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Thursday, October 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Overcast
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Red Rock Saloon serves tasty ribs, wings and onion rings, with a side of mechanical bull
C'mon in, cowboys and cowgirls
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The ribs aren't tender enough, but the sauce is excellent.
The ribs aren't tender enough, but the sauce is excellent.

What do you think of when you hear the word "country"? Do you think of a house on a hill with cows grazing in the distance? Do you think of Johnny Cash? Do you think of Kenny Chesney in his well-fitted jeans?

If your word associations were more along the lines of "riding the mechanical bull," the Red Rock Saloon may be your kind of place. This is country as Long Islanders heading out to the Midwest for school probably imagine it: Luke Bryan blasting from the speakers, a timed eating challenge with some association with Man v. Food, and restrooms admitting "cowboys" and "cowgirls" only. It's all in good fun, but it's about as country as the Buffalo wing sauce is Buffalo.

Let me back up.

On my first trip to Red Rock there was a line out the door for a "Red Solo Cup College Night," with a bouncer checking IDs. Underage drinking isn't the only thing being kept in check: A dress code is posted on the door. Assuming it to be a lighthearted invitation to country attire, I looked closer but found it was serious: no baggy clothing. Shirt stitching must line up with the tops of shoulders. No large jewelry or mouth jewelry.

"Mouth jewelry?" I asked at the door. "So if I had a lip ring, you wouldn't let me in?"

"They mean, like, a grill," I was told. Interesting.

Apparently I fell into the sort of crowd Red Rock is looking for, despite the fact that my shirt stitching was concealed by a jacket. I went in and sat at the bar with a friend originally from the South who'd been enlisted to weigh in on the collard greens situation. Our friendly bartender brought beers, and we ordered a half rack of ribs, the mac 'n' cheese dinner, and a "Texas Torpedoes" starter (pickled jalapeños, bacon, and supposedly three kinds of cheese but, for all intents and purposes, cream cheese), with sides of collards and coleslaw.

The torpedoes and mac 'n' cheese both seemed to have come straight from the 4 a.m. dorm kitchen of a drunk, munchie-stricken Paula Deen. The mac, resembling a Velveeta-and-penne soup, certainly went for quantity over quality, and the torpedoes could easily have been a 1950s Tupperware party appetizer. But both would have tasted great if I'd been hammered.

Next came the ribs, a significant improvement. Though the meat wasn't particularly high quality or falling off the bone as it should, the barbecue sauce is tasty and probably worthy of the fuss that's made of it on the website and menu. With ribs came limp slaw and collard greens, which my buddy pronounced texturally passable but lacking in flavor. As a collard greens aficionado myself, I'd blame a lack of acidity.

I revisited the place on another weekday with friends from work and found it much quieter, with our choice of table seating and, again, friendly service. This time, as a Buffalonian, I was here for one thing: wings.

When people from Buffalo evaluate outside wings, it's always with a certain amount of resigned acceptance: We're not in Buffalo, and they're not going to be the same. We opted for the Totonka (Red Rock's Buffalo-style option) and KC Jones, with sweet molasses barbecue flavors. They were better than I expected. As a Rust Belt gal I don't assume my chicken wing chicken is coming from anything resembling a local farm, and these certainly didn't taste like they did, but the texture was decent and the molasses sauce was addictively sweet and tangy. Like most Buffalo wing sauce imitations, Red Rock's is heavy on the vinegar, but the heat was enjoyable, and I put down several.

We had a round of the "Nacho nachos," featuring something that looks like it might be squirtable and topped with salsa and jalapeño. I was charmed when our server felt compelled to warn us that the dish was meatless. The fragile tortilla chips weren't quite up to the challenge but, again, if I'd been drinking heavily the dish would've sopped up my Lynchburg Lemonade nicely.

Friends split a full rack of ribs. The Texan in the bunch corroborated my assessment that the meat wasn't tender enough but that the sauce was excellent. I opted for the three-slider appetizer, selecting brisket. The sliders come with delicate, more-breading-than-onion onion rings — everyone's favorite thing on the table, followed closely by the well-spiced and crispy sweet potato tots. The brisket itself wasn't quite moist or tender enough to elicit the traditional "messy slider nod of approval," though delectably soft buns cuddled the meat.

In terms of the quality of food, this place is doing just as well as it needs to. Between pop-country music, an actual mechanical bull, drink specials, highly attractive bartenders and a prime location, its crowd is getting what it imagines to be the "saloon" experience, with a halfway decent barbecue sauce as a nice bonus. The Red Rock isn't about to win over any food geeks or Southern expats, but something tells me it will do just fine.

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