Down Gravois Road we go, over the trickle of the River Des Peres, from south city into south county, past the strip malls and the cemeteries (seriously, is Gravois zoned specifically for the dead?), until someone, sniffing, asks, "Is something burning?"
Woodsmoke! The autumnal aroma of smoldering hickory and pecan draws us into the parking lot of an erstwhile Wendy's in Affton, its fast-food façade covered, though not hidden, with rustic wood paneling, Boodles BBQ in big white letters — except the Q, a pink, squiggly pig's tail. The smell intensifies exponentially as we enter the restaurant, and it will linger on our fingertips and our clothes for hours after we leave.
Jonathan Seitz and Chris Makos opened Boodles in October. Seitz was a cofounder of the well-known local chain Bandana's Bar-B-Q. While the cognoscenti might not speak of Bandana's in the same hushed tones of reverence they reserve for the work of Mike Mills at 17th Street Bar & Grill in Illinois or Mike Emerson and Skip Steele at Pappy's Smokehouse and Bogart's Smokehouse, the chain did anticipate the growing popularity of dry-rubbed Southern-style barbecue in an area where the heavily sauced Kansas City-style was the norm.
Seitz, who originally hails from northern Florida, admits that opening Boodles has been "nerve-wracking. With Bandana's," he says, "I was with my dad and my brother, [and we could] lean on one another."
"It was my money this time, instead of my dad's."
The space retains the basic layout of a fast-food restaurant, with the cash register and service pass at one end of the single dining room, which seats about 60 in booths and tables. The décor is country-quirky: a cow-skin rug suspended from the ceiling, potato sacks deployed as light fixtures. As is usual at barbecue joints, service is quick, your food brought to your table within five minutes after you ordered it.
There are no surprises on the menu. Pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken and turkey are Boodles' meats, and they are available in several arrangements: a sandwich (the ribs excepted); as a small or large platter of a single meat, with two sides; or as a combo platter of two, three or four meats, with two sides. All of the meats are smoked over wood from a tree that is a hybrid of hickory and pecan. (These hick-can trees are grown in-state, Seitz says.)
Should you allow that cute pig's-tail Q to sway your choice of meats? Maybe. The baby-back ribs are good, their flavor deeply smoky, with a hint of sweetness. These are served already sliced bone by bone — a sin, if you're a purist (or should that be a mis'cue?) — but they're unimpeachably tender, yielding with precisely the right amount of give from the bone, but not falling apart. The dry rub lends a nice crust to the exterior of the ribs, though a few times I encountered spots (mostly on the edges of the ribs) where this crust seemed to have caramelized (or something like it) to a point where it was difficult, if not impossible, to bite through.
The pulled pork is inconsistent — not merely from visit to visit, but from piece to piece in a single order. At its best the meat is tender and flavorful, its smokiness not quite as strong as the ribs', the balance tipped closer to the taste of the pork's natural juices. Yet some pieces can be, if not tough, then certainly not as tender as pork butt smoked for several hours should be.
I've never quite understood why anyone would go out for barbecue and then order poultry — it's like seeking out an oyster bar and then asking for the clams casino — but I have to admit these Boodles boys know their way around a turkey: The breast meat, served in bite-size chunks, is as moist as you wish your Thanksgiving turkey could be, the flavor kissed with smoke. The chicken isn't quite so sublime, but the combination of the smoke and the fat rendered from the skin elevates it well above the average boring old chicken.
The only meat I really don't like to eat barbecued is brisket. The cut is tough by nature, and whatever tenderizing is accomplished via a long, slow smoking is negated if you go the Boodles route and proceed to slice it a quarter-inch thick. What's more, after all that the meat had barely a whiff of smokiness; the flavor was generically beefy, a sort of muted richness.
Boodles offers three sauces in squeeze bottles for you to apply to taste: a spicy, a sweet and the "Mustangy." The spicy is more tangy than hot, with mild heat on the finish. The sweet isn't cloyingly so, and a note of vinegar adds welcome depth. The "Mustangy" is mustard-based, tangier than the spicy but not as hot.
The sides are perfunctory. The baked beans are the standout, their sauce lightly sweet, with small pieces of pork for added flavor. Half a cob of corn, fried, is a close second. The French fries are average, but good for sopping up your barbecue sauce. The mustard-based potato salad is a solid option, but the more intriguing "Picnic Potatoes" disappoint: These turn out to be chunks of potato in a blend of melted cheese and sour cream, but they lack punch. The green beans, as is seemingly required by barbecue law, are soft and flavorless.
Every platter comes with a couple of Boodles' fried biscuits, dense, doughy and delicious. Eat one with your meal and then drizzle honey from the bottle on your table on the other for dessert.
A boodle, if you're wondering, is a gathering of people. And I can almost see those biscuits alone developing a cult following, drawing enough of a crowd to allow Boodles to live up to its name. That'd bring a welcome infusion of life to ol' Tomb Town.