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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Overcast
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Forgo fusion for the straightforward dishes at Blair Street Brew & BBQ
Simple pleasures
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Credit:Bradlee Bertram

Blair Street Brew & BBQ serves what it calls "Mad City-style" barbecue, blending styles from across the country into one menu beholden to no single area.

If barbecue fusion is "Mad-City style," then I can safely say that it's the most popular style in the nation, preferred of every indistinct barbecue spot around. As with the wheel, there is a reason American barbecue styles resist reinvention. They work. They have years of history behind them, an invisible architecture of trial and error that resulted in thick, sweet Kansas City sauce, bold pink Texas smoke rings, and the balance of fat and tanginess of the Carolinas.

I want to see how Blair Street distinguishes itself, regardless of style. Take the white barbecue sauce, an Alabaman invention. It's richer than the average tomato-based sauce, but the black pepper zips things up nicely. Compared to the thick and aggressively vinegary house sauce (a strange amalgam of styles, to be sure), the white plays far better with others.

The best dishes at Blair Street are the least complicated. The "Ham & Cheese Please" sandwich is a welcome blast of simplicity and probably the best bite I had. Thick slabs of pit ham are piled on egg-yellow toast and blanketed with gooey cheddar. That's it -- ham, cheese, bread. But the ham is juicy, and the bread is sturdy but forgiving. A big bargain for seven bucks. (Blair Street's menu is full of names ranging from the amusing -- A Dang Quesadilla -- to the hokey, like Tommy Want Wingy chicken wings. Grin and bear it, or not; if you just call them wings, they'll still come to your table.)

The pulled pork sandwich doesn't come off quite as well, though it's mostly that acidic barbecue sauce to blame. It's just wildly intrusive, clinging to the palate like napalm. The chicken salad sandwich is a full misstep. Goopily blended (a flaw shared by the potato salad), the chicken salad has no real flavor besides mayo. That there is so much of it is hardly a saving grace.

I enjoyed the open-face beef brisket sandwich with house-smoked bacon; the meats were treated properly and tasted great, but I'd get it with the sauce on the side.

Onion strings top the brisket and are also an available side, but they don't make the best finger food. Seasoned french fries are better. I would have tried the smoked cheese cubes, but I was brought the pepper jack variety instead. The effect is likely the same: They're golf ball-sized wads of mediocre cheese, in sufficient quantity to satisfy three or four people, or at least fill them up. The first couple bites are good, but the law of diminishing returns applies shortly thereafter.

Bucky Bites -- flash-fried soft pretzel chunks -- are where the starter action is. Perfectly balanced between soft and crunchy, these salty nuggets are served with a generous tub of nacho cheez. Embrace the lowbrow and the narrowly averted trademark infringement, because these unprepossessing bites are addictive.

But what of the meat of the order? Rotisserie chicken came out impressively, with brown skin and ample seasoning. The quarter order is dirt cheap for the amount of food delivered (and by the way, Blair Street delivers, too). If there's room for improvement, it's in giving the chicken just a little more time on the rotisserie. But I still tore into my take-out portion the way I do with all good rotisserie chicken, with my fingers and over the kitchen island. It worked.

The ribs are a dicier proposition. On one visit, the meat was, amazingly, oversmoked and resembled a bone-in strip of tough pastrami. A subsequent order hit closer to the target, juicier and with less fight required to separate meat from bone -- though, despite what the aphorism trumpets, ribs should not fall effortlessly from the bone.

Blair Street intends to brew its own beers. This has been a long time in the works, and still no beer. I asked one of the bartenders, and she said the restaurant is looking for someone to help get the brewing rig up and running.

Skippable sides (save for the perfect jalapeño cornbread), desserts that should be actively avoided until significant overhaul, and a house sauce that harms more than it helps? The meats have their charms, but "Mad-City" style should be better than this. This is not a shot at pitmaster Nick Sierzant's dedication to his 'cue, or an indictment of his stated preference for avoiding established barbecue style. But don't be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants. There's still room up there for a personal flourish or two.

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