Cafe Society

MAKING A PIT STOP

Food can be an icebreaker, an educational opportunity, even a great social equalizer. Never was this more apparent than on my first day of college, when my new roommate Kelli and I came face to face and realized that she is black and I am white.

Up until that point, I'd lived in an all-white neighborhood and had all-white friends at an almost all-white high school. Kelli came from an all-black world. Nothing had prepared either of us for the awkwardness as her family and friends stared at my family and friends and no one knew what to say. Until I saw the pie, that is.

It was beautiful and looked like pumpkin, the pie I had been requesting as my "birthday cake" since I was old enough to talk. Kelli told me it was sweet potato, and laughed when I said I'd never heard of it. Next thing you know, we were talking up a storm. We polished off the entire pie that night.

During the nights that followed, we discussed all the foods peculiar to our homes and backgrounds, and vowed to turn each other on to all the great stuff we'd grown up with. As a joke I brought her SOS (shit on a shingle, to you postwar types), which my mother had made for my veteran father whenever she felt he was taking her cooking for granted. I also introduced her to my family's definitive dish, Grandma's Irish stew. In return, Kelli brought me incredible barbecued spareribs that her father, a former pitmaster, had smoked in their hickory-filled backyard pit; the ribs were covered with a sauce whose recipe hailed from her father's hometown of Austin, Texas. The meat, cooked in a traditional Texas manner called "sop and mop," was falling off the bone, juicy and spicy from the "sop" marinade; the sauce (the "mop") was sweet and sticky from tons of molasses. I definitely got the better part of the trade.

Those first ribs set an almost unattainable standard for barbecue. Still, whenever I see a place like the two-year-old KT's Hick'Ry Pit BBQ, I start to drool. I was encouraged by the down-home charm of the place. It's set in an old house in Boulder, and when you order, you feel as though you're standing in someone's private kitchen. And the name alone--with its reference to the pit of my dreams--was enough to get the juices flowing. With the exception of a dwindling number of places in the South, pit smoking is rare these days; it's hard to find the distinctive aroma that comes from letting the meat fat drip onto wood and rocks. Unfortunately, I didn't find it at KT's, either. Despite the name, like most restaurants today, KT's actually uses a standard smoking oven rather than an outdoor pit. The oven cooks the wood fumes into the meat, whose moisture absorbs the smoke and then evaporates, increasing the smokiness of the oven's interior. Although the process dries the meat out a bit, the drying serves to concentrate the flavors. And KT's flavors are certainly worthy of concentration. The spareribs ($7 a pound, with each slab weighing around one and a half pounds) are served up in a fair imitation of the "sop and mop" method. Unmopped, the ribs tasted overwhelmingly of a hot-sauce marinade with just a hint of vinegar; the meat was dry and crunchy in parts, fat and juicy in others. KT's obviously slops on some mop during the cooking process, because the sugars turn the pork black.

Unlike the sop, KT's mop is a washout. The restaurant offers three sauces: Memphis-style, Texas-style and a hot sauce laden with red-pepper flakes. The Texas-style was by far the best of the batch, with plenty of sugary molasses tones and a thick, heavy consistency, but no much-needed garlic or mustard bite. According to KT's manager, Lisa Earl, many customers mix the Texas condiment with the hot version--a wise move, considering that the straight hot sauce will have you sweating like a pig. The Memphis recipe (all three mops were created by KT's owners, Kirk and Tricia Jamison) is overly generous with the vinegar and black pepper, leaving the mixture too runny and, well, too peppery. The tanginess hangs out without any other tastes to hold it up. The rib basket ($6.50) comes with four or five ribs, two sides and a drink. Of the sides we sampled, the coleslaw ($6 a quart if bought separately) was the standout: grated cabbage--mostly white with some red for color and extra crunch --and finely grated carrots, bound by a sweetened mayonnaise concoction and liberally sprinkled with black pepper. The other side, KT's baked beans ($6 a quart), were a bust: Fat, overdone kidney beans had been assaulted with cumin and onions and cooked in hardly any liquid for a pasty glop that failed to complement the ribs.

KT's sandwiches are more successful. An unusual hot-links version ($3) puts a half-pound of smoked, spicy, beef-and-pork sausage inside a small hamburger bun. Although it tasted somewhat like bologna ring, the sausage's flavor had been enhanced by strong smoking. All sandwiches come with a choice of pickles, jalapenos or onions; the hot links didn't need the help. Where those embellishments did come in handy was with the smoked-chicken sandwich ($3.89), a half-pound of bland, all-white meat on the same shameful bun. Hickory has never been chicken's best friend; to really smoke poultry, give me applewood anyday. The pig pile ($3.89) offered up another half-pound of meat, this time amazingly tender pork pieces in--you guessed it--the bun.

After eating my way through KT's limited menu, I came up with the ideal solution: Take home a slab of ribs and smother them with some killer mop--made from the following recipe that I managed to wheedle out of my former roommate.

Kelli's Dad's Mop
Take two onions and mince them fine. Over medium heat, sautethe onions in four tablespoons of oil until they are translucent and just starting to turn light brown. Add four cups of ketchup, two cups of molasses, a half-cup of brown sugar, four tablespoons of cider vinegar, eight tablespoons of honey, four tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, eight minced garlic cloves, two tablespoons of lemon juice, two bay leaves, four teaspoons of yellow mustard and a cup of water. Use salt, black pepper and hot sauce to taste (the more hot sauce, the better). Bring the whole thing to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the desired thickness. Makes about four cups.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner