Tailgater's owner Mike DiCesare is a barbeque guy. "Barbeque didn't exist in my family," he says. "But once I learned the basics, I really got into it." Now, on his days off, he tends an open pit in his back yard, reads barbeque publications, and travels to famed barbeque spots.
DiCesare worked for a large, local barbeque joint for a while, then went into catering, and started selling two of his sauces (Tailgater's Sweet Barbeque Sauce and Tailgater's Kentucky Bourbon Barbecue Sauce). He started to question the cost of renting a kitchen, and was soon scouting restaurant locations.
All meats at Tailgater's are slowly and fully smoked in an electric smoker (a barrel smoker is going in this week). Every day, you can get true pulled pork, barbecued sirloin, and barbecued turkey breast, all of which have genuine smoky flavor. Ribs, slow-smoked and finished on the grill, are also available daily.
The value at Tailgater's is impressive. A satisfying pile of pulled pork on a soft, DiPaolo roll is $3.75 (add two generous sides for $1.25). For $6, the Pile o' Pork platter has entirely too much pork, white bread, and two sides. Beef is $4/$6.75, and turkey is $4.25/$7.25. The other prices are right in line; spend $10, and you'll be taking food home.
Among the sides, the tomato cucumber salad was surprisingly good, with tomatoes and fresh basil. Sweet potato fries are nice, and BBQ beans are a carnivore's treat, with more pulled pork than beans. I also liked the slaw, which is coarse and served in a fairly thin and sharp, peppery sauce. My wife thought the chili --- with ground sausage and beef as well as chunks of smoked sirloin --- was as good as any she's had locally. Jambalaya continues the meaty theme, with lots of chicken and smoked sausage.
I wasn't as fond of the red beans and rice, which relies a bit too much on cayenne, and I missed greens. Some will bemoan the lack of cornbread, a result of not having an oven.
Beyond barbeque, there are two styles of wings: fried and smokehouse; burgers ($3.25 for a half-pounder); grilled chicken sandwiches; and salads. Po' boys are the most unusual other offering. The Peacemaker features fried oysters and shrimp on a French roll ($6.25, $3.75 for half). And the Debris sounds decadent, with simmered roast beef and gravy spooned onto French fries on a roll ($5.75/$3.25).
But barbecue is the point. Each meat starts with a specific dry rub, made by DiCesare. And that slow-smoking produces great flavor. The meats come out a little dry, but not terribly so, and the sauces correct that nicely. The standard sauce is in the Northeastern style, sweet but not cloyingly so. The hot sauce adds a bit more vinegar and jalapeno, serrano, and habanero peppers for heat. If you go for a true Southeastern style, DiCesare also keeps a bit of his Piedmont sauce around, which is just vinegar and spices.
As for atmosphere, well, it's a converted pizza joint in the middle of Kodak Park. But who cares if you're just grabbing some takeout? The picnic tables are true to form and fine for a quick lunch. I took my family one night, and it's not really set up for that, though the staff treated us well. Service was friendly and quick on all my visits.
All barbeque folks have their own unique spin on things, so if you dig barbeque ---and who doesn't? --- check out what Tailgater's has to offer. If you like it, you'll be pleased to know that DiCesare is going to be handling the food at the new NOLA's Waterfront BBQ up at Charlotte in the old Harbor Beach building, which will open the week of Halloween. Mike DiCesare is full of great ideas about how to Do It Right, and it will be fun to see if he gets the chance to see them through.
Tailgater's, 348 West Ridge Road, 865-2230. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Judith Marie Salvaggio, co-owner and cook at Dicky's, passed away on September 18 at age 53. She's survived by her husband, Mike; her son, Richie; and legions of devoted fans of her everything-from-scratch cooking. Judy's assistant, Pete Broman, re-opened the kitchen last week, and will continue to offer the full Dicky's menu, making everything the same way Judy did. Dicky's, in the Salvaggio family for 81 years, serves food Wednesday through Saturday, from 6 to 11 p.m. Stop by and raise a Dicky burger in tribute.
The Slice of Life Cafe hasn't reopened, but something similar is now in its old location (742 South Avenue) in the form of Skippy's. Stephanie Frontuto, a.k.a. "Skippy," offers variations on the vegetarian theme with a tostada salad, lentil club, biskips and gravy, and the Marge (the Ruby from the days of yore). Stephanie's father, Joe, painted the colorful murals that surround you. Skippy's is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. The restaurant also offers take out (271-7590).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 to noon. Listen on the web at www.SavorLife.com.