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Applewood BBQ works best undressed



I realize that enthusiasm for sweet barbecue sauce runs high around here. But unless you're a big fan of that kind of thing, you'll want to order your Applewood BBQ meats naked. Here, the sauce is best considered on the side.

The meat is good at this little family-owned barbecue shack on East 23rd Street, in Independence. I've tried tender, flavorful ribs, brisket and pulled pork here. But three of the house-made barbecue sauces are almost sweet enough to pour over ice cream. The signature sauce is made with apples and has such an aggressive cinnamon note that I wouldn't mind spreading it on hot biscuits (which this restaurant doesn't serve but should). Applewood is one thing — a fine thing for fragrant smoked meats. But apple butter?

"I tell our customers that it tastes like apple butter," confirms the cheery manager, who also acts as waitress, busperson and public-relations representative.

My barbecue preferences aside, the combination of apples and pork is a classic one — roast pork and stewed apples make for a traditional Sunday supper in the Midwest. In fact, the only time I could really bring myself to eat anything slathered with Applewood's cinnamon-scented sauce was when it happened to dress a superlative pulled-pork sandwich. The sauce didn't ruin the pork for me in this case, but it did cause the sandwich's taste to veer perilously close to apple-pie territory. The secret: Add a splash of this joint's hot sauce, which provides a not-sweet punch to tone down the cinnamon.

The supermarkety slaw is mayonnaise-heavy, but the roasted corn is a pleasant surprise: "We take canned corn, we roast it in the smoker," the manager confided, "then we toss it with cilantro and a little cayenne." I like it a lot. Not so much the gooey, jarringly sweet baked beans, which aren't meaty enough. There's a rum cake and a cheesecake, which taste more or less as you'd expect.

Before this location was Applewood, it was a corporate-chain sandwich shop, the sort of place that belonged in this compact little 23rd Street shopping strip. Among the unlikely combination of tenants here are a Mexican restaurant (don't make the mistake of pulling into one of the reserved parking spots outside Los Gringos; its management is very territorial) and a needlework shop called the Stitching Post.

Applewood still has a chain-store feel. It's outfitted with six red-and-white, hard-plastic booths and a few tables. You order at the counter, and a server brings out the barbecue on plastic plates with plastic flatware. After 5 p.m., there's full service, the plates are china, and the utensils are metal. You have to settle for paper napkins at all hours, but at night you get a lot more of them.

The restaurant recently began serving wine (a decent pinot grigio, a chardonnay and a riesling) and a limited selection of beers (Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud Black Crown) along with soft drinks and Country Time pink lemonade. The latter is very, very sweet but still not as sweet as the raspberry barbecue sauce that blanketed my burnt ends. The meat was crisp and smoky and not at all served by the fruity, sticky glaze.

The tomato-based traditional sauce is awfully sweet, too — with molasses or brown sugar or, I suspect, both — but it works as a dipping sauce for the beautifully crisp french fries. It's far less likable on a plate of rib tips. Again, the meat itself is truly outstanding. The properly rough, caramelized crust imparted by the smoker needs no dressing, and a sweet sauce becomes an insult.

"We use applewood and hickory in our smoker," the manager told me. "That's what sets us apart." That and the super-sweet sauces, which undercut some damn good meat. Save that raspberry stuff for the cheesecake, where it might do some good.

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