The only thing better than slow-cooked spare ribs slathered in BBQ sauce are spare ribs slathered in sauce with a side of rhythm and blues. That’s just what you get at Big Mama’s Rib Shack in Pasadena twice a week.
From 6:30-8:30 on Tuesday nights and 6:30-9 on Saturdays, local musicians set up their gear in the middle of the restaurant and serve up some saucy jazz, blues, rock and soul to go along with Big Mama’s Cajun and Creole fixin’s. It’s a Mardi Gras atmosphere as diners laugh out loud and lick their fingers clean before applauding. “Every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday,” explained our waiter. Mercy and the Merkettes and the Cruisers graced the stage recently. The West Coast blues of Atomic Roots Orchestra and American Songbook artist Jennifer Gates are on the docket for December (see bigmamas-ribshack.com for a full schedule).
The late Emma Sue Miller McWhorter, better known as Big Mama, started cooking and selling Southern food 75 years ago, handing down recipes to her kids and grandkids. The family had plenty of time to perfect their methods and, happily, these folks are not afraid of strong flavor. The dirty rice gets down and well, dirty, with powerful punches of pepper and bay leaf. The red beans turn up the heat as well. Thick Cajun fries are speckled with cayenne and fried till piping hot. The collard greens have just a whisper of bitterness. And the cole slaw is everybody’s favorite kind — sweet and watery with no raisins mucking it all up. Still I’d give it all up for one more bite of Big Mama’s fried chicken ($2-$4 a piece). How they do it, I don’t know. But the seasoned flour coating is thick and crispy, the chicken hot and juicy. I can’t remember having better.
The pork ribs are big and meaty with a sauce that’s not too sweet, not too spicy and with the perfect thickness to keep it where it’s slathered ($16.95/half rack). The Creole seafood combo ($24.95) is delicious with cornmeal-coated, deep-fried catfish, oysters and shrimp. Proper Southern hush puppies come alongside. They were unfortunately out of beef ribs, my litmus test for fall-off-the-bone cooking. But the barbecue beef, smoked on a pit, and the hot links were respectable ($13.50 on the BBQ mini-combo).
At Big Mama’s Rib Shack, don’t expect an actual shack à la the House of Blues. Even the smiling portrait of Mama on the wall couldn’t buck up my disappointment at this. It’s more like an elegant dinner house with white tablecloths and apricot walls. A little incongruous, but the food is undeniably great.
The service we experienced was friendly but achingly slow. The entrees are made-to-order and require extra cooking time but even our bill took forever. Nonetheless, there’s no cover charge for great-sounding live music, there’s ample parking, they serve beer and wine, and they have smokin’ fried chicken and ribs. What more could a Southern (California) girl want?
LISA DUPUY has written about food, entertainment and travel for over 20 years. She can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com.
What: Big Mama’s Rib Shack
Where: 1453 North Lake Ave., Pasadena
When: Tuesday to Thursday 11:30-9; Friday & Saturday 11:30-10; Sunday noon - 8; closed Mondays
Prices: Chicken, beef, pork and seafood entrees served with two sides $9.95-$24.95; other Southern specialties and sandwiches $6-$16.95
Contact and info: (626) 797-1792 and bigmamas-ribshack.com.