My father is known as the "meat man." He's not a butcher, and it's not some foul innuendo from college--quite simply, he has never met a slab of raw animal he couldn't turn into a meal that makes grown men cry. He has many specialties, but my personal favorite has got to be his pork spare ribs. I'm not sure how he makes them slide off the bone like silk, but I have theories about voodoo or some secret chemical process. Either way, his ribs kick ass.
Because of my lifelong exposure to something so ridiculously excellent, I have trouble liking commercial BBQ. Chain restaurants disguise poor meat in too much cheap sauce, and ritzy places arrange a few anorexic ribs around some shaved cabbage and call it dinner. I'm looking for something more in the middle--definitely not fancy, but way beyond Chili's. The Eagle Rib Shack sounded like it could go either way, so I dragged the boy and our trusty companions D.A. and Shi along to test the waters.
Making our way across the charming patio, we entered what can only be described as a gauntlet. The restaurant is set up like a cafeteria counter, starting with steaming hunks of brisket and ending with microbrew. The chalkboard menu was simple and clear, featuring "ribs by the slab," "whole turkeys" and "sandwiches by the pound." Basically, you should not enter the Shack unless you are prepared to eat ... A LOT. We watched the guy in front of us order a brisket sandwich, and the ensuing preparation involved a piece of white bread as long as my forearm and what looked like about five pounds of thick, slow-cooked, Kansas-style beef. The boy's eyes widened. My intestines flexed.
After several minutes of scooting down the counter like kids in a Baskin Robbins, we paid $40 for a whole slab of baby back ribs, half a brisket-wich, two small side dishes and a bottle of Snakedog IPA. Spendy, but the weight seemed to justify the price. D.A. and Shi went for the pulled-pork sandwich, the same ribs and a side of potato salad, and our combined spread covered an entire table.
The boy and I went for the sandwich first. The brisket was tender, juicy and slathered in Original Kansas City Style BBQ sauce, one of eight regional sauces offered at the Shack. It was obvious the meat had been cooked all day from the awesome texture, but the flavor left something to be desired (the result of too much liquid smoke). The ribs were delicious (still not as good as my Dad's), and my only complaint was that the meat on some of the ribs went from fall-apart tender to jerky-hard. But when demand requires a full day of cooking and then waiting to be snatched up, it must be hard to avoid occasional toughness. D.A. and Shi were very pleased with their pork, and the red potato salad was one of the better recipes I've tried in the Valley. The "smashed potatoes" were a forgettable mix of bacon, cheddar, potato and BBQ sauce, the visual something like snack-food roadkill and the taste about the same. The baked beans, on the other hand, looked and smelled delicious, but if we thought the brisket had too much liquid smoke, the beans tasted like a mouthful of campfire logs.
We left the Shack over-stuffed and reeking of hickory. We could see and even taste the potential in the abundant grub, but until those Kansas folk lay off that "hint" of liquid smoke, the Shack won't hold a candle to the "meat man."
--Erin Ryan has a Texas-sized stomach in a Rhode Island body.