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On the Rack

Racks offers four flavors of barbecue sauce, from sweet to very sweet.
Stephen P. Karlisch

You gotta love a dish that includes wet naps as dessert. Ribs are that kind of food, one that permits decent, churchgoing folks such as ourselves to behave like uncouth culinary heretics; a food that permits polite people to converse with brown rings around their mouths while spluttering chaw-hued spittle into the coleslaw. Ribs also offer the kind of chewy succulence that goes well with pints of beer good for washing the lips back to a kissable color.

What ribs are not is the kind of food that necessarily pairs well with wine. They're generally slathered with thick sweetish sauces that wreak havoc on wine and your tongue, too, depending on the grade of crude from which the sauce is refined.

But Racks astounds with a modestly provocative wine list that includes a South African vouvray, a Texas meritage, a real Burgundy, and a pinotage, that oddball cross between pinot noir and cinsault grown exclusively in South Africa. Not only that, but the wine list actually includes tasting notes with unforgettably pithy phrases such as "a wine as big as Texas itself" and "coating every taste bud with silky flavors" and "hints of black currant, herbs, and cola." (In addition to cola, Racks also has Mr. Pibb on its beverage list).

This wine list is a terrific little assembly for a rib joint, a collection that could conceivably convert a Bud tippler or a highball roller into an effete cabernet sniffer. Not that there aren't entrées on the menu that wouldn't mind cavorting with a zinfandel or a sauvignon blanc every now and again. In addition to ribs (beef, boneless, baby back, and spare), Racks serves up grilled pork chops, rib-eye steaks, hickory-smoked chicken, grilled tuna steaks, and chicken-fried steaks.

But ribs are Racks' claim to fame, and ribs are its biggest disappointment. No, it's that "awesome foursome" of sauces--honey barbecue, flaming glory, sweet glory, and original--that are Racks' biggest disappointment, each tasting as if it was made from melted Sweet 'n Low. Racks' rib sampler with pickings of beef, boneless, and Racks' signature spare ribs showed no measurable appeal in any way. The spare ribs were tender, but they were as tasteless as a Cadillac with a two-toned landau roof, despite the menu's claim that they were flush with rich hickory smoke flavor. The boneless ribs were dry and flavorless, like cardboard with a little cured bathtub caulk thrown in for chewiness. The beef ribs come with a crust the color of an overheated Firestone, so is it any wonder they were tasteless and parched? (Actually, the flavor was fairly good once you peeled back the treads.)

Before serving, Racks singes its "hickory-smoked" ribs on a glassed-in display grill (next to a display case proffering Racks paraphernalia such as hats, shirts, and other clothes you may need to change into after a rib dinner) to give the meat some crust. It's sort of a spectacle in a corner of the dining room where flames flare up, soaking the room with momentary flashes so you can see your food better for an instant.

Yet if Racks doesn't do ribs all that well, then what does it do well? Certainly not steak. The 10-ounce rib eye, cooked to a perfect medium rare hue, was a miserable piece of artery blockage with little flavor and so much fat and stringy gristle that it was hard to cut with the serrated steak knife that was provided. Maybe Racks should consider electric steak knives.

The grilled T-bone pork chop was much better. It was juicy, and while not as well-seasoned as the menu verbiage implies, it was well-sifted with smoke. And despite its thinness, the chop was thankfully pulled off the grill before the pink was cooked out of it, which is good, though maybe this one had a little too much pink. The flesh near the T-bone was raw, gripping the mind with quaint trichinosis phobias.

But if Racks' meat leaves you high and literally dry, there are always the generous sides to fill up on. Entrées all come with a choice of two sides from a roster that includes sautéed mushrooms, coleslaw, onion rings, baked beans, French fries, potato salad, and rice pilaf, the latter being just a pile of unseasoned, un-pilaflike boiled white rice with flecks of carrot. Sautéed vegetables were fine, if uninteresting, consisting of slightly soggy slices of squash, zucchini, and bell pepper. Barbecue baked beans were rich and delicious, and though my dining companions thought me nuts, I thought the coleslaw was fairly decent with shreds of red cabbage in a creamy dressing that had a slightly smoky flavor to it. Perhaps the kitchen got a little mixed up and smoked the cabbage instead of the ribs. Fries weren't bad either, though they could have been a little crisper.

Racks also does a respectable job with burgers. The Racks blues burger, a juicy, savory patty with melted blue cheese, was assembled with a sheet of lettuce and a couple of waxy tomato slices plus pickles slipped between a boring bun. The menu said something about a Racks blues sauce accompanying this burger, but what we got was a metal ramekin of ketchup, which might be the same thing.

The stuffed baked potato (billed as an alternative to sandwiches), on the other hand, was less than startling. Festooned with butter, sour cream, melted cheddar cheese, green onions, and fake bacon bits, the potato comes with a choice of toppings, including boneless rib, grilled chicken, and chicken tenders. We opted for the grilled chicken, a selection that proved bland.

Racks is fashioned out of a space that used to be a Red Robin Restaurant. In addition to the flaming "showcase grill," Racks has a huge bar with lots of beer signs and brass railings, upholstered booths, and maple paneling throughout. Plus, the walls hold lots of huge vibrant paintings of flowerpots, kitchen utensils, and suburbanlike still lifes by local artists. Press kit info also makes reference to the aroma of hickory smoke suffusing the restaurant, though we couldn't really smell any smoke until the coleslaw arrived.

Racks does have a few respectable smokeless appetizers though. The fried cheesy combo, a weird pairing of coated and fried cheddar cheese sticks interspersed with triangles of brie cheese and lettuce leaves around a bowl of ranch dressing, was well-seasoned and tasty.

And though it was topped with more ballooning and soggy croutons than melted provolone, the golden onion soup had a broth that was appealingly sweet and rich.

The Caesar salad wasn't bad either, with crisp romaine and a healthy dispersal of Parmesan shreds cluttered with a few seasoned croutons all bathed in a modestly pungent dressing.

The service was earnest and sincere, but green and clumsy. After requesting a glass of burgundy, our waiter returned to the table twice with a "what was that wine again?" before he decided to bring a wine list.

But wine wouldn't have helped the stuffed mushrooms, an unmitigated appetizer disaster that was almost inedible. Large upended mushroom caps were packed with bread crumbs and crumbled blue cheese and topped with melted jack cheese under a layer of creamy cilantro lime sauce. Though the cheese on top was melted (barely), the ingredients weren't cooked together, so the flavors never had an opportunity to merge. The mushroom caps were raw and watery, while the bread crumbs were stiff, pasty, and bland. This dish would have been far more successful if the ingredients were assembled and then shoved in the oven for a time just before the sauce was applied. Instead, it appeared as if the ingredients were tossed together and nuked just enough to melt the cheese. Inexplicably, in the center of the plate, was a bowl of bland cream sauce that looked exactly like the sauce on top of the mushrooms, only without the zest--the bland dipping the bland.

Dessert took after the 'shrooms. Apple cobbler, the cobbler of the day, was a blend of pedestrian ice cream scoops shy of authentic vanilla flavor, a viscous fruit sauce that tasted like it was rendered from plastic fruit, and a dough that was more like pie crust than biscuit dough.

Perhaps they could have rescued the cobbler in the same way they saved the coleslaw: by giving it a blast of hickory smoke.


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