Herald on Sunday Rating: 3/5
Address: 230 Jackson St, Petone
Ph: (04) 589 7441
Yeah, well we closed an hour ago," the young man said sullenly when I remarked on the state of the bar as I paid: several pieces of dirty glassware, a spray-bottle of cleaner and a cloth.
The only table still occupied was ours, but they had happily taken our 8pm booking and it was only 9.30.
It wasn't as if we were ordering an extra round of brandies and singing our respective school songs at 2am.
I was going to say that where I came from a restaurant is still in operation while it contains customers but I didn't want to push my luck by confessing to being an Aucklander.
The owner of Uncle Mike's is not Uncle Mike, but a chap called Ross Palmer (Mike Oxley, a Kansas City native, does the cooking, evidently), who had emailed me to suggest I try the place. His customers were enthusiastic he said and "we're slowly educating those unfamiliar with the nuances of our menu".
His email spurred me to look up some stuff about barbecues. The origin of the word is fascinating in itself: it was originally a frame of sticks used as a bed then as framework above a fire on which meat could be cooked. Later still, it described the whole animal broiled on such a frame.
Further research dispelled the impression I had gained from sitcoms that the only thing Americans cook on barbecues is hamburger. I am not conceding that an American (or for that matter Australian) barbecue is a patch on a New Zealand one at which somebody competent is presiding, but I now must admit there's more to it than processed patties from the freezer aisle.
In the American interior, particularly the south, a barbecue means pork. But in Kansas City, whose style is on show at this Petone outpost, anything goes. The website mentions "briskets and burnt ends (those crunchy bits cut from the richly marbled tip of the brisket); beef and pork ribs; sliced, chopped, and pulled pork; Italian sausage, Polish sausage ... chicken, fish and pig snouts".
It's a commendably catholic selection, so when I turned up (anonymously, of course) I felt slightly disappointed when some of the interesting items on that list were not on the menu. How hard can it be to rustle up a pig's snout? Or find an end and burn it? And if you're going to mention Polish sausage, why leave us hanging out for it?
Instead we get Downunder classics like lamb shanks and shrimp (on the barbie) with pineapple (!) and the usual beef/pork/chicken suspects. The only fish is salmon, and vegetarians who find themselves here by mistake get falafel and mushrooms. It seemed to me a serious failure of nerve that stopped the place making the leap from catering curiosity to genuine ethnic eatery.
That said, the emphasis is on slow-smoking the meat (hickory wood is the gold standard, but at Uncle Mike's they use the wood of fruit trees) which comes out very succulent, but there is a plethora of steakhouses that will deliver that these days. The smoky flavour is nice for a change, although it tends to cast an olfactory pall over everything.
Likewise, the "famous" barbecue sauce which is obtrusive without being interesting. The beef ribs are massive and juicy - it would take a monster appetite to handle two - although the spareribs were, well, spare by comparison. A half-duck looked handsome on the plate but wasn't a patch in tenderness on what Hong Kong-style barbecue joints deliver.
If that menu had nuances they certainly eluded me: no one could accuse it of subtlety. The coleslaw is better than the stuff at KFC, but if the fruit cobbler - a sort of doughy pudding - that I had was representative of the desserts, it may pay to give them a swerve; it was as cold as a corpse and as stiff as clay.
The top and bottom of it is that this is more of a novelty night out than a restaurant. The bland new-brick interior with signs like "Bubba's BBQ: Home of the Burnt Everything" may evoke the more banal extremes of Kansas City, but you have to conclude that the Chinese on one coast and the Italians on the other did much to rescue American food from a fate worse than death.
A carnivore's paradise, although the smoke makes everything taste the same.