Barney's Bar-B-Q opens only for the summer. It has to. Even amid a St. Louis barbecuing landscape that prides itself on wedging year-round eateries into the unlikeliest of shacks, where like yellow-headed dandelions they stubbornly survive, Barney's seems built to rise and ebb with the seasons, sprouting anew each spring to bring warmth and color to the chain-laden west county scene, then folding up shop come fall. In the plant kingdom, Barney's would be an annual, not a perennial, although it's been doing its thing every year since 1963.
What Barney's calls home is a two-door wooden garage accessed by a side street off Manchester Road west of Clarkson Road in Ellisville. A sign constructed of zigzag-edged planks sports the establishment's name and slogan ("from the ole hickory pit") in fonts so camplike it may as well say "Lake Winnipesaukee Turn Here." The garage hasn't been converted into a barbecue joint as much as a barbecue joint has simply taken over the garage. The retractable doors remain, perpetually open. A rough-hewn counter cluttered with framed photos and newspaper clippings crowds the space beneath the doors and a canopy stretches out to the street, annexing the driveway and forming one of several seating areas. The garage is all business, all kitchen. (And from the looks of it, one hell of a fire hazard.)
The bathroom, the smoking pit and more tables lurk within a screened-in, dirt-floor addition behind the garage. Old oil lamps, metal stoves and Coca-Cola bric-a-brac consume the space like something out of Dickens: Miss Havisham transported to the turn of the twentieth century.
But setting aside the setting, it's the chicken that validates Barney's only-in-summer resolution. The chicken here is hot-fun food, wonderfully, flawlessly done.
Too many barbecue joints leave their birds on the smoke too long. Poultry doesn't need even half the time beef or pork does, and at its best should come off the coals a blushing pink inside, not a uniform white. Barney's chicken is rosy pink and juicy, juicy, juicy the best barbecue chicken in town, and then some.
I ate an entire half-chicken one Friday afternoon at Barney's, pulling gloriously greasy fingerfuls of meat off the leg and breast bones, dipping at random into the vinegar-based house barbecue sauce, a sauce that strays daringly from St. Louis tradition flavored with cider and tomato-free but that, like the bird itself, possesses a light sweetness just right for summer. I washed it down with my jumbo-size Fanta while watching businessmen with their name tags clipped to their shirts, their cell phones clipped to their belts and their belts propping up their pot bellies drive up to Barney's and order lunch. I wonder how they ever made it back to their offices that afternoon. Barney's backyard-picnic ambiance is very hard to shake.
Though I can't understand why anyone would come to Barney's for anything but the chicken. Even the sides potato salad, cole slaw, curly fries don't hold a candle to even the most unambitious office picnic. The fries are from-frozen, and if the potato salad isn't bought in bulk from a foodservice company, it may as well be; the spuds are undercooked, the mayo canary yellow. Cole slaw is slivers of ghost-white cabbage drenched in a gummy, vinegar-like concoction. (And this from a person who's met hardly a cole slaw she won't eat.) The ribs, judged against the pantheon of St. Louis smokehouses, are easily dismissed. They tend to come out oversmoked, tough and a bit dry. The meat clings stubbornly to the bone, only to finally surrender with a fibrous tear. Anyway, in environs like this I've got no cravings for red meat. In fact, the notion of eating a half-slab of ribs strikes me as decidedly unsummery. Who wants all that four-legged flesh lodged inside them, kickstarting the belly fires when the system's working hard enough as it is to keep you cool? Doesn't all that pending protein go against the summertime commandment that thou shalt wait a half-hour before going back into the water?
Which brings us to the whole smoked turkey. Tack on a few slices of Barney's single dessert item, homemade pumpkin cake, and you've got instant November! Delicious, though: dark meat that's good and gamy, white meat that offers a subtler, cleaner taste and a gnashier texture. The turkeys, which weigh fourteen or fifteen pounds a pop, must be ordered two days in advance. That'll give you time to rustle up some extra cash mowing lawns or hawking lemonade on the sidewalk, because the bird is gonna cost you: a $19 flat fee, plus $2.75 per pound, plus tax. Tasty, yes but I'll take the chicken every time.
When I was a swim-happy kid splashing away my summers at the town pool, Mom used to bring us foil-wrapped chicken for supper. I remember that chicken to this day: skin-on, greased up by its own juices, soft and pink, imparting a slight metallic taste from the foil a flavor her wintertime chicken would never possess, a flavor that was summer. To this day I rarely eat chicken during the winter or order it at a restaurant.
Come fall, I'll probably find myself wishing Barney's would come back for just a week now and then to brighten holiday banquets. But before I know it I'll be reminiscing about that chicken, counting the days till summer comes once more. Because the best kind of chicken there is, is chicken in summer.