Restaurant Reviews

Blues exchange

It's a hard, hard way to go, the restaurant business. Someone should write a blues song about it. It's so hard that the owners of Billy Blues Barbecue just up and left it, evidently after one particularly bad night.

Who knows? Maybe their pot washer quit or their smoker was on the blink or the health inspector showed up at dinnertime. Maybe they couldn't make payroll, again.

Anyway, one night, the proprietors locked up, left, and just never came back. When the landlord unlocked the door for the next tenant, they found food in the walk-in, dishes in the sink, money in the cash drawer. It was clear that the Billy Blues people either wanted out--bad--or were abducted by aliens.

That's OK. Like lemmings, new restaurateurs rush in to fill the vacancies left by those who disappeared before them. So Texas Blues Cafe has moved into Billy's old spot in Hillside Village and it seems to be making a go of it, by counting on the true-but-untried (in white Dallas) combination of barbecue and blues.

Think about it: If barbecue had a sound, it would be Texas blues. The paper-towel-style and charred taste of pit-cooked ribs and beef and the smoky, slightly loose atmosphere of a black-and-blues joint just slide into each other naturally.

This location is hardly an address for success. It's surrounded by retail dregs and remnants in a dying suburban shopping center. A Drug Emporium anchors the quadrant and there's a boarded-up Amber's Crafts next door to the just-opened Texas Blues. The Discount Party Warehouse is thriving, but Hancock's Discount Fabrics is closing down. Even Pancho's Mexican Buffet couldn't make a go of it. There's absolutely nothing gentrified here, but there's nothing really gritty or soulful, either. It's just a typically tacky, failing middle-class shopping center with a stale white-bread clientele. The only thing that could make this location first pick for anyone would be low rent.

Well, rent is something Texas Blues owner knows about: Tom Loughborough, whose first passion is the blues, is a real-estate nonwannabe.

When he's not closing deals, Loughborough fronts a blues band. With Richard Chalk, he owns Topcat Records, which produced an album of previously unknown Freddie King tapes.

Loughborough has long been looking to open a restaurant that would feature black blues. When he met Lisa DuPre through a mutual friend at the Monday-night jam she'd been hosting at Greenville Bar & Grill for several years, their dreams collided like flint and steel. DuPre is an ex-singer and blues supporter whose dream was to bring South Dallas blues north. The Hillside Village spot was ready-made and with Lisa's friend, chef Cole Kelly, in the kitchen, Texas Blues Cafe was ready to cook.

This space has always housed barbecue joints--Blue Ribbon Barbecue was a neighborhood mainstay before the ill-fated Billy Blues took over--and all the necessary equipment was in place. It would have taken less than no brains to decide there was no need to come up with a different menu concept, even though Cole Kelly's past kitchens have usually produced more sophisticated food than meat and bread.

Kelly is no barbecue maven. He's a half-hippie chef-around-town whose lengthy rsum reads like a road map of Dallas dining. Last seen, he was Yegua Creek's opening chef and he did a good job there with a New American take on game and boutique beer-pairing fare. But he's adapted to the barbecue vernacular easily and, wisely, he doesn't try to make it more than it is.

We checked out Texas Blues Cafe for an early supper on a (need I say blue) Monday and the place seemed not quite awake. The stage up front in the sheet-glass window was empty and so were most of the tables. Kelly was manning the butcher block in the barbecue-teria line, hacking up chickens and slicing brisket with rhythmic thwacks of a knife against a Corian after every cut. He'd sold out of ribs at lunch and the vegetable bins in the steam table were half-empty.

We were way early for this place but the kitchen rustled up some dinner for us as if we were lost and were being taken in, and stuff was being brought to our table if it wasn't ready when we went through the line. (A lot of the hyperattentive service was the natural reaction to the critic walking in and catching the staff half-asleep. Cole knows me from years ago and when I ordered chicken, he went back to the kitchen to get a fresh one, saying, jokingly, "Hey, I'm not stupid.")

We had a very quiet Monday night meal, the only blues music coming from the CD speakers and some unhappy children. The smoked chicken was OK, its flavor mild, the meat moist from slow cooking. The pulled pork was rich and tender, falling into long fibrous chunks, and the beef was red-striped and stacked up well on a soft bun. We liked the mashed potatoes and gravy, the good, freshly cooked fries, thick onion rings, and hot beans.

Here there is an understanding of quality and authenticity. Sausage is purchased from the Hill Country and Kelly is considering adding Wonder bread to the barbecue baskets.

Everything was pretty much what you'd expect from a barbecue joint, though all the food was lukewarm and the well-meaning service was disorganized. Kelly's got free-lance chef Ben Ivey in the kitchen backing him up and turning out personal specialties like chili and desserts.

The truth is, though the posted hours are lunch and dinner, Texas Blues is actually a late-night barbecue place. Even on Mondays, the music starts at 9:30 p.m., when the musicians wake up, and that's when the place is jammed and the joint starts jumping. The late-night menu features barbecue-based snacks and drinking food like rib baskets and brisket nachos. (There's a full bar and a good selection of beer.) Restaurants are never just about the food and Texas Blues proves the point.

When we returned on a Saturday night, the place was SRO and the dance floor was full. Loughborough's white-boy blues band was playing but the Rev. Fillmore stepped up to sing and drew the rest of the crowd away from rib baskets and onto the dance floor, some even jumping on stage to sing along. It was a surprisingly soulful scene for suburban Lakewood.

DuPre draws on her strong connections to R.L. Griffin's Blues Palace near Fair Park to book Texas Blues and she says each night attracts a different kind of crowd, according to the music.

From what we saw, Texas Blues is building its own special audience, a mix of black and white, young and old, collegiate and professional. In Dallas, where restaurants are as demographically specific as most of its neighborhoods, Texas Blues Cafe is an anomaly. DuPre and company have made a conscious effort to attract South Dallas to North Dallas, and there's traffic on the bridge.

So far, the blues exchange program is working. And the barbecue is fine, too.

Texas Blues Cafe, 316 Hillside Village (Mockingbird and Abrams), 824-7600. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday jazz brunch starts in April.

Texas Blues Cafe:
Pulled Pork Sandwich $3.25
Two-Meat Combination Plate $6.95

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