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[whitespace] Andy Unzen
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Meat the Maker: Andy's Barbecue owner Andy Unzen grapples with a rack of ribs, one of his restaurant's most popular attractions.

Where There's Smoke

Some things have changed at Andy's, but the meat of the matter is as good as it ever was

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

I've written about Andy's many times in the past and always referred to it as a dangerous-looking roadhouse, something you might see in a Texas chain-saw movie. It was like that, really.

You'd walk into a dark, smoky lounge where regulars hunched in the shadows nursing highballs, listening to woozy melodies played on a piano in the corner. Visible from Highway 17, smoke poured out of its chimney, misting the atmosphere with sweet oak wood.

But some things have changed here. I'm not happy with all of them, but what can you do? That's nostalgia talking. Nostalgia for the dusty little bungalow established in 1965, in the days when the South Bay still slumbered in culinary unawareness. Nothing stays the same.

Andy Unzen, son of the original owner--now a member of the venerable Kansas City Barbecue Society--has gentrified the joint, packaged the concept and bottled the sauces with a slick label. There was an operation like this in L.A. called Chris and Pitts some time back. It's big business now, and I believe Andy's is on the same track, or trying to be, and why not? It's what people do these days.

The bar has become a bright, clean, much too tidy space. The piano's gone. "You haven't been here in a while," said the bartender, when I asked about the changes. "That's for sure," I thought. My buddy and I ordered pints of Bass, then a sausage sampler ($6.99), and suddenly our moods shifted, and things took on a rosy hue. In spite of all the cosmetic uplifts, the food was still delicious.

In front of us was a platter loaded with morsels of Cajun hot links, smoked Italian sausage and spicy Polish, cooked to succulence so the skins snapped to the bite and juices flowed off the fork.

It all came back to me then, just why I used to come here in the first place. It was always for the meat. Back in the old days, after all the posturing in the shadows with the highballs and the piano, we'd always get a table and pile it high with ribs, chickens and steaks. And those crazy baked potatoes oozing the god-awful cheese sauce that patrons continue to love. I didn't understand it then, and I don't now.

But the barbecue itself is very good--still the best reason to come. Exceptional quality and cooking technique produce a product that people in this area have enjoyed for more than 30 years. As popular as it may be, however, Andy's has taken its knocks--usually from purists insisting they alone know what "real" barbecue is.

I've come to learn, though, after years of eating ribs, that everybody's got a recipe, everybody's got something to say about the coals, about the slow cooking, the basting, and about those secrets from grandpa that to reveal would invoke a 20-year hex. Hex or not, as far as I'm concerned, it's what you like that counts; in this category, Andy's wins the popular vote.

The best news about Andy's: The food is even better these days. I mean it. They use a custom smoker now (on display out back), a souped-up contraption painted slick with logos and fitted with tires. I was told it uses less wood, cooks the meats more efficiently and in less time. The old brick chimney is used now to finish the meats with a quick barbecue sizzle.

Our half chicken ($8.95), for example, was full of wood flavor, the meat so tender we pinched it off the bones in big juicy chunks. In the convection heat of the smoker, the fat was rendered away, leaving a delicate crispy skin that crackled against the teeth.

If you like combinations--and plenty are offered--chicken and sliced beef brisket ($11.50) serves a generous portion of bird, plus thick slices of fork-tender brisket imbued with smokiness. My friend added a third item to his platter--another peppery hot link--for a moderately priced $13.50. There was so much food, he couldn't finish, but he tried.

Andy's platter of baby back ribs ($11.95 half slab; $19.95 full slab) remains the menu headliner, a favorite since the beginning. In the new smoker, the luscious qualities of the pork are fully developed so that each bite blooms rich and sweet in the mouth.

The steaks also are very good, the ribeye ($11.95) my favorite, the New York ($13.95) a glorified hunk of beef trimmed of fat and cut thick.

All dinners come with a plate of lettuce greens with a choice of pedestrian dressings, toasty garlic bread, less-than-memorable beans, and a baked spud smothered with the cheese sauce previously mentioned (yes, an Andy's trademark. Go figure).

The spare down-home furnishings in the dining room seem to be the last vestige of the old Andy's; they almost make you believe you're in some remote Texas backwater. And, like those utilitarian pieces, the servers move about with attitudes that match. These folks are short on gab, are fast-handed and have little patience for waiting around while you decide. So if you don't want trouble, know your business and state it. Then you'll be OK.

Address: 700 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell
Phone: 408.378.2838
Entrees: $8.95-$19.95
Cuisine: Barbecue
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11am-10pm, Sat. 5-10pm

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From the December 2-8, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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