Cafe Society


It usually starts with the word "ribs." Maybe someone tickles me there, or a television commercial talks about something sticking to them, or I'm at church and the preacher mentions Adam. No matter how the word gets there, though, once it's in my brain, it begins turning over like a pig on a spit, and all of a sudden I remember every sauce I've ever slurped and just how much time has passed since I last ate some barbecue. And by then the die is cast: The primitive desire to grasp a bone in my hand and gnaw off every shred of meat takes hold and hangs on, intensifying at every meal until I acknowledge that whatever food I'm eating is good, but--sorry--it ain't ribs.

When it finally is ribs, they'd better be worth all that anguish, all that planning and conniving to get myself someplace where I could satisfy my craving. Someplace like Brown Sugar's Burgers and Bones.

This unassuming little rib joint is nestled in a neighborhood that's holding its breath until Coors Field comes alive and opens the floodgates to prosperity. But the smart ones, like Brown Sugar's owner George Brown, aren't betting their futures entirely on baseball. "We're waiting for big things to happen anytime," George says. "We're just sticking with what we're all about, and if Coors makes it happen for us, well, all right. But if it doesn't, we'll still be here."

They've been there, George and his wife, Bonita, for four years now; for fourteen years before that, they ran Brown Sugar's Burger De-Lite over by Manual High School, on 28th Avenue. The couple added the Bones when they moved to their current location on Welton Street; developments in the area--including light rail as well as the new stadium--spurred them to try something that "wasn't already being done to death, like pizza," George says. "We thought we'd sort of be the Lewis and Clark of this part of town, try something new." Armed with Bonita's recipes for side dishes and sauce, they set out to discover if the market would support the dream they'd had since they moved from their farm in Des Moines eighteen years ago.

They brought some horse sense with them. "We're not doing beef ribs," George explains, "because there's not enough meat on them and it's hard to keep them tender. To get them right, it's so expensive. You have to cook them on really low heat--but then you cook them too long, they tighten up on you." George uses pork-back ribs instead and smokes them in a Smokarama, a sort of pressure cooker he settled on because "it keeps that moisture in." Of course, pork ribs don't need too much help in the juice department, but the added wetness makes them the dripping mess that ribs should be.

Three of us put away a full slab ($15.40). Even though we were stuffed, we still wanted more of the salty meat and its sauce, a sticky balance of sweet and hot. The only thing missing was a mug of beer: Brown Sugar's has no liquor license, and George isn't sure he wants one. "That tends to be a lot of trouble," he says. "And I want people to concentrate on the food." No problem, especially since each rib had an even proportion of tasty fat to lean meat. When I mentioned this to George, who cuts his own, he modestly replied, "Hey, that's just luck, 'cause nothing in life's perfect."

He was wrong. Brown Sugar's baked beans--each of the sides is $1.50 for a half-pint--were perfection. Bonita's specialty, the legumes had been cooked down until bean and binder nearly became one solid mass of sugars and spices. The potato salad featured a similar consistency; the spuds had been cut into such tiny bits that they were on even ground with the mayonnaise and mustard holding them together. The coleslaw, on the other hand, was all hunks of cabbage and coarse black pepper barely wet with mayo and slightly sweetened--the ideal foil for ideal ribs. The slaw also went well with the spicy Midwestern-style chili in the Cheesy George ($2.05), a quarter-pound burger that was tough to find under all the chili and melted cheddar cheese.

After our sweet experience at Brown Sugar's, though, things turned sour at Billy Blues Barbecue Restaurant. This eatery/blues club debuted last year to great fanfare but soon found the road tough going.

The Billy Blues chain originated in San Antonio and branched out to Houston and Heidelberg (as in Germany) before opening a fourth outlet in Lakewood. But last October, owners Bill and Penny Gallagher sold all four of their stores to a company now called the Marcos/Billy Blues Corporation, a Texas food company that has taken to collecting restaurants across the country. So far, however, the new regime hasn't tried to change Billy Blues. "Not yet," says general manager Mark Goode, who came on board in June. Goode adds that the menu may get a complete overhaul, adding such things as smoked salmon to the barbecue, but he has no idea when this might happen. "Probably not anytime soon," he says. "Marcos has been trying to get organized and take on a lot of responsibility. It could be a long time before they start looking at us."

In the meantime, there's plenty to look at here. The decor at Billy Blues is slick--almost too slick. In the roadhouse-style dining room, the bar top is galvanized sheet metal, the stools are covered by leopard fabric and the walls are painted in muted red, yellow and a variety of blues tones. The real atmosphere comes through in an audio-visual one-two punch: Music throbs in the nearby Blues Room that's separated from the dining area by a thin wall (when bands play, you have to pay a cover charge to get in that room, but you can eat there, too); a series of paintings done by the Gallaghers' daughter, Brook Rosser, also captures musicians in true blues style.

Unfortunately, the kitchen doesn't do justice to these surroundings. Our ribs were dry, dry, dry. A half-slab order of baby backs ($8.95) brought a good-sized portion, but getting anything out of the beef bones was just too much work--the edges had been reduced to shards of coal. And the meat on the half-slab of St. Louis-style pork backs, which should have melted in our mouths, was far too crusty. According to Goode, the kitchen has been trying to correct these cooking problems. "The ribs are smoked slow at low heat using pecan or oak wood," he says. "They are a little drier around the edges, and we've found that the altitude has something to do with it. But we didn't think they were that dry."

They were. We drowned our sorrows with a fiery bowl of red-bean-and-sausage soup ($1.95), a hearty stew that could put the hair back on a shaved pig, and then turned our attention to Billy Blues' sauces. The Blues Ribbon Original reportedly evolved from a recipe by Herman Haak, the first brewmaster at San Antonio's Pearl Brewery, who created the sauce from ingredients he found on cattle drives. And although it did have a coffee flavor that made me think of the stuff brewing in tin cans over an open flame, it also put me in mind of the sort of nice, juicy beef we weren't finding at Billy Blues. The Smokey Pecan sauce had a nice texture, too, as well as plenty of nut flavor and a strong smoke taste, but the Hot & Spicy wasn't very.

The Hot & Spicy is what Billy Blues uses on its BBQ'ed Beans ($1.25), a dish of fresh green beans doused with sauce that definitely must be an acquired taste. Of the other sides (each $1.25) we tried--a standard-issue potato salad, peppery coleslaw and the "longneck cornbake"--only the cornbake stood out. The casserole was filled with corn, bits of ham and lots of minced jalapenos, all held together with cheap, gooey cheese and enough Lone Star beer to make a difference. This would be just the dish to bring along to a barbecue.

Because you're not going to find the barbecue at Billy Blues.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner