Restaurant Review: Whitewater's 'Joe's' goes a bit too heavy on the 'casual'

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By Joan Neeno/Special to The Gazette
August 13, 2015

WHITEWATER—Chef Tyler Sailsbery has opened two excellent restaurants in Whitewater—The Black Sheep and Fin & Hooves.

In fact, the burgers are so tasty at Fin & Hooves that we stopped recently on an impulse to indulge. As we left, Sailsbery was at the door making sure customers were leaving happy. We did. The burgers were great, and our server was attentive and charming.

I sure wish he had been at his new restaurant, Casual Joe's, the next night. It needed some attention.

Casual Joe's, an authentic barbecue joint, opened in May in the old Fort Auto Body building. Sailsbery went on a trek around the Midwest and the South to learn about barbecue and its different regional flavors. The meats are smoked on site, and the sauces are homemade. It's a great concept, but the execution isn't quite there yet.

The front section of the restaurant features a bar encased in galvanized metal, high-top tables with funky orange chairs and a cool chandelier made mostly from strung-together trouble lights. There's also a large wooden map that points out the many stops Sailsbery made on his barbecue pilgrimage.

My dad joined us and, being in his 80s, the tall chairs were a challenge for him. We discovered there was a dining room behind the bar area (it's a seat yourself arrangement), so we made our way back there. That was where the charm evaporated.

I will give Casual Joe's the benefit of the doubt that artwork is on its way, but right now the dining room is in what used to be an auto bay. The concrete floors and exposed brick on the exterior wall are nice, and the metal ceiling is attractive. But the stark white room, with no air circulating, was stuffy.

The biggest issue is the tables: They are old-school chemistry tables, which are cool until you sit at them. They were designed for two kids performing experiments, not for four people to dine. The tables were far too narrow, which might explain why no plates were provided—just small paper baskets similar to the ones you get for french fries at a ball game. Very small baskets—so much so that all you could fit in them was a scoop of a side dish and a bit of meat. We also had to ask for something in which to put our food.

That leads me to the next issue: The service was way too casual. In fact, it was just sloppy. We waited quite a while for anyone to wait on us. When a server arrived, I was handed a menu smeared with barbecue sauce. I recognize that's a hazard of a barbecue place, but the menus are paper. If they're dirty, just toss them. Don't hand them to another customer.

Once we ordered our entrees, they came out quickly. We chose the Family Platter ($22.95), which comes with three types of meat and your choice of three sides. We chose the pulled pork, chicken and brisket as our meats and the maple baked beans, cornbread and bacon mac and cheese as our sides. We also ordered a half-rack of ribs ($11.95) with apple fennel slaw as the side.

There were some very good things going on with the food. All of the sides were outstanding, particularly the beans and the mac and cheese. The apple slaw was fresh, crisp and light. The sides were much better than those at most barbecue places in the area. The cornbread was dense and light, yet rich with buttery flavor.

The sauces were outstanding. The vinegar sauce never made it to our table, but the seasonal cherry and maple sauce was impressive. The sweet sauce was better than average, and the stout sauce belied its beery origins. I chickened out on the spicy sauce but, given the quality of the others, I'm sure it was good.

The pulled pork was moist, tender and tasty. The other meats, however, didn't fare as well. The brisket was fatty on one end and dry on the other. The chicken was so dry that a liberal dose of sauce was needed to eat it. The ribs were flavorful but cooked too hot and too fast. The dry rub was a solid piece of black that separated from the meat when sliced. The rib meat fell off the bone, but it was on the dry side. None of the meats had any particular smoke taste to them, which was disappointing.

We split an absolutely delicious slice of banana cream pie ($2.50) for dessert. It was served, yet again, in that annoyingly small paper basket. At least the server brought three forks. We had to ask for dessert and to get the bill.

The servers were a group of young men who were nice, if not particularly enthusiastic or attentive. We noticed a couple of them sitting at the bar as people waited for service. As we left, one of them was carrying bags of garbage through the front door. There was a large puddle of liquid occupying a spot near the middle of the door, and I watched as several members of the staff walked around it without taking any notice. My husband, Richard, finally suggested to one of them that they mop it up before someone fell, which drew an “oh, yeah” response. He did, however, mop it up.

Casual Joe's is a great concept with mediocre execution. Do I think Sailsbery can turn this into a great place for barbecue with some time? Absolutely. But, disappointingly at this point, the experience was more sloppy Joe's than casual.

Joan Neeno is a freelance writer who reviews regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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