Restaurant Review

Tex-Mex, barbecue find a flavorful meeting at Blue Note Grill

CorrespondentSeptember 6, 2012 

  • The Blue Note Grill 4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham. 919-401-1979 www.thebluenotegrill.com Cuisine: barbecue, Tex-Mex Rating:* * 1/2 ( Prices: $-$$ Atmosphere: barbecue-and-blues casual Noise level: moderate to high Service: friendly and attentive Recommended: chili, pulled pork, onion rings, dirty rice, lunch specials Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. Reservations: accepted (except for Friday night) Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; sheltered patio; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

What do you get when a barbecue-loving boy from North Carolina marries a girl from Texas who happens to be a great cook?

No, this isn’t a riddle. You haven’t landed on the comics and puzzles page by mistake. But the real life answer to this question has as many twists and turns as the Daily Maze, and is as likely to put a smile on your face as a classic Peanuts strip.

Hillsborough native Bill Whittington has spent most of his career in retail store management but secretly dreamed of opening a barbecue-and-blues joint.

Bill’s wife, Andrea, grew up in the coastal Texas border town of Port Isabel and moved to North Carolina in the late ’80s. After being laid off from her human resources job a few years ago, she went to work for a friend’s catering business. That’s where she got the bug to open a restaurant of her own.

Bill eagerly got on board. Here was the chance to make his – er, their – dream come true. The couple leased a former Torero’s space, furnished it simply with old blues posters and a colorful Dixieland wall mural, and bought a gas-fired hickory wood smoker. Bill started scheduling live music – jazz and blues, mostly, with a little bluegrass and country in the mix. They opened the doors to Blue Note Grill in May 2010.

The restaurant’s barbecue offering earned mixed reviews in the early going – not surprising, really, given the Whittingtons’ lack of experience with that notoriously finicky art. Baby back ribs were sometimes dry, a flaw particularly noticeable to those who ordered the dry-rubbed version.

The pulled pork barbecue was more successful, its coarse texture and deeply smoky flavor a change of pace from the barbecue that’s traditional in this part of the state. The term “sauced . . . Eastern Carolina style” in the menu description was confusing, though, and those words were quickly dropped. Now you’re advised to “sauce it your way” with Eastern-style vinegar-based or Andrea Whittington’s tomato-based Texas-style sauce. For pork this smoky, I’m partial to the latter.

The Whittingtons wisely opted to limit their barbecue efforts to the pulled pork and baby backs, allowing them to focus on mastering both. The decision has paid off in ribs that have improved markedly over the two years since the restaurant opened. Even dry-rub fans won’t be disappointed now, though I still favor the wet ribs, glazed with that lip-smacking Texas style sauce.

Andrea Whittington’s Texas roots are woven throughout the rest of the offering, starting with the distinctive shrimp- and cheese-filled jalapeño poppers that share space on the appetizer list with the likes of fried banana peppers, sweet potato fries and first-rate onion rings.

An entire section of the menu is devoted to burritos and quesadillas. The list is eclectic, ranging from the more or less traditional (veggie burrito, grilled or deep-fried) to inventive creations such as the BLT quesadilla. The Q-Zilla, a BLT quesadilla topped with pulled pork, neatly solves the dilemma for anyone torn between barbecue and Tex-Mex.

You won’t find Texas-style barbecued beef brisket on the menu, but you will find the cut in plenty of other guises. Andrea Whittington’s superb Texas chili is chock-a-block with tender chunks of the meat. Minced brisket in her spicy rendition of dirty rice elevates the humble side dish to something worth seeking out in its own right. Even the burgers are made with 1/3 pound of 100 percent house-ground brisket.

On Tuesdays, the lunch special is a succulent brisket pot roast, served with potatoes, carrots and your choice of two sides for a bargain $6.99. On Wednesdays, the same price gets you a slow-cooked brisket sandwich and fries. I’m not sure whether Thursday’s country-style steak is made with brisket, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Nor would I bet against Andrea Whittington one day taking on the ultimate barbecue challenge, and the hallmark of Texas barbecue: beef brisket.

After all, the rest of the menu offers plenty of evidence to support the saying, “You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl.”

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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