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Gus's Barbecue Revisited (long)

Will Owen | Jun 10, 200809:59 AM

As a followup to our encouraging first experience at Gus's, Saturday night we took Pa-in-law out to dinner there. Unlike the last time, when we arrived only just in time to order before the kitchen closed, we got there this time at around 7:30, and the place was packed. What had been a calm, fairly quiet late-night spot was now vibrating with the inevitable uproar of lots of diners having lots of fun in a relatively small space. We did get seated fairly quickly - I hadn't bothered to make reservations - at a table between the two rows of booths in the main room, back near the bar. We were attended to very quickly by our personable and friendly server, who took our drink orders (Zinfandel, Shiraz and water) and then delivered them with equal rapidity. So far so good...

Mrs. O said someone HAD to try the Southern Fried Chicken, and Papa volunteered for that, plus two sides of coleslaw. She chose to have what she'd had before, the Pulled Pork Sandwich and fries, and I asked for the Pulled Pork plate, with garlic mashed potatoes and those fried greens I'd read conflicting reports about. After only about ten minutes the food guy came out with our meals. The portions were as large as I remembered, with Papa getting a still-intact (!) half-chicken and about a pint of slaw in two big piles, me with perhaps half a pound of pork shreds and sides to match. The greens were a very bright green, and yes, they certainly were crunchy. Annoyingly sweet, too, but not inedible. I was also given a small pot of a vinegar/hot pepper sauce, which helped the bland and rather stringy pork quite a bit. The potatoes were nice enough, but blandness prevailed there, too, with no detectable trace of garlic, nor butter, and not much in the way of salt or pepper. Mrs. O declared her pork to be distressingly dry - not from lack of moisture, as there was a lot of that, but from lack of fat. She didn't like my sauce at all, but when her dad offered the one that had come with his chicken she went for that. He was picking at his chicken, carving chunks off of it at the dark-meat end, and he made several references to the vast differences between this so-called "Southern" chicken and what he'd had on visits to Tennessee. He didn't hate it, exactly - he did ask for a container to carry home the remains - but he said it was very much overcooked.

Whatever our disappointments, the Owens did polish off their food, and while Papa's to-go container container held not much less than he'd started with, that's pretty ordinary for him nowadays. The ever-vigilant server and I caught each other's eye as she was handing drinks out at an adjacent table, and as soon as she was done there she came over and said, very quietly, that she assumed we were wanting to get out of there fairly quickly, referring I'm sure to the noise level and an elderly person's difficulty in dealing with it. I said Yes, and within two minutes I had our tab - $54.78. I stuck my card into the pocket, the folder was picked up immediately, and after another minute or so I was adding in the tip and signing the slip.

We had a lively discussion about the meal in the car, agreeing that the service had been better than excellent, not only from the server but from everyone else as well. The ambient noise, while well above our comfort level, was attributable to the fact that all these people were having a really good time in a smallish room with hard-surfaced walls, floor, and a tin ceiling, and we could escape much of that simply by going there later or on a weeknight. As for the food, it seems they're either trying too hard or not hard enough. Greens do not need to be reinvented; if you want to sauté them, parboil (just a little) and blanch them whole, then squeeze them dry, chop them and then sauté. And leave out the sweet dressing, please! REAL Southern fried chicken is disjointed and fried in pieces, so the dark and light meat can cook only as long as each requires, and it's cooked at a low enough temperature so that the coating does not burn, as it did here. Barbecued pork, even fake barbecue, as this certainly is, needs to be slow-cooked shoulder butt with plenty of fat on it; as for the potatoes, if they had enough garlic to taste then you could add the butter they also need and still stay kinda healthy. This is not supposed to be diet food, guys.

No, we were not totally happy. Yes, we'll be back, just not on a Saturday night! There's a lot more menu to explore - a man in the booth I was facing was clearly enjoying the heck out of a plate of ribs, so that's on the agenda for sure.

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