There's a kind of natural harmony that exists between Southern cooking and the blues. When the sound system is pumping out Buddy Guy and a convivial crowd is gathered around the bar, all you really want is a plate of barbecued chicken with cornbread and coleslaw. And that's just what you get at Jessie's Lip Smackin' Roadhouse, a friendly spot to kick back and pig out, where the vibe is decidedly more Memphis than Merrick.
The roadhouse got its start after co-owner David Papale won a Food Network barbecue sauce contest run by Emeril Lagasse. Papale, with partners Tom Holland and Robert Cesiro, decided to make the most of the winning sauce and open a restaurant. They named the place for the North Carolina man who originated the recipe.
But their formula for success is not based solely on barbecue or sauce. The roster of mostly Southern dishes may be simple, but it's full of flavor.
It had been a long while since I'd tasted a decent crab cake, so I didn't expect much from the fried discs on my plate, especially since they weren't made with real crabmeat but rather a seafood "blend." To my surprise, though, I enjoyed the highly seasoned, creamy interiors, which tasted vaguely Cajun in style. Low Country "monster" baked clams had lots of briny meat combined with a loose-textured stuffing. The menu describes the Buffalo wings as available three ways -- "hot, very hot or oowee baby." We tried the two more incendiary versions, and they lived up to their appellations.
One evening, a special of barbecued rib tips proved deep-down smoky, a curiosity, since the place doesn't own a smoker. I asked Holland the secret and he confessed that the restaurant bought them pre-smoked. A bowl of rich, full-bodied chili was made with whole chunks of stew meat, not ground beef. Good eating.
Barbecued chicken had a nice, citrusy flavor, thanks to the marinade. And I liked that the restaurant's namesake barbecue sauce -- neither too sweet nor acidic -- was brushed on judiciously rather than haphazardly slathered, as barbecue sauce too often is. The same held true for the meaty barbecued beef rib, a brontosaurus-size bone that made for lots of satisfied gnawing. Accompaniments of moist cornbread and crunchy homestyle coleslaw were ideal. Hardly on that level was the New York rib steak, a plain broiled piece of fairly flavorless meat. What the humorously worded (sometimes too cute) menu described as "Fat Sam from Birmingham pulled pork on a bun" materialized as two hero-size rolls filled with mountains of smoky, well-sauced shredded pig. Fat Sam must have been one happy guy.
We asked our personable waitress which desserts were house-made. None. Still, both the warm pecan pie and the fudgy Mississippi mud cake were good enough to pass for homestyle. No reason for singin' the blues. Nice!