When “The Udder Place,” the purple-painted drive-through coffee shop in Brunswick with the rooftop sculpture of an enormous fiberglass anthropomorphized cartoon cow bathing itself in a giant coffee cup finally closed its doors and hung a “for rent” sign in the window, I wondered what new business could possibly fill such a specialized space. Another coffee shop seemed out of the question, and what else could move in that wouldn’t put the restaurant’s unique thematic elements to waste?
After several years on the market, my question was finally answered late last month, with the grand opening of “Sista’s BBQ,” a drive-through barbecue joint opened by Alabama transplant Kathleen Baskin and her brother, George Borne. Since some of our favorite BBQ memories come from our experiences down south, eating the BBQ you can find being slung from the giant towed-in smokers found in nearly every gas station parking lot, we were excited to try Sista’s drive-through version.
Sista’s is very much still operating in “soft opening” mode; the day we drove through, fresh paint was still being laid on the freshly-spackled joints on the outside of the building, and a peek inside revealed piles of equipment still trying to find a permanent place in the tiny kitchen. It wasn’t entirely clear whether we had to get out of the car, or which window we should be waiting at to receive our barbecue. When a restaurant is this freshly-opened, though, we try not to place too much emphasis on these types of wrinkles present in any opening, and don’t take service or speed into account.
To try and get the broadest sense of the offerings at Sista’s, we selected the “Sampler Plate,” a $15 combination of ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken, and sliced beef, served with corn bread, coleslaw, baked beans, and an iced tea. While we waited for our order to get boxed up, we couldn’t help but glance around the inside of the shop, and saw two things we weren’t crazy about: the giant can the baked beans came from, and the plastic bags our ribs were coming out of. Sista’s was, evidently, doing a lot of cooking off-site, and warming some items to order. A few minutes later, our styrofoam box of ‘cue was ready, sending waves of fantastic smells through our car, and we were on our way home to feast.
The moment of truth, when we flipped open the lid to reveal our lunch, was somewhat disappointing. This was barbecue that had seen better days; all of our selections had the air of leftovers, reheated to just-tepid, and drizzled with a few squeezes of sweet, Memphis-syle barbecue sauce. The “sliced beef” was the worst offender; ragged slices of what may as well have been supermarket roast beef, dry and unremarkable. The chicken didn’t fare much better, with a few rubbery pieces of reheated smoked chicken slathered in sauce. The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender, but it wasn’t clear how they got this way; they bore none of the telltale signs of smoking, and may just as well have been boiled. The pulled pork was slightly better, and showed off some of the nuance of the sweet barbecue sauce, while remaining moist and tender.
The sides weren’t enough to salvage the meal. The coleslaw was super finely-shredded Sisco-style wet salad, and the aforementioned canned baked beans were improved somewhat by the addition of pulled pork and green pepper. The cornbread was interesting: more of a corn pancake, with chunks of real corn, buttered and served hot, but this minor creative tweak was just too little, too late.
We don’t take any pleasure in giving new businesses less-than-stellar writeups, and only mention Sista’s BBQ because we are such big believers in the potential concept: a drive-through barbecue stand that slings boxes of authentic, slow-cooked classics, as cooked by honest-to-goodness Southerners with a history of award-winning barbecue. It’s exactly what the area needs, and it can and should be amazing. For this kind of concept to work, though, for such simple food to attract a following, the details need to be perfect. We wanted to see a huge, homemade smoker out back, blackened with age, layering Pleasant Street in a low-hanging fog of smoked meat aroma, chugging away with piles of brisket and ribs that had been slowly smoking all day, ready to be pulled off the fire, slathered in sauce, and delivered to our cars. We wanted big piles of fresh, homemade side dishes, and big plastic cups of home-brewed sweet tea filled to the brim with ice.
Instead, we paid $15 bucks for some canned coleslaw and some microwaved chicken. These are the cost-saving shortcuts of a restaurant that has already seen success and that is coasting on reputation, not the habits of a hungry new business trying to get on its feet and eager to find loyal customers who are passionate about their food. Hopefully, this can be chalked up to opening-month growing pains, and that with Sista’s BBQ, the best is still to come.