A former editor of mine who had worked in Owensboro, the barbecue capital of Kentucky, gave me a piece of advice that has stood in good stead for about two decades: If a barbecue joint doesn't smell like a smokehouse, it isn't any good.
Old Kentucky BBQ on New Circle Road has managed to turn the original McDonald's location in Lexington into a smokehouse.
Old Kentucky serves three things: smoked brisket, smoked pork (including ribs) and smoked chicken. It smokes the meats in contraptions in the parking lot. Once the smoked meats come inside, they are used to create sandwiches, ribs, a burgoo/Brunswick stew-type soup called Q-Stew, something called a Tater-Q, chili and barbecue spaghetti.
I went to Old Kentucky BBQ twice, for supper and lunch, and tried just about everything the place had to offer.
On the lunch visit, I took a colleague who hails from Western Kentucky and is well versed in the ways of barbecue. In the western end of the Bluegrass State, the people live and breathe barbecue. I think that's all they eat. For the most part, my colleague and I liked the barbecue at Old Kentucky, but the sauce got in my way.
The restaurant itself was very cold. We were there about 1:15 p.m. and had to wear our coats. Customers place orders at the counter — even though this is considered fast food, it is not my favorite way to order — and servers bring the food to the table.
Our lunch started with a pulled pork sandwich combo with a large soft drink ($8.02). The pork sandwich was served on Texas toast, not a bun, and piled high with meat (Old Kentucky is generous), topped with a few raw onion rings and a slathering of the mild version of the restaurant's only barbecue sauce — a thick, sweet molasses-based concoction (a hotter version contains chili pepper flakes, and Tabasco is on every table for added heat). I lean toward vinegar-cayenne sauces, so neither of Old Kentucky BBQ's was a favorite, but my Western Kentucky colleague liked them.
The side we asked for with the combo was baked potato salad. It was a sound mayonnaise-based potato salad combined with all the fixin's for a baked potato: bacon bits, chives and … pickle juice? Two schools of thought with pickle juice: love it or hate it. I'm of the latter, but my companion is of the former. Besides, when did people start putting pickle juice (or brine) on baked potatoes?
The Tater-Q ($5.19), which I tried for lunch, is a large baked potato topped with my choice of barbecue. I chose pulled chicken. The meat was dry, but with a healthy dose of barbecue sauce and Tabasco, it was good.
The Q-Stew ($2.83 for a cup) was a watery concoction similar to burgoo or Brunswick stew. It contained everything that Old Kentucky BBQ smokes, plus lima beans and corn (you know, succotash). It would have been better, though, had it been reduced more.
That stew had potential, but we didn't like the chili ($2.12) at all. Cubes of beef and pork were swimming in Old Kentucky's sweet barbecue sauce. It was too much. The barbecue spaghetti ($3.77) was similar to the chili: cubes of smoked beef and pork in a lighter version of the sweet barbecue sauce and served on waterlogged pasta.
Now some good news: The corn muffins at Old Kentucky BBQ are standouts. Good, not dry (as most muffins are), a bit sweet but barely, and mixed with whole-kernel corn and bits of jalapeños. Perfectly delicious.
Lunch for two was $25, including tax, but remember, we tried much more food than most people would get for a typical lunch.
Dinner was a similar affair but cheaper, because we didn't try nearly as much food. My companion and I had a half-rack of pork ribs ($7.55), which were falling off the bones. Of course, the sweet barbecue sauce was the only way to moisten the dry, smoked ribs. A side of baked beans seemed straight from the can, with a bit of smoky flavor. The coleslaw, though, was exceptional. Rather than being sweet, it had a tangy dressing on coarsely shredded cabbage.
The other entree was a dinner combo of two meats. I had smoked beef brisket and smoked pulled pork. The flavor of the smoke and the meats was wonderful, but the meats were dry. The only way to moisten them was, again, the sweet barbecue sauce (with a hefty dose of Tabasco for me).
Old Kentucky BBQ had only one dessert: bread pudding ($2.50). It was the least sweet thing we ate. Made with light bread and topped with canned apples (possibly apple pie filling), it was closer to a palate cleanser than dessert. Dinner was $23.15 including tax.
Old Kentucky BBQ has some really good smoked meats, but if your preference of sauces isn't sweet, you won't like it. Some variety in sauces would help. Other dishes could use some rethinking, too, but the corn muffins are fantastic.