Smokey and the Miracles
Innate skepticism has always prevented me from relying on religious relics in my personal life, and a loathing of clichés has long stopped me from referring metaphorically to them in my writing. But in this case, I just can't resist: I have found the Holy Grail of chain-restaurant dining. It is a plastic cup of ice water with a lid and a straw, and the church that houses it is Boca Raton's three-month-old Smokey Bones BBQ Sports Bar.
The best part about coming across such an item of greater spiritual good -- the kind that can't break, spill, or cause much harm when chucked at a sibling's head -- is that I wasn't even looking for it. I was merely searching for a way to escape cooking on a rainy Sunday that had kept the kids trapped, bored, and wearing my patience thin.
If I may be so bold, what we all want in a family-dining atmosphere are the same things we desire when the kids aren't along: delicious, quality food; friendly and competent service; a fair bill for a good bill of fare. That's hard enough to find dining à deux. Add a couple of cabin-feverish kids -- or in my case, a pair of my own offspring, their two cousins, and my exhausted in-laws -- and it's a Sisyphean task. You can only roll the boulder of restrained optimism so high before it comes crashing down on your French fries -- and on the way overturns a couple of endlessly negotiated (read: incessantly whined-for) glasses of soda, thus necessitating a fourth trip to the bathroom that you have already memorized from the inside-out.
Which explains why most families seek out chain restaurants, where you can hope to meet at least some of your criteria. If the children behave themselves, the cuisine will be better than baby food and the waiters will be dismissive; if the chow is good and the restaurant actually caters to the wee ones, the tots will no doubt do their damnedest to prove why children should be neither seen nor heard dining in public.
Along those lines, I consider Smokey Bones something of a miracle.
It's not just that the chain (which currently has 33 locations across the United States and anticipates 15 more in 2003, according to its website) serves children ice water in plastic cups that are small enough for the kids to handle. It's that you don't have to ask the waiters for them. Nor do you have to request the proverbial kids' pack -- a menu/placemat, crayons, a slice of Texas toast, orange sections, and maraschino cherries.
Then there's the cheerful willingness to please, the superior level of proficiency, and the racks of baby-back and St. Louis-style ribs that offer succulent meat with a rich, hickory-smoke base. Such amenities are automatic. Indeed, in independent restaurants, I've rarely encountered tolerant and kind service akin to that of your favorite grandma. Nor have I found ribs so judiciously selected and prepared that you can't find a single flaw.
By definition, barbecue must be slow-cooked ahead of time, and Smokey's hand-pulled pork bears testimony to the success of that cooking process. The tender webs of meat were flavorful enough to eat plain, and even better when doused with one of the two tableside barbecue sauces, one sweet, the other tart and tangy with mustard and vinegar. Baked beans, one of the side dishes available (two choices are included, along with Texas toast, on platters), benefited from a similarly lengthy subjection to low, simmering heat, not to mention a rousing touch of molasses.
Even more astonishing, however, is Smokey Bones' apparent commitment to purchasing fresh, seasonal products and cooking them to order. To wit, there's the ear of corn that you can get only "when available." But when the eatery does have it, as it most likely will in South Florida for a good nine months of the year, it doesn't ruin it by letting it sit in a hotel pan filled with steaming water for hours on end. Where other barbecue restaurants offer corn mush on the cob, Smokey's gives the al dente equivalent.
Ditto for the green beans, which tasted as if they had actually originated in a field rather a canning factory, and the hefty grilled artichoke that is sometimes sliced lengthwise and filled with red wine vinaigrette in the two wells of the divided heart. The multicolored cole slaw is fresh, touched with dressing rather than drowning in it, and doesn't taste as if it were parceled out of a Costco-purchased gallon tub. I was most impressed with a pair of pan-fried catfish fillets dredged in cornmeal that clearly utilized fresh, not frozen, fish -- the breading was separated so cleanly from the fish that pockets of air puffed out when I applied my butter knife. Nor did the fish have that muddy flavor that bottom-feeders sometimes offer; I'd guess this mild fish came from a well-run farm somewhere in the Southeast.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that Smokey's doesn't have a central provider and standardized recipes. The marinara sauce that accompanied the deep-fried, oak-smoked mozzarella cheese starter had little individuality, and the salsa partnered with an enormous platter of nachos was equally commercial. But there's no denying that the barbecued chicken garnishing the nachos along with cheese, tomatoes, black olives, and sour cream had been pulled right off the bone; indeed, the dish marks a thoughtful use of barbecued leftovers from the previous day's pit-roasting.
And offering bags of cake donuts for dessert, cooked to order and shaken tableside in a paper bag filled with cinnamon and sugar, is pure chain-link know-how -- a clever, homogeneous signature that is easily applied at every location.
Décor is an obvious identifier. Though Smokey Bones describes its ambience as "rustic mountain-lodge," with split-rail slats on the oversize wooden booths and low-slung lights, the Boca Raton setting feels more like a tasteful sports bar. Photos and paintings of sports figures -- including notable women such as U.S. National Team soccer player Mia Hamm (yet another reason to give this place kudos) -- line the bricked walls, and TV sets of all makes and styles, from portable to plasma-screen, are tuned to every sports channel receivable. Smokey's management supplies an adjustable speaker on each table that can be tuned, by request, to any of the programs playing or turned off completely, so you can enjoy your mountain of chili-cheese fries without an avalanche of commentary coloring the experience.
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