When I moved to Athens fifteen years ago, I looked forward to Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Not because of the weekend, but because The Barbecue Shack would be open. Just about every Thursday or Friday evening, I’d stop in to pick up a couple of chicken plates and either banana pudding or caramel cake.
The center piece of a chicken plate is a half-chicken, which I believe is smoked, though it might be grilled. It’s slathered with a clear, vinegar-based sauce and comes with Brunswick Stew, coleslaw topped with two bread and butter pickle slices, a bag of Lay’s potato chips, and two slices of white bread in a sandwich bag. Regulars know to ask for either mild or hot sauce–both vinegar-based sauces that are a dark reddish-brown from all the added spices. They’re meant for the pulled pork, but delicious with chicken, too.
The desserts are all homemade. The banana pudding is made from scratch and topped with a three-inch layer of meringue. It’s the same recipe my grandmother used. Ditto the caramel cake. They also serve strawberry cake, red velvet cake, and on Saturdays, several kinds of meringue pies.
My coworkers told me about The Barbecue Shack right after I moved here. They said I was lucky because it’s just a few blocks from my house. The place isn’t much to look at, inside or out. Nobody seems to care. It’s packed for lunch and dinner with a steady stream of folks popping in and out for carry out. Or it was.
Mary, the proprietor, is at least five years older than me, and as I understand it, the oldest in a family with a large number of children. As my grandmother would say, “I think she come up hard.” She’s one tough cookie. I pity the fool who’d ever try to rob the place. I’m guessing she keeps a loaded pistol within easy reach.
Early on I tried her beef ribs and pulled pork. The pulled pork is okay. The ribs, not so much. When I dared to complain, she told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, and if I thought the damn ribs at Jot’em Downs were better, than maybe that’s where I should eat because her customers love her food. Yes, ma’am. Sorry.
A few years after I’d developed my addiction to a weekly chicken plate, I figured out not to go on Saturdays. Mary and her crew come in Wednesday morning and start cooking. By Saturday, the chicken is dry as toast. Then I quit going in on Fridays for the same reason. The last time I went was a Thursday, and the chicken might have been left over from the previous week. All the sauce in the world wasn’t enough to make that dry-assed chicken palatable.
Today I was on my own for dinner because my sweet partner is finishing off a term paper. I decided to give The Barbecue Shack one more chance and ran over to pick up a chicken plate. I won’t be going back.
There weren’t any cars in the parking lot. When I walked in, the place was so dark I asked the girl at the register what was going on. She said they were saving electricity. In retrospect, that should have been my clue to turn and run.
Yeah, the chicken was dry as dust. The Brunswick Stew had an off taste, and the hot sauce was bitter and flat-tasting. The coleslaw was still the same, and as if they were trying to make up for other deficits, piled high with bread and butter pickle slices. The Lay’s chips were good, too. I didn’t try the white bread and will likely feed it to the birds.
I saw a big pan of still-warm banana pudding on the counter, and several slices of caramel cake, but didn’t get any. The chicken plate burned up most of my Weight Watcher points for today. What a waste.
Mary wasn’t around, not that it would have made any difference. I learned my lesson a long time ago and wouldn’t dare tell her how much the quality of her food has declined. I get the impression she doesn’t much care what I think anyway. Too bad. Jot’em Downs has closed now, too. Guess we won’t be having any more chicken plates here at…
My Glass House