LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was a curiously slow Saturday afternoon at J.J. McBrewster’s, a BBQ restaurant shoehorned between a Chinese take-out and Domino’s Pizza. We doubled the customer count just by walking in, from two to four. The wait staff greeted us with the pageant smiles and niceties we’d assume as Kentucky hospitality, though it probably was us jaded city folks jolted by friendliness. We’re still adjusting to this.
Something was definitely up. They were simply too happy to be working a 4 p.m. weekend shift. As we talked with the staff, we sensed anticipation, but also uncertainty. They know for sure it’s an Xbox under the Christmas tree, but with a smidgeon of doubt for them to feel nervous. The owner, Susan Mirkhan, is typically here from open to close. Not today. She was at a lake house with her husband. She wasn’t likely coming into work Monday either. Again, the nervousness.
In 48 hours, J.J. McBrewster’s will be one of the few restaurants in the country to hit the publicity jackpot: they will be featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” and the inimitable, self-appointed Culinary Gangsta, Guy Fieri, will lavish praise over the restaurant’s pulled pork and BBQ sauces. Then, the wave of customers will likely wash over them, overwhelming everyone who works here, and the restaurant will forever be divided into before and after.
In the moments before a tsunami hits, the water recedes dramatically from the shore. There’s a foreboding quietness. Such was the case on this Saturday afternoon.
Back to that Christmas metaphor a few paragraphs back: imagine asking for the best present ever, but having Santa say you can’t open it until July. Seven months — that’s how long it’s been since Fieri and crew filmed the episode last spring. The show was supposed to air Labor Day Weekend, but it was pushed back another month. Now, fingers crossed, it will air this Monday.
When you first walk in, you’d figure the show had already aired a half dozen times. The counter is a shrine to Mr. Fieri, as if he was the Pope. A “Dear Leader” paean in poster-form. Log on to the two-year-old restaurant’s website (Warning: annoying, un-turnoffable music ahead), and his beaming, tattooed self greets you before there’s even a picture of a barbecued dish. Hey, why not?
About the food. The stake their reputation on sauces. ‘Western” is a thick, vinegar-heavy sauce with a hit of tomatoes that give it a burnt-orange color, a more viscous version of Piedmont-style North Carolina sauce. “Mac’s Mean Sauce” is the Western but twice as hot. There’s one I’ve seen nowhere else, called “Melon” sauce, which I was assured contained no melons. It’s fruit-based (maybe pineapple?) without the sickly sweet flavors you might find on a Thanksgiving table. The best way we could describe it is 50-40-10 percentage of savory-sweet-smokey. It’s terrific with their succulent, hickory-smoked pulled pork, and I’d imagine even better with poultry.
Mirkhan (I spoke to her for a few minutes by cell phone) grew up in Western Kentucky, where Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro is the standard. Moonlite is best known for their smoked mutton, and Mirkhan pays homage with her version — moist with an appealing chew, almost like tender beef jerky, a slight lamb-gaminess, and accompanied with “Daviess County Dip,” heavy on the Worcestershire and black pepper, similar to A-1 steak sauce. It’s also the only place I’ve seen with BBQ goat, similar to mutton in its leanness and taste.
After our meal, we visited the kitchen to view the operation. We posed for pictures. If we arrived a week later, chances are this tour wouldn’t have been possible.
The staff doesn’t know what will happen come Tuesday morning. Waitress Brooke Edwards told us other Triple-D’d restaurants have said to expect three hour waits. I said this was a good problem to have.