Got soul?

Photo by David Robert

The sound system at Love’s Barbecue & Grill was playing a song by Christina Aguilera. “What a girl wants, what a girl needs,” she sang, her faux soulfulness filling the restaurant.

Ms. Aguilera undoubtedly knows what she needs. And I knew what I needed at that moment. What I needed was service.

Fifteen minutes into lunch, I didn’t have a place setting or water. Neither did one of my guests, who also hadn’t received the soda he’d requested. My other guest had a partial place setting, a glass of water and one napkin.

One napkin in a barbecue joint?

The server had earlier brought a basket of warm but tasteless rolls, and then disappeared. He was cheerful, but that only goes so far.

Now, none of this would have mattered too much if Love’s food had been accomplished. And why shouldn’t it be, I asked myself before my visit.

The people behind Love’s must have done their research, I reasoned. Surely they know that Northern Nevada boasts a world-famous rib cook-off, several excellent barbecue establishments and people who know their way around a good cut of meat. Surely they wouldn’t open a barbecue restaurant among such enthusiastic and knowledgeable flesh-eaters unless it were absolutely up to snuff.

I was wrong.

A pleasant smokiness enfolded the char-grilled chicken breast ($7.75), but the meat was a bit dry, because it wasn’t basted heavily enough with barbecue sauce. This basting seemed almost an afterthought, and the barbecue sauce was bland and needed spicing.

A succulent, nicely greasy skin kept the original barbecue chicken moist ($8.95, with ribs), but again, the barbecue sauce was so offhandedly applied that it added little flavor to the dish. The lukewarm barbecued beans had the same problem.

Barbecuing tends to elicit great passion from those who practice the art, a passion you can taste in the food. Where is the passion in these dishes, I wondered.

I never found that passion, but the ribs at Love’s did show some spirit. The original baby backs that accompanied the barbecue chicken were tender, meaty and appropriately fatty. Those soft bits of pork fat burst in the mouth, releasing their juicy sweetness.

Flame-broiled ultimate baby back ribs ($8.75, with chicken) were piled into a magnificent testament to carnivorousness. They, too, were juicy and substantial, but I wish they had come off the bone more easily.

A much-ballyhooed Snickers fudge cake ($2.75) turned out to be a gummy disappointment that, somehow, was more salty than sweet. This dessert felt like something planned by a committee rather than developed by a chef.

And that’s part of the problem, I realized. Love’s belongs to a restaurant chain that dates to 1948, something I hadn’t considered before my lunch. And while being in business for more than a half-century is a success indeed, there’s something about food that often resists corporate planning and centralization.

Sure, upscale hamburger and pizza chains can sometimes provide decent meals. But other types of food—barbecue and Japanese come quickly to mind—really can’t be reduced to a series of formulas or standards if the dishes are to be any good at all.

Barbecue benefits from the personal touch. From someone who spices and seasons until the sauce achieves the right balance of sweet, salty and sour flavors. From someone who lovingly tends to the meat so that it becomes a celebration of the pleasures and history of eating flesh, back to that first human campfire eons ago.

The best barbecue is like jazz. Like the blues. It must be felt. And it comes from a place that can’t be listed on any corporate meeting agenda. Love’s Barbecue & Grill isn’t a bad restaurant, but it doesn’t have soul. That’s what barbecue needs: Barbecue needs soul.