Diner: Rib-Tickler

Walt's is a benchmark for Kentucky cuisine

A friend recently described Walt's Hitching Post as her favorite stop either coming from or going to the airport. She insists Walt's is the place to acclimate any visitor to our local cuisine. And our guest had only arrived at midnight two nights before from Germany. Jet lag over, she assured us she was ready to investigate a benchmark of Kentucky cuisine.

When we arrived early on a Saturday evening, we assumed that we'd beaten the crowd. But Walt's is always busy. The lobby was full, people shoulder-to-jowl from the cashier's counter to the reception desk near the kitchen door and over to the smoky front bar. We were early for our reservations and were asked to wait about five minutes before being seated. In the interim, we saw people exiting with balloons and birthday cakes, bottles of Walt's sauce and smiling, satisfied expressions. Many stopped to chat with other diners or our companions in the lobby.

We were guided through crowded dining rooms and then tucked around a cozy corner table under a large photograph of "Honey," the big-haired, turquoise-lidded beauty who appeared to be a former Walt's waitress. The décor included a television suspended in each room and paintings and photographs of horses and other assorted equine paraphernalia. We had ample discussion fodder to describe some of the major industries of Kentucky — horses and tobacco.

I felt compelled to share classic Walt's starters: French Fried Zucchini ($4.25) and French Fried Mushrooms ($4.25). Both the zucchini and the mushrooms had a crunchy, deep golden batter-fried crust over the hot, moist and crisp vegetables and were accompanied with cocktail sauce. Walt's vegetables are better than most and proved to be slightly addictive.

Owner Bill Melton strolled the labyrinth, greeted many, seated some, delivered drinks and checked to make sure patrons enjoyed their visit. The original log cabin was built in the 1800s and is one of the oldest buildings in Kenton County. Story has it that two sisters converted the log cabin into the Hitching Post Restaurant in 1938, then sold it to Walt Ballinger (hence Walt's) in the late '40s. Melton purchased the building from Walt's widow in 1958 and kept the name while adding more dining rooms.

Melton developed their tart, smoky and peppered barbecue sauce, a key component to their success. There are some in the area who view Walt's sauce as the best, while others prefer the sweet sauce of another ribs spot. I'm in Walt's camp. The Pit, smoking visibly in the parking lot regardless of the season, is another facet of the unique difference in their barbecue. The meat is cured in a dry rub for three hours, grilled over the spit rotisserie, then brought into the building for finishing with sauce.

Each entrée comes with a choice of vegetables and salads. The tart and crunchy Special Cole Slaw is a jumble of chopped white cabbage and red peppers, tossed with vinegar and oil. The baked potatoes are baked, not microwaved and disappear under optional coatings of butter and/or sour cream and, of course, some accidental dribblings of sauce.

While there are many other selections among the entrées, it's quite obvious that the favorites are the ribs. The Barbecued Ribs, Whole Slab ($14.95) are tender and flavorful, with little greasiness. The pork short rib meat is very tasty on its own. Each order comes with a small dish of sauce, but most diners ask for more. Wait staff seemed well accustomed to this request, and it materialized faster than we could finish licking our fingers. Combined with Walt's garlicky buttered rye toast, little sauce was left. The Special Combination Barbecued Plate ­ Chicken and Ribs ($13.50) included a generous thigh and leg quarter and a half slab of ribs. An ambitious amount of food, the sweet, tender chicken was plump, moist and succulent with a cooked-on coating of sauce and grilled perfectly.

Service can be a little uneven. It's clear that many diners order without ever glancing at the menu, so we were unprepared to order as soon as we sat down. While bone plates and sauce appeared remarkably fast, there was a noticeable lag between our salads and the entrées. And I would have liked moistened towelettes to clean my hands.

Unlike my friend and I, you don't need an out-of-town guest or an airport trip as an excuse to visit Walt's Hitching Post. Just come with an appetite.

Go: Madison Pike and Kyles Lane, Fort Wright, Kentucky

Call: 606-331-0494

Hours: Monday­Thursday 4 p.m.­midnight; Friday­Saturday 4 p.m.­1 a.m.; Sunday Noon­Midnight

Prices: Reasonable­moderate

Payment: Major credit cards and cash

Vegetarian Friendliness: Hey! This is a ribs joint. There are several fish and seafood selections, however.

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