ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON outside Pastor Hamilton’s Bar-B-Que, a handful of people sit on folding chairs, huddled around a couple collapsible tables. They are chitchatting, trading stories, and licking their fingers. Pastor Luches Hamilton, wearing a bright red apron over blue Dickies overalls, rises occasionally to check the grill. He lifts the lid and is quickly engulfed in a steaming gray cloud, like Moses up on the mountain.
This, it seems, is holy smoke. To raise funds for scholarships and youth activities, the Arkansas-born minister revived his family recipes for weekly cookouts and, this past winter, opened a five-days-a-week restaurant (four tables, a soda machine, and a church pew to sit on while you wait to pick up an order) adjacent to his tiny storefront church.
This part of East Seventh Street—crumbling concrete and barbed wire, decrepit and largely abandoned—seems the opposite of the bustling western stretch. The lot across the street from Hamilton’s, formerly used for asphalt and shingle production, now sits vacant, waiting for environmental cleanup. A car whizzes past, and an occupant tosses out a paper cup. Hamilton shakes his head. But if God could fashion Eve from a rib, why not hope from a rack of them?
Hamilton pulls a slab off the grill and drops it in his rust-colored barbecue bath. The sauce is sweet without too much sweetness, sour without too much sour, and eschews the faux smokiness of many commercial varieties. Sniff around for its secret and you might get a hint (lots of garlic powder, for one), but it’s a lot easier to buy a jar of the slather than to try to duplicate its heavenly flavor. The restaurant’s menu features soul food staples: fried chicken, jo jo potatoes, and coleslaw—but the greatest of these is the ribs.
During lulls in business, the Pastor likes to talk. Listening allows plenty of time to work your way across the rib’s distinct terrain: on top, the nibble-beckoning caramelized flesh, akin to bacon or jerky; next, the greasy, melting portion at the back, breached with occasional hunks of fat; then the “finger meat” between the bones, smoky and tender and rich; and finally, that last, gnaw-worthy layer that’s fused itself right to the bone.
Within a few minutes, a regular customer rides up on a bicycle. Then an older man grabs takeout while his wife waits in a Buick. Lawyers rub elbows with troubled teens, and soon it is busy again. Cars pass, honking hellos. Hamilton waves and hollers back, flashing a hint of gold when he smiles. His next ambition is to raise funds for a food shelf, to add to the back of the church. “I’m hopin’ and prayin’ that somebody will help,” he says. Baited with barbeque, it’s only a matter of time.
Pastor Hamilton’s Bar-B-Que
1150 E. Seventh St.