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Smoke Your Soul on Ribs

Southern comfort means pork spares at Mr. Que's in Long Beach. Try the fish, chicken and okra, too.


If you wanted to see the essence of suburbia, you wouldn't go wrong checking out Bixby Knolls, a Long Beach neighborhood of tree-lined boulevards, three-bedroom ranch houses and the occasional corner mall. It also happens to be home to Mr. Que's Soul Express, a converted coffee shop that specializes in Southern comfort foods.

Mr. Que's is nothing special to look at, just a brightly lit structure with a slanted roof. You sit either in narrow booths or at a 12-stool counter. The staff uniform includes little green baseball caps.

To a passing driver, the main clue to what the place serves is the oil drum barbecue with smoke pouring out of it that stands on the sidewalk, steadfastly attended by a life-size cardboard cutout of a chef.

As for that menu (which is surprisingly large for such a modestly appointed place), it's 100% stick-to-the-ribs soul food, beautifully prepared. We're talking pork spare ribs drenched in a subtly spicy homemade barbecue sauce, absolutely perfect smothered chicken and collard greens redolent of smoke and rendered fat.

Here's how it works. You pick an entree and choose your side dishes--three at dinner, two at lunch--from a steam table that stands behind the counter (it also holds the few entrees that are not cooked to order). You also get a choice of homemade breads: fluffy buttered baking powder biscuits or a basket of bantam-sized but flavorful corn bread muffins. You can order a soft drink, such as tart homemade lemonade; it will come to the table in a huge plastic tumbler embossed with the Coca-Cola logo.

The best entree, hands down, is the classy fried chicken, which is cooked to order. The disjointed pieces are not breaded but expertly dredged in flour, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper, and fried to crisp, moist perfection. This is intensely flavorful chicken, as far from the fast-food restaurant variety as Sonoma foie gras is from Oscar Meyer liverwurst.

Fish are also cooked to order. You have a choice of catfish or snapper, cut into thick chunks and deep-fried in a crunchy cornmeal coating. The catfish is especially fine (the chunks include bones).

Another good choice would be the pork spareribs--long, lean, fork-tender ribs, though they've obviously been sitting in the steam table for who knows how long. Another entree I like is the braised oxtails. You get a huge plate of tail vertebrae; as always, it's a little trouble to work the meat out of them, but it's gelatinously tender and richly flavored.

The supporting cast is terrific. The black-eyed peas are hearty and appealingly fluffy, and the collard greens--my favorite side dish here--have a lingering smoky aftertaste, which I assume comes from bacon grease. The macaroni and cheese is buttery and positively littered with bits of sticky yellow cheese. The green beans, stewed with chopped onions, are slightly mushy but good and flavorful anyway.

Those are only a few of the options--there are a good dozen. New Orleans-style red beans and rice is one of the milder sides but also probably the most filling. There is a delicious dish called okra and corn--a riff on succotash, really, with the addition of stewed peppers and tomatoes.

Boiled cabbage is as simple as the side dishes get. There are also candied yams and mashed potatoes, both on the heavy side. On certain days of the week, there are even turnip or mustard greens, both a bit rare here in north Long Beach.

Mr. Que's is also the only place in town where you can come for a catfish and egg breakfast. Or, better yet, for the city's only salmon croquette, a crisp, dense cake regrettably limited to the restaurant's breakfast menu. Altogether, Mr. Que's serves a great Southern breakfast. You can get grits with your egg dishes here or even a nicely browned homemade waffle, made from scratch.

Sweets seem to be limited to peach cobbler and bread pudding. The menu lists sweet potato pie, but I've never found it to be available. Anyway, the cobbler, served piping hot, has a doughy yellow crust and a tart, spicy peach filling. The bread pudding is served warm with a squirt of whipped cream. It's full of golden raisins and strongly flavored with nutmeg. I'm guessing here, but I'd say it comes in at least 700 calories.

We don't count calories here in the burbs, though. That activity is only for the glamorous big city folks.


Mr. Que's Soul Express, 1154 San Antonio Drive, Long Beach. (562) 426-8689. Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Takeout. Dinner for two, $17-$24.

What to Get: fried chicken, catfish, pork spare ribs, collard greens, okra and corn.

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