Until Memorial Day, the only people who ate at Abita Bar-B-Que were the ones who didn't have a problem buying dinner in a gas station. For three years, David and Frieda Wilkerson operated a modest barbecue business in the rear of a Shell station just off I-12 in Abita Springs. The sole indication of the smoked meats and boudin within were the plastic pin-up letters spelling "Abita Bar Q" far beneath the going price of gasoline. In fact, even if you were comfortable with gas station food, you easily could have missed this cue (so to speak), done the credit-card slide for your gas, and headed across the highway for a po-boy at Danny & Clyde's.
When the Wilkersons moved the operation to a freestanding restaurant down the 1.9 foodless miles of Highway 59, Shell lost out on any dreams of franchising its killer babybacks. No longer just a jog from the interstate, Abita Bar-B-Que is now comfortably settled amongst miles of storerooms, agencies and work sites where new and prospective homeowners shop for every possible accoutrement, from masonry to insurance to cement lawn art. How many hungry construction laborers and contractors pass by Abita Bar-B-Que each day? Count the number of ladders jutting from truck beds in the parking lot, and the lineup of men at lunchtime wearing cellular phones like cowboys wear holsters, slung at the hips of their Wranglers. When she saw the volume of Abita Bar-B-Que's large soda cup, a female lunch customer worried aloud that "those workers really should drink more water."
It feels a little bit country out here -- the wooden gazebos on display across the street that would over-crowd most urban yards, the bike path that pokes out of the woods just long enough to cross the highway, the restaurant's wooden deck that's bigger than my living room. You know for sure that you're not in the city anymore when a Boxer hurtling across the parking lot of a barbecue joint is looking for affection, not scraps. The Wilkersons' new digs fit right into the landscape, resembling a spec home with its low boxy shape and taupe-colored siding. Hanging above pitchers of self-serve sweet tea just inside, a photo collage records the former consignment shop in every phase of its transformation. The front window blinds are consistently drawn, to protect solo diners eating along the counter-bar from the sun. Feminine white curtains and tablecloths printed with cartoonish farm animals extend the folksy vibe.
Reminiscent of the old Shell days, two appliances form the backbone of the service area: a heat lamp and a microwave. Some of the smoke-blackened meats fare better than others under the influence of this machinery, although it never hurts to request whatever has been least exposed to the heat lamp. Just like at the Shell station, the pork ribs have a salty, caramelized top layer; underneath, the pink meat is protected but unhindered by a glistening film of fat -- it's like eating slab bacon straight from the bone. Chicken is further education in the art of smoking: crusty black skin, an outer ring of pink and butter-soft meat that pulls apart like cornsilks. Just $7.49 buys two ribs, half a chicken, a coarse-grain corn muffin and two side dishes. Sweet baked beans stewed with smoked meat and chunky cole slaw made with a thin slick of mayonnaise are the hands-down best sides; orange macaroni and cheese, dirty rice and mostly mayonnaise potato salad are standard.
Barbecue sauce is unnecessary on ribs and chicken as moist and flavorful as these; barbecued turkey legs big enough to use for self-defense, foot-long links of peppery boudin and pork steaks crusted with habit-forming spices that stain your fingers neon orange also stand on their own. Still, the Wilkersons make a thick, rust-colored sauce with mellow sweetness, a good bit of vinegar and lots of pepper and garlic. Keep a squirt bottle close at hand for sandwiches made with the confusing brisket and pork. Both are sliced like deli meats from unusually lean roasts and then heated in a microwave that zaps every hope of succulence. I can only guess that people order them for the soft, white buns and exceptional sauce, which is also for sale by the quart.
They offer one plate lunch every day, and a dirt-cheap "vegetable plate" that includes three side dishes and a muffin. For dessert, there's either a compact, raisin bread pudding made in-house, or a chocolate cream pie manufactured elsewhere that arrived at my table frozen. Some prices increased after the move, but only by a few cents; three of us ordered as much as we could without raising suspicions one afternoon and still got away for just $23 -- a deal that alleviates the sting of unsatisfactory brisket and frozen pie.
I wouldn't call this destination barbecue -- an hour to and fro is pushing it for those of us who don't live on the Northshore -- but a slender, smoked hamburger or a slab of ribs could save your sanity if you ever find yourself shopping for chrome faucets and plastic ouch-proof swing-sets out on Highway 59.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Just like in the old days at the Shell station, a heat lamp and a microwave form the backbone of the service area at ABITA BAR-B-QUE -- with some meats faring better than others under the scrutiny.