Attacking Macs with chopsticks

Yoshi's brings Japanese sensibilities to an American dining habit

Yoshi's calls its fast food "the healthy alternative." It might more appropriately be called the edible alternative. The food is clean, simple, and light, with genuine flavors that are never forced or larded up with some taste mask to compensate for inadequate preparation. And who knows? Within a few years, if this new variation on rapid ingestion takes hold, Americans might get so good at chopstick manipulation they'll be able to put away a teriyaki chicken dish with the same blazing speed and blinding inattention normally given to Big Macs. If not, Yoshi's has plastic utensils, too.

At its core, barbecue is the art of taking bad cuts of meat and, through the use of slow cooking and smoking techniques, rendering it delicious. It's a form of culinary virtuosity that can take pigs' feet and make them taste like steaks. And transcendental barbecue is one of those things that every state or region in the south likes to lay claim to: there's Memphis, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kansas City forms of barbecue, to name just a few. And there'd probably be Wisconsin barbecue too if cheddar cheese curds could stand up to slow cooking in smoldering birch chips, or maybe even a California barbecue if daffy cultural philosophies could fuel low-temperature fires in 55-gallon drum cookers.

But this pair of states and most of the rest of them don't have their own indigenous species of this brawny form of cookery. So thank God Texas does, or a lot of cattle would be in danger of losing their free room and board. What separates a Texas barbecue from, say, the stuff lawyers and state house cronies in Little Rock eat to celebrate lucrative real estate deals with federally insured S&L deposits? It's all in the meat, the wood, and the sauce. Stripped down to its barest essence, Texas barbecue is beef brisket smoked with either mesquite or hickory chips and then slathered with a warm, tomato-based sauce. Barbecue from other areas incorporates different cuts of meat; cooks it in smoldering pecan, oak, apple, or cherry wood chips; and seasons it with sauces that are often cold and heavily infused with vinegar, mustard, or molasses.

Texas barbecue was invented by pioneer cookers like the legendary Red Bryan, who started in the barbecue business back in the early part of this century in Oak Cliff. To capitalize on this historical thread, Michael DeWitt, a noted authority on Texas barbecue who cut his teeth at Sonny Bryan's, and oilman Steve Hall recently launched Red's Barbecue in Hillside Village on Mockingbird Lane. The space formerly held at various times the Blues Cafe, Billy Blues, and the Blue Ribbon. "We've changed the color, so hopefully we'll have better luck," says DeWitt. But Red's will have to worry about a lot more than just color if it doesn't want to fall away like a piece of slow-cooked meat from a baby back rib bone.

Not that Red's doesn't do a lot of things right. Barbecue, at its heart, is a centerpiece of social interaction. And the folks at Red's are as warm, friendly, and accommodating as any you'd find at a restaurant that places a premium on hospitality. The 5,000-square-foot space is as clean and homey as it is quirky. An old saddle sits by the door. The bar is done up like an old general store counter. Faux bricks and tiles made of aluminum cover booths and walls. Cartoon caricatures of pigs, turkeys, chickens, and a steer are painted on the east wall near the ceiling, and a long shelf stretching across its length is jammed with an assortment of antiques, crates, and other junk--kind of an ongoing-garage-sale-in-the-diner motif. The place even has a video arcade.

The first thing you notice as you enter the space and make your way to the counter in the back to place your order is the scent of rich hickory smoke, an aroma that never lets up. And to go with that scent, Red's offers pork and pork ribs, chicken, ham, turkey, and sausage along with the Texas staple of brisket. Sides include coleslaw, baked beans, pinto beans, collard greens, and potatoes, and you can order dinners with one, two, three, four, or five meats and two sides. The rich, piquant sauce--cooked in a three-part process using lemon, onions, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce--is served up in seven-ounce long neck Corona beer bottles that can be picked up from a tub of warm water near the counter.

The overwhelming characteristic of Red's barbecue creations, however, is desiccation: They contain a disturbing lack of succulence almost across the board. The dry chicken had very little flavor; the dry beef was overcooked and mealy; and the pork, slightly more moist and flavorful than the other meats, was cold. The sausage was the only saving grace. A fine-grained beef and pork mixture from Rudolf's Market and Sausage Factory in Deep Ellum, the reddish tube was lean, tangy, moist, and loaded with flavor.

Some of the sides were standouts too: the pinto beans were creamy, saucy, and spicy with chewy shreds of meat mixed in; the corn bread--light and spongy like a twinkie with chunks of corn and bits of pepper scattered about--was sweet, moist, and packed with flavor; and the mashed squash, a vegetable of the day, was creamy, sweet, and satisfying. The fries, however, were dry and overcooked with an unappetizing texture. Another solid disappointment was an opulent slice of carrot cake that looked like it would do for root confections what the corn bread did for ground kernels. But the icing was like plaster, and the cake was dry (surprise!) and void of flavor. A lot of the stuff at Red's could use a little Oil of Olay.

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