Red White and 'Cue
At Old Hickory Grille, I See America Dripping
Barbecue, in its many styles, is emblematic of America. Texans smoke their brisket. North Carolinians douse their pulled pork in vinegar and red pepper. Sweet-glazed Kansas City ribs. Memphis dry rub. Like most things American, barbecue means many things to many kinds of people. In a mood to celebrate barbecue, we met up with our friends Smack and Diego at Old Hickory Grille.
The eatery's shopping-center location provides more parking than ambiance. The inside is cheerful but small, with a semi-open kitchen to the right and a compact bar to the left. C.C. and I arrived first and chose a table at the back. Good thing, because from 6:15 p.m. on, a steady stream of would-be diners waited at the front. To our young server's credit, he never made us feel rushed. And we didn't feel guilty, because no one else was lingering. Everyone was on the go but us.
We started our evening with Southern fried oysters ($7.25) and Baja rolls ($6.25). The bivalves were great, not big but bursting with briny goodness beneath a whisper of coating. They looked pretty too, arrayed on a field of horseradish cream around a center of a pico de gallo-like sauce (in this case tomatoes, onions, and cilantro). We all liked the cream but agreed the pico was superfluous. On the other hand, the house-made fire-roasted salsa was the best part of the Baja rolls, which consisted of grilled chicken, avocado, black beans, corn, and more of that pico rolled in a flour tortilla and sliced to resemble Japanese maki. The rolls themselves were cold, and consequently a bit soggy, but I'd have enjoyed anything dipped in that smoky, seductive salsa.
The bread basket deserves a paragraph of its own. Piping hot biscuits--the free-form drop kind, both cornmeal and buttermilk--were incredibly good, crusty on the outside and crumbly sweet within (especially the corn biscuits, flecked with bits of cilantro). We had to ask for a second basket.
After joining me in demolishing the biscuits, Diego went whole hog in the entrée department--well, half-hog, half-chicken. His barbecue ribs and chicken combo ($18.50) is the meal of choice for those who want to take home food for the next few days. The plate, which took up most of the table, contained a half-rack of ribs, half a rotisserie chicken, and big sides of coleslaw, barbecue beans, and mashed potatoes. The chicken was no puny rotisserie specimen like you find in the grocery-store hot case: This bird was big, golden-hued, and tender. The ribs, enormous ones, were meaty, but tough by comparison with the fowl. A dish of vinegary barbecue sauce came on the side; it was too tart for me. The slaw was utterly bland, but there was much to admire in the beans, baked with bits of barbecued pork, and the red-skin potatoes, creamy and redolent of garlic.
Next to that smorgasbord, Smack's Taste of the Grille platter ($15.95) was decidedly anticlimactic. Couple of ribs, couple of lime-marinated shrimp, couple hunks of fabulously spicy andouille sausage, a boneless breast of tender but underseasoned jerk chicken. It came with sides of those creamy spuds and a mess of grilled green peppers and onions.
C.C., not a huge fan of barbecue, opted for pasta, namely angel hair with shrimp ($14.95). The large serving was topped with four jumbos, tomato chunks, grilled red onions and mushrooms, and Parmesan. We all tasted it, we all liked it: a good alternative for those who crave a break from flaming meat.
On behalf of those in quest of a truly cheap eat, I ordered the pulled smoked pork sandwich ($6.95). Sandwiches come with a mini-cup of slaw and a mountain of shoestring fries. The fries looked wonderful, but I requested a substitute, stone-ground grits. If corn has a soul, this is it. The pulled pork in my sandwich tasted properly smoky, but it was a bit on the dry side.
Like the biscuits and some of the salad dressings, desserts here are made on site. Each one serves two to four, possibly more. The banana cream pie ($3.95) sported big hunks of fruit (not that banana-pudding stuff) on a crisp graham-cracker crust, but the fresh banana flavor got lost under tons of real whipped cream drizzled with caramel sauce. (Not that I'm complaining.) Strawberry shortcake ($5.95) sat atop a brown-sugar biscuit, which was topped with three scoops of vanilla ice cream, a fine strawberry sauce, and clouds of that whipped cream. Heavenly.
We felt a bit angelic ourselves. Around us, folks of every stripe were licking their fingers. Sauce dripped down the chins of smiling faces. It was a scene Walt Whitman would have loved.