Diner: 'Cued Up

Local barbecue joints offer flavors for every taste

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'Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread" might as well refer to anyone idiotic enough to rate barbecue joints. Yeah, so, we're idiots.

According to conventional wisdom, barbecue is at the least a cultural rite, at most damn near a religion and always a catalyst for great debate whether you hail from Carolina (when you're talkin' about barbecue, there's only one Carolina), Texas, Kansas City or Memphis.

A good barbecue joint is modest in appearance so as not to distract you from the business of eatin'. Plain tables and chairs, disposable paper plates and utensils, various statues and pictures of pigs (or cows if you're in Texas) and a photograph of the beaming proprietor on the wall near the entrance are always good signs you're in an authentic barbecue joint.

The great barbecue debate begins with pork (Tarheels claim it's the only true "Q") or beef brisket (it's brisket or nada in Texas); continues with pit-cooked vs. flame-grilled; heats up further with whole hog or shoulder; and can divide families over whether tomatoes should be any part of the finishing sauce.

'Round these parts, the general population has no idea what real barbecue is, and to an extent the word has become synonymous with grilling. But a weenie on a coat hanger over a Weber grill isn't barbecue.

Now hear this: Barbecue is a noun, not an adjective or verb! Whether you favor pork or beef, delicious barbecue is the result of a slow cooking process that can't be done properly on gas grills.

(That means the crap served drenched in sauce at some places isn't barbecue, period.)

While Cincinnati isn't necessarily a barbecue destination, we do have a few good joints. Goodies Barbecue in College Hill does it nice 'n slow, the way Donna Covrett likes it; Anne Mitchell found some religion in Elsmere; and Emily Lieb was turned around by BBQ Revue in Madisonville.

Mo' flava
I won't claim to be an authority on barbecue, but I did "growed up from a pup" on pork barbecue "sammiches" — white bread only and with all the fixins — thanks to a Southern family cook. And Mr. Goodie, of GOODIES SOUTHERN STYLE BARBECUE (5841 Hamilton Ave., College Hill, 513-542-4663), makes it just like I remember it: Pork pit-smoked slowly 'til the fat has completely dissolved and a crunchy caramelized crust has formed on the outside, resulting in a deep but delicate smoked flavor.

He favors a tomato finishing sauce but not too much to detract from the meat. Sides are good: collard greens (with the right amount of vinegar), macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice and ohmigod Chess Pie that I could eat until I'm as full as a tick.

It's the customers who line up at the counter that sell Goodie the best — 'cue scholars every one.

"You make some good barbecue, it don't really need no sauce at all."

"Gotta know your wood and how to control the fire to make good coals."

"It's gotta' be pig, male pig, cooked at the right temperature for the right length of time."

"Them gas grills are for heatin' water — they don't do nuthin' to help the taste of food."

"Steaming pulls the flavor out; an open flame torches the meat."

"He sho' knows his pork butt."

"Eatin' Mr. Goodies food is like goin' home." (Donna Covrett)

Say it loud, I'm back and I'm proud
After a year-long experiment in vegetarianism, one morning I awoke with a wild craving for meat. It wasn't a decision to be made, but a primal need to be met.

My mind raced with possibilities. A polite breast of chicken with delicate herbs wouldn't do. Even a filet sounded too refined. A friend heard the desperation in my voice and took me to BBQ REVUE (4725 Madison Road, Madisonville, 513-871-3500).

I marched past the fiberglas pig by the entrance, letting out a sigh of relief as my senses were met with the thick aromas of smoky meat. My hands trembled as I carried my Styrofoam plate piled high with beef brisket to a booth. It was uncivilized. Ripping, tearing and sucking — my teeth went at that brisket, doing all the things they couldn't do with, say, seitan.

Cooked in the smoker overnight, the brisket has a full, cooked-in flavor. It's cut into big strips, well trimmed of fat, and the meat breaks apart easily, even with plastic utensils.

It wasn't long before I was pulling succulent ribs off my friend's plate, too, and gnawing at the bones. The ribs are the Revue's biggest claim to fame, but I'll never get over that first bite of brisket.

The sauce is added with each order, except on the Pulled Chicken and Pork, which are scooped out already sopping in sloppy sauce. With these, the meat is shredded so fine it loses its resiliency and flavor to the sauce. But the sauce is near perfect, a nice balance of smoky, spicy, tangy and slightly sweet tomato flavor.

My only complaint is that the Revue doesn't serve greens. Of the sides, potato salad is my favorite, with a nice, mustardy kick. Slaw, green beans and baked beans are typical. I've had different experiences with the macaroni and cheese — once it was al dente and creamy, another mushy and clumpy. Cornbread is sweet and simple.

No dessert at the Revue besides a 50-cent brownie. But in the warm months, you can get soft-serve ice cream in an old New York Central dining car the owner recently fixed up and parked in his lot.

No dilemma of conscience here: I'm not cut out for a life of soy substitutes. And I have the Revue to thank for bringing me back from the other side. (Emily Lieb)

Say amen!
JJ'S BARBECUE (4315 Dixie Hwy., Elsmere, 859-342-9585) is the sort of place you might not notice. It's a very small, white building in the corner of the parking lot of Swan Floral. Luckily a friend of mine was being dragged around to pick out wedding flowers and, out of the desperation of boredom, spotted it.

As soon as I walked in the door, I had a feeling I'd come to the right place, but when I saw the meat falling off of the smoky slab of ribs I knew it. Beautiful!

Although the slab was cut into manageable servings, they needn't have bothered. The ribs were so perfectly tender that when I got them back to the office I cut them easily with a plastic knife.

These were the meatiest ribs I've ever eaten. The "big name" rib restaurants serve "squirrelly" ribs that you have to gnaw like a squirrel with your front teeth. Not so with JJ's: moist, delicious pork by the forkful that would have been flavorful even without sauce. But the sauce is excellent — very rich and flavorful.

I asked the owner, Brother James Brown, if he seasoned the meat before cooking and he replied, "Just a little salt, pepper and garlic. The pig does the rest."

Good job, pig! And for those of you making barbecue at home, this expert doesn't parboil his ribs — he slow-cooks them right on the fire.

The side dishes I tried were good but not outstanding. I sampled the potato salad and homemade baked beans — not too sweet and not too mushy.

JJ's is so small that it's really only for carryout. James advertises, "The ribs are ready, and the sauce is just right." Amen, brother. (Anne Mitchell) ©

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