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Madam's Ribs

Waves Smokehouse and Saloon
Christopher Gardner

Behind the Smoke Scene: Head chef Stuart Wright cooks up a carnivore-friendly menu at Waves.

A former house of ill repute builds a reputation as a Texas-style barbecue joint

By Andrew X. Pham

ON A SWELTERING evening awash in the whiskey-colored glow of a setting sun, we made a rendezvous for a romantic repast inside what once were the steamy bedchambers of San Jose's most vivacious working ladies. We uncorked a bottle of petite sirah next to the Victorian windows where loosely corseted damsels had draped on the sill to tease and croon encouragement to gunslingers, cowpokes, clerks and every male trudging through the mud on the El Dorado Street of 1873.

Now a new tenant, Waves Smokehouse and Saloon, has taken over the building, but references to the past still abound. In the saloon, located downstairs, sits a magnificent bar, a 1900s Brunswick crafted of exquisite Honduran mahogany and crowned with a colossal stained-glass dome. When we first entered, its classic beauty compelled us to belly up to the bar like pig iron to a magnet. Nothing lay between us and the forty-niners of yesteryear save a few coats of varnish. One could almost hear the jangle of spurs on the hardwood floor, although now it's reggae, not ragtime, that keeps patrons hopping.

The bill of fare boasts standard Texan smokehouse goodies with a soft Caribbean touch. Head chef Stuart Wright, a veteran restaurateur and chef from Manhattan, has assembled a conservative ensemble of main courses: BBQ chicken, jerk chicken, pork ribs, beef brisket and hot links. Salads and starters evidenced more of the advertised "Caribbean" tone.

We were marveling over the modest prices when our "coco shrimp" (the best appetizer on the menu, according to our waiter) materialized and clarified things. At $6.25, this starter was a miserly four shrimps, shelled, encrusted in coconut shavings and deep-fried, and served on a leaf of lettuce with a side of sweet and sour ginger sauce. Oddly, two shrimp were perfectly golden, two almost brown-black--but aside from being a little oily, they were quite toothsome.

Fortunately, the salad was of respectable proportion. Our chummy waiter had sold us on the evening special, a Caesar salad topped with house-smoked salmon ($7.25). Flavored with brown sugar and herbs and then oak smoked, Wright's salmon was the best part of this rather standard Caesar, good enough for us to wish we had a bit of bread or cracker with which to improvise a few canapés.

Most entrees come escorted by mini terrines, one full of baked beans, one of potato salad or fruity coleslaw, one of barbecue sauce. Brown-sugar-baked country style, the beans won much of our attention.

The half rack of baby back ribs ($9.95, or $15.95 for a full rack) was of the smoke-first-and-slather-on-sauce-afterward school, and the oak-infused ribs sported the requisite charred demeanor of serious smokehouse grub. Close-carved, the lean ribs were dry; however, the kitchen pours generous portions of some very tasty house-made sauces, the best of which is probably an old Tex-Mex spicy favorite, Madness Habañero. Our jerk chicken ($7.95) was also on the dry side, although it had plenty of meat and a crusty, dark skin of mild jerk rub.

For the sweet end, we picked the timeless apple cobbler and a rum cake ($3.25 each), both served chilled. The cobbler tasted much as it looked, an over-sugared predicament unadorned in any other way. The cake--sunflower-yellow, moist with rum and crunchy with nuts--was the real winner, a generous portion that called for two cups of coffee.

It's only a matter of time before the crew tames the bucking bronco of a smoker oven. In the meantime, Wright has nailed down the menu with some well-priced goodies such as grilled fish and daily specials. Operating out of this historic building, the restaurant will make waves as a eating-and-drinking spot with a jazzy uptown twist, something that, during any point in history, downtown San Jose needs.

Waves Smokehouse and Saloon

Address: 65 Post St., San Jose
Phone: 408/885-9283
Hours: Food served daily 11am­10pm. Saloon stays open till 2am every night.
Cuisine: Smoky Texan-Caribbean influences
Ambiance: Casual, upbeat saloon
Extras: Live reggae band and dancing Thu.­Sat.

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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