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Famous Dave's has meat so tender, you barely need teeth

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Chain restaurants are not my first choice when it comes to eating out. They're usually not my second or third choice, either. So when I found out I was being sent to review Famous Dave's Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que restaurant, I was a little disappointed and expected the worst. Chains, too often, tend to concentrate on cute and clever rather than cuisine.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. From the moment we arrived to the time we left, Famous Dave's surprised me with the quality and quantity of the food, the level of service and the overall atmosphere.

Sure, there are some typical chain-food trappings--corny sayings on the menu, roadhouse decorations hanging everywhere and those funny pager things that you're given to inform you when your table is ready--but overall, Famous Dave's changed my idea of what a chain restaurant can be.

Seems other folks feel that way too: Dave's has won more than 150 awards for its barbecue and sauces all over America. Dave Anderson, the man who started it all back in 1994, really knows his 'que (that's barbecue, son). There's a whole story about Dave, too, that is quite interesting (especially his community work), but we'll save that for another time.

We decided to wait in the bar rather than outside on the patio, for two reasons. One, there was great blues playing on the speaker system (definitely a plus), and second, the patio was right on busy Oracle Road--not my idea of nice outdoor eating. Admittedly, on that night, all the tables on the patio were full. We were told our wait would be 20 to 30 minutes, but we hadn't even finished our first cold beer when our pager went off. Another plus.

The serving staff is called "The Pit Crew." (Isn't that clever?) Our pit-crew member introduced herself as "Famous" Ashley (yes, everybody's famous at Famous Dave's). See what I mean about chain restaurants?

Ashley was friendly and well-trained, in spite of her fame. She gave us a tour of the sauces: "Texas Pitt," described as spicy and Southwestern; "Georgia Mustard," with flavors of vinegar, brown sugar and, of course, mustard; "Hot Stuff," a kick up from the signature "Rich & Sassy;" and "Devil's Spit," way-hot and strongly flavored with jalapeño and other hot peppers. They all sit on the table in a six-pack next to a roll of paper towels, cleverly hung on a metal pipe. Cute, but both came in handy later.

Barbecue fans are divided by region. From the Southeast (where pork and sweet sauces dominate) to Texas (where spicy, sauced sides of beef are the choice) to Kansas City (where smoky ribs reign supreme), it's often hard to get people to agree on the definition of barbecue. They can't even agree on how to spell it. BarbeQue? BarbeCue? Bar-b-que?

Famous Dave's has flavors to please all of the above and offers St. Louis style ribs, chicken, chopped pork, beef brisket and catfish. Dave's also settles the argument over which cooking method is best: smoking or grilling and rubs versus sauce versus marinades. The food at Dave's is rubbed, smoked, grilled and sauced.

John ordered the St. Louis platter ($18.99). St. Louis-style ribs are bigger and meatier than baby back ribs, and the tough chunk--called the skirt--is cut off. Served with a corn muffin, corn on the cob and a choice of two sides, this is truly a man-sized meal. John decided on the Wilbur beans and potato salad.

I ordered one of the classic combos: ribs and the Texas beef brisket ($12.99). My sides included Dave's french fries, which had come highly recommended from a co-worker, and the Drunken Apples. Famous Ashley explained the apples were "drunk" with amaretto.

The food arrived on paper-lined plates, very homey. John's plate took up a good part of the table, with 12 meaty bones of smoky pork slathered with the house sauce. The ribs were both crispy and tender. All those trophies that are displayed in the front lobby made sense now. It was obvious that the ribs are truly long-smoked (nine hours, according to the menu), because the meat had a nice, red tint to it.

My brisket was so tender I barely needed teeth, let alone a fork. The corn on the cob, unlike at so many other restaurants that tend to cook this veggie to death, was tender and flavorful. I can't say the same for my corn muffin--I found it a bit over-cooked and dry, but the real butter on the side made up for any dryness.

The winning side was the Wilbur beans. The beans were flavored with the house sausage and some of the brisket instead of the usual ham bones. They'd be the perfect accompaniment to anything on the menu, because the sweet, smoky and spicy treatment holds up well. The fries were great, as predicted. But the drunken apples (which tasted a lot like apple pie without the crust) and the potato salad were only fair.

I somehow made room for the house bread pudding ($5.49). The huge, square, cinnamon-laced treat was topped with a praline sauce, rich vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. I only wish I could've tried the better than mom's pecan pie.

At lunch a few days later, we ordered a cup of chicken wild rice soup ($2.99), the rib-tips-with-fries appetizer ($5.99), a chopped pork sandwich ($5.99) and a brisket sandwich ($5.99). We went back to the Wilbur beans for our sides.

As with the dinner meal, portions were large and everything was fresh and flavorful. There was no doubting the flavor of the soup, rife with chicken and wild rice. The rib tips were finger-licking good, literally. I had to use quite a few of those aforementioned paper towels. Our sandwiches were served on big, soft, sesame-seeded egg buns, which didn't fall apart as we ate. Each sandwich held a distinct flavor, the brisket more smoky, the pork, slightly sweet. There would've been no mistaking one for the other, which sometimes happens in smaller joints.

Service wasn't quite as snappy at lunch. Although our server was friendly, he seemed to lack the polish of our previous pit-crew member. I also got the feeling we were his last table and that he was anxious to get home. The food almost flew to the table. Great food, though!

You know it's a good restaurant when, as you chow down on your meal, you're already thinking about what you're planning to order on you next visit. I think I want to check out the Sassy BBQ salad and a piece of pecan pie; or maybe we'll order a family take-out portion of something and pick it up at the specially designated take-out door at the back of the building.

Yes, I said I'm going back. Famous Dave's Legendary Pit Bar-B-Que has taught me that you can't always judge a chain restaurant by its cover.

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