That could be the reason why I'm a very adventurous eater today and, God knows, a healthy one. I don't need subliminal messages to encourage me to pick up an extra onion ring -- or so I thought. The first thing I noticed when I visited the 2-month-old Rib Crib in the Zona Rosa shopping center was its array of neon signs -- "Eat Like a Pig," "Get Sauced" -- artfully mounted on the wall, barely floating under the ceiling. What a cute decorating touch, I thought as I wriggled into a booth. And then, suddenly, I was starving for pork. As though implanted with a version of the mysterious microchip that turns men into killers in The Manchurian Candidate, I felt like my appetite had been programmed to suddenly go hog wild. Bring on the ribs and the fried okra!
As far back as the 1950s, restaurant designers understood that covert instructions to diners could be incorporated into the décor. A cozy and comfortable interior encourages customers to stay in their seats longer. Harsh lighting and plastic seats have the opposite effect, so fast-food venues, which depend on quick turnover, use colors that are psychological turnoffs to patrons, such as the sickly yellow preferred by Subway. The message couldn't be less subtle: Gobble up your grub and get out.
The Oklahoma-based Rib Crib, a 12-year-old casual-dining chain with three dozen or so locations scattered throughout the Southwest, leans toward a more soothing style for its faux-barn interiors. The colors are warm (those neon signs are in hot-red or orange), the artwork is slightly fetishistic (there's a lot of cowboy-boot action), and even if the napkins are paper and the tables are uncloaked, the dining room is surprisingly inviting. What's more, the adorable, peppy young servers don't care if you sit at the table for 15 minutes or 15 hours.
I fully expected to detest the Rib Crib. After all, chain barbecue restaurants have notoriously bad histories in Kansas City -- remember Tony Roma's? This is a city where establishments like Arthur Bryant's, Gates, Fiorella's Jack Stack and Oklahoma Joe's will always be the big hogs in the pen. But after a couple of surprisingly good meals at the Rib Crib, I think it might hold its own in this location, though it's most assuredly not in the rarefied class of the city's other iconic originals.
Instead, the Rib Crib shares a level with other national casual-dining joints that offer ribs and barbecued meats, such as Applebee's. That's not necessarily a put-down. The spare ribs and baby back ribs are good and meaty here, and the Rib Crib has trimmed quite a bit of fat from its prices. The "Real Big Dinners," which include two side dishes, are less than ten bucks.
The Rib Crib cooks its beef, pork and chicken over a gas-fired rotisserie smoker that burns hickory wood, and it offers a molasses-based signature sauce that's distinctly sugary in its "mild" incarnation and searingly spicy (with a strange, acrid aftertaste) in its "hot" form. My friend Bob, who is scathingly critical of most barbecue joints that don't meet the standards of his beloved Rosedale, was an immediate convert. To my amazement, he loved the restaurant's lightly seasoned but succulent spare ribs and tender, juicy baby backs.
His opinion might have been influenced by our server, a youthful Goldie Hawn type named Sarah who was so thrilled to be working at the restaurant that her enthusiasm was contagious. She even sold me on an appetizer that I rarely order. Yes, cheesy potato skins are so 1970s, but I gobbled them down like a swine. It must have been that "Eat Like a Pig" sign.
I was less enthusiastic about one of the Rib Crib's novelty sandwiches, the Bar-B-Rito, which combined pulled pork, "zesty ranch beans" and caramelized onions in a cheddar tortilla. I'd been intrigued by the menu description, but it didn't taste nearly as luscious as it sounded.
Bob and I returned a few nights later, dragging Cynthia and Lorraine. Bob and Lorraine took an almost childlike delight in the way the restaurant looked, its picnic-style fare (the menu includes smoked bologna, potato chips and root beer floats), the giggly waitresses and the funky background music. I proceeded to grunt down another signature sandwich, the CribWich, a choice that night's fresh-faced server, the effervescent Courtney, predicted I would love.
Let's just say I didn't hate it. But the combination of "hot links" smoked sausage and slices of brisket on a hamburger bun wasn't nearly as interesting to me as the accompanying side dishes: crunchy fried okra and meaty baked beans. Lorraine wouldn't touch the okra; it's one of those childhood dishes that she's never stopped loathing. She did, however, say that the potato salad was "rocking," and she agreed with me that the baked beans were fabulous, even if the portions were stingy.
Lorraine was disappointed in her own dinner, a plateful of slow-smoked Polish sausage slices that arrived barely warm and were bland and vaguely rubbery. But we all liked Cynthia's sliced chicken breast, which was smoky and tender. And I snagged a couple of her crunchy, bangle-sized onion rings. No one said any of this was healthy food, mind you, particularly the platter of gooey cheese fries -- covered with a molten cheese crust and scoops of bacon bits -- that we'd all devoured before dinner. I'm telling you, those neon signs are potent!
I was stuffed by the end of the meal, but Lorraine insisted on dessert, offering to share the fudge brownie sundae and one of the fruit cobblers.
The menu listed four cobblers, which made me suspicious that they were frozen and heated to order -- and they were. But one taste of the tart cherry cobbler swayed my opinion in their favor. Served in an oversized sundae glass and doused with more than enough whipped cream for four people, the fruity concoction was as good as my grandmother's made-from-scratch variety. The brownie sundae was stacked so high with two gigantic scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream that I couldn't find the actual brownie for the first several minutes.
Suddenly, I decided I couldn't eat another bite. Maybe somewhere in that restaurant, a light had gone on saying "Stop Eating." Or maybe it was just the discomfort of my jeans and shirt feeling so tight. Talk about a rib crib!
Maybe I should go back to being a picky eater again.