Big Bad Wolf comes on strong, and it's just right

Barbecue and sides are cooked the way they ought to be

Sunday Gourmet

August 22, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The Big Bad Wolf hooked me, I have to admit, with his description of the collard greens: large leaf greens, not chopped, cooked with fatback the way they should be.

I love barbecue, but I don't love the nondescript sides that often come with it. At the Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbeque, just about everything is made fresh with big, bold flavors.

And then the back story intrigued me. For the last eight years, Scott Smith (otherwise known as the Wolf) worked at fine dining restaurants, including Charleston, Le Petit Louis and Corks. So what kind of place did he open when he decided to go into business with his brother Richard ?

"It's a change of pace," he explains over the phone. "I did a lot of research, a lot of eating. If you saw me, you'd know what I mean."

Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbeque is hardly a restaurant. It has a pretty interesting back story itself - the cute little brick house on Harford Road has been in the past a pit beef stand, a Huddle House and most recently Dragon's Breath Burritos. The small structure is bright yellow with a red roof and two green umbrella tables out front. Red, yellow and green flags are strung from the roof. Inside is just room enough for a tiled counter with a few stools.

Most customers carry out their food, so it's no surprise that the tableware consists of plastic-foam containers with lids and plastic knives and forks. But on a pleasant summer evening, we had a fine time at one of the umbrella tables, eating barbecue and drinking mint iced tea. (You could also have lemonade, soda or sweet iced tea Southern style - so sweet your toes will curl.)

Our waitress was Scott's wife, Irene, who's a lawyer during the day and the mother of three children. From what she said, the only reason she stayed with her husband was that Scott learned to make Texasstyle beef brisket as good as the brisket she could get at Leon's World's Finest In & Out BBQ House. (She went to law school in Houston.) Maybe, she says, it's even better. The Wolf's is sliced thick, with a smoky, charred exterior. The meaty slices drape seductively over white bread; and, true to tradition, the sweet, tangy sauce, studded with transparent bits of onion, is ladled over the sandwich with a heavy hand. Get it on the side if you aren't eating immediately.

As everyone knows, barbecue aficionados are a crazed bunch, defending their favorite regional sauces and cooking styles to the death. Smith has done a smart thing: He offers six very distinct sauces, each one better than the last; you choose the one you want with which meat - but he has some suggestions. So, for instance, if you follow his advice, you'll have the pulled pork sandwich with a Carolina Vinegar Sauce. This is a transparent glaze that packs a powerful vinegary wallop, with red-hot spices that sneak up on you. You'll have the juicy pork ribs, dry rubbed with a "secret seasoning" before they're smoked, covered in a Kansas City Sweet Sauce. But the sweetness is balanced, not cloying, and, like all the Wolf's sauces, has several layers of flavor. Spices add taste, not just fire.

If I had just one choice, it would be the crusty, meaty beef ribs with the Kansas City Spicy Sauce. Still faintly sweet, the smoky sauce is full of character. I also loved the Eastern- Shore-Style Chicken. Not fried chicken, but the kind being sold on the side of the road by churches and charities to raise money. Smith should know. Growing up in Ocean City, he worked at a fire department that held chicken dinners. The half chicken is rubbed with spices, including Old Bay, and comes out of the smoker plump and juicy. No sauce is necessary.

And now for the sides. The baked beans are Texas style, not Boston, so their sauce is neither overly sweet nor thick. Cooked with onions and green peppers, they have a vinegary tang balanced by just the right amount of sugar. The macaroni and cheese is made with cheddar, butter and cream. The candied sweet potatoes have a delicate sauce fragrant with nutmeg and cinnamon. The potato salad, with potatoes cooked to firm perfection, is boldly flavored with tarragon, celery seed and paprika. In fact, the dishes' flavors are so distinctive that the canned applesauce serves as a good foil. (Irene says they plan to have cooked apples in the future.) If I had one quibble, it would be that the small corn sticks that come with dinner ought to be served warm and preferably with butter.

Dessert is simple: homemade cookies or watermelon. I defy anyone to have room for anything much more than these, but Irene promises homemade apple pie one of these days.

If you want to know more, the Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbeque has a surprisingly sophisticated Web site at www.bigbadwolfbarbeque.com. But you don't really need to know more. All you have to do is chow down.

Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbeque

Food: ****

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 5713 Harford Road, Hamilton

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Entrees, $2.95-$12.95

Call: 410-444-6422

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