Barbacoa

2209 Queen Anne Ave N, 352-6213. Lunch Tues-Sun 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner 5-10 pm (until 11 pm Fri-Sat, 9 pm Sun); closed Mon.

Barbecue can be very controversial.

In fact, I almost didn't write about Barbacoa, Queen Anne's new "Tex Mex meets upscale barbecue" spot, for fear of the inevitable lectures about real barbecue. Barbecue and Queen Anne Avenue don't exactly share the same cultural roots, and plenty of barbecue purists would reject (and resent) the notion of "upscale barbecue"; they'd insist that when it comes to pork 'n' beef cooked low 'n' slow--faithful to tradition and regional standards--"upscale" would mean wrong. (BBQ people are all about Authenticity--down-home and simple, served on paper plates. It's supposed to be the Meat of the People.)

Which is precisely why Barbacoa, which has only been open for about four months, is so interesting to me. While hardcore barbecue enthusiasts obsess over sauce variations, I just want to know: What can genteel Queen Anne contribute to barbecue favorites and Texas border cuisine?

Well it ain't perfect--but after dinner at Barbacoa last week, I'm convinced that a kitchen with solid skills and a sense of fun can get away with straying from Authenticity's rigid rules.

The barbecue sauce, for example, is excellent: smoky and assertive, with an even burn and slight tartness. Mixed chilies and peppers, beer, molasses, and tomatoes contribute to its spicy complexity, and it is generously swathed over beef brisket and pork ribs (both $15.95). House specialty drinks ($5.75-$6.50), too, are superb--fine-tuned classic cocktails are given the top- shelf treatment with scratch ingredients, or renamed with a Lone Star twist ("Texas Iced Tea" = Long Island iced tea: same recipe, different area code). "John Bob's Julep" (with Knob Creek bourbon and crushed mint leaves) and the herbaceous "Sage Drop" (vodka, fresh sage, lemon) are inspiring examples of what can happen when your bartender is a detail-oriented perfectionist.

Attention to detail is apparent everywhere: croutons made with cornbread; a strong chili presence in salads and sauces; ubiquitous local mussels ($7.95) steamed with moonshine; char-grilled salmon ($13.95) glazed with huckleberry honey and chipotle; and chicken-fried steak ($16.95) with chorizo gravy.

The appetizers I tried were not as detail-savvy. Fried green tomatoes ($4.25) were crispy and well seasoned, but I wished those thick, stiff tomato slices had fried a while longer so they could soften, and really meld with the breading. Pillowy chorizo empanadas ($4.95) were tasty, but skimpy on actual hunks of chorizo. Salmon ceviche cakes ($6.25) with tarragon-lime cream were small discs of cooked, (over)salted, average salmon without a hint of lime or citrus flavors--a perfectly legitimate starter, but the name is a misnomer.

The entrées are more honest. Portions are huge, and sides like mashed potatoes, creamy borracho beans, roasted corn (husk intact with a few blackened kernels, yee haw!), or sautéed greens with garlic and bacon are expertly rendered and taste exactly like they should (butter, butter, butter). The brisket and pork ribs are juicy, flavorful, and delicious, but--and here's where I'm going to lose some of you--it wasn't barbecue as we know it. Not this evening, anyway. The pork was undeniably good, but did not fall off the bone, even after more-than-gentle prodding. The beef was soft and succulent, but not at all fork-tender. (Since I am merely a cooked-meat enthusiast and not a BBQ tyrant, I'm completely fine with this; if this sounds upsetting to you, then go to Jones BBQ or OK Corral or Nellie's Place or the Bear Pit in Burien.) Fried catfish ($14.50) actually made me happiest of all, with its flawless crisp-outside/soft-inside texture; the fresh fish itself was wonderfully seasoned, and an accompanying tomato-avocado salad with balsamic vinaigrette provided a cooling, sweet-edged counterpoint.

Barbacoa continues to buck tradition when it comes to desserts, and with charming results. A sweet/tart Key lime pie ($4.95) is a hefty, creamy portion that arrives in a deep crock. A gorgeous Mexican chocolate and caramel flan ($3.95)--deeply satisfying, sweet with a slightly dark-bitter finish, sensuously smooth on the tongue--is enough to forgive all prior missteps. No, it's just not worth it to me to get into a debate about "proper" barbecue, but I would gladly get into a fistfight for that flan.