The sign behind the deli counter says it all. I'm talking about the sign at Fred Burrell's new Irvine restaurant, Burrell's Bar-B-Que, which reads simply, "strain grease every night." It's right behind the glass case where mountains of pork ribs and barbecued chicken sit ready to be gobbled up by the hungry masses; hickory perfumed meats that you want to dive into as if you were Greg Louganis. Let's face it, you aren't going to find any Pritikin proteges around these parts.
Those of you unfamiliar with Fred Burrell's good cooking are really missing something. The big, friendly North Carolinian has been synonymous with good barbecue in this county since he first opened his now legendary shack on Hesperian Street in Santa Ana 10 years ago. The new restaurant, his third, is a far cry from the modest hickory pit that established his reputation. It's an upscale barbecue emporium, a full-blown commercial venture replete with T-shirts, ersatz memorabilia of the Old South and a breezy outdoor patio. You can even get espresso.
But don't jump to conclusions. Success hasn't spoiled Burrell one bit, and you can expect the same down-home vittles here that you get in his other two restaurants. The only real difference is that now you can have it all for breakfast. Burrell's Bar-B-Que serves a grand Southern-style breakfast with grits, stuffed biscuits and even red-eye gravy, a thick country gravy made with, of all things, coffee grounds. Irvine will never be the same.
In the usual Burrell's style, the new restaurant is not much to look at. The blue vinyl booths remind you of an airport cafeteria, and the high, exposed-beam ceiling makes a distinctly industrial impression. Further, it is right on the busy intersection of Sand Canyon and Burt roads , where flying dust and construction noises reign. Practically every table faces panoramic glass windows that look directly onto the traffic, so this is not a place you come to relax.
But who cares? This is food you can really sink your teeth into--there's no pussyfooting here. In the tradition of his home state, Burrell barbecues his meats with hickory, that sweet-smoking wood that permeates with a vengeance. Many of these meats, such as the soft, fragrant beef brisket and exotically perfumed pork shoulder, are treated to a sloppy sauce rich with pepper, vinegar and exotic spicing. Others, for instance the excellent Hancock's country ham that Burrell trucks in from Franklin, N.C., stand on their own.
Breakfast is sumptuous and easy to overdo. The stuffed biscuits come smothered in bittersweet red-eye gravy, piled high with your choice of slab bacon, country ham or homemade sausage, accompanied by a small but filling crock of spiced stewed apples.
The three-egg breakfasts are even more outrageous, served with such things as smoked pork chops, hot link sausage, even fried catfish. A mountain of home fries, grits, stewed apples and baked treats are served alongside. The fluffy, baking powder biscuits are hard to resist, but the sweet, crumbly corn bread baked fresh here daily is even more tempting. Eat some steaming hot, slathered with butter, and you'll understand.
The regular menu, which commences at 11 a.m., is full of irresistible fare. The best way to get acquainted is by ordering the "potluck," a venture that requires the participation of a few friends. This is a mountainous combination of six meats, seven side orders, two corn breads and two slices of pie, all for the special introductory price of $19.95. The one caveat is that the best side dishes--corn on the cob, hush puppies and country fries--have to be ordered separately.
Whenever I eat at Burrell's, I make a beeline for the specials page on the menu. That's where to find Louisiana gumbo, a murky broth simmered for an entire day before serving. This gumbo is astounding, chock full of shrimp, spicy rice and Burrell's crumbly hot link sausage. It's simply the county's best and most authentic gumbo. Another killer on this page is rib tips and ends, which are tender tips of baby back and spare ribs swimming in good red sauce. Hope you've got health insurance.
Sandwich lovers can feast on the North Carolina chopped pork, in which spiced, chopped pork shoulder, cole slaw, pickles and relish turn a chewy roll positively soggy. This sandwich has defined barbecue to generations of Carolinians, and who are we Californians to argue? It's great, and one of Orange County's most distinguished foods.
As for the side dishes, they might actually be an improvement over the ones in Burrell's other restaurants. The collard greens, cooked with little bits of smoked ham, are soft and sweet, exhibiting none of the bitterness I recall from past years. Corn on the cob, often cold in the past, comes up piping hot and perfectly cooked, fresh enough to squeak on the teeth. And hush puppies, those fried balls of cornmeal that can be as hard as golf balls, are tender and tasty here, bursting with steam when you bite in.
Should you find yourself with room for dessert, you'll be confronted with the same standbys that grace the other restaurants. A sloppy, custardy banana pudding made with Vanilla Wafers. A doughy peach cobbler made with canned peaches. Shortening-rich double-crusted pies: bean, apple, sweet potato.
And if you're in a hurry, you can order sandwiches from the deli counter--bologna, peanut butter and jelly or smoked turkey breast to name a few. You can also order a 12- to 14-pound turkey or ham (one day in advance) and some of that good bottled sauce to eat it all with. You won't even have to strain any grease when you've finished.
Burrell's is inexpensive. Southern-style breakfasts are $1.95 to $8.95. Lunch and dinner plates are $5.95 to $9.50. Sandwiches are $3.75 to $5.95.
* BURRELL'S BAR-B-QUE
* 14962 Sand Canyon Road, Irvine.
* (714) 786-0451.
* Open for breakfast 6:30 a.m. through 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday; for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. through 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 2 through 11 p.m. Sunday; for home-style buffet brunch 9 a.m. through 2 p.m. Sunday.
* Visa and MasterCard accepted.