Poor Red’s in El Dorado opens to record crowds starved for the past

The iconic Poor Red’s Bar-B-Q has been refurbished and expanded, with an upgraded menu that sources local ingredients.
The iconic Poor Red’s Bar-B-Q has been refurbished and expanded, with an upgraded menu that sources local ingredients. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

The 2.0 incarnation of Poor Red's Bar-B-Q in tiny El Dorado held a weeklong soft-opening party that got going Tuesday, April 19, and everybody showed up. For better or worse, they’re still knocking down the doors.

“We wanted to keep our soft opening quiet, but it didn’t work out. Social media is crazy,” said co-owner Mike Hountalas, who owns the Purple Place Bar & Grill in El Dorado Hills and is part owner of the Cliff House in San Francisco. “We did expect (a big turnout), but not like this.”

The new gold rush has been so overwhelming that Poor Red’s kitchen found itself in the unexpected position of running out of food at crucial times.

“Especially the spareribs,” Hountalas said. “The amount we’ve been going through is just crazy – 45 cases, with 12 racks per case, in the first six days. We were (forced to) cook them overnight. And we’ve been making five to six gallons of barbecue sauce a day. This establishment wasn’t built for that volume, so we had to slow it down.”

Meaning a change in service hours. Now there’s a three-hour break between the end of lunch and the start of dinner. “We had to do it (mainly) to ensure the quality of the ribs,” Hountalas said. “We’re already settling down.”

The tsunami that deluged Poor Red’s during that first week is not so surprising, given the lore and legend that has long been attached to it. In that regard, it’s not alone. For instance, the revived Joe Marty’s on Broadway and the reinvented Sail Inn Grotto & Bar in West Sacramento were uber-slammed when they reopened in December and March, respectively.

Poor Red’s was a former Wells Fargo way station

Poor Red’s was a former Wells Fargo way station that debuted as Kelly’s Bar in 1927. In 1945, the story goes, a guy nicknamed Poor Red won it in a dice game and ran it as a roadhouse with help from his wife and bookkeeper. Ownership changed over the decades, until the struggling bar-restaurant closed in 2014 amid a hailstorm of legal and criminal issues.

Hountalas and brothers Jeff and Mike Genovese partnered to resurrect the joint, expanding, upgrading and refining it, yet striving to keep a similar vibe to the one that has attracted so many regulars over the decades. Nostalgia is a big draw, but the hangout has always been a raucous place for stiff drinks and eager camaraderie. Though, frankly the ‘cue was always mediocre, served after boozy waits of up to two hours for a table.

“I’ve been hearing all kinds of crazy stories being swapped (among the customers),” said manager Steve Anderly. “You’d probably want to hear them, but you wouldn’t want to print some of them.”

Poor Red’s location in a former gold rush town has certainly played a role it its mystique. So has its signature cocktail, the Golden Cadillac. There’s a story behind that, too:

In 1952, an excited couple pulled up in a new gold-colored Cadillac, walked into the bar, announced they’d just become engaged and wished to create a celebratory cocktail. The bartender suggested they help him concoct a drink to match the color of their car. The result was a blend of golden Galliano, white creme de cacao and cream. Poor Red’s has sold so many Golden Cadillacs that somewhere along the line Lucas Bols distillers recognized it as North America’s biggest customer for the Italian herbed liqueur.

“Yes, we still serve the Golden Cadillac, along with Pink Squirrels, Grasshoppers and Brown Cows, all those 1970s blended drinks,” said Anderly.

The look and feel are the same

Steve Anderly, Poor Red’s manager

Anderly noted that Poor Red’s 2.0 has added a dining room and courtyard (to be built out as summer progresses), and modernized the building’s bones. “The look and feel are the same, but the function is state of the art,” he said. “You name it, it’s all new – the refrigeration, tap system, beer lines, drains, plumbing and electric. We even reupholstered the bar stools so you can sit in them for hours.”

As for the menu, chef Dean Hiatt is turning out ribs, steaks, chicken, burgers, sandwiches and sides. “We have the same type of food (as the last incarnation), but of higher quality,” Anderly said. “We’re focusing on locally sourced ingredients and cooking our meats on locally sourced oak and mesquite.”

The spareribs are covered in spice rub and oven-roasted over a water bath (for moisture) before they’re finished on the wood-fired grill, said Hountalas. The 16-ounce ribeye steak, the six-ounce filet mignon and the hamburger are fired directly on the grill, while the pork shoulder is oven-roasted overnight.

I wish I could report on the food, but my lunch pals and I never got close to it. On Sunday, April 24, we showed up at at 3:30 p.m. to a totally filled bar and were told dinner had been postponed till 5 p.m.; our names would be added to the list. No, thanks.

Last Monday we called and were told 1 p.m. would be a good time to avoid the lunch rush, but when we showed up, greeting us was a sign on the locked door: “We will be closed for lunch today to complete some last minute construction.” Turns out a water leak in the kitchen was the culprit.

We’ll be happy to drive the 60-mile round trip for a third time, probably in a few weeks, when some of the opening-night jitters are over and the excitement has died down. Look for a “First Impressions” column in an upcoming Friday Ticket section. Meanwhile, save us a table – reservations are not accepted.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Poor Red’s

6221 Pleasant Valley Road, El Dorado


Hours: Open daily. Lunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m. lunch. Dinner is 5-9 p.m. dinner Sundays-Thursdays and 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Bar opens 10 a.m. and closes midnight weekdays, 1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.