The Taste Bud: Keeping the BBQ real

A co-worker recently tipped me off to River Road BBQ, a new place near the Water Tower on River Road. But in doing so, he said something that kind of startled, and even astounded, me.

“When you think of barbecue, you usually think of Mark’s Feed Store or Famous Dave’s,” he said. “But this was pretty good. They even make their own sauce.”

Mark’s Feed Store? Famous Dave’s? Those two establishments are the opposite of what I think of when I think of barbecue. Now, let me say that I’ve eaten at both places, and I don’t hate them — I just prefer independent restaurants to chains. This is why his statement threw me — are these restaurants what most Louisvillians think of when they think of barbecue? Homogenized chains?

I also kept thinking about what my co-worker said about the friendly folks at River Road BBQ making their own sauce. Isn’t that the point of cooking, well, anything? To make it your own? To make it original?

I would sure hate to think of anyone opening a barbecue joint, spending the money and time to equip it, carefully marinating and smoking choice cuts of meat, only to buy Kroger-brand sauce for customers to slather on it. That would be like buying a new Porsche 911 Carrera GTS and then filling it up with regular unleaded fuel.

Anyway, based on my co-worker’s semi-glowing endorsement, I decided to try the new joint (it’s been open a little over a month) for lunch last week, and I can now confirm that, yes, they do indeed make their own sauce. Also, the tiny place at 3017 River Road is built for takeout only, with a smoker out in the front parking lot and a nondescript sign in the window. Yep, I thought as we entered, this looks like real barbecue to me.

My girlfriend Cynthia joined me for lunch that day, and we each got a brisket sandwich with two sides for $6.75. The same deal for pulled pork is $5.75; the choices of sides are potato salad, slaw, beans and mini-bags of Lay’s potato chips — a tried-and-true selection, and no more expensive than what you’d pay at a chain, so that’s a good start.

When I engaged one of the owners, who identified himself as John, he noted that all the food in the place is homemade “except for the chips and the buns.” Always good to know. The menu is limited, but we could tell when we walked in that we’d found a worthwhile hole-in-the-wall.

One thing I’ve always believed about brisket (and all barbecue, actually) is that it should be delicious and moist even without sauce — and this brisket was indeed delicious on its own. That didn’t stop me from having John slop a mess of the curious-looking orange barbecue sauce on my sandwich, but there was enough beef that didn’t get sauced to allow me to make my assessment.

“If you eat just the meat, without the sauce,” Cynthia exclaimed excitedly, “it tastes like camping!”

Right. What she said.

But back to the sauce: John called the chunky, thick concoction his “universal, appeal-to-everyone” sauce, but the irony is that I can’t say I’ve ever had anything like it. It’s tomato-based, but quite chunky, and with just a hint of a spicy kick. He also noted that his barbecue style is an “amalgam of styles,” from Texas to Carolina, something he developed over the course of two or three decades of making barbecue at home. River Road BBQ is his first commercial venture.

The sides were tasty and interesting, too: The potato salad appeared to be totally egg-free, instead relying on big chunks of skin-on potatoes, celery slices and diced red onion; the beans clearly were made with the signature sauce, and featured small chunks of pork and pork fat; and the slaw was nothing like the white, gooey mess most people think of as coleslaw. This slaw seemed to be vinegar-based and made with long strips of cabbage and red onion, with seasoning we could not quite identify.

Remember what I said earlier about originality in cooking? Yeah, River Road BBQ is definitely original. And for 20 bucks, you can get a family pack of pulled pork with sides that will feed four. Not bad at all.

Oh, and rest assured, you cannot get John’s signature barbecue sauce at Kroger. Or any chain, for that matter. That’s what keeps it real.