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The Return of Poor Red's BAR-B-Q 

Wednesday, Apr 27 2016
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Driving through the Sierra foothills on our way back from a wedding in Mammoth Lakes, my boyfriend and I turn off Highway 50 in Placerville. Our destination is Poor Red's BAR-B-Q, a locally famous El Dorado roadhouse that reopened last week after a hiatus of several years. Granted, it's two-and-a-half hours east of San Francisco, but it's only a 12-minute detour off the road to Tahoe, and fairly close to the Gold Country wine region.

It is also a jewel of roadside Americana — with a history. Poor Red won the building — originally a stagecoach stop from the 1850s, and later a bar — in a game of dice in 1948. He and his wife, Rich Opal, sold barbecue out the back, and later passed the business on to their dishwasher, who sold it to a family that more or less ran it into the ground.

"They didn't pay their people, they didn't pay their taxes, and they ended up spending a couple of years in jail," Steve Anderly, the general manager, says. "Just got out, as a matter of fact."

Have they been back in?

"Not that we know of."

Poor Red's owes its resurrection to two brothers named Mike and Jeff Genovese, who partnered with a chef from elsewhere in El Dorado County, and with Mike Hountalas, whose family owns the original Cliff House in San Francisco. Apart from that, everyone involved in the venture is local — which the locals seem to appreciate.

"We opened on Tuesday," Anderly says, "and did about 20 percent more than we bargained for."

Poor Red and Rich Opal are commemorated with icons on the bathroom doors — his is an "outhouse," while hers is a "powder room" — and the décor is quirky in that organic, ineffable way that takes decades for a venue to accrue. The main building, ancient by California standards, is stone, with a big beer ad on an exterior wall. A four-masted model ship sits in the front window, made of glass bricks, and there's a painting in a small dining room of dogs playing poker. One side of the bar is raised so that a row of drinkers presides over the place like the justices of the Supreme Court, and both of its long walls have weathered murals depicting El Dorado in olden days, complete with a whorehouse and what can really only be described as Chinese coolies working in the field.

Everyone — patrons and staff — is eager to share trivia about the place's storied history. (The only tale I can't glean any more information on is the rumor that Poor Red's dog once ran for political office — and lost.)

Slightly more salient than possibly made-up canine politicos is the fact that Poor Red's claims to be the largest consumer of Galliano in the world. This one restaurant in El Dorado County, Calif., burns through approximately three percent of the United States' total consumption, because Poor Red's is the birthplace of the Golden Cadillac.

Let's not mince words: At one ounce each of Galliano, Bols White Crème de Cacao liqueur, and half-and-half, the milky, mild Golden Cadillac is neither a fashionable drink nor a particularly strong one. (The printed-out copy of an article celebrating its 60th anniversary that I'm handed calls it "not the most ... nuanced drink" and a "when-in-Rome cocktail," so I don't feel rude for not loving it to death — although you do get a Champagne coupe to drink this blended wonder out of and a highball glass to refill it from, kind of like a Friendly's Fribble). There are three other $8 house cocktails, all variations on the same crème-de-cacao-plus-cream-and-ice theme: the Brown Cow (with Kahlua and Amaretto), the Grass Hopper (green Crème de Menthe), and the Pink Squirrel (Crème de Noyeaux).

People from all over the Sierra foothills go to Poor Red's, order a drink, and maybe play a game of cornhole outside on the patio while nodding along to country music with inarguable lyrics like "God is great, beer is good, people are crazy." If it's a Saturday or Sunday, there's bound to be a large biker contingent — and observing these dudes in their leathers, sipping pistachio-hued Grass Hoppers out of coupes, is a sight. (If you'd rather have an upscale beer, Poor Red's has Shock Top and Sculpin IPA on tap.)

But drinking is only half the equation. The other half is barbecue, and Poor Red's is nailing it. The ribs ($19.95 for a half rack) are tender and moist, but the pulled pork sandwich (with a house barbecue sauce and onion strings on a brioche, $8.95) has the ideal texture and a deep smokiness. Be not afraid to gild the lily, either. The condiment caddies have A-1 steak sauce; throw some on the meat, and some hot sauce on the fries. All the meat is cooked on a wood-fired grill, and this kitchen knows how to batter onion rings so that when you bite into them, you don't tear the entire onion out.

Considering that this is a barbecue joint, it's surprising to see something as Zuni-esque as a roasted half chicken ($17.95) on the menu — but the mélange of "West Slope herbs," led by pleasantly astringent California bay, is like a local version of herbs de Provence. Plus it comes with that ultimate comfort, a baked potato. And attention must be paid to the existence, in 2016, of a $1.95 house salad.

The dining room opens at 5 p.m. on Sundays, and while the scramble for a seat falls short of a melee, it's evident that the hunger for Poor Red's runs deep. The staff bellows out names — some of whom have been hanging around since 2:30 — and stagger tables so as not to overwhelm the kitchen, while a hapless hostess shouts driving directions into the phone.

"We understand this is as much a responsibility as an opportunity," Anderly says. "People in this area are emotionally connected to this place, so we tried to keep an eye on the tradition and what makes this place great."

Last Saturday, its fifth night back in business, Poor Red's sold 475 Golden Cadillacs. The wait for a table approached two hours.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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