Standards done up in cowboy style

November 13, 1997|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At Red River Barbecue and Grille in Columbia, hyperbole is served up as heartily as the food. Some of their "authentic," "award-winning" dishes, though, fell as flat as a city slicker off a bucking bronco.

That might be partly due to the growing pains of taking a successful restaurant and turning it into a fledgling chain. Red River started in Pittsburgh and has grown to five restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, with another set to open soon in Annapolis. This newest outpost off Route 175 has no trouble packing in the crowds, though.

Since reservations are not accepted, we waited for a table with a beeper in hand, next to a display of coffee mugs and sauces emblazoned with the Red River logo. Despite framed cowboy photos and Southwestern art, the restaurant looked like any other large chain. Think TGI Friday's with a barbecue twist.

On the menu, a lot of restaurant perennials have been dressed up cowboy-style, like the "Rockin' Wings" with jicama and cactus ranch dressing instead of blue cheese and celery. The wings were excellent -- crisply fried and lightly dressed in hot sauce. Our waitress didn't ask what kind of sauce we wanted, but guessed we'd go for the spicy "Western Wild." Small details like that were often overlooked in service. What this young crew lacked in the way of attentiveness, they tried to make up with friendliness.

The rest of our corral of appetizers got mixed ratings. "Texas Torpedoes," better known as jalapeno poppers, were supposed to be stuffed with Cheddar, but the oozing cheese tasted more like Velveeta. Chipotles gave the no-beans chili its smoky verve. We liked the chunks of beef and peppers in this Texas-style variation. By contrast, the chicken quesadilla was a dud, with a bland chopped filling of chicken and little else. The salsa fresca, served alongside, tasted as if its flavor had faded hours before.

Red River says its specialty and best seller is the beef brisket, slow-cooked for 16 hours. The slices were fork-tender under tangy barbecue sauce, much better than they had been on a previous visit. But the plate looked strangely empty, sporting just the sliced meat and a cup of pinto beans in a sweet glaze. We asked our waitress to rustle up the missing house potatoes. After tasting the battered and fried slices, though, we couldn't quite figure out why the menu said they were "famous."

The ribs were hyped even more, as "award-winning" and "world famous!" We found them tough. They were supposed to be rubbed with spice and slow-smoked over hickory wood for hours, but none of that flavor came through. We preferred the moist shreds of pulled pork, topped with more of Red River's mild barbecue sauce. The pork wasn't served on corn bread, as the menu stated, but with a muffin on the side. Buttered frozen vegetables were substituted for promised red beans and rice. And sun-dried cherries did little to liven up standard coleslaw, which was served in red tortilla cups with both pork dishes.

For something a little less traditional, we tried the grilled chicken tossed with fusilli, black beans and fried tortilla strips. It was too dry, with not much of a sauce except for a few chunks of canned plum tomatoes. The cilantro marinara was either very discreet or nonexistent.

Peach cobbler and chocolate passion cake were unspectacular, although we liked the way the chocolate cake was up-ended in a margarita glass of cream. But "not-too-sweet" pecan pie won us over. For once, the menu didn't tell a tall tale.

Red River Barbeque and Grille

Address: 6201 Columbia Crossing, Columbia

410-290-0091

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$6.95; entrees, $5.95-$14.95

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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