The bones of the French-influenced Bleujacket are still there, but the theatrical details have vanished. The shimmery metallic curtains were yanked down and sold to a local theater troupe and a day spa. Au revoir as well to the tablecloths, the expensive glassware and the thick, cloth napkins. The silvery metal-mesh bread baskets remain, but the Meat Market's owners now line them with waxed paper and use them for serving slabs of ribs in a tangy, vinegary barbecue sauce.
There's still a kind of theater going on at the Meat Market, but it's not played out on the sophisticated set created for the Bleujacket. No, after its lowbrow makeover, the Meat Market has a raucous Animal House flavor (it's designed to be a college hangout), complete with thirteen TV screens, video games, neon beer signs and some of the most beautiful young waitresses in the state of Kansas, including the stunning Elizabeth, a former Ford model, who delivers greasy burgers with runway style. Who can feel comfortable eating a basket of fries smothered in shiny "goo" cheese -- the Meat Market's thick queso -- while watching skinny Elizabeth or dark-eyed Lee Ann race around the room? Ditto for all those thin-waisted, broad-shouldered college boys who drape themselves at the bar and drink the signature brew, Rocketboy Beer.
The beer, named for Captain Ribman's teen sidekick, "tastes like Bud," confesses co-owner Rich Davis Jr., who bought the rights to the Rocketboy and Captain Ribman characters when he left KC Masterpiece, the barbecue restaurant chain founded by his father several years ago. Davis owns the Meat Market with his brother Charlie and illustrator John Sprenglemeyer, who still draws the Captain Ribman comic strip for syndication. Nearly a decade after he and Sprenglemeyer created the character as a promotional tool for the KC Masterpiece restaurants, Rich says the strip is "the most popular comic strip in college newspapers."
I'm not sure what Captain Ribman's superpowers are supposed to be, and he's clearly not the brightest bulb in the comic-strip universe. "Yeah, he's kind of dumb when it comes to interpreting things," Rich says. "That's why the comic strip seems to be filled with double entendre."
There's not much double entendre on the menu, unless fried Twinkies and a chocolate bar molded with the words "Bite Me" are turn-ons. The menu is refreshingly goofy, a bit like the clever Houlihan's menu from the 1970s, back when that restaurant was sexy and fun. A friend of mine thinks the name Captain Ribman's Meat Market sounds like a gay bar, but the reality is anything but -- the place reeks of testosterone and barbecue sauce. I brought two female friends, Deb and Martha, along with good old Bob on my first visit, though they confessed the idea of going to anyplace called the Meat Market gave them the whim-whams. Would it be like some pushy singles bar, they wondered. They were almost relieved when we walked in and saw several young families eating dinner.
Still, Deb noticed a lean, shaggy-haired young man leaning up against the bar railing and had a '70s flashback. He was, she noted, just the kind of guy she would have chased during her coed days. "But only if he had just gotten out of jail," she said.
Deb is a vegetarian most of the time, but the aroma of the ribs at the next table had her wavering.
"I'm a vegetarian, too," said former model Elizabeth as she took our order. "But I don't consider pork to be red meat."
That was enough for Deb, who ordered a small slab. Bob ordered a bigger slab, and Martha selected a basket of ribbies, which the menu described as "adorable rib chunks." Hmm, on second thought, maybe it is a gay bar.
We started the meal with an appetizer of fried chicken fingers called Crummy Chicken, doused in an orange hot sauce loaded with cayenne. We dipped them in blue-cheese dressing, then guzzled down soda to cool our burning tongues. The ribs can be slathered in the same sauce, but my dining companions preferred the less fiery, mildly sweet barbecue sauce, which Rich insists tastes nothing like the KC Masterpiece brew concocted by his famous father.
The ribs were tender and meaty enough to have been perfectly enjoyable nude, but the slightly peppery sauce gave the meat an extra oomph. I had ordered a barbecued pulled-pork sandwich, which was damn tasty, but it took second-place honors to the real star of our dinner table: individual crocks of meaty baked beans -- Rocketboy Beans.
"They're the best beans I've ever eaten in my life," insisted Bob, who greedily polished off his order in about five bites. I lingered over mine, savoring the bits of beef, pork and bacon mixed with the sauce-laden legumes. I ate them all, knowing full well that I'd be so full of gas, I'd be the Rocketboy of my neighborhood after a few hours. But noisy jet propulsion was a small sacrifice for such a big taste.
The 9-inch cheese pizza, thick with mozzarella, was a bargain at less than seven bucks. (We loaded ours up with banana peppers and artichoke hearts.) We only nibbled on it, though, because we wanted to save enough room for the Meat Market's two oddball desserts, fried Twinkies and fried Oreo cookies.
We decided that the Twinkies, which sustain their shape and integrity after being breaded and deep-fried, make a better dessert, though the blanket of gray-pink defrosted strawberries was a visual disappointment and the whipped cream tasted as if it had been sprayed from an aerosol can. The two fried Oreo cookies arrived looking like stuffed mushrooms, gooey and soft under a crispy, golden shell.
"This is the kind of thing Elvis might have liked," said Deb after a bite of the crusty Oreo. She preferred the bigger, firmer Twinkie to the buttonlike cookie. Martha thought both desserts were embarrassingly trashy. "Eating something like this is something you only confess to doing once," she said, wiping the Twinkie cream from her lips.
Alas, I'm trashy enough to confess to eating fried Twinkies not just once but again on my second visit, this time with friends Jim and Marie during the media hoopla in Lawrence for the opening of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. The minute we sat down at our table, Marie whispered that she recognized former CBS reporter and documentary filmmaker Bill Kurtis (a KU graduate) at a nearby table. "A celebrity sighting," she said, unfurling a paper napkin across her lap.
She didn't notice the woman who looked like comic-strip character Mary Worth sitting behind us, who shot me a dirty look when I accidentally uttered a four-letter word after spilling some of Captain Ribman's "secret dressing" -- which had been liberally squirted onto hot slices of thick roast beef on my grilled sandwich -- on my new shirt. Marie ordered a BLT made with jalapeño-flavored bacon, which sounded awful but tasted fabulous -- almost as good as those fries drenched in queso.
Marie liked the fried Twinkies ("I'm a Kansas farm girl, after all"), but not as much as the idea of a fried Snickers bar, which Rich said his kitchen crew was still trying to perfect. "We keep trying new ways to do it, but it still melts all over the place and falls apart," he said.
If that's a double entendre, I'm not going to touch it with a 10-foot rib.