Timon: [singing] Luau. If you’re hungry for a hunk of fat and juicy meat
Eat my buddy Pumbaa here, ’cause he’s a tasty treat
Come on down and dine on this tasty swine
All you gotta is get in line
Are you achin’…
Pumbaa: Yup, yup, yup.
Timon: For some bacon?
Pumbaa: Yup, yup, yup.
Timon: He’s a big pig.
Pumbaa: Yup, yup.
Timon: You can be a big pig, too. Oy.
From Disney’s Lion King
Succulent swine. Porcine perfection. Bodacious baby backs. Pulchritudinous pulled pork. Every serious barbecue aficionado should go hog wild at least once in their lives and pig out in Memphis, Tennessee, indisputably one of America’s bastions of barbecue and home of the “Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Competition.” Never mind the great gridiron gala (the championship of the National Football League), the “Superbowl of Swine” is where barbecue addicts want their fill of pigskin and Memphis is where they meat.
Although Memphis prides itself on the diversity of its barbecue, traditional Memphis barbecue is primarily about “low and slow” smoked pork served one of two ways: pulled into tender, melt-in-your-mouth pieces or as meaty ribs on a slab. Those righteous ribs are available wet, dry or naked. Wet means the ribs are basted with a sweet barbecue sauce before and after smoking. Dry means a spice rub is applied before, during or immediately after they’re immersed in a smoker. Naked, of course, means the ribs have neither sauce or rub.
In Memphis, the pulled pork, whether served on a sandwich or as an entree, is light and delicate through not what I refer to as “Ivory Snow” in that it’s not 99 and 44/100 percent pure. On Memphis style pulled pork, you’ll find an occasional bit of fatty or sinewy meat; it’s not all white meat. Pulled pork sandwiches tend to be served with a sweet, creamy coleslaw in between hamburger buns. Madcap diners will venture far away from pulled pork purity and frequent restaurants which dare to serve pulled pork on spaghetti, nachos and pizza. All are quite good!
Having lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for eight years, Memphis was but a scant five-hour journey away. My car practically had a built-in auto-pilot with Beale Street hard-coded. Beale Street is not only the “home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n roll,” it’s home to some of the very best barbecue restaurants in the city. It’s where I discovered and became addicted to barbecued baloney, yet another form of pork Memphis has mastered. The combination of blues and barbecue has remained in my blood ever since.
When The Cube launched in the summer of 2009, my immediate inclination was to dismiss it as an inauthentic parody, giving its claim of “Memphis-style barbecue” the same credence I give to many of Albuquerque’s pizzerias and their claim to “New York style.” For one thing, the contemporary edifice housing the newcomer looks nothing like the timeworn buildings in historical Beale Street. In fact, The Cube resides in a stand-alone building almost devoid of personality. It’s a stuccoed monolith on Central Avenue just west of the University of New Mexico.
Our inaugural visit reaffirmed that a restaurant should not be judged by its outward appearance. In truth, there really is no template for what a barbecue restaurant should look like as more of them distance themselves from what used to be a bumpkinly stereotype with red and white checkered cloth tablecloths adorning oak tables, cute ceramic pig figurines on the counters and country music blaring from a tinny stereo. At the extreme end of this stereotype, you might even see bails of hay, barbed wire and steel buckets serving in some fashion as part of the “ambience.”
The Cube is a neo-modern complex worthy of its avant-garde name. It’s a yawning establishment with concrete floors and high ceilings from which sounds reverberate to create a loud atmosphere when the restaurant is crowded. Lighting suspended from the ceiling is in the hexahedronal shape of a cube with six equal squares as faces. Cubist and contemporary art festoon the walls. Tables and chairs are more functional than they are comfortable, but they’re well-spaced for privacy.
The Cube isn’t a sit-down restaurant in the sense that a hostess will seat you and the wait staff will deliver a menu to your table. Instead, you’ll place your order at a counter from which a view of a very industrious kitchen will catch your eye. The menu, including the special of the day, is scrawled by marker on several white boards and on placards on the counter. There’s a lot of read and digest which accounts for the slowness of the ordering process. The wait staff is very friendly and accommodating. They’re eager to make recommendations if you request help.
For first-time visitors eager to sample Memphis style barbecue, a best bet item is a two-meat platter with two sides. True to The Cube’s playful take on au courant styling, even the plating is contemporary. Instead of the paper plates you might expect, even barbecue is delivered on square ceramic plates, the type of which you might see at an upscale Japanese restaurant. Portions are plentiful with a two-meat platter and its two sides potentially big enough for two to share (not that you’d want to; you’ll want to hog it all for yourself).
One of those meats should definitely be pulled pork, the best we’ve had in the Duke City since the much-missed Mad Max’s. As with all great pulled pork, this one is light on smokiness courtesy of hickory woods which impart only a subtle smokiness, just enough for optimum flavor. The pulled pork is tender and absolutely delicious. Served naked, you can add as much or as little sauce as you’d like from the squeeze bottles at your table. The sauce has almost equal pronouncements of acidity, smokiness, tanginess, sweetness and even a bit of piquancy. It’s a terrific sauce and there are two varieties of it including a hot and spicy variety.
Our great fortune with a pulled pork reminiscent of what we experienced in Memphis was matched with the chicken. You know it’s great chicken when even the skin, impregnated with a beautiful char, is wonderful. Both the white and dark meat are excellent, with or without sauce. Frequent visitors to this blog have probably noticed just how boring I generally consider chicken, particularly on Italian entrees, but also when it’s barbecued. The Cube’s rendition is moist, tender and imbued with a light smokiness that seems to bring out its best qualities.
Alas, the baby back ribs, didn’t live up to their billing. Unlike the fall-off-the-bone tender bones with which I fell in love in Memphis, the Cube’s ribs were obviously extricated from the smoker before they were ready (probably in response to the demand caused by the ribs being the special of the day) because they were tough and chewy. Not even a surfeit of sauce (I had them “wet”) could salvage these ribs. Considering just how good and how very much like Memphis our other meats were, I have to believe the lack of doneness on these ribs was an anomaly.
Sides–and there are about a dozen from which to pick–are sure to please even the most finicky diners. The five-cheese mac and cheese is some of the very best we’ve found in the Duke City. Fromage fanatics will revel in each creamy, rich bite of rotini, a perfectly cooked corkscrew pasta smothered in the cheesy blend of Gruyere, Provolone, Sharp Cheddar, Mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is not your child’s Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner. It’s an adult macaroni and cheese which even kids should appreciate.
The pasta salad, also constructed with rotini, is also quite good with cubes of mozzarella providing an excellent foil for the sweet vinaigrette and the tangy tomatoes. It’s also a nice contrast to the rich earthiness of the macaroni and cheese. While it seems sweet potato fries have become a de rigueur offering at many restaurants, few eateries offer mashed sweet potatoes (topped with butter no less). The Cube does and they’re quite good though I’m left to ponder the interesting contrast gravy would have provided (next time).
The menu, scrawled in white chalk on several slate boards, is extensive, an indication that The Cube is no one-trick pony. It’s a diverse menu of traditional American summer, picnic or anytime favorites: barbecue, burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs and sausages. The hot dogs are one-hundred percent beef with natural casings. Best of all, these are not your standard mustard embellished hot dogs although a “regular” hot dog is available (with onions or sauerkraut on request). Ten over-the-edge and out-of-the-box specialty hot dogs will amaze you with their creativity; they are certainly not the hot dogs of your parents’ generation. Alas, they’re about twice as expensive as a standard hot dog, so if you’re hungry your best bet is probably the specialty or regular hot dog meals which are value priced and include a beverage and fries.
Among the specialty dogs are two which gave me hopes of reliving the fabulous Sonoran dogs we enjoyed during a summer foray into Tucson in 2010. If you’ve ever had a Sonoran hot dog, you’ll never forget it and your quest to have another after another will never end. The Cube offers two hot dogs with some of the ingredients you’ll find on a Sonoran hot dog, but flavor-wise, they fall woefully short of the quintessential Tucson food. One is the Lobo dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon, grilled onions, green chili (sic) and pepper jack cheese. The other is the Guadalajara Dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon, chipotle sauce and pico de gallo. The ingredient combinations are a hit and the hot dogs are right-sized (not the gargantuan variety), but the hot dog itself is direly lacking in seasonings other than salt. It’s akin to a beauty queen with a lot of personality, but no teeth.
Slightly better is the BBQ dog adorned with coleslaw and BBQ sauce. Though the hot dog itself is a bit anemic, the coleslaw and barbecue sauce combination is delightful. It’s a combination that goes well with the restaurant’s smoked meats. That’s probably where that combination belongs. Even more anemic is the sausage which made Milwaukee famous, the bratwurst (pork) which is embellished with grilled onions and kraut on request. We could neither taste nor smell any of the characteristic seasonings or smokiness of brats I’ve so enjoyed in Milwaukee. Our waiter confided that the brats were of the Johnsonville brand. Insofar as the hot dogs at The Cube, I reserve the right to a “been there, done that” attitude.
Desserts, if you have room for them, are another winner for The Cube. If you have a 32 sweet teeth, the sweet treat sure to please is the chocolate mudslide cookie, two brownie cookies sandwiching a cloying cream filling. For me, one bite was enough, but for my Kim who’s much sweeter, this is heavenly decadence. More my style is the chocolate and cinnamon bread pudding made with a strong chocolate accentuated with cinnamon to give it an almost Mexican chocolate flavor. The bread pudding is topped with housemade whipped cream. It’s a top-tier bread pudding, among the five best in the city.
A visit to The Cube may not be the same as a visit to Memphis, but if you close your eyes as the sound system plays the blues and you’re luxuriating in each fluffy, feather-light bite of pulled pork, you just might imagine a taste of Memphis has come to Albuquerque. That’s the Cube bringing the ‘cue to the Q (former mayor Martin Chavez’s unpopular appellation for Albuquerque).
1520 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 March 2011
1st VISIT: 18 December 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chocolate and Cinnamon Bread Pudding, Strawberry Lemonade, Pulled Pork, Chicken, Macaroni and Cheese, Pasta Salad, Baked Beans