Things didn't start off so hot at the 13-week-old T&R Taste of Texas barbecue joint, but got better as lunch went on. Way better.
My lunch pals and I were inside a vintage mustard- yellow building in Oak Park, looking around the aged but clean dining room. The radio was tuned to a mindless talk-radio show, the echo-y voices bouncing off the walls. Ouch!
An oversize laminated menu was crowded with straightforward dishes, the kinds you find at the little places ($1.99 to $21.99). Ribs, tri-tip, pulled pork, chicken, hot links, fried wings and oh, my a fried bologna sandwich, which we learned is a best-seller. "Thick-cut bologna fried to perfection with mustard!" Remember that?
The entry that really got our attention, though, was the "fried rib basket with perfectly seasoned Texas Tots." Bring 'em on.
The big guy behind the counter turned out to be pitmaster Rodney Ray. Before we left, his original recipes and 'cue expertise impressed the heck out of us.
After ordering the four-way Texas Platter with sides and fried ribs with tots, I handed over a credit card. Oops, no credit card machine until early February, so it's cash only. And, oh, yeah, the Texas Tots delivery guy was a no-show. For the inconvenience, Ray added a couple of extra ribs to our platter. Fair enough.
Ray has proprietary recipes for the meat rub (a mixture of spices) and the barbecue sauces (mild and spicy), we learned later. But at the time, I asked him about the sauces (based on molasses, brown sugar, vinegar and seasonings).
"How hot is the spicy?"
"I can make it hot for you, but you probably can't handle it," he said.
Back at our table, we noticed an unlabeled bottle of reddish-brown sauce sitting with the Tapatio and Valentina Salsa Picante.
"What's in this bottle?" I asked.
"That's my real hot sauce," Ray said. "I'm not going to put a label on it till I see how you react to it. The fire extinguisher is over there."
Let's be clear: Use the unlabeled sauce a dab at a time; the two excellent molasses-based sauces are where sweet meets heat.
Soon, Ray delivered the four-way platter, fried ribs and sides of beans, coleslaw and potato salad, with sliced white bread. We tore in.
The firm, juicy pork ribs were marvels of texture and taste. "Good 'cue is about smoke, not about sauce," said lunch pal No. 1, a 'cue aficionado on both sides of the table. "These are smoky, but not too much. They have a nice chewiness. They're well-balanced."
Also on the platter was chopped pulled pork (juicy and well-seasoned), tender and moist chicken (unlike the dry versions so often served at 'cue joints), somewhat overdone tri-tip and spicy slices of hot link.
The succulent but salty fried ribs tasted like a crisp hybrid of pork chop and chicken, getting better with each bite we tore from the bones.
When it comes to side dishes, too many barbecue-centric restaurants from joints to emporiums treat them as afterthoughts. Not T&R. We're talking spicy, perfectly textured beans in thick sauce, cold potato salad with crunch, and coleslaw so fresh it could have been made to order.
"The ribs are primo, and this coleslaw is a great counterpoint to the hot sauces," said lunch pal No. 2.
"This place proves Murphy's Law of Barbecue," said lunch pal No. 1. "The nicer the place, the less authentic the food."
How about a summary, guys?
"I'm a total barbecue snob, and these ribs pass the test," said No. 1.
No. 2 said, "All I know about barbecue is how to eat it, and this is the best I've had."
On the phone days later, Ray said he learned the art of 'cue in Texas, "working the big barbecue pits for my uncles. I cook out of love."
He stokes his smokers with hickory, applewood or mesquite, "depending on the kind of meat we're smoking. We've been playing around with the recipes. We're working on boneless beef ribs."
About those fried ribs: "(The dish) is one of the staples in the South. We coat raw pork ribs with seasoned flour and fry them in vegetable oil at 345 degrees."
T&R is owned by Clarence Pughsley, who had "always wanted to open a barbecue (restaurant) one day. I talked with Rodney about my dream, and he has helped me realize it."
"T&R" stands for "tasty and reasonable," Pughsley said. Not real catchy, but accurate. Now let's go get some ribs.
T&R TASTE OF TEXAS
WHERE: 3621 Broadway, Sacramento
HOURS: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon-7 p.m. Sundays
FOOD: 3 1/2 stars
AMBIENCE: 1 1/2 stars
HOW MUCH: $$
INFORMATION: (916) 739-1669
By Allen Pierleoni