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Bodacious Bar-B-Q

Cole's Bar-B-Q
Robert Scheer

Cole's Law: Cole's Bar-B-Q co-owner Tim Higbee stands beside his finger-licking-good ribs and chicken, lightly charred and smothered in a robust sauce. And, yes, both the coleslaw and potato salad are great. By the way, Higbee named the business after his young son.

Definitely smokin', Cole's continues to cook up sticky ribs, tasty tri-tip and seasoned side orders for the carnivorous faithful

By Christina Waters

MY IDEA OF MEAT HEAVEN is, for reasons known but to God, a big ol' tri-tip sandwich. Oral flashbacks of oak-fired tri-tip from the fires of Jocko's in Nipomo near San Luis Obispo still linger with me as vividly as Proust's madeleine. So, naturally, when I spied the barbecued tri-tip sandwich on the Cole's Bar-B-Q menu over on Portola last week, I ordered up faster than you could say, "And don't forget the ice-cold Beck's."

Cole's has been providing aid and comfort to non-vegetarian camp followers, hardcore rib buffs and unrepentant meatheads for well over a decade, both in Aptos and Santa Cruz. Now, many gals take no prisoners when it comes to barbecue devotion, but judging by the Cole's clientele, I'd have to say that barbecue still tops the charts of all-time guy food. Right up there with pizza and burgers.

It was cozy in the extreme. Our group gathered 'round the Cole's hearth last week--some of us waiting for carry-out orders, others determined to make a big, juicy mess all over one of the indoor picnic tables (it being a mite too windy to sit at the alfresco spot overlooking scenic Portola and the trailer park beyond). Like faithful gathered for worship, we all sat facing the front counter, watching the little TV on top of the refrigerator case, listening to Mick Jagger on AM radio singing goodbye to Ruby Tuesday.

The combo dinner--loaded with beef, pork and chicken ($9.50), plus garlic bread and your choice of two side orders (potato salad, baked beans, coleslaw, green salad, French fries)--is always a satisfying way to go. So my companion did--throwing in a couple of Sierra Nevada Pale Ales ($2 each), absolutely required to wash down all that gooey goodness. I stuck firm on my barbecued tri-tip sandwich order ($5.95), which was backed by fries and slaw.

The Stones had given way to some early Phil Collins, and the sunset was turning the gum machines a bright neon pink as our orders arrived. Cole's is actually worth a visit, incidentally, just to check out the collection of vintage surfing posters tacked up on the walls.

The guy behind the counter brought our salads over right off the bat, sort of a picnic appetizer course while our main dishes got good and smoked in the adjoining "oak room." The potato salad at Cole's is an over-the-top creation in which there's way too much of everything. In other words, it's fantastic. Crunchy celery, crisp pickles, black olives and lots and lots of mayo make this a potato salad lover's fantasy.

Equally good was the house coleslaw, a creamy, sweet, carroty creation of two cabbages that we both loved.

When our big dishes arrived, our appetites were open full throttle--which was fortunate, since one of the huge baskets contained what we quickly discovered was the Holy Grail of french fries. I mean, the hot, greasy, crispy, moist, salty, potato-intensive mother lode. The meal could have ended right there and we would have been happy as a couple of retro clams.

But there was that tender-but-chewy tri-tip sandwich to consider. Arranged on a huge toasted bun were thinly sliced, lean, loaded-with-sauce ribbons of tasty tri-tip beef. I squirted on more of the sauce provided at each table--sauce that had a nice balance of tomato, brown sugar, lemon and maybe a suggestion of red peppers, but lacked real kick. We inquired about a hotter hot sauce, but were told that a bottle of Tabasco was all the extra firepower available.

The garlic bread was properly spongy, moist and gooey--not very garlicky, though. The beans were just a touch too smoky--as in liquid smoky--to deliver the goods. Of the combo dishes, the enormous, meaty, juicy beef rib was the one that we loved. The pork ribs were OK, and the chicken too dry.

What is it about gnawing on a meaty bone? Some paleo-connection with our hunter/gatherer past, no doubt. At any rate, given the fine tri-tip and the excellent side dishes--especially the French fries--we had to agree that Cole's was, and still is, a good idea.

Cole's Bar-B-Q & Catering

Address: 2590 Portola Drive, SC (476-4424); 8059 Aptos St., Aptos (662-1721).
Hours: Daily 11am­10pm at both locations (weekdays until 9pm in Aptos)
Entrees: $5­$10
Extras: Grill catering available
Ambiance: ** Classic rock & roll barbecue shack
Cuisine: ** Satisfies that craving
Service: ** Mostly counter service, friendly staff
Overall: Cole's fills its barbecue niche with generous portions and lean, mean prices--no brass ring, but it hits the spot just fine

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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