

The meats we tried — baby-back pork ribs and sliced beef brisket — were both cooked to firm but quite tender consistency. The ribs ($7.99 "lunch rack," $10.99 half rack, $16.99 full rack) retained a touch of crispiness in the outermost layer; the brisket ($6.99 sandwich, $7.99 plate, $12.99 with a third of a rack of ribs) reflected a good slow-cooking technique through the graduated color (lines of pink bordered by the seared outer skin) at the very edge of each slice. The ribs and barbecue plates all come with a choice of two sides from among the usual suspects of barbecued baked beans, potato salad, cole slaw, applesauce, french fries, herbed red potatoes and a cucumber medley.

We also tested the barbecued shrimp ($14.99) — three skewers of four medium shrimp, lightly marinated in a barbecue sauce and served over a massive bed of rice — which were passable, but the relative strength at Clancy's was obviously the standard barbecued meats.

Other meat choices include chicken and ham, and we were able to sample the latter as part of the "house special" appetizer ($6.99 and more than enough for two), which included a large portion of smoked ham, several slices of Polish-style sausage, another large portion of cheddar slices and about a half-dozen pickled pepperoncinis virtually guaranteed to squirt pepper juice all over you and your companion whenever you bit into them. The ham itself, like the other meats we tried, featured concentrated flavors that paired off well with the barbecue sauces. Another variation on the sausage side was the "Snake Bites" appetizer ($4.59), small smoky sausages rolled in bits of cheddar cheese and then battered and deep-fried.

There's a good selection of beers on tap, which is generally the best hard wash-down for a barbecue meal, and the lemonade glasses are bottomless if you choose the best soft alternative.

Barn art — and I especially liked the etched-glass flying pig — is one primary decor motif, although there's also a fair amount of river art and more than a passing nod to baseball. The dining room is physically divided by the entry and bar area, making the fairly large total space (seating well upward of 100) seem not so sprawling, although a combination of the time needed to finish slow-cooking properly and an apparent shortage of waitresses (one was working at least seven tables) conspired on one of our visits to make the meal run well over an hour. On our other visit, in contrast, the courses came out in prompt order.

For a basic 'cue fix, you'll do fine at Clancy's, and you can be comfortable dressed up or down. Give it a try when you don't feel like regressing into loincloth mode, but at the same time, remember to indulge in the smokeshack alternative at least every now and then to keep yourself honest.

CLANCY'S RIB CO. 11660 Administration Dr. (Page at Schuetz), 432-2611.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri., noon-10 p.m. Sat. Entrees: $6.49-$16.99

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