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Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q

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If the industry was to build a template for what every great barbecue joint should feel like, it would be Bob Sykes. Everything about the restaurant feels right. It’s historic but doesn’t feel old. It’s rustic but feels modern. It’s dining room looks open but still feels private. Everything’s prepared simply, with old fashioned tools and know-how that produce food you never tire of eating. It’s nostalgia that’s cruising into the future. It’s comfortable and comforting, perfect for workday or date night. I’m not sure how it appears to be everything all at once, but somehow it is.

This is yet another joint to which I was introduced by my barbecue mentor Greg McNair. Greg knew all the old haunts before barbecue became a phenomenon and modern interpretations began exploding on the scene.  At Bob Sykes, the pit is right by the east door. You pass it on your way to order and it’s part of the show. Brick with heavy metal doors and wood fired. Van Sykes, Bob’s son, runs the show and is one of Alabama’s true barbecue celebrities. We may have one or two that are better known nationally, but around Birmingham, Van is the Man.

My wife has very discerning taste. She’s very particular about what she eats while I’ll eat about anything. When it comes to barbecue, I take a lot of cues from her. When she gives a compliment, it’s time to take notes. Stepping in the door she says, “Smells good!” I agree with that. We pass right by the pit which is loaded with ribs and chicken. The whole place is warm and homey, and a crowd is waiting to order, but with three registers open it moves quickly. It’s fun to chit-chat, find out how far people drove or how often they eat there. Barbecue people are my people.

The first thing that struck me was the portion size. I ordered a combo plate that was advertised as ¼ pound pork and 4 ribs. No way that was a quarter pound! It had to be between 1/3 and ½ pound with six ribs. There was so much it had to go on two different plates. Thank you and challenge accepted!

The pork is served chopped, revealing a soft pink center and mixed with crispy bark. It has a good chew and variety of texture. I love that! More and more I’m discovering that I love chopped meat that’s mixed with a well-seasoned, crunchy exterior.  This style delivers the smokiness characteristic of traditional barbecue.

The ribs were smoky, hot, and covered with sauce. They felt substantial and had a good pull and chew. The edges were just a bit crispy from the char but weren’t burnt. It just adds to the profile of cooking over real wood. These were really fun to eat, and the sauce that fell off the ribs and pooled on the plate was great for sopping. Although sauce is on the table, it has a completely different flavor coming off those ribs. It was a pretty magnificent trick. It’s a simple tomato and vinegar sauce that becomes layered and complex after it hits the meat. Be ready to lick your fingers or use a ton of paper towels.

Mary had the smoked turkey, which reminded her of a roasted Thanksgiving turkey. She loved it but still took a couple slices home. Those didn’t last very long. We both had fries which were hot and golden on the outside, soft on the inside. The onion rings were battered and deep fried, creating a fluffy, crisp cover for the soft, warm onions. The baked beans feature an al dente bean in a sauce that has a bit of a kick. There’s a distinct onion flavor and good seasoning and each bite is warm and rich.

We just kicked back and relaxed, indulging in Bob Sykes’ brilliance. Every detail well crafted, from the food to the furnishings, from the people in the flesh to those memorialized through the history hanging on the walls, celebrating the employees that made Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q an icon. It’s an immersive experience that delivers to every sensitive, especially your sensibility to keep coming back.

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