A couple dinners here have convinced me that sometimes we do get lucky and discover a diamond in the rough. Robs Roadhouse Grill is a wine country cuisine hideaway disguised as a run-down barbecue joint.
I found it one night when I was driving home from Oakville and wondering what might still be open to catch a bite. I decided to cruise through Windsor to see whats new --- at 9pm, Open signs were still lit at Togos, Round Table Pizza, and Robs Roadhouse Grill, none of which Id tried before. I figured that Robs couldnt be any worse than the other two and might prove to be more interesting. I poked my head in and was greeted by a cheery waitress who asked whether I wanted take-out or sit-down service. How much longer are you open?, I replied, and was surprised to hear that this place is open until 10pm in the boonies! I took a seat.
Theres a lived-in ambience here with the owners two little girls underfoot (their finger paintings are on display). Vinyl imitation brick wall covering, indoor/outdoor carpet, an enclosed lean-to porch, dingy white plastic table covers, scuffed up walls, and an assortment of scratched up wooden chairs and metal folding ones. I was unsuccessful in finding a spot to sit away from a draft. Yet as I read the extensive menu, this seemed like a kitchen with some ambitions and worth a try. The offerings are pure Americana roadhouse, but with a wine country touch here and there such as smoked salmon sandwich with lime cilantro mayo, warm spinach salad, bleu cheese polenta, fresh oysters on the half shell or barbecued, Odwalla orange juice, or eggs benedict with cremini mushrooms and dill-caper gremolata. This contrasts with the mainstream burgers and barbecue ribs, links and chicken.
My first time I ordered the pulled pork sandwich, but not until I was assured by my server that this was the real deal, shredded and tender and not chopped. Quite a value at $7.75 that also included a choice of side (collard greens with bacon and onions) and a fountain drink. I was getting impatient waiting for my food to arrive --- after all, how long could it take to throw some pork on a bun and scoop out some long-simmered greens? Then I noticed the sizzle of cooking sounds coming out of the kitchen. This didnt make sense since I was the only one in the place, but all was clear when my food was presented. The sandwich was a beautiful handformed bun with perfect grill marks on the toasted cut surface overflowing with a mass of pork and topped with caramelized red onions. The pork shreds were as tender as promised and had the high-toned, almost refined smoke that comes from applewood. I rapped the firm-crusted roll with my fingertips and it made a nice solid sound. Not the usual sponge for mopping up sauce, this was a serious whole wheat densely textured bread that is baked on premise every day. Even better were the greens not a graying olive-colored mush in potlikker, these were bright emerald green and succulent leaves, sauteed in a flash with good quality bacon bits and sweetly crisp caramelized onions and treated to a dash of vinegar to bring it all into focus.
Obviously theres a genie in the kitchen who is giving standard roadhouse fare a little more sophistication. Not lightening them up, these were plenty heavy and greasy, just applying some chefs savvy to add interest and new flavor dimensions. I asked my waitress, Sherell, who Rob might be. It turns out that he is her ex-husband and best friend, and used to work for John Ash & Company. He took over this place four months ago.
My next visit was late at night also. Several items were sold out. I was especially disappointed to not have a chance to try the barbecued oysters, but settled on the baby back rib dinner with two sides, mac n cheese and barbecued beans. As I nibbled on the corn muffin (good crunchy exterior) served with a dab of sweet butter, I was really curious to see what the kitchen might do with macaroni, surely not just a scoop of baked pasta casserole crusted with cheese. I was held in suspense a little longer when my plate of ribs with the beans were served and Sherell said, the mac n cheese is almost done and will come out next. The ribs had been baked with the tomatoey sauce giving them a nice crust. Not ruined by parboiling, the baby backs had that toothsome, almost chewy texture that I favor and were very smoky. The sauce didnt do much for me, neither sweet nor spicy, but it was only an afterthought to the basic goodness of the meaty and flavorful ribs. The garnish of orange slices was a nice touch. The beans had good firmness, but lacked focus in flavor and were nothing special. Soon Sherell reappeared out of the kitchen with a bowl of creamy pasta voila! Mac n cheese here means al dente penne pasta swathed in a rich but not gooey cheese sauce and garnished with a perfect leaf of Italian broad-leaf parsley. This is not an effete mornay; no, this stuff has some warmth and personality from cheddar and pepper jack cheese that also adds some red and green flecks to the creamy sauce. As good as the baby backs were, the mac n cheese was the star of this meal.
Jeff Cox scooped me with his review in last Sundays Press Democrat (link below). My friend almost hints at but seems to fail to see beyond the grubby interior to recognize the real spirit of this place. Its heart and soul is expressed in the side dishes and the added fillip to road food. Robs kitchen can get down and dirty with the barbecue crowd but also offers plenty for more sophisticated tastes. There are many interesting veggie choices for the non-carnivores too. I was impressed with the extensive breakfast menu ranging from chicken-fried steak or huevos rancheros to a seafood omelet or biscuits and gravy. I cant wait to try the morning meal here. And after that, Ill have Sherell pick out a sampler of the ten side dishes ($2 each), and then . . .
Robs Roadhouse Grill
8430 Old Redwood Hwy.
(0.25 miles east of 101)