Nearly anyone who's driven through Chattanooga has seen Sugar's Ribs at the foot of Missionary Ridge as I-24 winds eastward. Signs along the way make it hard to miss.
But perhaps less well-known is Sugar's downtown location on Broad Street. Same signage, different location. Once you walk inside, you'll know you're not on Missionary Ridge anymore.
Since my date and I are both newly minted Kansas City Barbecue Society barbecue judges, we were anticipating the opportunity to dive right into a late lunch/early dinner and see what we might discover.
I tried the pork butt ($6.95/8 ounces) and beef brisket ($8.95/8 ounces) with Texas Pintos ($1.25) and Vinegar Slaw ($1.25).
My date had the South of Seoul Salad with chicken ($7.95) with Wood-Grilled Onions and Okra ($2.25) and Fire-roasted Pepperoncinis ($1.25).
All arrived at our table well-presented and ready for judgment. Our verdict? Pretty darn good. Both the butt and the brisket had a nice balance of seasoning and a generous amount of charred edges (bark, so I'm told) to add flavor and texture. Both were light on the smokiness that is to be expected with barbecue.
Six sauces grace the tables. While the rules of the KCBS say that you judge the meat and not the sauce, the reality of having those choices gives you a chance to taste, mix and experiment until you get a flavor to suit you. Have fun!
Sugar's sides were good; flavorful Texas Pintos and Vinegar Slaw seemed to be natural selections for the butt and brisket. The Wood-Grilled Onions and Okra were pronounced as wonderful by my date, who's never met an okra pod she didn't like. The Fire-Roasted Pepperoncinis were good as well, although my first tasting had me clawing for my water glass as spicy vinegar and charred pepper skin went down the back of my throat. The second tasting seemed to go much better.
Other sides such as 3 Chili Chili Red, 3 Chili Chili White and Mo Rock'n'Stew give diners more options and could be combined with other sides to form a meal by themselves.
One nit to pick: Serving barbecue in cardboard baskets works for the typical roadside joint. But I found the combination of large chunks of butt and brisket, small sauce cups and those darn cardboard baskets to be cumbersome. It might be time to spring for some grown-up plates to match the decor.
The South of Seoul Salad was dressed with a curry peanut dressing that seemed to complement the greens and cabbage threads. All were fresh and tasty, and the smoked chicken atop the salad added even more flavor.
Other offerings include ribs, chicken and something I have to try the next time: a Riburger. Most meats are offered as servings or sandwiches.
We also tried Jesslyn's Banana Pudding ($2.50) for a small dessert. Yes, I know your/my mom/grandmother/Aunt Nellie makes it better. But in all fairness, this was pretty good.
Sugar's downtown also offers more than 50 small-batch bourbons and whiskeys, should you be so inclined.
Where: Sugar's Rib's Downtown, 507 Broad St.
Price range: $1.75 (Hot Leg & Smoke'n Thigh) to $23.95 (BBQ Spare Ribs, full slab) Side dishes are a la carte. Meat is also sold by the pound and Sugar's offers catering.
Alcohol: Full bar.
Our server was attentive, informative and friendly - no hunting and waving for this guy. He was there when we needed him and appeared to be busy when we didn't. A side note: After he took our order, we observed him cleaning tables and emptying garbage cans. Thanks to the (somewhat) open kitchen/serving area, we were also able to observe him washing his hands before he served our food. My date, an RN with a penchant for cleanliness, was able to heave a deep sigh of relief.
Think juke joint, not barbecue joint. Complete with a mirrored disco ball, bandstand and a full bar, this isn't your barbecue roadhouse known only to locals and chowhounds. Our booth had a gold lamé tablecloth. Pretty swanky for barbecue. Equally eclectic was the music playing during our visit. We heard Elvis, Loretta Lynn, Santana, Patsy Cline, Big Mama Thornton and The Beach Boys. Live music on Friday and Saturday nights appears to be local bands, with a nod to blues, rock 'n' roll and Motown. Karaoke and a DJ also are listed as entertainment options.
Sugar's has the right mix of quality and quantity. You won't go home hungry, and I'd wager you won't go home unsatisfied.
Plan your parking, and be flexible. At night, it is said to get quite loud, an expected by-product of live music. Earlier dining times would seem to favor families better.