Restaurant Review - Cue'd up

Raleigh's BBQ & Blues a saucy draw in Decatur

The sun is out, the humidity is down, the smog won't choke you and pollen has practically disappeared. It's safe to go out in Atlanta again, and there are fewer places so pleasant for walking around as the town square in Decatur. A real town square, with a courthouse and people and a bandstand.

And what is that delicious aroma? Barbecue.

Of the many charming and convenient restaurants lining the square, only Raleigh's BBQ & Blues lures passersby with the distinctive scent of burning hickory, making it impossible to think of anything other than sitting down immediately to a plate of pulled pork smothered with sauce.

Don't fret about what kind of sauce. Raleigh's is not here to fight the tomato-based, vinegar-based, sweet or hot sauce wars. They make all of them from scratch and transport them to the table in a six-pack carton.

You will need them. Despite the alluring aroma wafting from the advertised wood-burning pit, the meat is not permeated with that essential barbecue flavor. The meat — notably the large, meaty Righteous Rib rack ($11.50) — barely seems to have been touched by the slow-cooking process. Obviously a major drawback for a barbecue restaurant.

Yet there is so much to like about Raleigh's that it is worth taking the time to experiment with all the sauces, to discover which ones add the most to the chicken and pork, which is moist, meaty and fresh-tasting. And remember, that's pulled, not sliced or chopped.

Inside the long, narrow restaurant are high tables for two, some booths, a semi- circular bar and a couple of tables behind a low wood rail where the blues band will set up later.

It may be this dual restaurant/club personality that accounts for the unevenness of the kitchen, which produces both unusual and tasty things and mediocre, bland things. A trite, commercial essay on the back of the menu — "The Birth of Okefenokee BBQ and Blues" — sounds as though somebody has designs on franchising this concept. If so, the food will have to hit its marks more consistently than it does right now.

But the attitude of the staff could not be better. My experience has been that whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, is fine with them. Dinner at the bar? Sure. Food on the coffee table, the better to lounge on the sofa? Why not? A menu blurb invites you to order the water and coleslaw — both free — and enjoy the music "on the house," and I believe they mean it.

The free coleslaw could use more kick, but it's hard to quarrel with its creamy freshness. Better, though, to go with the even creamier Smokehouse Potato Salad ($1.75), with bits of country cured bacon. Gooey, cheesey Sweet Tomato Pie ($2.75 a slice) is in season through October, after which the requisite Georgia tomatoes and Vidalia onions will no longer be available.

Raleigh's does better with roasting and grilling, and nothing benefits more from these methods than the totally sublime Ok'fenokee Okry ($1.75), a small plate of whole okra. Bits of okra — along with lima beans, corn and diced potato — make Raleigh's Brunswick stew ($2 a mug, $3.75 a bowl) a notch above the usual conglomeration of leftovers.

World Famous Hicks Hot Tamales ($2 each, three for $5.50; they're small) seem out of place with the rest of the menu. They're hot all right, but lack the hearty mealiness of good tamales. And anyway, it should be illegal to go to a barbecue restaurant and not order barbecue.

Besides the simple pulled pork sandwich (buns are fresh-baked, $4.50), and pork plate ($8), there are salads — pork ($6.25) or chicken ($5.75) — and samplers: Hoochie Coochie Pork Combo ($8.75), a tamale, two ribs, Brunswick stew, potato salad and cornbread; the same lineup with pulled chicken is $8.50.

Desserts are the kind dear to a Southerner's heart: MoonPie ($1), hot buttered apples ($2) and blackberry ($2.50), cherry ($2.25) and peach ($2) cobblers, flaky crust and plenty of fruit under a mountain of vanilla ice cream.