By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Barbecue has a unique hold on Americans. A slow-roasted carcass will feed a large group, so even in colonial days social gatherings centered around a smoking pit. Nowadays it's a sloppy comfort meal familiar to urbanites and small-town folk alike. Yeah, people in different regions bicker over the details--brisket or pulled pork, that sort of thing--and fanatics with backyard grills guard sauce recipes with more tenacity than Cheney holds onto the names of CIA operatives. The very word translates as bold, spicy or smoky in our memories. It's surprising, then, to find a barbecue joint so unexceptional, so consistently mediocre as Randy White's.
Let's start with the basic sauce, which we discovered in one of the buffet line tubs. Considering some form of sauce is essential to many barbecued meats, it's a little disconcerting to find the stuff tucked under a sneeze guard alongside pinto beans, potato salad and the like. Curiously, the thin liquid refuses to play well with any meat dish. The sliced beef held some residual smoke but was dry and badly in need of assistance, something to enhance the faint smack of charred wood. An equally parched order of pulled pork begged for a more pronounced accompaniment. Ribs were more satisfying. They flecked apart easily and presented a mild, meaty flavor. Unfortunately, the seasoning lacks resilience. There should be some evidence of basting or of a spice rub in each bite, but the ribs are just clean. Tasty, yes, and fall-off-the-bone tender, but devoid of that special barbecue kick. And the weak, one-dimensional sauce fails to boost the plate. On our third visit we finally discovered a menu item with some punch. The sausage carried a vaguely industrial (i.e., chemical) essence followed by a mellow belt of pepper. More than anything it resembled Hickory Farms, complete with that annoying thin maroon casing.
Customers pick up most items along the buffet line, and the quality mirrors that found at a Midwestern family reunion. Just to save time, Aunt Martha buys ready-made vats of coleslaw and potato salad from the grocery store. The slaw and salad found at Randy White's is a lot like that--characterless filler, neither offensive nor worthwhile. Mushy green beans with bacon bits crumbled throughout were heavily salted. On the other hand, mashed potatoes cried desperately for seasoning. Perhaps they should soak the stuff in green bean juice before setting it out for public consumption.
The restaurant should be punished for the generic lumps otherwise known as potatoes au gratin. We've ignored better in high school cafeterias. To judge by the "Southern rice," residents living below the Mason-Dixon line prefer tepid, gooey, overcooked grains. Baked potato turned out to be a bland potato salad with chunks of whatever strewn through the mess. Mac and cheese? Insulting. Better to run over to the nearby Sam's Club for a big box from Kraft. At least the pinto beans offered a sweet surge followed by the lingering burn of jalapeño.
We're guessing the barely adequate assembly line meats and sides account for Randy White's modest draw. A few guests sat scattered about the place on one Saturday night. Four days later only four other people--two Russians and a pair of elderly gentlemen--wandered through the buffet. On a Monday night, while the Packers and Vikings battled in a tight Monday Night Football contest, Randy White's staff set all the monitors to basketball.
What would ol' number 54 think about that? Ah, nobody really cares. Just two single guys and one other couple occupied seats.
On the plus side there's a tub of iced-down beer in the buffet line. Good selection, too: From Guinness and Heineken to the usual domestics. A banner behind all those dull side dishes proclaims the ubiquitous margarita, available from the bar. For $2.50 they beat the weak top-shelf version doled out by Mi Cocina for a whopping 10 bucks. Oh, and the service staff--young, casual and quite chipper. They may represent the joint's best, most engaging feature.
But it's the few items cooked to order that actually keep Randy's culinary reputation afloat--the catfish, in particular, fried up in cornmeal to perfect crunchiness. The meat itself is firm with a strong, recognizably muddy flavor. As befitting tradition, cornbread accompanies the fried bottom dweller, in this case formed into small cylinders like something pumped from one of those old hand-cranked Play-Doh machines. Oddly shaped, yes (almost disturbingly so), and not as granular as custom might demand but still quite satisfying. For once a kitchen refrains from the mundane, sweet Northeastern-style cornbread so prevalent these days and rolls out something with enough substance to stand alongside bold foods. The entrée suffers only from presentation, as the staff slices catfish into strips so thin the coating almost dominates.
Fried catfish demands a rustic setting. It is, after all, the stuff of back roads and brown waters. Randy White's comes through with a decorating scheme apparently laid out and executed by someone drunk on Shiner. There's a hodgepodge array of dusty stuffed animals, Western-themed chandeliers, football memorabilia and junk. Opposing walls compete with differing stone façades. A third, of flat plaster, supports clusters of photographs and posters. Suspended above the room is an old dead duck "flying" inverted. The restaurant fills one corner of a dark strip along Midway Road. Across the street gleam more alluring spots, such as Snuffer's and The Londoner. Up the block sit venerable waysides, most notably Jaxx Café. The colorful neon glow from Spring Creek (another barbecue site) contrasts with the roadhouse exterior preferred by Randy White's.