So I went to Big Mama's Rib Shack, which was mentioned here the other day. It's at 1453 North Lake Ave, Pasadena (not Altadena, though it's close), 626 797 1792, 485 bus from downtown or the 180 from Hollywood. Here's my conclusion: in order to enjoy a meal at Big Mama's, you need no fewer than five concepts:
Concept #1: It's not a shack.
Although the name "Big Mama's Rib Shack" might cause you to expect a down-home place with license plates nailed to the wall, you will notice right away that the black-and-copper decor is unshacklike. Is it left over from the "short-lived dinner/jazz place" that a hound tells us was previously there? (See the attached message.) It's like someone tried earnestly to design a modernist restaurant without having been inside one. I don't mean this in a bad way; it's just a little odd. It's also a clue about:
Concept #2: It's cuisine.
The basic concept of Big Mama's is to try to turn southern cooking into cuisine. This is not a completely unreasonable idea, but it's a challenge. It's easy enough to bring every item on a different plate (which they do), but it's harder to make the food of the less fortunate into something that's worth cuisine prices.
Concept #3: It's the meat, stupid.
Big Mama's strategy is very clear indeed. They are going to get one thing right, and that's the meat. I had the pork ribs, and the meat (just as they advertised) was quite amazingly tender. In this regard it beats even the great kingdoms of barbeque in south-central. Unfortunately, the meat is the only thing that works. The sauce was kind of interesting, but try as I might, I couldn't find a way to get enough sauce onto the meat to really find a distinctive flavor in it. The sides were not well prepared -- badly overcooked corn-on-the-cob and cajun fries that were very limp though well-spiced.
Concept #4: It's a business lunch.
To have pork ribs for lunch at Big Mama's is to confront a deep question: how can anyone serve you three ribs -- three! -- and keep a straight face? That's why you need concepts. If you're thinking that this is a down-home rib shack with license plates nailed to the wall, please refer back to Concept #1. No. You have to put Big Mama's in the same bin as a hundred other places that cater to business people. You're ordering from the lunch specials, and business lunches are dietetically correct. Or to change the metaphor for a moment, it's like those Chinese restaurants that serve a four-course lunch that includes three thimble-fulls of kung pao chicken. Once you make this conceptual switch, you will be able to relate to the three really quite tender ribs on the plate in front of you.
Concept #5: They've just opened.
The waitstaff are painfully new on the job. The kitchen staff haven't yet figured out how to microwave a peach cobbler. Any number of small problems are surely going to get ironed out at Big Mama's, and I do think it'll be worth coming back here for dinner in a few months once they do.