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Suzy Q’s Bar-B-Que Shack: a little place with a big heart

For 14 years, Sue Baker and her husband, Bob, have offered real slow-smoked barbecue in a little place on River Road just south of the GM plant. Walk in, and you will most likely be greeted by Sue. As you try to figure out what shape your meal will take, Sue will have the answers.

She may also tell you if you’re driving, you can’t have a third bottle of beer. If that sounds like something your mom would say, you’ve hit on part of Suzy Q’s enduring charm. You are dealing with people, not a corporation.

I’ve been eating Suzy Q’s food for a decade. It’s consistently good, often great. Real barbecue is made by people, not machines, and people can have an off day. But I keep going back because Suzy Q’s Bar-B-Que Shack isn’t just one of the area’s longest-serving barbecue joints. It’s a true mom-and-pop shop.

The Bakers have always been straightforward about their modus operandi. “Your best bet is to call ahead,” the menu says, “’cause when it’s gone, it’s gone, and so are we.” So if you’d be miffed to find a dark door, take their advice and call 873-0757 to check before you head out.

[PHOTOS: Sharon Cantillon's gallery of Suzy Q's Bar-B-Que Shack]

Kitchen manager and owners' daughter Kimberly Baker-Chisholm presents a custom-built family-style platter with five meats and five sides. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

On my most recent visit, we settled at a table and started scanning the menu as Sue came over and offered the beer list: Labatt Blue, Blue Light and Flying Bison Kolsch and Rusty Chain.

I had reserved a rack of ribs ($24.95) and added that we wanted to try all of the meats. Each meat is $8.75 solo and $12.55 with two sides, Two meats with two sides is $12.55, and four meats with two sides is $21.05. Ribs in a combo do cost extra, but I’m going to stop explaining the pricing and tell you to do what I do.

Tell Sue what you want. She’ll tell you what they have and what she’ll bring you. Whatever it is, you’ll pay a fair price.

Barbecue sandwiches are $6-$8. The tiny menu is dominated by traditional offerings, but there are a few oddball dishes you should consider. Garlic pods ($1.50) are terrific garlic-buttered rolls covered in cheddar cheese and toasted golden brown.

Half heap of smoked beef brisket with two sides. Sides pictured are baked beans and creamy coleslaw. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Salty Hogs ($7.25) are salt potatoes topped with baked beans, pulled pork, salsa and cheese. They resemble stuffed baked potatoes and are more than enough for lunch.

Then there’s BBQ Spaghetti ($8.95 full). Smoked Polish sausage or pulled pork is tossed with noodles, barbecue sauce and smoked salsa; topped with cheese; and baked until bubbly. The noodles soak up sauce and smoke, producing a remarkably addictive version of this Memphis classic that’s still Buffalo rooted – a parmigiana kielbasa pasta.

The BBQ spaghetti comes with choice of meat, smothered in BBQ sauce and smokehouse slash, topped with shredded cheese and baked. This dish was made with the smoked sausage. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Sides are an important part of a barbecue meal. By lessening overall meat intake, they improve long-term survival rates of the barbecue eater species.

We asked for all of them. The cornbread is cake-style, light and sweet with a faint hint of corn flavor. Squares are toasted until crunchy-cornered, brushed with honey butter and served warm. I always count on one per person.

Fire and ice pickles are spicy-sweet cucumbers, banana peppers and onions, contrasting the richness of meat. The coleslaw was crunchy, poppyseed-speckled and refreshing. Greens were hearty and tender. Fried corn was sweet and surprisingly spicy, but I didn’t mind.

Those were my favorites. The macaroni and cheese was undercheesed. Chunks of smoked meat added interest to baked beans sweet as candy. The beans were a solid version, but the cumulative sweetness was getting to me.

Messy Marvin Super Deluxe BBQ Sandwich has smoked sausage, cheese slaw, pickles, hot and mild peppers and salsa. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The brisket was tender and rich - not much bark, but silky and smoky - some of the best I’ve had in Western New York. The smoked sausage, skin crisped in the heat and slicked with sauce, was my next favorite, followed by sliced turkey breast simultaneously smoky and moist – an achievement.

Spare ribs, excellent during other visits, were just good this time. They were crusty and smoky, but meat clung stubbornly to the bone with each bite instead of coming away cleanly. (I asked for a knife but only plastic was available, not stout enough for the job.) Pulled pork was tender but lacked smoke.

There wasn’t any dessert, but by the time I surrendered to my limits and started packing leftovers, I didn’t miss it.

Suzy-Q's Bar-B-Que Shack's toasted cornbread. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Suzy Q’s is a family joint that rewards familiarity and flexibility. If you’re inclined to scoff at places without draft craft beer or howl if a place runs out of something, maybe you’re best served elsewhere.

Good barbecue is its own attraction, but people who show they care are icing on the cake, even if they don’t have any. That’s why I’ll be back to Suzy Q’s, a little place with a big heart.

DINING OUT

Suzy Q's Bar-B-Que Shack - 7 plates (out of 10)

Real smoked barbecue from restaurant that practically defines mom-and-pop shop.

WHERE: 2829 River Road, Tonawanda (873-0757)

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $1-$8.25; barbecue sandwiches, $5.95-$9.75; dinners ,$7.25-$25.50.

PARKING: Lot.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

Suzy Q's Bar-B-Que Shack is at 2829 River Road in the Town of Tonawanda.(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)