It was a cloudy afternoon. I'd stopped in about an hour earlier when I'd seen his sign from the road advertising his world-class snoots. Now, I'd never tried snoots before, and the one person I know who had tried them — a white transplant from Texas — described them thusly: Blech. Sounded like my kind of dish, and a place like Roper's Ribs, a four-table takeout joint on West Florissant Avenue, looked like just the place to try them.
"Most people who make barbecue don't know anything about salts," Roper told me as I sidled up to the counter. "It's the same with sugars. They won't know the difference between cane and beet sugars. The thing is, that's going to affect the taste of your 'cue."
Roper, a scientific man with a broad face and carefully manicured mustache, then explained the vital importance of meat placement in the smoker. Smoke is like water, he said: Heavier elements stay at the bottom.
Clearly, these were no ordinary snoots.
In fact, they were marvelous. I'd always thought snoots, a St. Louis specialty, were nothing more than hog snouts. In fact, they're pig cheeks that are deep-fried and topped with barbecue sauce. They may not be for everyday consumption, but Roper's crisp snoots, fried till they're diaphanous, retain a fatty richness that dissolves, chocolate-like, in your mouth.
Great as Roper's snoots were, they were eclipsed as Roper opened his culinary wunderkammer to reveal a fried tripe sandwich. Served on white bread with pickles, onions, mustard and ketchup, Roper's fried-tripe sandwich is a fleeting honeycomb pleasure. Best eaten fresh from the fryer, even Roper concedes the sandwich has a "short window." But if you hit that window, you're in for a sandwich like no other: spongy, crisp, spicy and sweet.
Moving through the menu — he offers a dizzying 33 different combos — Roper then brought out the pride of his pantry: His house-cured baby back ribs. Roper is a man, you must understand, who cures his meats for up to twenty-eight hours. He smokes them for twelve, rests them for eight and then finishes them on the grill. The result? Roper's baby backs have some of the most concentrated flavors ever to envelope a rib bone. Simultaneously crisp and moist, these baby backs are so tasty that the Devil himself couldn't better tempt an Orthodox Jew to break a kosher law or two.
Unless, that is, the Devil got ahold of Roper's shrimp batter recipe. There's little chance of that, though. The guy has been tinkering in the back of his shop for the past three years, working to perfect what he calls the "the best shrimp in the known universe," which are served with a house-made tartar sauce.
How do Roper's shrimp compare to, say, the famed shrimp of the Crab Nebula? No clue. But I do know this: They're damn good. I also know that the known universe is going to expand in about a month's time. That's when Roper plans to unveil a new and improved shrimp recipe.
"Many people have perceptions about what makes great barbecue," says the chef. "I have perceptions too. The only difference is that my perceptions are closer to the truth."
Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to firstname.lastname@example.org.