Twenty years ago there emerged a fashion for restaurants serving an informal food that was just becoming part of American mainstream dining (pizza), served in a nostalgia setting of 40 years before (the silent films and Dixieland music of the '20s).

Now we have a place in Irvine called the County Line, part of a Texas chain, that serves Southern barbecue in a nostalgia setting of the '40s: framed ads for Chesterfield cigarettes, Wednesday-and Friday-night '40s music shows and even a beautiful Wurlitzer 1015 jukebox. This must be how we assimilate ethnic foods in our country, putting them in a reassuring context of ancient pop culture.

You see where I'm driving, of course but don't get any ideas. I've already taken the precaution of copyrighting every name that could tie together '60s nostalgia with Vietnamese and/or Thai food.

The big difference between the County Line and the Dixie pizza joints of 20 years ago is that the latter were all dependent upon atmosphere; the pizzas tasted like tomato sauce on cardboard. At the County Line the food is really good-- subtle barbecue, not just something with a sugary barbecue sauce. The meats have been smoked for quite a long time at a relatively low temperature, because the flesh is moist and tender with a telltale pinkish color.

The chicken is particularly striking because we're used to dry, stringy barbecued chicken. The meat here is so moist (and at first so disturbingly pinkish) that you's think it was underdone. It isn't, though, and it might change your mind about what barbecue should be like.

At least as good is the sliced brisket, again moist and tender and very beefy. The beef ribs are not the huge, 2001-sized ribs served at some places, and they're perfectly good, though the meat is neither falling off the bones nor crisped on, and it takes some serious gnawing to clean them.

There is also sliced ham, smoked on the premises (and, I suspect, smoked before it comes; it's by far the smokiest item) and a particularly good, mild hot sausage, juicy and with a good medium-coarse texture. All these items except the chicken can be ordered on a combination plate, and for groups of four or more a slightly higher price ($11.95) gives everybody a combination plate with automatic seconds. All other dinners on the menu, apart form lobster tail, are cheaper down to $7.95.

There is also barbecued turkey--pink, moist, very mildly smoky. Not afraid to take a chance, the County Line also offers barbecued duck; it's worth ordering--duck takes well to barbecuing.

Apart from straight barbecue, there are also mesquite-grilled items, fish and steaks again done with subtlety and a light hand.

All dinners come either "Texas style," with decent cole slaw, oniony potato salad and a very good beans, or "California style," with a baked potato and a green salad with a choice of not particularly distinguished dressings.

The menu is so insistent about its Texas roots that the chili is a little bit of a surprise, very meaty but, despite the supposed Texas orthodoxy that holds chili and beans to be mortal enemies, full of beans. There are only two real flat spots at the County Line: One is the rudimentary wine list and the other a remarkably bland chicken salad.

Desserts are surprisingly good and often a little unusual. The homemade ice creams have a light texture and a wholesome, milky flavor. The pecan pie is actually a sort of crumbly-textured cheese cake with a surprisingly strong pecan aroma. There's a rich devil's food cake, but the most chocolaty item is the deceptively named chocolate cheese cake, which tastes like the inside of a soft chocolate with chocolate filling.

Considering how attractive an idea a '40s barbecue joint is (particularly one handsomely located on North Lake in Irvine), the County Line probably could have gotten away without working so hard on its food. These are classy people in my book, and I wouldn't say no if they wanted to invest, say, 17 to 18 years down the road, in my Happening Hootch chain (spicy noodles and psychedelic light show).

The County Line Restaurant, 4615 Barranca Parkway, Irvine. Telephone 551-1942. Open for lunch and dinner daily: happy hour. American Express, Master-Card and Visa cards accepted.

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