Resisting the Global Cookie Cutter

Rooster's BBQ-Deli
979 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, 222-0969

Listening to the BBC the other night, I got to hear a story about how big American-style supermarkets are forcing small local markets to close in the British countryside. I was so surprised. Shocked, really. As if I'd just entered a valley of dinosaurs. I honestly didn't realize there were still places where this could be newsworthy. Shows what I know.

I feel bad for all these country Englishmen mourning the homogenization of their commercial landscape. It's sad to feel the world you know slip away, even if that world had higher prices and less convenient hours. But if you meet any of these sad Brits, console them for me, won't you? Tell them that they can count on some things holding out against the cookie-cutter forces of globalization. Tell them that there will always be a couple of creeping Charlies in their Chemlawn, if they keep an eye out for them.

I don't know what will be their symbol of stubborn, weedy uncorporate-ness, but for me it's often barbecue joints. Neighborhood storefronts that smell of smoke, that offer American vernacular chow at Joe Six-pack prices, places where people smile because they want to and not because they're being monitored by a supervisor. Places like Rooster's.

Set on a silent corner in the elbow of neighborhoods in St. Paul between I-35E, downtown, and West Seventh Street, Rooster's is a spot that quietly keeps on keepin' on in the face of the recent wave of big-buck theme barbecue. The decor and ambience are of the Formica-and-knickknack variety that characterizes most barbecue joints, but the food is the sort of stand-alone delectable that makes people veer off the path of efficiency and appreciate fire.

Especially the barbecue sandwiches, piles of pulled pork shoulder, tender as bread left out in the rain and smoky as ghosts. A small sandwich costs $3.75, $5.65 with fries and coleslaw. A large sandwich ($4.50/$6.40) is nearly a meal for two. Either is a peach of a sandwich, the sort of thing that it feels gooney to gush over since it just sits there, sloppy in a bun, modest in foil-paper wrap. But it tastes so good, so purely meaty and merely glanced, not doused, with sauce, that it's the essence of meat--barbecue heaven. This is the sort of sandwich you'd want to be stranded on a desert island with.

Rooster's smoker turns out on-the-bone barbecue too. On three visits I had three rather different experiences with the pork ribs ($10.85 with fries, coleslaw, and a roll, $9.85 solo.) Once, the texture was weird; a charred exterior lifted and fragmented by sauce made the ribs gritty and unapproachable, though the meat was tender. The next time, I tried them sauce-on-the-side and the meat was sweet, though (surprise!) dry. On my third visit, the ribs were just right, the exterior sweet, tangy, and gummy, the inside rosy-pink, yielding, tender, fantastic. Beef ribs ($9.95 with the works, $8.95 solo), were only available on one of my visits and turned out nicely roasty and slightly fatty in that slow-cooked way they're supposed to be. I guess I like my barbecued chicken ($7.45 for a half-chicken dinner, $6.45 alone) less saucy and more smoked than Rooster's, but I'll admit that by my third go-around, I was getting a little crabby at having to eat anything other than barbecue sandwiches. So let me reiterate: Barbecue sandwiches! Some other things at Rooster's aren't so hot--the mashed potatoes come from boxes, the french fries from bags. The haddock dinner ($5.45) has formed fish triangles as its centerpiece. Yet I liked the fresh, if bland, milky coleslaw, and the firm, waxy potato salad. Most of all, I liked the way in which Rooster's reminded me that in the fields of Twin Cities gastronomy--fields full of bramble thickets bursting with marketing plans and cynical strategies I've come to accept as normative--there are touchstones of ordinary human proportion like Rooster's, places where it's just you, two orange booths, and barbecue.

TABLEHOPPING:

NUDGE NUDGE, WINK WINK:Just when I think you Gourmetreaders have lost your sense of humor, you shoot out a knee-slapper to remind me of just how ice-dry a good Minnesota joke can be. And don't think you put one over on me; I'm wise to your readers' poll, in which random samplings of Gourmetsubscribers respond to surveys, with the results published in the magazine's annual "America's Top Tables" story. Where's the joke? Look carefully, after the predictable top five--D'Amico Cucina, Goodfellow's, the 510, Manny's Steak House, and Kincaid's Steak and Chop House--and you Gourmetpunsters set up a real zinger: The Twin Cities' sixth-best restaurant? Drum roll... The Lowell Inn! Man, that's good. The fact that no one's eaten there since their honeymoon matters not, what counts is that with any luck, we can divert unsuspecting travelers there, and then scream: Gotcha! Suckers. Man oh man, that's almost as good as last year's GourmetTop Tables zinger: Gustino's. But you really had me going, the way at the end of this year's poll you went and said the best drinks in town are at Champps Americana. Champps! Man, you guys kill me. I almost spit milk out my nose on that one. You rule.

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