A great looking new place with pretty good barbecue
Q: What do you get when you blend a modern, Texas-inspired barbecue joint with a splash of retro, LA-derived, Googie-style architectural design?
A: Pecan Penny's, an inviting new restaurant from the folks behind the Olde Towne Tavern and the Walrus Kitchen & Public House.
Inhabiting the Downtown space once occupied by Ray Johnson's Fish Market, Pecan Penny's beckons passersby in the often-bustling area with chipper, mid-century-diner-influenced turquoise signage and a nice, big patio illuminated at night by strings of lights and fire pits filled with turquoise colored rocks.
Through garage doors that lead to Penny's interior concrete floor and apt, R&B-leaning soundtrack, the decor features white, black, more turquoise and shades of gray. This color scheme coalesces amusingly in large murals that evoke vintage diners and burger shops.
Penny's DIY seating is available at stylish banquettes, highly polished picnic-type tables and an appealing, horseshoe-shaped white bar with a few TVs. More garage doors in the rear of the roomy eatery lead to another sizable patio.
Customers at the bar receive full service, but others must order food at the counter from a small, easy-to-navigate menu, and then wait for a friendly server to come by and take drink orders. The food usually shoots out quickly and most of the 10 beers on tap are brewed in Ohio (tippling tip for penny pinchers: PBR tall boys are $3).
So, with all of these desirable supporting pieces in place, how's the grub? Some of it's pretty good, some of it would benefit from a little tweaking, but most of it is above average.
The Smoked Wings are a highlight ($12 for 10; every barbecue order comes with Texas toast garlic bread). They're uncommonly big and meaty, and their pleasant smokiness is showcased by a dark, crackly crust dusted with a zippy, slightly sweet spice rub developed by North Market Spices.
Like all meats here, if you want the wings sauced, you'll apply it yourself from about a half-dozen adequate condiments. Penny's thin, vinegar-and-cayenne-based “Kurt” sauce works well with these.
Comparing ribs to chicken wings might be like saying "when pigs fly," but it makes sense here, because Penny's Baby Back Ribs ($13 for a half-rack) offer a similar (but thicker) crust and smokiness as the wings. The greater depth of flavor you receive with pork, though, elevates the ribs to Penny's best menu item. If you want to sauce them, the ketchup-y “Randall Memphis Raines” sauce cut with the Kurt sauce is a fine option.
Penny's remaining three meats, plus two sides, are sold as the Downtown Sampler ($22). In my built-for-two sampler, I received good meats — a spice-rubbed, crisp-skinned, tender and juicy chicken breast with an attached wing, plus flavorful slabs of dark-edged brisket and hunks of pulled pork — but I'd prefer that each offered more than the faintest whiff of smoke.
The sides ($4 a la carte) I tried were pretty solid: long-cooked collard greens with a likeable pot liquor; tomatoey baked beans enriched with bits of brisket; fresh but mayo-heavy slaw fragrant with celery seeds; soft mac-and-cheese with a thick, tangy sauce and toasted bread crumbs; and onion-scented hush puppies as sweet as doughnuts. Except for the hot-and-crisp hush puppies, the cooked sides were served lukewarm.
Because this place is named Pecan Penny's (pecan wood is used in its commercial Southern Pride smoker), I also tried the pecan pie ($4). I liked its high nut-to-filling ratio, but the rest of the thin, rectangular-cut dessert was just so-so.
For my money, the more memorable dessert flavored by pecans is the light-bodied but strong and sweet Penny Old Fashioned ($9), with Watershed bourbon, maple syrup, liquid smoke, pecan bitters and pleasant orange notes.