Gidget got soul

After a string of restaurants that didn’t quite meet my expectations, I was thrilled when I walked away from Sandra Dee’s with no complaints whatsoever. What’s not to like about this barbecue/soul-food joint? It’s conveniently located downtown on the corner of 15th and F streets, it’s clean and big enough to seat a lot of customers, the service is extremely friendly, and the food is awesome.

A word of warning: If you order food to go, make sure your drive will not be a long one. The smells that filled my car drove me almost crazy, causing me to speed all the way up I-80. You can avoid that problem, of course, by dining at the restaurant, which is attractively decorated with trompe l’oeil murals and ivy to give it a courtyard feel. Sandra Dee’s also caters, using its custom-made mobile rotisserie pit. Of note are the all-you-can-eat rib tips on Tuesdays and catfish nuggets on Wednesdays, as well as the only-on-the-weekend gumbo.

Sandra Dee’s slow-cooks its barbecue with lots of smoke to produce some of the best ’cue in these parts. You can choose from beef links, tri-tip, chicken, rib tips or pork ribs. Dinners, which come with your choice of two medium side orders, range from $7.99 to $11.99. If you’re a real pig, or if you want to order for the whole family, try a combo. Two meats and two medium sides will run you $11.99; add a meat for a total of $13.99 or go for the gusto and try four meats with two large sides for $16.99. You also could opt for deep-fried catfish, prawns, snapper or oysters.

We sampled the pork ribs, the tri-tip and the chicken, which come with your choice of mild or hot barbecue sauce. Sandra Dee’s gets extra points for making a hot sauce that is actually hot enough to make your nose run, and it’s tasty to boot. The restaurant also offers hot-wing sauce, a fiery, vinegar-based sauce that can be extremely difficult to find in stores. So, more bonus points for that. All of the barbecued meats were wonderful, with both the ribs and the chicken meat at the falling-off-the-bone stage. I also tried the catfish, which was the only slight disappointment. Although the flesh was flaky and the cornmeal breading was crispy, the strips seemed a little flavorless. The fish did come served with tartar sauce, however.

Sandra Dee’s has a wonderful selection of sides, which can be ordered separately ($1.65-$5.50, depending on size). Everything your Southern-fried soul could desire is there, including hush puppies, red beans and rice, greens, and mac and cheese. Sandra Dee’s uses smoked turkey instead of salt pork or bacon to flavor its sides. That gives them a little less flavor, perhaps, but certainly a lot less fat, too.

Still, the sides I sampled were all very good indeed. The sweet corn strayed from the tried-and-true, with sautéed, finely chopped onions and jalapeño peppers. The red beans and rice, though hearty and creamy, could have used a stronger jolt of flavoring and heat. The greens were a mix of mustard and collard and were cooked with the smoked turkey in a way that let the flavor of the greens take the primary role. The hush puppies were very good, crunchy and flecked with bits of jalapeño; the cornbread muffins were equally tasty. The restaurant claims its macaroni and cheese is the creamiest, and that could be an understatement. This version is more akin to a noodle pudding than the mac and cheese you’ll get from a box, and it’s more strongly flavored with actual cheese.

It’ll be tough, but save some room for dessert. The restaurant offers lemon and red velvet cakes, as well as classic peach cobbler and sweet-potato pie. Both desserts sampled, the cobbler and pie, were delicious. The sweet-potato pie earned especially high marks for its flaky crust and perfect blend of seasonings.

The test of a really good barbecue joint is how far you’d be willing to drive for your ribs. Until now, I was resigned to making side trips to Castroville—the site of the best ’cue this side of Texas, made by a Willie look-alike—whenever I drove to the coast. But now I don’t have to wait to feed my barbecue jones; Sandra Dee’s is much closer than that. Life is good.