If you didn't know better, Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit might sound like a corporate chain that's trying too hard.
After I found a spot in its Depew parking lot at dinnertime, I stepped out of my car into a cloud of barbecue perfume, an intoxicating blend of woodsmoke and sweet pork. Then I noticed a big blond-haired fellow who looked a lot like the guy on the Kentucky Greg's logo, carrying a washtub of spare ribs from the adjacent smokehouse to the restaurant.
Kentucky Greg's is for real. The finest proof is in its meat, especially the delectable pork spare ribs and pulled pork, shredded from shoulders steeped in smoky heat until tender.
Inside, it's a busy family restaurant with blues posters on the walls and muted blues tunes on the sound system. It has plastic hanging plants and worn, red-checked plastic tablecloths. Once the food starts arriving, though, you might cut Kentucky Greg's some slack on its decor.
Brunswick Stew ($3.50 cup, $5.99 bowl) is a barbecue-belt favorite rarely seen in these parts. Kentucky Greg's is a hearty barbecue stew, packed with smoked beef and pork in broth that's almost gumbo dark. It sports a satisfying blend of potato, corn, other vegetables and a hit of chili heat. Its spiciness was enough to give us pause between spoonfuls, but we didn't stop until the cup was clean.
Determined to try the major meat groups, we ordered the King Combo ($22.99), three kinds of smoked meat (in my case, ribs, chicken, beef) with two sides. We also got a Combo ($10.99), two meats except ribs (we got sausage and pulled pork) with two sides.
The sides we asked for were fried okra, black-eyed peas, hickory baked beans, collard greens and corn bread.
The ribs were terrific -- tender, moist pork that clung to the bone, then detached cleanly with each bite. They were crusted with heat and peppery spice rub, and brushed with sweet sauce, even though the meat didn't need any help in the flavor department.
The pulled pork was deeply smoky and sweet after hours on the pit. It didn't need sauce either, though Kentucky Greg's offers a standard sauce and a thinner, spicy version.
The beef was a chewy disappointment. The menu warns that it's round, which turns up more like roast beef than my favorite pit beef, lush brisket. It's not quite dry but made me wish for some au jus, horseradish and rock salt for a smoked beef on weck. (I have read that some Kentuckians specialize in lamb barbecue. Perhaps if he got enough encouragement from his regulars, Greg might give it a shot.)
The kielbasalike sausage, served with sauteed bell peppers and onions, was juicy and slightly crisp-skinned from the heat. The dark-meat chicken was surprisingly likable, still moist. Some of the spice-crusted skin was crunchy enough to enjoy.
The side dishes were mostly satisfying, including a crunchy, vegetal fried okra, and earthy black-eyed peas that seemed tame despite obvious bacon and onion. The collard greens were finely chopped greens with more onion and bacon, and a lick of heat. The hickory pit beans were sweet, sticky and serviceable.
My wife, Cat, likes corn bread so much she ordered two pieces, sight unseen. They arrived as small, room temperature muffins, a letdown after her most recent corn bread epiphany at Suzy-Qs Bar-B-Que Shack.
For dessert, we pointed at a passing plate and asked for one of those. The Mud Pie ($5.99) is a towering wedge of ice cream confection, with Oreo crust, vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, whipped cream, peanuts and chocolate syrup. "Four people could share this and be pretty happy," said Cat.
It made me think of all the instantly forgettable $6 desserts I have ordered in fancier places. It offered no premium ingredients, just a carefree romp so much greater than the sum of its parts. We couldn't even wait for it to soften before diving in.
Kentucky Greg's has already won over a legion of fans (it has a second location in Orchard Park). With better beef, crusty corn bread and a draft beer list that went beyond Bud and Bud Light, it might be able to broaden its audience even further.
Kentucky Greg's Hickory Pit
Casual family restaurant serves authentic barbecue and many worthy sides.
WHERE: 2186 George Urban Blvd., Depew (685-6599, www.kentuckygregs.com).
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Sandwiches $5.50-$6.50; platters $9.50-$22.99.
PARKING: In the lot. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
Editor's note: The News is changing to a numerical scale to weigh restaurants. Instead of one to four stars, restaurants will be rated from 1 ("stay home") to 10 ("among the best"), with 5 being "worth a try." The number grade reflects the quality of food, service, ambience and value, with the food given most emphasis.