IT'S ONLY natural that after 62 years, a restaurant might be in need of, if not an extreme makeover, something along the lines of a face lift. Gus's Barbecue in South Pasadena has been dishing out hearty comfort food to residents since 1946, the year Gus Tripodes, his brother Jack and a brother-in-law snapped up a little restaurant for sale on Fair Oaks Avenue and hung out the now familiar red and green sign.
The trolley cars and stately Oldsmobiles and Buicks have given way to Japanese imports, luxury sedans and SUVs. And the neighborhood around Gus's has changed too. The architecture is a mix of styles and periods. Now you have Papa John's Pizza and a cigar and spirits store where guys still stuck in the '80s settle in to watch the game with fellow enthusiasts in a haze of smoke.
And Gus's has changed. Brothers Chris and John Bicos, whose family owns a Pasadena landmark, the Original Tops restaurant, bought the iconic diner from the Tripodes family and closed it last October for renovations. In April, it reopened, still recognizably Gus's, but with an expanded menu and more barbecue. It's actually better than it was.
I know people who have been back twice in the same week for the baby back ribs --and we're not talking puny half slabs, but the full deal, at least a foot long, lean and meaty, basted to a dark mahogany with Gus's secret sauce. The cole slaw is crisp and not too sweet, the red-skinned potato salad fresh and creamy. There's nothing nouvelle about the food. It's just good American comfort fare in generous portions, at moderate prices.
With the economy in the slump, restaurants like Gus's could be the coming thing. For sure, every neighborhood could use at least one fallback diner-barbecue joint for the off weeknight, for a burger after the Little League game or a place to watch the Dodger game.
The Bicos brothers opened up the wall between the bar and the dining room, so now you can watch a game unfurl on two screens from pretty much anywhere in the room. Other renovations include hardwood floors, booths reupholstered in green and tan, and walls hung with framed black-and-white poster-size photos of Gus and company in the old days.
Gus's laminated menu is now longer than ever, with not only barbecue, but plenty of salads, sides and other main courses marching down the columns. To revise it, the partners brought in Able Duran, previously at Bistro 75, as chef. In several visits, the kitchen is a model of consistency. The food comes out in a timely manner and it's all so good we found ourselves eating more than we'd ever imagined. On the second visit, my friend Sang knew what to do: break out her barbecue wear, a stretchy trapeze-shaped dress.
Get a sliding start
ONE OF the best starters is the BBQ sliders, a trio of adorable miniature cheeseburgers topped with cheddar, shredded fried onions and Gus's own smoky and sweet barbecue sauce. An order of the shredded onion strings simply rolled in cornmeal and fried to a deep gold always seems to disappear before you know it. I'm not usually a big fan of hot wings, but these won me over. Suffused with a vinegary heat, the chicken is tender and moist. Be sure to order some corn bread, too. Coarse-grained as polenta, it arrives in a cast-iron skillet under a blanket of fused sugar, though it's debatable whether it needs the sugar or not.
On the debit side, the tortilla soup is overly thick, much improved at home the next day with a dollop of water. And the chili, laced with smoky chili powder and plenty of meat (no beans), is a bowl of basically ground beef in a little juice, making for monotonous eating despite the pretty garnish of pickled jalapeños, red onion and diced avocado.
One night, walking through the restaurant, I do an informal survey. Women tend to be eating the salads, which are big as main courses, forking up Asian chicken salad or the old-fashioned Cobb. I can recommend the grilled shrimp on a mess of greens tossed in ranch dressing with a shock of tortilla strips drizzled with barbecue sauce, too. Men hunker down over the full or half slabs of ribs. Baby backs are Memphis-style, basted with Gus's proprietary sauce, which gives them a dark, ruddy gloss. Spare ribs get a St. Louis-style dry rub that adds the warmth of ancho chile and coffee, along with a slew of other ingredients, but I much prefer the gooier version.
Neither style of ribs is probably going to do it for hard core 'cue fanatics, the kind who can talk permutations of rubs and sauce and types of wood for hours. This isn't the kind of place that has a massive smoker out back either. Ribs spend some time in a hickory-fired smoker in the kitchen and then are finished off on the grill.
BBQ and burgers
TEXAS-STYLE brisket is beefy but boring. And the pulled pork is drier than it should be. Put it in a sandwich, though, with coleslaw and fixings, and it passes muster.
Burgers are another frequented category here and they come every which way -- as bigger versions of the sliders, smeared with blue cheese, or topped with portobello mushrooms and mozzarella. I watch as a 4-year-old in glasses opens up his all-American burger to investigate what's inside, surgically removing anything green or vaguely vegetable-like. A teenager having dinner with his father scarfs up a wicked-looking burger with his hoodie up, concentrated, ravenous.
The kitchen is versatile enough to turn out an excellent fried chicken -- half a boned bird, deep-fried and served hot and crisp with your two choices of sides. In fact, almost every main course gets that option. Go for the red-skinned potato salad, the fine coleslaw or the sautéed snap peas. Confession: I didn't try everything on the menu. Who could? It's too large. I ended up leaving the surf 'n' turf pot pie (er, that would be shrimp, chicken and veggies) for another visit.
Beer is made for barbecue, and Gus's serves eight draft beers and about the same number by the bottle. The once perfunctory wine list has been expanded with some new middle-of-the-road selections. That's OK. For wine buffs, the $10 corkage fee makes it affordable enough to show up with your own Syrah or Zin in tow.
Desserts have a nostalgic bent: root beer floats, fruit cobblers sweet enough to give you a toothache, a big slice of decent red velvet cake. Or an ice cream sundae made with candied pecans, fudge sauce and local favorite, Fosselman's French vanilla ice cream.
This is one remake that has it both ways, doing honor to the old Gus's, yet bringing this venerable South Pas restaurant firmly into the 21st century.
Gus's Barbecue Rating: * 1/2 Location: 808 Fair Oaks Ave. (at Mission Street), South Pasadena; (626) 799-3251; www.gussbbq.com. Ambience: Established in 1946 and now under new ownership with a freshened up decor and an updated menu that more closely focuses on barbecue. Generous portions and moderate prices. Service: Friendly and attentive. Price: Appetizers, $6 to $10; salads, $7 to $14; barbecue specialties, $15 to $24; burgers, $11 to $12; sandwiches, $9 to $12; sides, $3.25 to $4.75; dessert, $3.75 to $7. Best dishes: Spicy smothered hot wings, cast iron corn bread, BBQ sliders, shredded onion strings, Memphis-style baby back ribs, Southern fried chicken, pulled pork sandwich, coleslaw, redskin potato salad, sugar snap peas, red velvet cake. Wine list: About 20 middle-of-the-road wines by the glass or bottle. Corkage fee, $10. Best table: One of the big booths that run down the middle of the dining room. Details: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Street and lot parking in back. Reservations for six or more only. To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.