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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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FOOD AND DRINK

That BBQ Joint on Willy Street hits highs and lows with good cheer
There's a new smoked-meat spot


Credit:Laura Zastrow
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That BBQ Joint -- and yes, if you're unfamiliar with it, that's the proper name -- opened at the beginning of October 2013, with what appeared to be a measured approach. Initial hours of operation were just four days a week, and there are fewer than a dozen seats for dining in. That's dictated as much by the size of the former Batch Bakehouse space as it is by anything else, but it seemed like the Joint wanted time to grow into its boots.

In the months that the restaurant has been open, the crew behind That BBQ Joint has shown itself to be a responsive, transparent group, posting a lot of the creative process to its Facebook page: "[T]he brisket today was not ideal." "[T]hinking that next week we'll...add the mac and cheese to the menu."

That mac and cheese was a disappointment, uncheesy and skimpy in the side portion that comes with a sandwich. Just as well that as of the turn of 2014, it has been withdrawn for menu tinkering. The brisket I had was fine; while it was a little on the dry side, there was flavor and smoke present. It took well to That BBQ Joint's original and spicy sauces. The mustard sauce in particular amplifies the pulled pork in a sweet, tangy and altogether lovely way.

The staff is exceptionally kind -- a bowl of oranges to give out for St. Nick's Day, a free serving of Hoppin' John on New Year's Day -- and appears genuine in both soliciting feedback and offering suggestions. The jalapeño cornbread muffins were recommended, with the exhortation to try them warmed up at home. I was, however, dining in, and it would have been great if the kitchen had warmed them up for optimum effect.

They were still quite good, and in another change to the menu, they accompany most main courses instead of the former garlic toast. That Hoppin' John was also well met, though there are no plans to extend it past New Year's Day. The new Wednesday hours of operation, however, are here to stay.

Slightly incongruous tacos, available with either pulled pork or sliced brisket, would have been disappointingly dry without the spicy barbecue sauce recommended by the counter staff. Again, it certainly would have been collegial to prepare the dish to its greatest potential rather than leaving it to me.

The disconnect may come with the fact that That BBQ Joint's operation favors takeout, and incorporated liquids do tend to have an adverse effect during the ride home. There are deeper problems at work, though; I'm thinking in particular of the ribs.

One three-bone portion was intensely smoky, but the insufficient meat on those bones resulted in tasty though overcooked ribs. The order I ate in-house, on the other hand, was meatier but tough and undersmoked, the rub still gritty on the exterior surface. Neither serving pulled off the bone in any way that could be considered clean.

Any quality barbecue operation should be comfortable with the prospect of running out of meats. That's better by far than rushing out an inferior version of a product with potential (to say nothing of serving food at well below ideal warmth, a frequent problem).

And there's plenty of potential at That BBQ Joint. The skin on the whole chicken, part of a bulk order menu that includes brisket and pork by the pound, was dark and taut, the meat smoky and tender.

An Italian beef sandwich (another minor head-scratcher) featured house-made roast beef and hot giardiniera that's not messing around; I'd recommend the mild if you're anything less than a capsaicin nut. The collard greens are a bit wet but cooked down with plenty of pork. And I'd slap the spicy vinegar slaw on pretty much any of the barbecue sandwiches, which are themselves loaded into a fine selection of rolls that balance crusty exterior with soft interior.

Good service doesn't smoke the meat, and That BBQ Joint needs to smooth out inconsistencies and serve food at its best, whether that means warm when warm is best, hot when hot is best, sauced when the dish needs it, and ribs that are cooked so no bite's too much of a fight. There's room in Madison for this Joint; it just needs to settle down into it.

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