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Good Food!

Paper or Plastic — Shouldn't I Have a Choice? But Dinner ROCKS

Restaurant: Sugar House Barbeque
Cuisines:
Memphis Barbeque, Cajun
Location: 2207 S. 700 E., Salt Lake City (Map)
Price Range: $1.99-$24.99
Grade:
B — See Foodie Report

I had not been to Sugar House Barbeque Company since it had changed its name from Red Bonz a number of years ago. So I was in the area, and I love good barbeque, so it seemed that the opportunity was at hand.

Parking is a little difficult. You have to be coming at it on 700 East from the South, or you have to flip around an island. But, once you get out of the car, you can smell the smoke from that monster smoker sitting on the porch.

Inside, the smoke hits you even harder, like diving into a pool of mouthwatering goodness. I was excited! As I looked around, I noticed that they still have all the Red Bonz décor, with the name stamped into decorative tiles, etc., but it's a very clean, nice atmosphere unlike most other restaurants in Utah that tend to not put as much into the experience of the restaurant as they could.

I ordered at the counter (although I heard that they had waiting service, but it was strangely absent) and pay, then find a seat. There are a couple televisions to watch, and music playing, so there is a little bit for everyone. I asked the girl at the register about a couple items on the menu, but had trouble getting more than a one or two-word response from her, so I decided on something that I often order when getting barbeque: chicken and ribs. For sides, I ordered their barbeque beans and decided to try something that I had only eaten once before: collard greens.

I filled my drink cup with what I was surprised to see: Cherry Coke. You don't see it as often as you should. I then chose a table, which was solid and attractive, then noticed that there was seating outside. Of course, it was 104 degrees out, so I stayed where I was.

My food came very quickly, in a plastic basket on a sheet of wax paper. I don't mind that with sandwiches (a la the Philadelphian in Sandy), but barbeque is another matter. I hoped I didn't end up frustrated by that alone.

The woman who brought my food asked if I knew what the bottles of sauce on the table were and, since they were not labeled in any way, I said no. She told me that there was the classic sauce, the mustard sauce, a cayenne sauce and pig sauce. Then she walked away. She didn't wait for me to ask if I had heard her right. Did she say "pig sauce"? Worse, her pants were down around her butt, which made me wonder if it was indeed a girl who had waited on me. You don't see many girls wearing their pants like that, but you never know. Apparently the look on my face said something about the walk-away, because a woman next to me leaned over and said, "Yes, pig sauce. It's like vinegar." Oh. OK.

Then my food arrived. The barbeque beans had lots of meat and chunks of onion, but the sauce was pretty light, which made me wonder if they had forgotten to cook it down. The cup of collard greens didn't look or smell like when I had eaten it once before, either. My corn bread was cold and wrapped in plastic wrap. The ribs were completely dry. The chicken, however, had an amazing dark color from the smoking.

First words out of my mouth: "At least the chicken will be good."

I started with the beans. I love good barbeque beans. I make a mean dish myself, but the color is very dark when I make them. These almost looked like they were Van de Camp's Pork'n Beans, except for the chunks of onion and shredded meat. However, looks were deceiving. The flavor was excellent. The first thing to hit me was the wine (or possibly beer) used in the mix. But there were also some other herbs in it that tasted almost Italian — like I was eating beany wine-sauce spaghetti. Surprising, but great. (I ended up mopping up every drop with my corn bread.)

Next I went with the collard greens. Now I'm not an expert on this dish. I have had it only once before. But, then, the meat in it was bacon, and the flavor from the bacon really blended and complemented that of the greens. The bits of shredded meat here did nothing of the sort. The appeared to be just hot spinach. I couldn't detect any seasoning at all. When I salted it (and I rarely salt anything), I couldn't believe how much the taste improved. But not enough, unfortunately. I had three or four bites, then left the rest. It just wasn't as good as what I had eaten before.

Next I went to the ribs. Again, I love good ribs. Unfortunately, they were not cut completely through, which wouldn't have been a problem, had I been equipped with something other than a plastic knife and fork. But that was all I had. I tried to finish separating the ribs, but the knife simply wouldn't do. I ended up pulling the bone (tendon?) out of the other end of the ribs, which the woman who had told me about the sauce seemed to find distasteful, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do to get his pig meat. And the smoking was excellent. The smoke ring went all the way down to the bone, but the surface was completely smooth. Made me wonder if they had been seasoned at all. I took a bite (no sauce added) and the smoke was nice, albeit a bit weak. I like to have the smoke fill my head like a rolling wave, filling my sinuses. And this just didn't do it. So I tried the classic sauce. It wasn't bad, although there was no heat to it. There was an almost fruity something to it that was nice (reminded me a bit of plums), but I wanted some heat. So I tried the pig sauce. Let me rephrase that: I shook the bottle for about a minute to get the sediment off the bottom of the bottle, then I tried the pig sauce. And, yes, it was vinegar. I could taste nothing else. Just vinegar. I said, "Don't care for that one," and sat it aside. Next, I went with the cayenne sauce. It was good, but I love most cayenne sauces, put them on sandwiches, etc. And this was a good one. Last, I tried the mustard sauce. Again, I thought it was thin, but the flavor was more like honey mustard than anything. So I decided that I would have to make my own mix … and was staring down at wax paper to mix it on. Ugh. I went about half and half with the classic sauce and the cayenne sauce. The mix was good. But I could tell that it was going to soak through the paper before I was done with my meal.

Next I went on to the chicken. As anticipated, it was excellent. The skin was very dark, and the meat had very little smoke ring (I had a quarter-chicken with breast and wing), but the smoke came through. The problem was that it was dry. I could have eaten that chicken as is and been a happy camper, but it was sticking to my teeth and the roof of my mouth, so I had to use the sauce I had mixed up for the ribs. Very good … but it was going to reduce the shelf life of my "plate" — I could see it coming.

About halfway through the meal, the paper broke through and I was left with a bunch of diamond-shaped holes. And I was frustrated. I made it work by putting my corn bread back on its plastic wrap and taking the cups out that had the beans and collard greens, but I was annoyed. The plating just isn't very practical for what I ordered, let alone the plastic knife and fork.

I finished my meal, and the portions were good. (I did have the life-is-good feeling, despite passing on the greens.) The corn break was also dry but, since I used it to mop up the sauce, it was OK.

Best thing about the meal: the beans. And that's not how it's supposed to be, when the side dish steals the show.

Worst thing about the meal: the ribs. And that's even worse.

I'll try the place again, but I need a better experience than this. Otherwise, I won't be back.

My second visit was several months later, on the night of the first snow of the season. It was Friday night, and the parking was difficult, but for a different reason: the place was packed. I was actually surprised after the lackluster meal I’d had there before in the afternoon. And there is limited parking. Fortunately, someone was leaving right about the time I was there to take the parking spot. Going in through the back entrance, there were tables to be seated at, tall patio heaters, and a big, wood-burning stove. It was a great image, but I wasn’t about to try sitting outside when it was windy and the air was heavy with the feeling of the snow that hadn’t started to fall.

Opening the door, the sound of all those voices and music playing hit like a physical force. It was a shock to the senses. Then a woman greeted me, asked how many were in my party, took my name, and told me that I could sit outside by the fire until there was a table ready. So much for not being out in the cold. Unfortunately, she didn’t offer me a menu when I was waiting, but I walked over to snag one before taking a seat. I sat near the stove, which was burning bright and hot, and was only occasionally peppered with ashes and smoke when the wind shifted around. All the same, it was comfortable, and I actually like the smell of a nice fire.

Ten or so minutes later, my names was called and I was given a choice of two tables. I chose the one near the wall, because I don’t like sitting with my back exposed. Once there, I just breathed in the smell of the smoker, and couldn’t help but smile. Then I noticed that the table had not been wiped down well, if at all, with a ring from the bottle of barbeque sauce on the table, and grease smears. Not a great way to start the meal, cleaning up your own table.

A waiter came to take our drink order pretty quickly. He was wearing a military cap askew on his head, when it was clear that he had never served (unless he was a candidate for the Super Soldier serum), and I found it a little offensive, to be honest. But he was pleasant and energetic, and came back with the drinks very quickly. Since I had reviewed the menu outside, I was ready to order. I had been tempted by the Cajun section on the menu to get the Chicken Etouffe, but was being drawn to the Sugarhouse Smoked Platter like a moth to a flame. It came with Beef Brisket, Pulled Pork, Turkey or Buffalo Chicken (or half-orders of any two), Corn Bread and two sides. So I ordered that, with the Brisket and Buffalo Chicken, but was torn on which sides to order. I wanted to get something other than the Beans, since I had ordered them last time, and the waiter told me that Greek Oven Roasted Potatoes were always a safe bet, then told me that they had Red Beans and Rice that night, so I went with the pair.

As I waited, I could not believe the energy in the place. People were coming and going, drinking beers, having a good time. Completely different feeling from the previous visit. And my food came in a flash.

First words out of my mouth: “Wow. That was quick!”

This time, I was served on a white plate, with a pair of white ramekins full of the potatoes and what was supposed to be Red Beans and Rice ... except that I couldn’t see any beans ... or any rice. It looked like a mix of cooked celery and onions ... so I asked if it was the Red Beans and Rice, and he said it was. He then bent down over the sauces, said that the traditional sauce was a sweet barbeque sauce; that the pig sauce is a very vinegary spicy sauce; that the spicy sauce was a cayenne-pepper sauce; that the yellowish one was a mustard-and-brown-sugar sauce. He then said that the cayenne-pepper sauce and the pig sauce would be the two spiciest sauces, asked if there was anything else I needed, and was gone again.

The Buffalo Chicken was smoked, chopped, and coated in a beautiful, orange Buffalo-type sauce that smelled amazing. The Brisket was plain, no sauce, and had a rich, red smoke ring coming down through what would have been the top before it was sliced. The Potatoes were heavily seasoned red potatoes, that smelled Cajun to me, rather than Greek. But I started with the Red Beans and Rice. I love Cajun spices. And, once I stirred the dish, I got to see the rice and beans, and took a bite.

First words out of my mouth after first bite: “Oh, yeah. That’s awesome.”

The seasoning was dead on, and it had some heat. I love spicy food, and this had a lingering, sneaky heat that built with each bite. Next, I went with a bite of the potatoes, and had to sit back and just savor the flavor. The seasonings tasted as Cajun as I thought they smelled, with a bit of heat, and amazing flavors layered through. Moreover, the seasoning was so thick that it formed almost a crumble in the dish, creating little bombs of tangy joy that were just amazing. It was easily one of the best potato dishes I have ever eaten. Again, this visit could not be any more different from the first.

The Buffalo Chicken could no longer be resisted. Just as I suspected, the smoked chicken combined with their Buffalo sauce was great. The Buffalo sauce had a little more vinegar than some, but it was tempered by smooth butter. And it had some heat. At this point, I was getting on the verge of being just ecstatic. The Buffalo Chicken was taking me to my happy place. My mouth was singing and the heat even got my nose running. Happiness.

Last came the Brisket. When I cut it, it became clear that it was dry. But I still took the first bite plain, because I wanted to get the hit of smoke ... and it came through, filling my head with goodness. It was not as heavily smoked as some I had eaten, but the flavor was still very good. I then tried it with the traditional sauce, which still had that fruity sweetness; then the Pig Sauce which, again, left me tasting nothing but vinegar; then the mustard-and-brown-sugar sauce ... and everything screeched to a halt. I’m not a big fan of mustard-based barbeque sauces in general, and I had not been a big fan of it on my last visit ... but this time, like everything else, was a whole different story. The mustard was tempered by the molasses in the brown sugar, and the flavors were really excellent. It left me wondering if, the time before, it had been bottled honey mustard on the table, rather than what was served here.

The icing on the cake was that the Corn Bread was not served in plastic wrap, but on its own small plate, was not cold, and came with butter. Again, I used it to mop up all the sauces, and had to warn off the waiter that I was going to stab him with my fork if he tried to take my plate before I got every last drop.

The portions were good, leaving me happy and full. And I can’t explain the difference between the two experiences. Was the place under new management? Were they having trouble drawing people for lunch, so were not putting out their best work? Hard to say. The thing is, the way to build lunch business is to serve the same quality of food as dinner, which is not what happened on my first visit. First time, one of the more lackluster meals I’ve ever had. Second visit, one of the most satisfying. Go figure. But consistency in quality always equates with consistency in business ... so there should be a lesson learned here.

Last words out of my mouth: “Sugarhouse Barbeque has been redeemed.”

FoodUtah.com Foodie Report

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     noun. Slang.  A person who has an ardent or refined interest in food; a gourmet.