The best time I ever had at a barbecue restaurant was in Austin, Texas. It was at a place downtown, one that had been famous for a long time—maybe too long, given all the merchandise for sale and the slightly sanitized-roadhouse feeling it had. But there were impressively enormous smokers, and you got your food on a tray and paid at the register, and it all still had a low-key charm. It was the middle of the afternoon and very few people were there, and we sat outside on a covered deck that overlooked an improbably woodsy culvert with a stream running through it, and in that stream two smallish turtles swam lackadaisically around. We ate our barbecue and watched the turtles, and we were the only ones on the deck, and it was quiet and rather lovely. The turtles' swimming became slightly less languid—they began following each other around in the water. Then one crept halfway out onto a rock and the other followed right up onto it, and they made slow turtle love for quite a long time. The turtle on the bottom moved its head unhurriedly from side to side, looking as pleased as a turtle can, and the one on top emitted small squeaking sounds. It was a halcyon afternoon. The barbecue wasn't especially great, but it was good, which, in context, was more than good enough.
Here in Seattle, my favorite barbecue place is the Barbeque Pit on 25th and Cherry. It is run by a man who goes by Pookie, and he also has an impressively enormous smoker, and his barbecue is kick-ass. The place is a hole-in-the-wall in the best way, with non-cosmetically-exposed brick walls and some fascinating posters and not a lot else. Pookie is delighted to show you his nominal pit, and discuss the merits of different kinds of wood, and describe to you how the neighborhood dogs enjoy the way he smells from all the meat when he walks down the street, and talk to you about any number of things for probably as long as you want. He is an absolute charmer, and, come to think of it, he looks a little like a turtle himself—a handsome turtle, one that the lady turtles would love.
But I digress. Kickin' Boot Whiskey Kitchen is Ballard's 117th new barbecue place. It is the first barbecue place I've ever been to that has valet parking. Outside, there is glam neon signage; inside, it is impressively enormous. It's in a rehabbed former mill house, and the rehabilitation, the website says, "evokes a vintage industrial ambiance with handmade, rustic decor"—this by way of handsome beams and new-looking exposed brick; wood paneling ranging from reclaimed, rough barn-style to shiny and geometrically gorgeous; and wagon-wheel-like chandeliers that bristle massively with fancy-filament bulbs. Dominating the room, the bar has flat-screen TVs showing sports; beyond that, silhouetted against the back window-wall, is an impressively enormous pyramid of liquor bottles, with a library-style ladder to reach them all. The lighting bathes everyone in an amber glow, and the ambient noise signals a good time being had.
The website, which features a background of constantly curling smoke, says that Kickin' Boot "evokes the memory of simpler times—food and drink made in-house, from scratch, and served with a generous helping of Southern hospitality" (someone likes the verb "evoke"). To me, it evokes a replicable, upscale "concept" you might find in a fancier mall, a new airport wing, or a better Vegas casino, with all the "Southern hospitality" you'd expect. The servers are perfectly nice, but the only human moments are when they break character. "I knew you guys would be back—our dining room is the worst," said one, after we had waited in the bar area, then gained and declined a table in the amorphous in-between space that's the rest of the place. No one here is going to tell you about the smoker or how dogs like the way that they smell. There's also a heated, year-round outdoor deck, from which you will not see any turtles.
Kickin' Boot—the name is painful, with its faux down-home apostrophe and its disingenuous skirting of the word "butt"—is probably going to be a gold mine for its owners, who also own Ballard party spot Matador, plus six more Matadors in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The same owners are imminently opening a Kickin' Boot replicant called Southland Whiskey Kitchen in Portland. And after that, in a few weeks, they will open a yet-to-be-named seafood restaurant, also in Ballard, which will reportedly have live lobster tanks, an oyster bar, and a champagne bar. At a certain point, it is difficult to construe such ventures as labors of love.
The kitchen at Kickin' Boot is run by executive chef Bo Maisano, formerly of Madison Park Cafe, the Tin Table, and Bistro 1200, and hailing from New Orleans. The "executive chef" title implies some diffusion in the actual execution of the food, which you can sometimes sense here. The meats were always tender, but the pulled pork ($12/$16) had a slightly acrid, oversmoked taste one night; the greens were tough. The shrimp and grits ($16) were quite good—the grits creamy but still with a little texture, the shrimp large and plentiful and not overcooked, the red sauce a good, spicy acidic contrast, if a little runny and flecked with undercooked bits of carrot and jalapeño.
The Kickin' shrimp ($11) were great, piled on top of Texas toast in a bowl of beer/butter sauce colored the burnished red-brown that signals serious heat. The catfish ($15) was tasty, if questionably done in the middle and with its cornmeal crust in need of salt and pepper. The fried chicken was fully defensible, with a darker brown, crisp coating that also wanted a little seasoning but nicely held in the juices of the leg, thigh, and wing (oddly, no breast; $16 with a cakier- style biscuit, mashed potatoes, and very faintly horseradished slaw). The fried green tomatoes ($6) wore a leaden, bland cornmeal shell; the tomatoes themselves remained hard instead of rendered into melting deliciousness. The macaroni ($4) was overcooked to disintegrating, its cheese sauce dull and mouth-coating. A slice of sweet potato pie ($6) was just fine—enjoyable to eat, but, like much here, not the good-lord-this-is-good Southern feast it could be.
As for sauce, Kickin' Boot covers all bases with six different kinds—including traditional ketchup-based, sweet-and-spicy mustard, and a ranchlike white—in handsome bottles stowed in a ready-for-retail, rustic-ish metal base. As for the bar, there's lots of whiskey, as you'd expect, and I had a manhattan made with Old Overholt that was large and perfectly mixed, not too fiery, not too sweet. I don't want a manhattan and six kinds of sauce with my barbecue—I want turtles or a man called Pookie—but maybe you do.