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Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

Once a Family Restaurant, Now a 'Cue Joint With Some Real Kick

October 10, 2002|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who'd ever imagine that a suburban family restaurant could morph into a terrific barbecue place? That's exactly what has happened at the Pasadena restaurant formerly known as Robin's.

Only the menu has changed. Robin's Wood Fire BBQ & Grill, as it's now called, is still an informal joint with signs from almost every major brewery (and plenty of minor ones) on its walls. It has the red imitation leather booths of a family restaurant, and the soundtrack is retro stuff from the late '50s and early '60s.

Before he surfaced in the area two decades ago, owner Robin Salzer had been the nation's youngest IHOP manager in Milwaukee, but his passion has always been barbecue. He has sampled barbecue all over the country and sold tri-tip sandwiches at various street fairs in the San Gabriel Valley.

Two years ago, he finally converted Robin's into a barbecue and saw many of his regulars desert him. But he soldiered on. This guy is so committed to barbecue, he puts his home number on the back of the menu.

Robin's baby backs, beef ribs and chicken are smoked five to seven hours on hickory and oak until they develop the pink layer just under the surface that characterizes serious barbecue. Add spicy and regional sauces to the mix, including a mustard yellow, honey-sweet sauce from South Carolina and Spicy Mad Dog, a red sauce with the kick of a camel, and the result is a truly respectable 'cue joint, the only one in this class in the entire San Gabriel Valley.

It isn't just the meats you come here for. There are tasty starters like buttery blueberry cornbread, beer-batter onion rings and a coleslaw infused with blue cheese and pecans. You can even get barbecue for an appetizer: rib tips, smoked, that are charred ends of pork spareribs, equal parts meat, bone and carbon.

It would be a mistake to overlook the side dishes. Salzer has always served fine hand-cut French fries fried in peanut oil, but some other side dishes have been radically improved since his Denny's-wannabe days. The formerly insipid baked beans are now complex and spicy, though perhaps a touch too sweet. Garlic mashed potatoes and corn on the cob are done with the verve of a true son of the Midwest.

One of the best salads is baby greens and cucumbers layered with surprisingly tender, uncompromisingly smoky chunks of tri-tip, all in a tomato vinaigrette. The tri-tip also appears in a sandwich, in which slabs of meat are packed into a crusty roll.

Despite the salads and sides, meat is the star here, and it's smokier than an Oregon forest fire, oakier than a cheap Chardonnay. I'm not much of a beef eater, but I was won over by Robin's huge beef rib with nicely marbled, slightly charred meat. I had it with a tart sauce Salzer calls Memphis red.

I'd definitely go with the baby backs over the spareribs; the meat is sweeter and more succulent, and seems to handle the smoke better too.

There's flavorful barbecued chicken too, but one thing Robin's hasn't mastered is how to make chicken smoky without turning the skin rubbery. Better pull it all off before you tackle the meat.

There are a few other things to nosh on from the old Robin's menu. You won't go far wrong with the rosemary-garlic rotisserie chicken, and the burgers aren't bad either.

The desserts have been notably upgraded. Robin's once served a huge, gummy chocolate cake without much chocolate flavor. The current version (named "Death by Chocolate") is much better in this regard and its sides are studded with chocolate chips. There's a "messy sundae" served in enormous glass bowls. The peach cobbler has a real biscuit crust.

Salzer has retained one thing that has been the restaurant's signature since Day One: his Wednesday and Friday night all-you-can-eat fish fry. It consists of Icelandic cod, those good fries and his newfangled cole slaw, and it's an excellent deal at $10.95. But sign me up for the 'cue anyway.

*

Robin's Wood Fire BBQ & Grill, 395 N. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 351-8885. Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday, and 3-10 p.m., Sunday; brunch, 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. Lunch for two, $27-$38.

What to Get: Onion rings, blueberry cornbread, baby back ribs, tri-tip salad, peach cobbler.

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