Although a few of the great "seasonal" barbecue shacks still exist (most notably Barney's in Ellisville, which opened last weekend, just past the deadline for this article), most barbecue joints are year-round now, rendering moot the Memorial Day weekend quasi-official opening of the barbecue season.
Nonetheless, I need minimal excuse to seek out and write about new barbecue experiences. Probably ever since Og discovered that fire-roasted woolly mammoth was vastly superior to woolly-mammoth sushi, the smoke of grilling meat has set off a primal instinct among carnivorous humans. (Even vegetables often take on their best qualities on a grill, but that's a debate best left to smolder on a different day.)
More so than perhaps any food, though, barbecue insinuates itself through your nostrils and into your brain long before the first morsels touch your lips. You'll just be driving along, minding your own business, when a normal breath turns into a wood-and-spice-filled sinus buzz, soon followed by excess mouth-watering and serious 'cue craving.
We're not quite as cultish about barbecue around these parts as the folks on the other side of the state, but we do, in fact, have a specific style of ribs named after us. "St. Louis cut" generally means a slab of "3-and-a-half-and-down" (denoting the weight in pounds) spare ribs (the part that comes from the belly side of the little piggie) with the breast bone removed. The part that's cut off is the "rib tip"; further trimming of a St. Louis cut results in what's called a "Kansas City cut," which may explain why Kansas Citians are considered so meticulous about their rib preparation.
As for the cooking and sauce approach, it's always seemed to me that "St. Louis style" in actual cooking means minimal if any spicing in the dry rub that's put on the meat before cooking; a sauce that's tomatoey and sweet (resulting in, as a barbecue-nut friend of mine who also happens to be a Ph.D. in physics puts it, a "high carbon content" when you choose to baste on the sauce while cooking); and, finally, the tendency by some restaurants to poach the cooked ribs in sauce on a steam table while they're waiting to be served (certainly not all places do this, but it does seem to be a local idiosyncrasy).
Then, of course, there's the local delicacy called the pork steak, virtually unknown in various other parts of the country, but we choose to focus this particular effort solely on pork ribs.
Armed with this knowledge and some spring fever, we recently made a partial tour of the local scene, stopping in on barbecue joints from West County all the way over to Maryville, Ill. Even though all had varying degrees of sit-down facilities, we kept it to a carryout basis, so as not to confuse atmosphere (which is often inversely proportional to the best barbecue) with product. Some recommendations:
Smoki O's (1545 N. Broadway, 314-621-8180. Whole slab: $15. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat.): Starting just after the doors open at 10 a.m., a steady stream of workers from the surrounding heavy-industrial zone, later supplemented by downtown office folks who have discovered this little outpost about eight blocks north of the Trans World Dome, starts filing into this nondescript old structure for a taste of the Walker family's take on the art of smoke.
The motto here is "We keep it clean, so you can eat it lean," and the place is white-glove spick-and-span, with brown sauce-colored walls, a couple of park benches on which to wait and a small U-shaped lunch counter in front if you choose to eat in.
Smoki O's was my favorite of the five places sampled because of a variety of little things. The individual ribs were cut in advance, saving the messy task of slicing them myself. The sauce, a thick, deep-brownish-maroon, had hints of spice but, more important, was delicately layered on, rather than randomly slopped. The mandatory stack of white bread was actually yellow-orange, imparted with the little extra of a cheesy flavor. And the rib meat was dense and rich, with any fat having distinctly separated from the meatier part but still providing a proper amount of juiciness during the cooking process.
Total time for a walk-in carryout order was between five and 10 minutes.
Red'z Rib Shack (Corner of Highways 159 and 162, Maryville, Ill., 618-288-1111. Whole slab: $18. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun., Tue.-Thu.; till 9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.): Red'z is actually an odd conglomeration of two buildings -- the aptly named wood "shack" portion and an adjoining old house -- tied together by a walkway. A location at the crossroads of Highways 159 and 162 puts Red'z within easy striking distance of a large part of Madison County (and about 15 minutes from downtown or North County); as such, the joint's usually jumpin' at mealtimes.
The sauce in this case was again a deep red, but it leaned more toward the tangy side than the spicy side. The meat had a lot of body to it, with a very pronounced hickory taste -- a style of gnaw-it-off-the-bone, chewy rib as opposed to a fall-off-the-bone, tender texture.
Beef-jerky fans should definitely pick up one or more of the 2-ounce bags for sale at the carryout window. Total time for a walk-in carryout order was less than five minutes.
Sweet Jo Mama's (2800 Olive St., 314-531-4111. Half slab: $6.50. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.): If it looks like a retirement-apartment cafeteria -- well, it is. But it's also an outlet to sample the wares of Larry Gerstein, whose eponymous Larry G's retro diner graced the streets of Creve Coeur several years ago.
Recently one of Larry's claims to fame has been as a training-table provider for the Rams, and the restaurant itself (on the ground floor of the Heritage House high-rise) is lined with celebrity shots, as well as the clever shtick of a display of ties for sale near the cashier for those who succumb to the inherent messiness of a barbecue lunch.
Gerstein certainly doesn't pull any punches in deference to the older palates who form a big part of his inherent constituency. The sauce is both tangy and spicy, with only a hint of sweetness, and the meat requires some vigorous chewing. In addition to ribs, here we also tried the chicken, which featured a pronouncedly herby rub in addition to the barbecue sauce. Best case on the ribs is that they've recently been pulled from the grill, as were the ones we got; they're served from a steam-table tray, which could result in some additional poaching in the sauce if they've been out there for any period of time.
Total time for a walk-in carryout was less than five minutes, but it does require you to go through the same cafeteria line as any sit-down patrons, so spur-of-the-moment carryout could end up taking a little while during the busy time.
Charlotte's Rib BBQ (14908 Manchester Rd. (Ballwin), 636-394-3332. Whole slab: $16.49. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Tue.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Fri.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.; noon-8 p.m. Sun.): The talented, popular and gregarious Charlotte Peters, a pioneer of St. Louis television, has been gone more than a decade now, but she's certainly left a lasting legacy. One offspring, Pat Schwarz, along with husband Herb, runs this longtime West County barbecue roadhouse; another is Mike Peters, the gifted editorial and funny-page cartoonist (Mother Goose and Grimm) whose political commentaries have been a fixture in the RFT for many years.
The grills are visible behind a window at the carryout counter, and it appeared that Charlotte's Rib ranges toward the higher end of cooking temperatures, with the result darker and crisper outer coatings on the meat and a rich, almost-charred flavoring. The meat itself is also a little drier than most, but this concentrates its flavor all the more. The sauce is more of a condiment than a separate flavor element, not spicy at all and very neutral in terms of sweetness and tang.
Total time for a walk-in carryout was about 20 minutes, but this went by quickly because of the chattiness of several staff members who wandered in and out of the waiting area and made conversation.
McCrary's Original Hickory Bar-B-Q House (2719 Parnell St., 314-241-3530. Whole slab: $12. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.): This place no longer holds regular convocations of aldermen and other community leaders as it did in the days when its namesake, former state Rep. Roscoe McCrary, was still alive. And it's pretty frayed at the edges, with lots of yellowing old posters and documents on the walls (numerous pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; a Cardinals calendar from 1986; an Anheuser-Busch salute to the queens of Africa, circa 1995; and even an open/closed sign carrying the long-forgotten logo of the St. Louis Sun) and various remnants of its additional role as a spice shop.
Nonetheless, spice is the key word here, as McCrary's "holy hot" sauce remains one of the best local alternatives for barbecue fire-o-philes. The one caveat here is that it can be hit-or-miss as to how recently the ribs have come off the fire; several times I've gone in and had them retrieve a slab from a holding container in front and then finish them with sauce in the back, which ends up diminishing the juiciness of the meat.
Parnell Street, by the way, is what Jefferson Avenue branches into as it connects to Salisbury Street and the McKinley Bridge when heading north from around the A.G. Edwards complex; it's therefore easy to make a lunch-gathering circuit to McCrary's for the main course and Crown Candy for dessert.
Total time for a walk-in carryout was between 10 and 15 minutes, and the guy behind the counter loves to talk baseball (which is appropriate, given that ol' Roscoe was such a fixture in the Busch press box that he once listed its phone number as his contact point).