The BBQ Saloon, which opened in the space long occupied by the Majestic on South Euclid, has bravely taken on a cuisine that's very popular in St. Louis right now. There are lots of barbecue contenders in town these days, from national award winners to holes in the wall. So where does this entry stand?
At the very least, it has no competition nearby. The Central West End simply hasn't had a barbecue spot. It's located near the BJC/Washington University Med School complex, so there's plenty of foot traffic at lunch; in the evening, restaurants and bars punctuate nearby blocks up and down the street, so there's activity then as well. In addition, there's a bourbon-heavy bar and cocktails at hand, making it an easy happy hour stop en route home for some folks.
Lunchtime, the drill is to order at a counter, pay, and the food will be brought to your table. Other times, there's standard table service. Service seems rapid and certainly is very pleasant.
First courses, as befits a barbecue restaurant, are mostly sinful. There are a couple of salads, a nice gesture, but no one comes to a place like this for virtue. Instead, metal cups of candied bacon strips, the bacon very crisp and slightly crunchy from brown sugar that's been patted on before the baking, fly by, handsome and alluring. If you're someone who counts texture as a big part of your eating pleasure, this is for you. Also on the texture side are the "housemade crackl'ns". Pork skins, or chicharrones, yes, like you'd get in a bag at the gas station - but these arrive so freshly fried they're still popping and sizzling when they come to the table. Sprinkled with seasoning, either BBQ or salt and vinegar, the latter as a granule rather than dribbles of liquid, they're good, simply because of the warmth and the freshness, although not as addictive as the bacon.
When it comes to barbecuing meat, it's no secret that I believe the Lord created the hog to be barbecued. In fact, I've had strangers stop me on the street to argue the matter. But the discussion about BBQ Saloon revolves around their beef ribs (and their lack of brisket, but that's another story). The ribs are large, relatively tender, and its marinade gives good flavor. There's not much crispness at the edges, and when they, like the other barbecued meats, arrived at the table didn't seem to have much smokiness. A day later, eating leftovers, that had improved, giving rise to speculation about the numbing effect of smokiness in the air. (Or of pork skins.)
Pork ribs had a different rub, a little spicy-hotter, again, very meaty, and quite satisfying. Sliced turkey was almost too precise in its slicing and overall appearance, but remained moist and, presumably because of the meat's inately mild flavor, the smokiness was more apparent. Not barbecued was a fat hamburger, a good half-inch thick, that arrived hot and juicy at the requested medium-rare. The cost of the medium rare was no char on the exterior, alas, but good beefy flavor.
Sauces? The St. Louis-style has molasses or brown sugar, and allegedly some orange juice, although undiscernible, the Carolina-style is vinegary, although thicker than most of its breed, thus easier to control on a sandwich. There's a sriracha-based sauce that's redolent of garlic and roasted vegetables, spicy but not as alluring as the previous two. And there's the white barbecue sauce, an old Alabama condiment that's mayonnaise-based. This version is less piquant than some, but a good match for the turkey, with bits of coarse-ground mustard seed in it. Because it's refrigerated, it's not on the tables, but servers offer it routinely.
Among the sides tried, the beans stand out, with a few bits of pork, and more importantly, a glug of bourbon stirred into their sauce. That's a good upgrade, quite worthy. Potato salad, mayonnaise-based, is chunky, but is vastly underseasoned. I heard a server saying that they salted nothing, and this is an example of what that costs a dish. However, it's a good place on which to dribble some of that Carolina sauce, whose vinegar cranks things up to a more appropriate level. Skinny French fries get tossed in that crunch-making additive before going into the oil; they're adequate but nothing exceptional.
The dessert menu is verbal and variable, but the pecan pie and bread pudding brulee seem to be constants. The mental picture of "bread pudding brulee" evokes a flat dish of bread pudding with the crackly glazed-sugar top of a creme brulee. Brulee, after all, means "burned". That's not what it looks like.
What arrives is a tall square of remarkably fluffy bread pudding, the bread in squares, lightly tossed in a custard but not soaked and squashed. It's heated and toasted so that there are crunchy-crispy bits on top and even on the sides to some degree, and then a boozy caramel sauce is poured over and around it. It's a stunner, one of the best in town.
Not an inexpensive place, but then barbecue often isn't these days - that platter pictured up there, the most expensive item on the menu, is $32, a tad disconcerting at first for a meal served on an aluminum tray. And the menu has shrunk somewhat, not unusual with new restaurants. Still, pleasant staff, lots of outside seating, and that bread pudding - along with beef ribs.
4900 Laclede Ave.
Lunch Tues.-Fri., Dinner Tues.-Sun
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches and entrees: $10-$32