So, yesterday my friend G stopped by and made arrangements for us to go for my (very belated) birthday barbecue dinner tonight at 5:00. He said he was going to bring his sixteen-year-old nephew, T, who is visiting from Detroit. I told him that sounded great and that we would be ready.
We were headed for Chico to a barbecue place called Smokin’ Moe’s, which also has a restaurant in San Luis Obispo. G had been meant to take his nephew up to Oroville Dam for a little site seeing today. Just before the last Oroville turnoff I learned that they hadn’t gone and since it was hours before dark yet, I asked G if they’d still like to go up. He said, "Sure!" I veered off the highway and onto the exit.
As we drove we talked about the various landmarks and geological formations. It was really surprising how much we knew of the local history, architecture, civil engineering, scientific research and geology. Not to mention decades of local gossip, such as when an area hotel had to call the police to breakup a fight between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of a movie called, "The Klansman." But I didn’t unload that gossip until we were driving past the hotel in question and after the surreal situation at dinner, but the subject matter of the movie is important.
So, we drove up to the dam and across it, then turned around and came back across. I drove back down into Oroville and gave him the drive-by tour of the Chinese Temple and the residence of a nineteenth century judge.
Since we were in Oroville and not Chico, I warily suggested we go to Big Lem’s soul food barbecue in "South-Side" Oroville. Everyone was ok with that, so off to South-Side I drove. I had never been to their restaurant before, but I had eaten their food at a Blues Festival that I went to several years ago. I had no idea the entire dining room would consist of three crowded tables for four and two tiny tables for one. Elegant dining, it’s not. Think styrofoam plates and plastic flatware with photos of well known local black musicians and those quasi "mystical" posters of native Americans with forests, waterfalls, and/or wolves on the walls. My combination kitchen/living/dining room, which is only 17 feet by 15 feet, is actually larger than their dining room. I suppose the four of us constituted a "rush" for a tiny place like that.
I’m afraid dinner ended up costing a small fortune, but mostly because G ordered a full slab of ribs, $23.75 (and took a second slab home,) and pints of barbecue beans and potato salad, 4.75 each. I had a desire for a two meat combo platter, chicken and hot links, $14.50. At first, I had ordered the ribs rather than the hot links, but then I realized that G had a full slab and asked him if he would be interested in a trade. He was. K had the tri-tip plate, $9.99, and T ordered a hamburger, $2.95 and large fries, $1.99.
I ordered another large order of fries for the rest of us to share, mostly because I love fries dipped in barbecue sauce, and darned good fries they were, too. They were thicker than the shoestring fries served at most fast food places, but not as thick as dinner fries, crispy, golden brown and perfectly salty. We also ordered six cornbread muffins, $3.75, (one for .75) and they were served cold and horribly dry. There was not enough butter in the world to help those cold, hard muffins.
The ribs and chicken were awesome. The ribs were perfectly tender and the chicken well cooked, tender, smoky and a little garlicky. The tri-tip had too much barbecue sauce on it to tell much, except that it was tender and a little garlicky. I didn’t taste T’s burger, but it looked ok. He certainly wolfed it down quickly. The hot links were good and, indeed, hot. I "outsourced" one and a half of the two of them to K and G. The potato salad was better than most restaurant potato salads, and the barbecue beans were truly great.
Big Lem’s also has several sandwiches, $3.50 to $6.99, catfish dinner, shrimp basket dinner or red snapper dinner, all $8.99. Oddly absent from the menu was any sort of dessert. I’d really had my hopes up for sweet potato pie.
G and I both took menus home with our left-overs and I’m sure we’ll go back again.
As for whether Lem’s is as good as the place we were originally headed, probably not. It’s cheaper, I think, and except for the fish, the offerings are pretty similar. Lem’s potato salad is better, but Smokin’ Moe’s meats are smokier and I think a bit higher quality. Lem’s fries are better, but Moe’s has four styles of barbecue sauce, everything from a thin, vinegary "mop" style to a thick, sweet, tomato and molasses based style.
Ok, now for the surreal part. Big Lem’s Bar-B-Q and Soul Food is (probably obviously) a black-owned restaurant. After we ordered and got settled into our
seats and conversation lagged for a moment, I realized that playing on the television in the dining room was a program on one of the educational cable channels (I’m not sure whether it was Discovery, History, TLC or whatever, it makes no difference,) was a documentary on the history and present day situation of, get this, the Ku Klux Klan!!! (That link is for anyone who might not be familiar with the mob mentality [read: mass insanity] that is the KKK.)
I don’t think I’ve ever had such a surreal experience in my life. Sitting>down to a soul-food dinner, served in a black-owned restaurant, while watching a documentary on the KKK. When the waiter came out to bring K’s plate, someone on the program yelled the "n" word just as he was about put Ks plate down his head spun around and I thought K might end up with a lap full of hot food but he quickly regained his composure and set the plate down without incident.
The situation was so bizarre that I couldn’t help but comment on it to my dining companions, the waiter, the cook, and Big Lem, himself. The waiter and Lem asked me if I wanted them to turn it off. I told them that it was up to them, that if they were cool with it being on, than I was always interested in learning more about what makes the mind of a crazy person tick. They laughed, and Lem pulled up a comfy chair and sat down and watched with us. The cook said that one good thing about the old days and the KKK was that at least back then a person could tell by the sheets and pointy hats who the bad guys were, now it can be anyone.
We ended up not bringing much home, at all. Just a bit of tri-tip, some beans and a small piece of hot link. Oh yeah, and the awful muffins. I might do the old southern thing where you crumble last night’s cornbread into a bowl of hot milk and sprinkle a little sugar or drizzle a bit of honey over the top. It’s probably the only way those things are edible.
Ok, it’s late and I’m tired. Goodnight.