The world is full of delicious surprises. Who'd have guessed that Lake Erie wineries would one day produce a fine Riesling? Or that Slavic Village church ladies would still be handcrafting plump pierogies well into the 21st century? Still, nothing quite prepared us for the most recent culinary shocker: In the heart of tony Bainbridge -- that land of tennis bracelets and Lands' End cotton Drifters -- we found chef-restaurateur Michael Longo dishing up slow-cooked barbecue in a stripped-down setting with all the charm of an El Paso mess hall.
Yessiree, Longo's new place, Cowboy Food & Drink, could scarcely be less chichi. We're talkin' concrete floors, a bowling machine, and a Toby Keith CD spinning on the jukebox, in a dark, cavernous warehouse of a space, where the Lone Star flag and an oversized Old Glory form the backdrop for a particle-board stage populated by late-night bands and country karaokeists. A horseshoe-shaped bar strung with Christmas lights dominates the center of the room; two faux "porches" backed with corrugated steel provide seating at the rear; and a cigarette machine, a pool table, and that vintage bowling machine beckon from a far corner. Okay, so the multiple television sets are tuned mostly to golf, and the sweet young things rustlin' up the firewater probably think the Pony Express is a hot new boutique -- this is, after all, still the suburbs -- but in overall ambiance . . . well, overalls may be the operative word.
Sure, we knew that Longo, proprietor since 1994 of the nearby Firefly (a casually upscale salon Longo originally launched as Market Square Bistro), had been planning to branch out. What we hadn't realized until that moment, though, is that his alter ego is a rootin'-tootin' Rough Rider, with a hankering for Texas truck-stop grub, washed down with a tumbler full of fine tequila.
No surprise, then, that diners who come scouting for roast duck, sun-dried cherries, and chèvre are on the wrong trail: Turns out, Cowboy's kitchen is all about pit-smoked brisket, pork butt, and baby-back ribs. More than a dozen "small grub" starters range from roasted jalapeño poppers to black-bean and smoked-chicken soup; main dishes mosey from cornmeal-crusted catfish to skirt-steak tacos, and barbecue options -- rubbed with a secret blend of spices, then slowly smoked in a 500-pound Southern Pride smoker over select local hardwoods -- saunter from succulent hand-pulled pork to a barbecued bologna sandwich.
While table appointments are about as humble as a saddle blanket (light, greaseless nachos, for instance, arrive in plastic baskets, and bottles of hot sauce and ketchup flank the paper-napkin dispenser), Longo and his staff (including Cowboy's chef, Jacob Westervelt) cut few corners when it comes to the food. Lush barbecued meats, for instance, spend up to 14 hours in the smoker. Ten different types of freshly ground chiles populate the kitchen's pantry. And more than 50 gallons of zesty sauces -- Texas Barbecue Sauce, Carolina Mustard Sauce, and One Spicy Mutha Sauce -- are brewed in the kitchen each week.
While it's obvious that Longo et al. are serious about their barbecue, it's equally apparent that their sense of humor has been given free rein. We snickered when we first spotted the peculiarly named BBQ Sundae on the menu, but, layered like a savory trifle in a one-quart canning jar, the spicy stack-up of molasses-piqued baked beans, juicy coleslaw, and smoky pulled pork, slathered with plenty of that sweet-hot Texas Barbecue Sauce, turned out to be a boot-scootin' two-step of a treat. And though initially we may have sneered at the goofy-sounding BBQ Spaghetti, the manly combo of pasta, meltingly tender smoked-beef brisket, shredded jack cheese, and barbecue sauce quickly earned our utmost respect, making its conceptually similar cousin, Cincinnati Five-Way Chili, seem like a pasty-faced city slicker by comparison.
While an entire quart jar filled with food will rightly strike reasonable diners as a bodacious bunch o' grub, it was only one part of what turned out to be an eye-popping, belt-busting meal, accompanied (like most of Cowboy's main dishes) with warm, cake-like cornmeal muffins and a choice of ample side dishes, including light-textured sweet-potato fries (frozen, but perfectly crisped), silken refried black beans, and those dark, earthy pit-baked beans.
While barbecue is the Cowboy king, there's plenty more on the lengthy menu. Other tasty entrées included Dr. Pepper marinated skirt steak -- thin, tender, and grilled to order, with a fine, smoky aroma and an elusive but predictable sweetness; and a big, beefy Mexican burger, topped with guacamole, cheddar cheese, and freshly made pico de gallo, on a lightly toasted Kaiser roll. But we won't be roping us more fish tacos anytime soon: Wrapped in what quickly became a soggy flour tortilla, the filling of grilled tilapia, slaw, hot sauce, and pico de gallo tasted plenty peppery, but beyond that, strictly one-dimensional.
While a starter of smoked and roasted "spicy garlic" chicken wings was on the dry side, an iceberg-wedge taco salad, smothered in shredded jack cheese, smoked chicken, and crisp tortilla strips, garnished with a scoop of guacamole and dressed in cilantro-buttermilk ranch dressing, made a cool, refreshing counterpoint to some of the spicier dishes. And a big ol' heap of crisp, greaseless nachos, loaded with smoked chicken, roasted chiles, shredded jack, pico de gallo, and sour cream, easily could have amused an entire posse until late into the night.
Like the tableware and decor, Cowboy's service is functional but unembellished. Orders were taken promptly, and food came out of the kitchen quickly -- maybe too quickly, in fact, since on both visits, we had barely dug into our starters before our main events were settled before us. But at least on a busy Saturday night, we were pretty much on our own, once the food arrived: Piles of crumbled paper napkins accumulated unmolested, empty water glasses grew parched as the Sonoran Desert, and asking for clean flatware was as productive as whistling down a mine shaft.
As for dessert, even Hoss Cartwright would be hard-pressed to find room after downing a dinner of such heft. That probably also explains our inability to appreciate a gooey, oversized chocolate brownie, served with average vanilla ice cream and florets of whipped cream; we also recoiled from the first bite of a toothachingly sweet brick of chocolate-banana-bread pudding, drizzled with a fiery ancho-spiked caramel sauce. (Where is some nice fruity sorbet when you need it?)
Of course, even at its most ambitious, this is casual, beer-friendly food that lacks much in the way of subtlety or nuance. Instead, hearty flavors are painted in big, broad strokes, and almost every dish can be assigned a spot on a continuum that stampedes from sweet to spicy. That ain't a bad thing: Paired with a selection from the long menu of adult beverages, the straightforward fare is like the trail rider's relationship with his faithful pony: undemanding, but deeply satisfying. That is, after all, the Cowboy way.
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