Mr. Chelsea's Barbecue has Carolina covered


Dining For $25 Or Less


Mr. Chelsea's Barbecue, a new addition to the must-try list of any barbecue fan, is little more than a shopping-center storefront with a counter and a few tired-looking booths inside.

But most barbecue lovers don't care about fancy. Who needs white tablecloths and sit-down service when you can get a half-rack of smoke-infused ribs with sides of collards and potato salad, a slab of still-warm corn bread and a soda, and still walk away with change from a $20? (You even get free refills on the soda.)

The Owings Mills restaurant, owned by Garrison Catering chief Keith Henze and managed by John Stone, offers plenty of stand-up-and-get-noticed flavors -- and lots of vinegar. The pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken and ribs are all smoked for hours, then served with sauces that are bolder than Paris Hilton on a dare.

Stone describes the restaurant as serving a mix of Eastern and Western Carolina-style barbecue. Western Carolinians, he said, love their red barbecue sauce. Eastern barbecue is drier, with more emphasis on spices and vinegar. (I'll probably get in trouble with real barbecue experts here.)

The sauces at Mr. Chelsea's, lined up in squeeze bottles on a little condiment stand next to the pickles and paper napkins, are not for the timid and do, in fact, contain more than a little vinegar.

Both John's Alabama Barbecue Sauce and Keith's Special Red Barbecue Sauce pack lip-tingling heat and tart undertones, though John's is thicker and a little sweeter. The Arkansas Mustard Barbecue Sauce, with brown sugar and, of course, vinegar, provides a graceful reminder that other states do barbecue pretty well, too.

Before customers place their orders at the counter, they are invited to sample bits of skillet corn bread -- either sweet or tarted up with peppers and bits of onion. A large wedge ($1.50) of either is served warm and a little crumbly, with true corn flavor and far less cakey sweetness than is found at Boston Market and other chain restaurants.

The menu provides a walk through the simple pleasures of old-fashioned barbecue -- smoked meats, classic side dishes and not much else. The platter of dry-smoked ribs ($9.75 for the half-rack, $17.85 for a full) sets the mouth tingling, especially when the ribs are topped with John's Alabama. But the ribs are not particularly meaty and don't easily part from the bone. I preferred the smoked chicken ($5.25 for a quarter chicken, $8.95 for a half), which was slightly charred on the exterior, with flesh that had been deeply infused with smoke.

Both platters come with two sides, and for my money the side dishes are what set Mr. Chelsea's apart.

The potato salad, large wedges of skin-on red potatoes with a mild mayonnaise dressing and celery seeds, provided a cooling counterpoint to the spiciness of the barbecue but was unexciting compared to some of the other choices, which tended toward tart, strong flavors.

Particularly impressive were the collards, which had been cooked in vinegar, molasses and pork drippings. The greens were tender and their flavor was light and almost refreshing, without that strong collard taste that can dominate this dish.

The coleslaw, little more than finely grated cabbage and vinegar, was so simple it was almost elegant, and the "pit beans," a mix of pintos, limas and kidney beans flavored with smoked meats, molasses, and, I'm guessing, vinegar, were a potent and delicious kick in the taste buds.

Mr. Chelsea's also offers a Southwest corn and bean salad and a New Orleans green bean salad. Desserts include a brownie ($1.75) and cookies ($1.25), which looked delicious, but we were so full after our platters and corn bread that we skipped them.

Stone said Mr. Chelsea's is the first restaurant venture for Garrison Catering, which mostly provides food for colleges and private schools. For years, the company had been selling Mr. Chelsea's barbecue at festivals and fairs but didn't have a restaurant.

Mr. Chelsea, Stone said, was the owner's cat, who recently passed away.

The cat's memory lives on, though, in a restaurant serving food with nine lives' worth of personality.

Mr. Chelsea's Barbecue

Where: Painters Mill Shopping Center, 10221 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills

Call: 410-363-9873

Open: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Saturday

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers and sides, $.79-$3.25; entrees, $8.95-$17.85

Food: *** ) 3 STARS )

Service: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

Atmosphere: **1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *

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