Allen Pierleoni

First Impressions: No touchdown dance for Double Nickel Smokehouse

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

With the recent opening of the Double Nickel Smokehouse in Elk Grove, Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs (No. 55 – get it?) joins the roster of professional athletes who have opened restaurants. Among them are NFL greats John Elway, Brett Favre, Joe Theismann and Dan Marino. One early pioneer was baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and his Grotto seafood restaurant, opening on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in 1937. Now the site houses a souvenir shop and a Joe’s Crab Shack.

Briggs’ story is from the classic local-guy-makes-good model. He was born and raised in Elk Grove and was a force on Elk Grove High School’s football team. After a sterling football career at the University of Arizona, he was taken in the third round by the Bears in the 2003 NFL draft.

Earlier this month, the Chicago media got overexcited when Briggs skipped a practice workout a few days before the Sept. 7 season opener against the Buffalo Bills. He chose to fly to Sacramento for the Labor Day opening of his restaurant (“It was insane here,” a server told us). Though he cleared the time off in advance with his coach, he didn’t specify the reason.

In the midst of the brouhaha, Briggs responded to ESPN: “I’ve poured my heart out on the field every game and every play. So I think if you’re questioning whether I cared more to be there than to be here, my history has always spoken for me.” The Bills beat the Bears 23-20.

Briggs teamed with childhood friend and businessman Cameron Lee to open Double Nickel in the renovated space formerly occupied by the rowdy Coach’s Bar & Grill. The restaurant is part of the sprawling Elk Grove Sports Center complex.

Menu: The usual suspects are there – brisket, pulled pork, beef and pork ribs, chicken, hot links, and shrimp ’n’ grits, with sides that run from mac ’n’ cheese and braised greens, to cheese grits and coleslaw. Some of the dishes are based on Briggs’ mother’s recipes.

Price point: We were wide-eyed. For lunch, a chopped brisket sandwich goes for $12 and moves to $18 at dinner, presumably in larger-portion size. Shredded pork shoulder is $17 at lunch, $25 at dinner. Pork ribs are $14 at lunch, $21 at dinner. A burger for $14 seems like a deal compared to $12 for smoked chicken wings. Side dish are $9 each at dinner, $6 at lunch. The $28 New York strip steak has vanished from the menu, a smart move.

Ambiance: With nonstop music, a long bar, chandeliers, couches and banks of TV screens, we nearly mistook the 11,000-square-foot space for a 1970s-style disco that had asked a sports bar out on a date. “My first impression?” said my lunch pal, a former restaurateur. “Weird. A barbecue restaurant just doesn’t fit.”

Drinks: Six locally sourced beers are on tap, along with bottled beers, 13 wines (did the Martini & Rossi rose prosecco get lost and come in asking for directions?) and a list of artisanal cocktails. Why anyone would ruin Sailor Jerry rum by mixing it with Sierra Mist soda was a mystery to us.

Service: “If they can bring up the food quality to the level of the service staff, it would be a definite touchdown,” said the lunch pal. Four efficient, friendly servers visited our table during lunch, mostly because we were among only eight customers at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, and we guessed they didn’t have a lot to do. Dinners are better attended than lunch, we were told, and the place is predictably jammed for football and baseball games.

First impressions: There’s a custom-built smoker out back, burning fragrant hickory wood, so one would expect the real BBQ deal to land on the table. “You won’t leave here feeling hungry, but this is a misfire,” the lunch pal said.

We ordered “battered down” fried pickles that were steaming hot but in spongy casing, with a bitter-tasting remoulade ($8); the Bear Down Combo (choose two meats from four) of three small, burned and dried-out pork ribs and one smokey but meat-skimpy beef rib, with sides of fresh-tasting coleslaw and “dirty” mac ’n’ cheese topped with tender pulled pork ($15); and a bun overflowing with chopped brisket that had a “steamed” texture.

Perhaps that texture was the result of the beef being finished in an indoor smoker that had a pan of water inside it. Since our visit, chef Michael Jackson said he’s no longer using the indoor smoker, instead cooking the briskets “a full 12 hours” in the outdoor smoker “to get the bark (crust) on them.” We’ll go back for that.

On this day, though, no matter how much we tried to find them, the flavors were hiding. Could be because the proprietary rub is very mild (we tasted a sampling after lunch) and there’s not enough of it on the meats – for our taste. Four very good house-made sauces were on the table – sweet Missouri, tangy Carolina gold, Memphis Spice and root beer – but covering flavorless meat with sauce and calling it ’cue doesn’t fit our definition.

The best dish on the table was cornbread drizzled with excellent wildflower honey from the family-run Spease Bees in Elk Grove. That is, until the fresh house-made peach cobbler arrived, a marvel of flavors.

In fairness, it’s early in the game and the restaurant is finding its way, always a time-consuming and complicated task. We’re rooting for a fumble recovery.

We looked inside the “gift” shop, highlighted by autographed and framed Bears jerseys. We admired the glass case of trophy footballs commemorating some of Briggs’ game-changing plays, and chuckled at the slogans on the T-shirts (“Vegetables are not food. Vegetables are what food eats”).

But we were upended by a small sign advertising autographed photos of Briggs for $10 each. This season, he will earn a base salary of $4.75 million. Isn’t there a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct?

Try it if: You’re a fan who likes action and a cold beer, and you eat to fill up.

Forget it if: You prefer better ’cue at lower prices.

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