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By Michael White
The gutted, dark, seemingly unmanned former dining room onto which I open the door of Dixie’s BBQ suggests this is yet one more Vancouver restaurant in its death throes as a result of COVID-19. A table strategically positioned across the threshold prevents me from entering, and so I stand on the sidewalk and curiously survey this unexpected scene. At first glance, I can’t determine where the sombre desolation of East Hastings ends and the storefront from which I’ve been instructed to fetch dinner begins.
But this isn’t at all what it appears to be. A happy dude trots out from the rear kitchen — where, as if providing a metaphor for the business, light still shines — and greets me with all the warmth our surroundings lack. The premises are undergoing extensive renovations, he explains, but takeout and delivery are operating as normal; the masses are confined to their homes, and they want heaping containers of Texas-style barbecue meat transported directly to their mouths. He thanks me sincerely for collecting my order personally — it means a delivery platform isn’t taking a cut of their profits — and showers me with news. Dixie’s, he explains, is expanding its kitchen into what was once the dining room in order to provide commissary space for other local restauranteurs — a much-needed utility at a time when the “ghost kitchen” concept has never been more popular, owing to the impracticality of paying rent for a public seating area that won’t be fully populated again anytime soon. Despite being, at most, a two-minute conversation, I leave in a better mood than when I’d arrived, and I had already been in a good mood. Whereas so many restaurant proprietors and servers can’t help but (perhaps unconsciously) spray their understandable anger and exhaustion into innocent customers’ faces nowadays, this Dixie’s delegate made me feel genuinely welcome and appreciated. That appreciation was reciprocal.
As it happens, Dixie’s closed its front of house long before the pandemic began, in July 2019. Owners Christina Cottell and Shoel Davidson determined that the majority of their business was coming from takeout, delivery and catering, so eliminating the overheads and headaches of a dining room wasn’t a terribly difficult decision. Although they couldn’t have foreseen the events that would swallow the world eight months later, it left them in a favourable position, and now they intend to use that position to lift up others in their industry. So far, so admirable.
My elevated mood continued when Kley and I began tearing into our order at home. We’re admitted latecomers to the party — Dixie’s opened in 2016, and has been the subject of rave reviews and word-of-mouth from the beginning. It’s understandable that it was so warmly received, if for no other reason than Vancouver has long suffered from a dearth of good barbecue. (I’ve never been convinced by a local chainlet, which I won’t name, that has persisted for almost two decades.) This is in part because, despite its reputation as humble blue-collar cuisine, proper barbecue is the result of exacting techniques and no small investment. A wood-fired smoker (as opposed to an electric one) is expensive to acquire and install, and it burns — literally — through an exceptional amount of costly lumber. And once the myriad nuances of smoking animal flesh have been mastered, the fruits of your labour have to be served in a timely manner. Barbecue meat eaten either before or after its time (which can be a matter of as little as an hour) is a tragedy that no amount of sauce can disguise.
Although our bounty of exactingly prepared beast had to travel from the Downtown Eastside to the West End and was then reheated in a garden-variety apartment oven, we immediately understood the fuss about Dixie’s. Our smoked brisket had lost some of its juices in transit but none of its flavour and tenderness, while gorgeously crusted pork ribs, imbued down to the bone with a subtle peach-chipotle glaze (in accordance with Central Texas tradition, Dixie’s doesn’t slather its meats in sauce), left us grasping for superlatives and second helpings. Smoked hot links, made with both brisket and pork, surprised us with their senses-filling melange of spices, dominated by curry powder that led these sausages far astray from the Southern U.S. and into Middle Eastern territory. Is this typical? Is it correct? Don’t know, don’t care.
We would have loved to also try the twice-fried chicken and the smoked pork and the cornbread and the mac & cheese and perhaps one of the sandwiches, but we’re only two people, and at least one of us lives in fear of a metabolism that hasn’t so much slowed with age as laid down and pressed its Life Alert button.
That cordial guy who rung up my order also disclosed during our brief transaction that Dixie’s would soon be consolidating somehow with Main Street’s perennially popular Rumpus Room, and that a rebranding might be imminent. And so it proved: Less than 24 hours before this review was to be published, it was announced that Dixie’s is soon becoming Slim’s BBQ, which will in fact outright replace the Rumpus Room beginning the week of January 25; a weeklong soft opening precedes the official launch on February 1. Much, if not all, of the Dixie’s menu will live on at Slim’s, as will many of the interior fixtures from the original dining room. No matter what the location or what it calls itself, I’ll pursue these smoke signals wherever they come from.
2301 Main St.
Instagram: @meatatslimsbbq (Website coming soon)
Delivery and takeout info forthcoming
(Photo: Kley Klemens)