We recently lost an excellent weekly source of Texas-style barbecue, Elia's Meat Market in Highland, which featured Texas pit-boss-trained Mark Elia's ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken, cooked low and slow and smothered with a variety of from-scratch sauces, available only on Friday afternoons. They've gone to catering, through Elia's Texas Connection, and while I'd gladly attempt to eat a dozen racks of ribs such gluttony becomes a cost-prohibitive proposition week after week.
After crying a few salt-pork tears, I asked around for a barbecue backup. Someone suggested Max's Memphis Barbecue (138 S. Broadway, Red Hook).
The differences were beyond the geographical.
First, the setting: Max's is a stately yellow building with white columns and Roman numerals on its face. The front door opens on a bar overseen by a huge sculptural griffin-like creature, suspended from the rafters. Walls are warm, tables are wooden. One night, my table featured the carved name "Steve." The accompanying dried wad of chewing gum pressed on its underside made it reminiscent of a middle-school classroom desk. But barbecue isn't for prisses, and I thought it was a kinda cool setting for a sit-down, casual dinner with a few good friends.
As much a part of the ambiance as the decor is the scent. Hickory-smoked smell is thick within the walls of Max's; you can sense it in the parking lot. You will smell it on your few good friends on the ride home, and later emanating from your clothes hamper. Honestly, that's the mark of true-blue Tennessee barbecue, which is "dry barbecue" - a technique that relies upon spice rubs (garlic, onion, cumin, paprika and various chili powders are traditional) and slow smoking to imbue the meat with flavor, not so much barbecue sauce, which is traditionally served on the side.
Chef Ken O'Connors runs the hickory smoker 24 hours a day and, indeed, serves his red-hued pork, beef and ribs with the sauce on the side. The red barbecue sauce, made for Max's, is tomato-based with vinegar and a combination of spices, served in stout glass ketchup bottles beside the salt and pepper shakers at each table. It was sweet and tangy, and I found myself using a fair amount of it on my meat.
Though the meat was good, I'm used to the smothered and covered kind from when I ate my way across Texas (twice). And this Memphis-style business is noticeably, notably smoky.
Traditional dinners range from $11.95 for slow-smoked BBQ pulled pork to $21.95 for a full rack of the St. Louis cut smoked BBQ pork ribs. Because, hey, variety is the spice rub of life, I tried the slow-smoked BBQ pulled pork and brisket combo ($20.95) and the BBQ chicken and ribs combo ($21.95).
The pulled pork was A-1, a heap of succulence shredded from those tougher, less expensive parts of the pig, like the butt and shoulder. Ribs were meaty, and pulled from the bone just fine. As the mildest meat, it is chicken's lot to exhibit smoke and seasonings in their most concentrated form, giving it a deep, sweet hickory taste in this incarnation.
The brisket - historically a throwaway cut of beef slated for cowboys, ranch hands and hired help, but potentially the most delicious part of the cow - was slightly perplexing. Cut thick like pot roast, not thin like I'm used to, it was served over caramelized onions with horseradish dipping sauce. Tasty and tender, it was, overall, satisfying.
Max's sides were the highlight. The cheese grits were great, creamy, white and wet, like a thick pudding uniformly incorporated with dairy goodness. Memorable baked beans with a strong cumin backdrop to their flavor were quickly devoured. Home-style garlic mashed potatoes, sweet corn and cole slaw were all pleasing representations.
I had a bone to pick with the collard greens - namely, an absence of bones or, rather, what clings to them: no salt pork, no pork hock, no ham chunk, no hot dog nor any other delicious pig parts. They, like the rest of the sides, were vegetarian, which hurt my feelings. That said, collard greens are good for what they are ... which turns out to be a vegetable.
Not a meat-eater? You can make a meal of five sides for $9.95.
Desserts, crusts and all, are made on site. A little light on the eponymous ingredient, the pecan pie was a deep caramel color and not too sweet. A key-lime pie slice that went whizzing by my head on a busy night looked great.
With outdoor seating in warm months and reliable cuisine, Max's might grow on me. But I'm still accepting applications for my new favorite barbecue joint. ++