Those are words that, when spoken by a grey-haired waitress in a barbecue joint, give a thrill of anticipation that what is coming up next will be something to remember.
During my recent trip to Lexington, Kentucky, I decided to check out listings for barbecue places while I was searching out a downtown place to have dinner.
The listing for “Red State BBQ” made me smile. I am a progressive liberal from what is designated a solidly “red state” and the whole “red state / blue state” dichotomy and discussion is a source of irritation for me. However, I admire the restaurant owner who has the cojones to name a place “Red State BBQ” and suspected that I would be pleased with the product. Truth be told, I rarely seek out barbecue in “blue” states.
And I never mix my politics with my barbecue.
Most of my Kentucky barbecue experience is based around Owensboro while I was living in southern Indiana. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro is almost a rite of passage if you’re in that part of the Ohio River Valley and barbecued mutton is distinctive to that part of western Kentucky.
Being new to Lexington, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the local eastern Kentucky ‘cue. I soon sensed that, much like Alabama, Kentucky barbecue is more local than regional and variety is the key.
On Sunday morning, I checked out of my hotel and drove out of Lexington on Georgetown Road in search of Red State BBQ. Leaving the more commercial and industrial part of town I began to pass miles of wooden fencing and farms with horses grazing in idyllic settings. Eventually a long and low-slung building appeared up the road. It was alongside the driveway entrance to the Sunset Motel and sported a bright red “Red State BBQ” sign.
I was a little early and saw a lady looking out the window of the restaurant at me. I decided to drive on in to Georgetown and back and see what I could find along the way.
By the time I got back to the Red State parking lot, another car was waiting. We sat for a few more minutes until the restaurant’s OPEN sign flashed on and the lady who had been looking out the window at me was standing behind the counter taking our orders. Mine was the second order for the day and, by the time I finished, several more had lined up behind me.
I don’t like to eat a heavy meal before a long drive and so I ordered quickly. Later I wished that I had studied the menu and daily special more. There was a brisket special and I realized as more and more people ordered that the Red State brisket is quite popular with the locals. As a pork guy, though, I went with two porks – ribs and pulled.
For my two sides, I definitely should have thought longer before ordering; I wanted to try items I didn’t eat often and ordered beer cheese grits and corn pudding. It was only after I sat down at a table that I realized I had ordered two corn-based sides. And a corn muffin. Oh well.
There was a wait but it gave time to soak up the Red State ambiance which included white walls and ceilings covered with names and messages written in multi-colored hues of markers. There were windows all around the dining room and sunlight poured in on a bright morning. Random items hung along the walls, various what-nots were here and there, and a horse theme was prevalent.
Coca-Cola cartons on each table displayed a variety of regional sauces to choose from: Memphis Sweet; Texas Spicy; South Carolina Mustard; North Carolina Spicy Vinegar; Kentucky Small Batch; and Alabama Show Horse.
Of course, the “Alabama Show Horse” was that white mayonnaise-based Morgan County sauce that I don’t like and that I don’t think truly represents the state – just the Tennessee Valley part of the state. Nevertheless, I was proud that Alabama was included in the parade and the South Carolina Mustard and Alabama Show Horse provided a definite variety to the collection of mostly red sauces.
I squeezed a small sample of each sauce onto my fingertip while I waited but I knew that I was bound to use the Kentucky Small Batch on my meal. This was a complex, slightly thick concoction with a bourbon and vinegar base and a lingering (but not cloying) sweetness from what I guessed was brown sugar and molasses.
My plate arrived with a nice portion of pulled pork and two ribs. Red State uses a dry rub on the meat and that taste was complemented by a drizzle of Kentucky Small Batch that added a warm spicy bite. I used the sauce sparingly but liked the way it clung to the meat.
The ribs were small and tasty with a deep dark bark, the pulled pork was smoky and not very moist, and the scoops of grits and corn pudding and a corn muffin were good on the side along with a tall glass of sweet iced tea. I only regret that I didn’t substitute a corn-based side with cole slaw or greens.
I was anxious to hit the road and the meal filled me up but I should have sampled the desserts. Especially tempting were the Sav’s bourbon-flavored ice creams including Bourbon Chocolate, Bourbon Vanilla, and Bourbon Ball Chocolate, and the Peach Bread Pudding.
But one can only eat so much on a quick stop before a day of driving and I headed back into horse country, leaving behind a spunky barbecue joint which I enjoyed but will likely never see again. It was a smart choice for a final taste of Lexington.