Beyond the new colossus of a giant inflatable pig, the doors of Famous Daves open onto a milling line of the hungry and adventurous.
It is early afternoon on an unnaturally warm Saturday, and the smell of sweet babyback fat, dry rub and dense meat barbequing curls its smoky tendrils down Route 1, reaches into car ventilation systems and nostrils, and pulls the unwitting bodily forward with an ambient deliciousness that embodies both the high and the low.
In the faux-dark of Famous Daves corrugated interior, it is impossible to tell if the hunger grubbed up by the smell of basted, slowly inflamed and pulled meats inspires a cartoon-like desperation, a floating forward on tippy toes and an almost visible scent curl, or a mythic curiosity, a saucy adventurousness that makes us all, the waiting and the ravenous, into barbeque Argonauts who will either master our response to the siren-scent of dense, hot meat or be mastered by it.
In the spirit of mastery, one should do as one of the Famous Daves staff t-shirts suggests and Take Your Seat at the Top of the Food Chain.
Dont get me wrong- Daves sides are good enough. Coleslaw is sweet and creamy with a hint of horseradish heat and a light cabbage crunch that makes it perfect piled on top of a brisket sandwich. Firecracker Green Beans are soft in a sentimental, Sunday-social way, but have the temperature turned up with red pepper and smoky bacon.
Drunkin Apples, too, are familiar, for me an essential BBQ side, the cinnamon sweetness of apples compliments the taste of hardwood in the smoke of the meats. It is the meat, after all, that is legend here.
Famous Daves has much invested in its legend.
Pictures scattered throughout the restaurants retro-heavy dcor (think artfully rusted soda signs and piles of metal picnic baskets) show Dave Anderson, Famous Daves founder, in front of the back-road shacks and roadside smokehouses that embody the best of Americas finger-lickin native cuisine. His personal odyssey to create authentic barbeque is documented in the snapshots that seem both celebratory and lonely.
Dave looks straight into the camera, a concrete block BBQ joint lit with Neon glowing gently behind him. This is a man with the secret to his famous sauce locked inside, who, through trial and error, created a method of flavor and cooking that emphasizes the bodily texture of the meats, and with ambition grew a single Wisconsin restaurant into an empire, a Hog Heaven of barbeque riches.
Famous Daves in Alexandria is clearly part of the chain restaurant growth on South Route 1, and such an authentic design ethic can make me suspicious of quality despite the tremendous value of the lunch specials and the massive, literally garbage lid sized, portions of the combos.
Famous Daves succeeds on a personal level. The staff is compellingly diverse, the music is outstandingly good, and the Chicken Tenders, an item found on nearly every menu in America, are my daughters absolute favorite.
The Rich and Sassy sauce, Daves original recipe, embodies it all. It may be available by the proverbial gallon, but slathered on chopped pork, it drips down, and involves one, personally, in the act of flavor.
One can over-think such an act, tasting through the herby sweetness to the muscle of the brisket, the bone of the rib or the dark meat, one can feel driven, carnivorous, the ancient, yes even mythic, knowledge of eating meat. Barbeque is labor intensive, and Daves hand-rubbed ribs bear a taste of time and effort that requires one to dig in, without art and with fingers.