It almost requires higher mathematics to calculate the number of businesses that have occupied the southeast corner of Walton and Aurora avenues. That is another way of saying good things are worth waiting for. Everything from shoe repair to kitschy gift shops has tried its luck there, with little success. But now seductive barbecue aromatherapy fills the neighborhood air, and it is a mouth-watering complement to the smell of roasting peanuts at the Jif plant around the corner on Winchester Road.
At lunch and dinner times, i.e., peak hours, the parking lot at Mary Lou's BBQ is full and the side streets might have fewer parking spaces than a few months ago. In short, after almost two decades, this neighborhood building has finally hit a home run — great news for food lovers.
Its popularity, combined with the limited seating — there are only a couple of long tables and three saddles that are more for atmosphere than comfort — means service can be slow sometimes. If I were in an elegant sit-down restaurant, that might be irksome. But hey, this is slow food. If you're in a hurry, call ahead with your order.
Mary Lou's bills itself as Texas-style, presumably because the star of the show is brisket. The brisket, Texan or not, deserves its fast-growing fame. Thinly sliced with just the right amount of fat lining the edges, it is smoky and rich, and melts in your mouth. Served unadorned, or piled on a hamburger bun, it is phenomenally delicious. Add the sweet, tart, spicy barbecue sauce to make it pop, although it needs no improvement.
The pulled pork is actually a better partner for that sauce, if only because pork is more neutral. Nevertheless, here the "other white meat" is tender and perfectly smoked; time on the 'cue does not hide its delicate flavor.
The ribs are great, although they are not consistent. Sometimes they are meaty and dripping with bits of fat, other times they are well-done and slightly drier. For the record, I can see the virtues of each.
If you like sage, you will adore the handmade andouille sausage. Also a matter of taste is the coleslaw. It's maximalist, like everything else here, taking cabbage to a different level with blue cheese and pineapple. It perfectly fits the stereotype of all things Texan being larger than life.
I am not crazy about either of the potato-based sides, the potato salad and the enormous baked potato. In both cases, the spuds seemed underdone, as though they had been steamed rather than boiled or baked. However, plenty of people prefer that texture. The salad is creamy and loaded with slim slices of pickles and pimentos and generous handfuls of celery seed. The baked russet is brimming with sour cream and butter — again, appropriate to the theme of Texas supersizing.
The "campfire beans," on the other hand, couldn't be better. They are soft without being overcooked, with pork and onions and all the wonderful sweet, tart and spicy virtues of the barbecue sauce. I also appreciate that the smoky flavors here are restrained, unlike other versions that pack way too big a wallop.
While plenty of out-of-state license plates can be seen dropping by Mary Lou's around 6 o'clock, it is also within walking distance for many neighborhood residents. Although there already is good Lone Star cooking in Fayette County, none is as accessible to the center of town as this new little jewel — at last.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.