When it comes to smoking, saucing and sucking meat from the bone, few places really deliver. With only a handful of inspiring examples of down-home cooking, Portland's not exactly known as the capital of good 'cue. Enter Mama's and Big Daddy's, two newcomers to the local barbecue scene--if the city were to be so blessed as to have a scene some day.
Mama's BBQ was born of the recession. As owner Janet Penner watched the decline of her NoPo Italian restaurant, Mama Gianetta's, she hatched a plan last fall to remake the place as a barbecue joint. At the time, there were no 'cue joints in the 'hood.
Penner and chef Roberta Bond ate around town, consulted cookbooks, and came up with their own special sauce and menu. Penner calls her food "Pan-Southern Northwest Barbecue," which is most easily described as "less sugar."
In the kitchen, Bond, a longtime Portland resident originally from Canada, lays to rest the myth that only Southerners can do right by one of the trinity: spare ribs, black-eyed peas and collard greens. She cooks her greens so there's still life left in 'em. That slight sharpness is set off perfectly by the greasy richness of bacon interspersed throughout ($3.25, with a vegetarian version available as well). Like the greens, Mama's black-eyed peas and rice ($3.50, known to Southerners as Hoppin' John), are simultaneously earthy and rich, with the texture of a good risotto.
Finally, the taste of the tender spare ribs ($11.50) induced an eating frenzy (mmm..."research") that confirmed they're better than most around town and are destined to give Yam Yam's and Campbell's a run for their money. While the ribs could use a touch more of the smoky grill flavor expected from a slow smoke, it's Bond's spicy sauce that really shines, providing the depth of flavor and delicately lingering burn that good barbecue is all about.
Other good bets include the key lime pie ($2.50), brisket sandwich ($6.75), and the pulled-pork sandwich ($6.50). It's difficult for a restaurant to resurrect itself from the ashes of a former failure, but Mama's should quickly inspire a cult following.
Down yonder a ways on the Big Muddy--OK, the Willamette--Big Daddy's BBQ beckons from the corner of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and 30th Avenue with flame-painted windows, red roof and requisite smoker. The A-frame, formerly the At the Hop burger joint, provides a nice place to hang out, chat up the friendly servers, and watch ESPN on two televisions.
Owner Steve Anderson opened Big Daddy's last December and offers every Southern dish known to man and debutante alike, from hush puppies ($3.50) to fried okra ($3.50). Sadly, with the exceptions of an excellent potato salad ($1.95), sweet tea ($1.50), and a passable pulled-pork sandwich ($5.95), few items are worth return visits.
And it's not for lack of trying, as four sauces grace each table--Kansas City Mild, Tarheel Mustard, Mojo Texas Hot and Memphis Smoky. The variety of sauces is a metaphor for the menu: Big Daddy's has adopted a more-is-more strategy instead of focusing on a few tried-and-true recipes that could build a reputation. Deep-fried offerings (sampler plate, $7.95) are heavy and gummy, the baby back ribs (quarter rack, $8.50) more like jerky than the moist, finger-lickin' hog flesh you hope for, and there's nothing peanutty about the Georgian peanut slaw ($1.95).
During a recent lunch, one customer sat at the bar attempting to school the cook and servers on crawdads (the server: "It's some kind of fish, right?"), putting the heat into hot sauce, and the proper technique for slow-cooking collard greens.
Big Daddy's BBQ will need to take such lessons seriously and scour town for cooks that not only know their way around a smoker but the basic soul-food sides as well. With its great location and inviting atmosphere, you can only hope Big Daddy's will rise to the occasion and deliver.
3001 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 234-0007.Fax orders 236-6986.11 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.Credit cards accepted. Moderate $$.
Mama's BBQ5264 N Lombard St., 445-9524.11 am-1:30 pm Tuesday-Friday, 4-8 pm Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 4-9 pm Friday-Saturday. Closed Mondays. Credit cards accepted. Moderate $$.
Picks at Big Daddy's: people watching and sweet tea. Picks at Mama's: spare ribs, collards and Hoppin' John.
Big Daddy's is planning to expand with an additional location downtown featuring a blues club.