Soul on Nice

Authenticity is high on my list nowadays, since it seems to be fast becoming one of the rarest of commodities in restaurants. Anyone for spring rolls at Erin Go Burritos? Cheese steaks at Juan de Chang's?

Lee's & Dee's
Bar-B-Que Express
161 N. Victoria St., St. Paul; 225-9454

Slick, elegant, and fancy are not compliments in the world of barbecue. Books have been written about how to sniff out barbecue with not a hint of luxe: Clean, well-lit parking lot? A bad sign. Crème brûlée? Run, don't walk. A wine list? Surely you jest. Frankly, even chairs and tables are suspect--and plates? Plates are simply the end. You do not find good barbecue on plates. Plates and linens are the sort of niceties that distract from the real business at hand: meat. Meat cooked slow and soft over a smoky fire, meat turned by glow and burn from the tough stuff of life to the melting pleasure of recreation, ah, barbecued meat. And side dishes! Don't forget the side dishes. Good barbecue is good barbecue, but good barbecue with great coleslaw, fresh hot corn bread, and smoky greens? That's the American dream.

Lee and Dee Smith have no truck with plates. Their barbecue sandwich ($3.50 with fries) comes on a foil-lined Styrofoam tray, and it's a chopped heaven of brisket bound up in an earthy, tomato-based sauce and piled between the lids of a soft white bun. I particularly like it with a couple of spoonfuls of coleslaw (an order is $1) set on top of the meat: It's cool and crispy, hot and smoky, and the slightly sweet bread unifies all into a toothsome whole. It's also drippy as a popsicle in a heat wave, so you are strongly advised to lean forward.

Lee's & Dee's is as good as many of the famous Southern barbecue sandwiches I've searched out, guidebook in hand, in sauce-spattered rental cars along roads where gas-station attendants call you "sugar darling." (As in: "Sugar darling, you just get right back on that road, but go back toward where you were coming from, make a right at the propane tank with the rooster on it, go left at the first four-way, and, honey pie, you'll be there in no time.") Except that the Smiths operate in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood, and after six years of quiet operation haven't made it into any guidebooks.

Which is a shame, because Lee can fry up the most incredibly greaseless chicken wings, and when he says, "We've got the best catfish in the Twin Cities," it's no idle boast. These catfish fillets are perfect: flawlessly moist and tender and encased in a cornmeal crust as crisp as a candy coating. You can actually pick up a whole 8-inch fillet with your hands, eat it like a piece of fruit, and your fingers will still not have a hint of grease about them--it's a soul-food miracle. (If you're wondering how to fry up magically grease-free fried food, spend some time contemplating Lee Smith's barbecue koan: "Just fry the grease right out of it.") A catfish dinner with fries, coleslaw, and toast runs $6.50; catfish nuggets with fries cost $3.95; and a side of catfish and toast is only $2.95.

The ribs, on the other hand, are rather fatty (though also meaty and lusciously tender). While it's true that for ribs your options are generally meaty/fatty/tender or lean/bony/stringy, I feel like these could have benefited from a little more aggressive trimming. Not that they're not a bargain; at $6.95 for a dinner of either beef or pork ribs, you'll have enough cash left over to splurge on a picnic of soul-food sides and Southern desserts.

Those side dishes alone are well worth a trip: The coleslaw is a bright, fresh multicabbage mix with a light, milky; and peppery dressing, the beans are distinctly plump, unmushy, and laced with ham--and the greens! This off-the-menu wonder is a fresh-made jungle of collards accented with hacked pieces of ham and infused with a potent liquid perfect for dipping chunks of the nice, hot, tan-crusted cornbread (75 cents). Desserts change often, but I got to try the apple pie, super-spicy with cinnamon and cardamom; a nicely humble spice cake with sweet icing; and the sweet, thick, and plain 7Up cake. This is the kind of specialty you read about in memoirs of Southern childhoods (the Smiths grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi), making an appropriately authentic ending to a meal of barbecue and greens.

And authenticity is high on my list nowadays, since it seems to be fast becoming one of the rarest of commodities in restaurants. Anyone for spring rolls at Erin Go Burritos? Cheese steaks at Juan de Chang's? How about that Macaroni Grill? What, Steak Boil didn't get past the focus groups?

When you survey Lee's & Dee's, you know you've found the real deal. The barbecue grill outside is a converted oil drum, burnished black from a few thousand fires; inside, fluorescent lights, lemon walls, and the driftwood-pattern Formica booths say you can eat here as long as your inner life is fascinating enough to absorb you without need of theme, entertainment, themed entertainment, entertainment themes, or plates.

TABLEHOPPING

IT'S A GIFT TO BE SIMPLE: On the opposite end of the American food spectrum, I had lunch with John Sarich, the culinary director for the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, when he was in town to promote his new cookbook, John Sarich at the Chateau Ste. Michelle ($21.95, Sasquatch Books). Sarich is a champion of the Pacific Northwest style of good living--local wine, food made from fresh ingredients, exercise, families feasting together on shaded lawns--and his book is an appealing mix of wine factoids and smart, easy recipes. It's the sort of book you'd expect from someone who permeates conversations with wise nuggets like: "Life takes time and attention. Cooking takes time and attention. And to be simple takes a lot of concentration."

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