At some point long ago, it should have occurred to me that any barbecue joint finding it necessary to keep six different varieties of barbecue sauce on standby at every customer's table might have issues. Alas, until very recently, that epiphany never happened.
I was blissfully ignorant, drowning my decent, passable pulled pork in mustard sauce until it was very nearly swimming away. It's amazing what the human body gets used to, what it will accept as great food even to the point at which one is basically drinking pools of mustard barbecue sauce flecked with errant bits of pork. Such were my visits to former favorite BBQ restaurant, City Barbeque.
Now, finally, my eyes are open. A certain, base concept struck me like a stampede of raging (yet succulent) swine: pork, when prepared carefully, actually has flavor all its own. No barbecue restaurant around here knows this more than our newest favorite meaty haunt, Eli's BBQ.
Operating out of an old two-story house on Riverside Drive, Eli's hits its patrons as soon as they step foot out of the car with a lovingly smoked aroma wafting in the air. On one visit, I pointed out to my sister the three smokers set outside against the building. She looked around, confused, searching for three people holding cigarettes. “Someone hasn't had her pork today,” I chuckle, shaking my head.
I've hit up Eli's four times as of this writing, and each time I enter, I'm reminded of a comforting, down-home, lazy Southern feel about the place, with its bluesy, crackling vinyl tunes emanating from an old turntable resting precariously on a stand, leaning at an alarming angle against one wall.
The allure of smoked meat is powerful, attracting an incredibly diverse set of patrons, all drawn to those primal urges carnivores share. Tonight was no different: stepping through the front door, I saw well-dressed professionals brushing elbows with men brandishing facial tattoos alongside a young family with two children. Meat, it seemed, was the great social leveler.
Eli's menu is a picture of restraint: jotted in chalk on a wall are listed the signature items, including the pulled pork sandwich and hickory-smoked turkey sandwiches topped with cole slaw; hot dogs topped with pulled pork “crispins” and slaw; and hickory-smoked ribs.
Familiar, yet elevated sides are also available, like mac & cheese; a unique take on mashed potatoes, which are actually placed on a flat-top grill for an outer crunchy crust; deliciously addictive, creamy jalapeno-cheddar grits; spiced-up baked beans; and jalapeno corn bread.
Sandwiches alone cost $5, or you can get the $8 plate that comes with two sides. Mexican Coke, Ale 8 or Orange Crush can be had for a couple bucks more. The classic Southern sweet tea would be a welcome addition here, but for now only soda and water are offered. Alcohol is also unavailable, so bring your own.
For all four recent visits, I could not be swayed away from the pulled pork. It's my favorite menu item at any BBQ establishment, and Eli's preparation makes it especially difficult to try other items. Their pork is lightly drizzled with BBQ sauce; it's not heavy-handed treatment. The pork alone is so infused with a mouth-watering smoky flavor that I truly feel it requires no sauce at all. Still, each table comes stocked with a single bottle of sauce (are you listening, City Barbeque? One bottle. One.).
While the pulled pork comes as a sandwich, I always opt to forgo the bun. The man behind the counter smiled at this and muttered, “Pork with a fork, eh?” At City Barbeque, ordering the sandwich without the bun meant ordering it “naked.” I like the catchier “pork with a fork” phrase better –an option Eli's should post on their chalkboard.
The stand-out side item is easily the creamy jalapeno-cheddar grits. Even if you're not a grits fan, you're likely to come away impressed by this cheesy take, with just enough spiciness to fire a couple nerve receptors for a mild twinge in the back of the throat. Their baked beans are a delightfully unique and spicy take on Bush's, and their cornbread, while a little on the dry side for my tastes, is a solid offering. I wish they sold some form of green, whether that be green beans or collard greens, but the existing satisfying side options make this a minor quibble.
My girlfriend, who loved her juicy, tender smoked turkey sandwich so much that she spent a grand total of zero seconds explaining to me how she felt about it until after the sandwich had been completely devoured, declared we can no longer step foot in City Barbeque so long as Eli's is an option.
I have no problem with that. Not at all.