Jim Randall is walking toward the front door of BBQ ASAP, the restaurant he and his wife Mary opened last year, and I am very, very nervous. In his hands he holds an aluminum tray filled with barbecue right off the smoker. What sort of barbecue I can't tell — a tent of foil covers it — but from the way the tray bulges and shifts in his hands, there is a lot of it. From where I sit, facing the front door, digging the last morsels of pork from a baby-back rib, I fear the odds are low that he can hold on to the tray and open the door.
BBQ ASAP — "Always Smoked Absolutely Perfect," the restaurant claims — occupies a storefront in the middle of a small strip mall far west along Manchester Road. From the city, even using highways for much of it, the drive is a drag, in part because Manchester is apparently never not busy, in part because it is one strip mall after another, one big-box store beside the next. This is hardly a unique or even an interesting observation, but the effect is unavoidable. I drive (and I wait at a light), and I drive (and I wait at another light), and I wonder if I'll ever see something that isn't packaged for easy consumption.
And then I see Jim Randall with his precarious grip on a tray of barbecue, and I hold my breath, and he makes it, and it's the most wonderfully human moment I've witnessed all week.
The Randalls opened BBQ ASAP three years ago as Mr. Harry's Carnival Foods, serving hot dogs, funnel cakes, snow cones and the like. Meanwhile the couple had taken an interest in barbecue. Eventually they decided to enter the competitive circuit and have gone on to win many trophies, not least of which was a third-place honor for their pulled pork at last year's Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, a.k.a. "The Super Bowl of Swine."
Several of those trophies decorate the dining room of BBQ ASAP. This is a single room, bright and colorful, with seating for roughly three dozen arranged in an L shape around the counter where you order, and where the staff still grinds the ice for snow cones. (Hot dogs, nachos and several other vestiges of the Mr. Harry's menu also remain available. I ignored 'em.) The restaurant's dining room is also one of the friendliest I've ever visited. The Randalls and members of their extended family chat with regulars and newcomers alike as well as with one another.
Slideshow: Inside BBQ ASAP on Manchester
As folksy as BBQ ASAP is — Christian pop music plays on the sound system; I kept expecting Sheriff Andy Taylor to come strolling in — the Randalls don't shy away from hype. Not only do they display trophies right beside the cash register, but the menu gives several of the meats competition-inspired names: "Perfect Score Baby Back Ribs," "Championship Beef Brisket," "First Place Pulled Pork." You'd expect nothing less from a true barbecue team.
Of the meats that I tried, the brisket was the most impressive. An order brings very thin slices of meat cut — in my case, at least — from the brisket's leaner, flat end. Though in general I prefer the fattier deckle end of the brisket, on its own merits this was very good barbecue, with a purplish-red smoke ring and just the slightest chew to the texture. The flavor balances cherrywood smoke, beef and a very lightly spicy dry rub.
BBQ ASAP also serves burnt ends ("BBQ Nirvana Burnt Ends," to be exact). Braised for several additional hours after being removed from the smoker, these are fork-tender. The flavor is strongly beefy, with a whisper of smoke. I would have liked a bit more bark on the exterior of each piece. The Memphis in May-lauded pulled pork does not disappoint. Even the larger hunks of meat are tender, and the flavor conveys the pure pleasure of smoke-kissed pig.
The baby-back ribs, though, lack...something. The texture is correct, giving from the bone with a little bite, but the combination of pork, smoke and a dry-rub seasoning yields a muted flavor. To doctor that flavor, BBQ ASAP offers two sauces, a sweet and a spicy. The spicy is more tangy than sweat-inducing-hot, but it helped spark the ribs.
Among the other meats are smoked pork and chicken. I skipped these to sample the house-smoked pastrami, wonderfully salty and gently spiced. Unlike the other meats, which are available as platters or sandwiches, you can order this only as a sandwich, either plain on toasted marble rye or as a reuben. The former was surprisingly greasy, for nothing but barbecue and meat. I didn't mind — it tasted great — but consider yourself and your clothes warned.
ASAP's sides don't quite live up to the barbecue's pedigree. The mac & cheese, with American and cheddar cheeses shellacking elbow noodles, is pedestrian. There are two different baked-bean dishes: one a conventionally molasses-sweet dish with (very small) bits of brisket, the other a "zesty" five-bean blend with bits of pulled pork but very little zest. Coleslaw fares better. Rather than the usual limp mess of wet cabbage, this is crisp and, thanks to a red-wine vinaigrette, tangy.
I almost didn't try one side, the sweet corn pudding, as the combination of barbecue and sweet flavors rarely works for me. Still, professional obligation compelled me to order a serving. I'm grateful it did. Imagine moister and only slightly sweeter cornbread studded with whole kernels. It was a moment of discovery — the moment that, even more than the food itself, makes the drive (the endless drive) worthwhile.
Slideshow: Inside BBQ ASAP on Manchester