11522 Northup Way, Bellevue, WA
Web: Dixie's BBQ
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Barbecue Seattle Spice
"The droplets were very close to the liquid incarnation of pure fire; the type of brutal, remorseless spice that makes no effort to be tasty, but rather just exists to inflict pain."
Roughly twelve years ago, back in the days when you couldn't just use the Internet to research any restaurant in any city, a friend in Seattle made a huge deal about bringing us to a legendary local place called Dixie's BBQ. "You're going to meet The Man," this friend teased us for weeks before we arrived, "and you will never forget it." We didn't know who or what The Man was, but our friend was right. The Man, as it turns out, was a legendary hot sauce carried around in an intentionally precious little metal saucepan by Gene Porter, owner of Dixie's, stirred constantly as he walked around chatting up customers. We've never forgotten that fateful meeting, and returned this week to make his acquaintance once more on a trip to Washington State.
Dixie's is the sort of place that demonstrates why most restaurants disappear after only a few years in business. It is literally a converted auto garage that still bears Gene's Certified Ford Technician plaque on the wall, years after he stopped repairing cars due to his wife Dixie's success selling barbecue on the premises. And it's the precise opposite of fancy. There are no servers, no plates, and no silverware. Drinks and food are served in styrofoam with plastic forks and knives, all of which you toss in the trash yourself when you're finished. Most of what you see on the walls are photos, pictures of Gene smiling with kids and families, alongside maps, covered with pushpins from the cities all of Dixie's fans have hailed from. Aside from posters of cars and random pieces of art, there is no other decor to speak of. Tables are covered with red plastic cloths, appointed with mismatched chairs and benches, hiding car lifts on the floor below. Multimillionaire restauranteurs would find nothing here to explain Dixie's perennial success, and they'd easily throw good dollars after bad to try and replicate it.
While the quality of Dixie's barbecue - ribs, brisket, and chicken - might account for part of this success, Gene and The Man are the reason we first were brought here, and the reason we came back. The Man, famously served on toothpicks because of its sheer heat, could not possibly be as spicy to our wing-worn palates as it seemed so long ago... could it? And would Gene still be walking around, doling it out in minute quantities, so we could challenge him to make one of Buffalo's most spice-savvy fans call out for water?
There was some good news: we met The Man again. Amazingly, we were given access to around two ounces of Dixie's famous hot sauce, which we approached - wisely, we might add - with more respect than we'd initially planned to give it. Dipping a knife in to stir and taste it, the droplets that met our tongues were something very close to the liquid incarnation of pure fire; the type of brutal, remorseless spice that makes no effort to be tasty or fun, but rather just exists to inflict pain. The Man was not Duff's Death Wing Sauce, which after several wings might well eat you alive from the inside. Rather, it was Death Sauce's cruel older brother, the one who used to beat Death up and tell him he would never be so tough. He was right. Gene only needed toothpicks to serve The Man because only a lunatic would want more than a drop of it.
Unfortunately, there was also some bad news. Though the service was, true to form, intentionally on the obnoxious side, the charm that Dixie's had years ago has been replaced by a certain moribund quality. We'd arrived early for lunch, and asked if Gene was around. "You must not have been here for a while," said his daughter at the counter; the man behind The Man was not in good health. Dixie wasn't anywhere we could see in the kitchen, and though we ordered pork ribs and tried to also order beef ribs and brisket, we were told that beef - still on the menu - had barely been stocked by the place since the Mad Cow problems years ago. Our choices were basically pork. The ribs and a pork sandwich were quite good, while sides of cornbread and beans were fine; Dixie's homemade sweet ice tea and Blue Island lemonade were surprisingly tasty. Perhaps because we'd been snacking earlier in the morning, but perhaps not, we couldn't finish everything on our plates.
It was a good meal, but not quite what we'd expected. We couldn't help but feel a little sad as we left, as we'd spotted Gene mid-meal making a slow pass through the place with a walker, clearly not the character he once was; he wasn't doling out hot sauce, or egging customers on with his famous line of praise, "yeah, baby!" He was quiet, acknowledged our wave and hello, and then disappeared. Few restaurants, or their proprietors, stay the same for so many years. But it was obvious from the food, and certainly The Man, that Dixie's BBQ was still trying.