Restaurant Reviews

Good to the bone

While recently describing past romances with a friend, I chose a food metaphor. These frustrating relationships, I said, were like eating a big plate of barbecue ribs. As an unrepentant carnivore, I should love ribs, but I'm often as not disappointed by the experience. My mouth watering with anticipation as I raise each rib, my teeth invariably hit a measly strip of flesh spread thin across a flavorless, unyielding bone. And the more I eat, it seems, the hungrier I get.

Upon sampling the pork and beef ribs served at Magnolia Bar-B-Q in Deep Ellum, my faith in America's quintessential back-yard cuisine is restored. Now let's hope true love follows.

Open for just 10 weeks, owners Steve Simons and Sandy Fortner have invested their future in a risky confrontation--namely, challenging a Deep Ellum barbecuery with an established reputation. Baker's Ribs is just a few doors down from Magnolia Bar-B-Q, and as soon as Simons and Fortner tend to a few details, they'll be poised to hogtie Baker's in a competition for downtown's best sticky-fingers site.

Magnolia serves gutbucket, no-frills barbecue appropriate to operators whose friends encouraged them to open a restaurant based on the strength of their weekend back-yard feasts. They don't cotton to froufrou experimentalism--you won't find portobello mushroom steaks brushed with some mysterious nouveau Southwestern concoction of walnuts, cilantro, and sundried tomato paste. The menu is small; the condiments (sweet and dill pickle slices, purple onion, yellow peppers, and jalapenos) are available on a serve-yourself cart; and best of all, the ribs are meaty, tender, and daubed with a sauce that locates a merry middle ground between sweet and tangy.

Barbecue sauce has always been my biggest impediment to enjoying this white-trash food genre. More often than not, people make it so sweet I feel like I'm eating beef and pork slathered in the hot, runny equivalent of cake frosting. At Magnolia, the balance is just right. Whether spooned over succulent slices of beef or glazed on juicy sausage, the sauce teases you with a tango of opposites. Ditto with Magnolia's cole slaw, another barbecue staple with which cooks often assault your sweet tooth. The creamy mayonnaise in this slaw seized the upper hand, making each bite the ultimate comfort experience in what food-industry types describe as "mouth feel."

But two Magnolia entrees were shocking in their lazy preparation. The chicken was dry strips of breast that would have been much better prepared on a rotisserie with the establishment's yummy sauce and served on the bone. I don't even want to get into the travesty of the Magnolia Burger. In a food arena where messy rules, this 'wich was flat, polite, and shorn of the tumbling straggle of fat red tomato slices, onions, pickles, lettuce, and other fresh accoutrements that constitute a stand-up burger. A memorable burger at a barbecue place would seem to be a no-brainer--toss some jalapenos or creamy, fiery horseradish onto the pile to remind you that we ain't in Goff's anymore--but Magnolia has neglected the basics, so how can they hope to take your taste buds to the next level?

If you choose to end your meal with a big fat slice of cake, the disappointments won't linger for long. Co-owner Steve Simon's mother, Wanda, bakes the three selections--Mississippi Mud, pineapple, and strawberry--from scratch. Sadly, strawberry wasn't available when we chowed down, but the other two were gooey delights. The Mississippi mud was especially intriguing, because the chocolate cake's strong cinnamon accent served as a last hurrah for the barbecue spices that still lingered on our tongues. The pineapple cake didn't have a strong fruit flavor, but it occurred to me that pineapples tend to acquire a generic citrusy taste in most baked goods--their acidity diminished, they loiter like a wallflower in the batter. The slice I had was so damned moist, plunging my fork through the walnut-studded top layer of sugary glaze became a sensual experience in itself.

Co-owner Sandi Fortner took our orders, then graced our meal with an oral history of her own colorful life that took so many twists and turns, it felt like a soap opera. Whether discussing her 19-year-old daughter's eight tattoos; being trapped inside a car in the Montana mountains while a hungry bear licked the windows; or wreaking vengeance on an ex-husband who'd fired a rifle and pistol at her (she wedged a pink teddy bear in his arms after he passed out drunk at a campsite so his buddies would make fun of him), this self-described "Pleasant Grove rat" was spicier than the sauce her cooks served up. She's the centerpiece of Magnolia's undeniably cool atmosphere, where brick walls are adorned with rusted farm implements and mammal heads her Daddy shot and stuffed himself. If you have time, get her to show you a particularly treacherous little rural device called a "mole-catcher."

Magnolia Bar-B-Q: Come for the ribs, stay for the stories.

Magnolia Bar-B-Q. 2820 Commerce St. (214) 74BARBQ. Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Magnolia Bar-B-Q:
Ribs plate with two sides $7.50
Combo plate with two meats and two sides $7.95
Mississippi mud cake $1.50