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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Raising the Barbecue

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s restaurant review takes me back to a place that has more than flourished since it opened in 1983 – it has transformed. Here are the details.


TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO in these pages I declared PJ’s Bar-B-Q a Saratoga institution. The place had been open for four years, and its plume of grill smoke was a sign to Route 9 travelers to and from Saratoga that summer was in session. Two years ago, PJ’s made an ambitious leap into year-round operation. Not only is there a comfortable indoor dining area, there’s also an expanded menu that’s part of PJ’s even grander ambition.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“My dream is to have a chain of barbecue places,” he says, “and we built this as the prototype.” We being PJ and Carolyn Davis, husband-and-wife schoolteachers who parlayed a peripatetic catering business into the eatery. “We’re bucking a popular belief that you can’t have a barbecue chain because barbecue is too regional.”

They’re bucking it by offering an array of regional varieties. First and always is what they’ve dubbed “NY State Fair” chicken, its marinade based on a Cornell-developed formula. The birds are rotisserie-grilled and served in quarter- ($4.75) and half-portions ($8.25). Add $4 to turn it into a platter, which includes a hunk of cornbread and two side dishes.

Another PJ’s classic is grilled ribs, available seasonally. You have the option of Kansas City ribs, smoked over hickory and served with a sweet barbecue sauce, and Memphis ribs, prepared with a dry rub formulated by the couple’s son, Johnny, based on research conducted in that city. They’re all available in quarter- ($6.50), half- ($12.50) and full-rack portions ($21.50), and four bucks platter-izes the last two sizes.

While designing the menu, the Davis family enjoyed a “barbecue road trip,” as PJ put it, “that took us to all the famous places. Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina, wherever there’s a style we wanted to try. And we also learned that 95 percent of the restaurants we liked were mom-and-pop places like ours.”

At PJ’s, mom and pop are typically on the premises, although the latter is likely to be found at the nearby house where he spins records, fulfilling one of his other career ambitions. Tunes from the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll fill the air, and are on the air over his low-watt station (99.9 MHz). And, weather permitting, you’ll see him in action, working the platters in a wide-open room.

Gone is any vestige of the former A&W stand. The operation is fully enclosed in a handsome brick structure where the cooking and indoor seating takes place. There’s also a roofed-over porch. The sun-covered picnic tables remain outside, adjacent to the large parking lot where motorcycles or classic cars are invited to assemble on certain nights of the week.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The menu is built around eight varieties of meat, four of which we’ve met. The others are Texas beef brisket, smoked over mesquite ($8 for a half-pound, $15 for a pound, a couple of bucks extra for the burnt ends); North Carolina pulled pork, smoked over hickory ($7 for a half-pound, $12.50 for a pound); char-grilled Virginia smoked sausage ($7 for a half-link, $12.50 for a full link), and Pacific Northwest smoked salmon, also hickory wood-smoked ($7.25 for a quarter-pound, $13.50 for a half-pound).

Burgers and dogs are available, there are salads, there are nachos. There’s even the Slop Bucket in which beans and fries and slaw are mixed with your meat of choice before it’s topped with melted cheddar ($10.50; double portion for $19).

But Susan needed her chicken fix (she notoriously declared her contempt for the beasts in my 1987 PJ’s review, but has since recanted now that we keep a flock), and gave in to the half-chicken platter. The meat was as good as ever, a testament not only to the Cornell marinade but also to the trip through the rotisserie. Her sides were mac and cheese, which were of the too-familiar Kraft style, and a pinto bean salad, which had a crisp, appealingly tangy flavor.

I took one of the tours. You can cover two ($15), three ($18) or five regions ($27), with two sides (although five will get you three). I chose three. I can’t vouch for the North Carolina-ishness of the pulled pork, but it’s got the slither and smoke of the best of the varieties I have sampled, including my own (and my own is excellent). Sauce on the side, I insisted, and then helped myself to the dispenser array near our seating area: Texas hot, Carolina mustard, Tennessee whiskey, Kansas City sweet and original hickory are the sauce choices, and it came down to Texas and Carolina for me only because I don’t seek much sweetness.

The key to Texas brisket is to render it tender without losing too much beef identity to the smoke. Mission accomplished. Mesquite helps. A dab of sauce and you’re in business. And the Memphis ribs had a generous meat-to-bone ratio, a crinkly fold of skin and the deep pink evidence of smoky penetration. It seemed . . . gosh, it was almost Rabelasian!

Excellent coleslaw in my side dish, and the cheese grits perked right up when I hit them with hot sauce. Other sides include fries, baked beans, potato or macaroni salad, creamed corn, fried okra and hush puppies. There’s beer and wine. There’s PJ’s own loganberry soda, along with the usual soft drinks and iced tea. Sweet potato and pecan pie are among the dessert offerings. But we contented ourselves by doing the best we could with those platters, then enjoyed the music and the setting sun. Nice to know we can do it again this winter.

PJ’s Bar-B-QSA, 1 Kaydeross Ave. West (at Route 9), Saratoga Springs, 583-RIBS (7427), 583-CHIK (2445), Serving Mon-Thu 11-8:30, Fri-Sat 11-9, Sun noon-8. AE, D. MC. V.

Metroland Magazine, 4 September 2014

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