[Sidebar] July 20 - 27, 2000
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Memphis Roadhouse

The proof's in the 'cue

by Ian Donnis

383 Washington St. (Route 1), South Attleboro, Massachusetts, (508) 761-5700
Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (Fri-Sat until 11 p.m.), Sun, 12-9:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

There's something strange about running into a stonewalling effort worthy of the CIA when you call a barbecue restaurant and ask how the place got started. It's reasonable to expect, if not a tale about a favored recipe being passed through the generations, some yarn about how the proprietor got hooked on 'cue while roaming through the Carolinas or Texas. But after hearing good things about Memphis Roadhouse, I faced obfuscation and bureaucratic references to a "corporate office."

My wariness increased after stepping into the restaurant, a quick 10-mile hop up Interstate 95 from Providence, which on first blush resembles a replication-ready barbecue theme park. Red-checked tablecloths, pig cut-outs and ubiquitous photos of cattle and blues musicians are the dominant design motif. Is this place a culinary analog, I wondered, of the Wal-Mart, Staples, Best Buy and other big-box stores that line this stretch of Route 1? But the proof's in the pudding, and the more I ate at Memphis Roadhouse, the happier I got.

Meals start with generous pieces of cornbread and it's good -- not too sweet, just shy of moist, ample corn flavor, and real butter on the side. Memphis Roadhouse offers a huge menu -- besides barbecue, there are steaks, chops and an insert for Louisiana-style seafood -- and an array of drinks, from wine and bottled and draft beers to oversized frozen drinks. An omnibus approach often results in efforts being spread thin, but this four-year-old restaurant carries it off with skill and value. (It turns out the place, which isn't part of a chain, is owned by Roland Prevost, proprietor of the Salty Dog at Boston's Faneuil Hall. His staff might be hapless at basic PR, but they prove their stripes where it counts -- the kitchen.)

Appetizers include wings of fire (six for $5.49, 12 for $8.99), barbecue shrimp skewer ($6.99) and Delta crab cakes with remoulade sauce ($2.49 each). The latter was a winner -- a large cake featured a crunchy brown exterior, tender minced crab stuffing, and a nicely tangy sauce on the side.

The barbecue choices are basically down to ribs, dinners and various combos, all of which come with excellent coleslaw and smoky pit beans. It's no wonder this place is popular with families; a half-chicken dinner is $7.69, a two-meat combo is $10.99, and the barbecue and spaghetti dinner is $6.99. My sister, Stephanie, a North Carolinian, went for the chicken dinner, while I chose "All meats, pig out" ($17.99), a plate piled high with Carolina pulled pork, Memphis ribs, sliced Texas beef brisket, a quarter BBQ chicken, and a smoked Texas sausage.

Memphis Roadhouse doesn't stint on the servings -- we both had enough to take home -- and the wood-fed grilling delivers the goods. While the purportedly spicy sausage was bland, the brisket, ribs and chicken were flavorful, tender and well- seasoned. Big bottles of Tabasco grace each table, and the house barbecue sauce is a molasses-and-spice-based concoction that does wonderful things with the smoked meats.

On a return trip, I thought I'd died and gone to New Orleans when a stellar oyster po' boy ($8.95), was placed before me for Sunday lunch. A generous quantity of big oysters were perfectly fried -- crunchy on the outside, sweet inside -- and piled on a bun with chopped lettuce, a mild tartar-like sauce and topped by a tomato slice. The sauce worked well (this from a mayo-phobe), and the delicious ensemble, joined by a choice of coleslaw, beans or French fries, made me into an unabashed Memphis Roadhouse convert.

Service is attentive here until meals are served, and then the waitresses disappear. But in a land with too much needlessly mediocre food, the kitchen's attention to detail is far more important: The tomato slice on the po' boy tastes like a real tomato; the excellent sweet potato pie is dense and not overly sweet, with hints of nutmeg and allspice; the collard greens in a side order ($1.99) retain their flavor, with a peppery afterbite, and come with a hunk of pork; the lemonade is home-made. If only this place, which offers 21 different kinds of tequila, would make a proper margarita by using fresh lime juice, instead of the ubiquitous and abysmal sour mix.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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