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Published: Friday, 5/14/2004

Restaurant review: Oak'en Bucket ****

Before America's infatuation with spare ribs and babybacks, before ribs became institutionalized as the specialty of dozens of chain restaurants, there was the Oak'en Bucket.

Gus Nicolaidis opened the Reynolds Road eatery with his brother Nick in 1970, and apart from neighborhood rib joints or sidewalk grills, it may have been the first formal dining establishment in town to capitalize on the nation's growing appetite for sticky, succulent barbecue.

What's perhaps more distinctive about the Oak'en Bucket is that it exists much as it did 34 years ago - a restaurant frozen in a kind of '70s time capsule. The fragrance of slow-cooked pork ribs continues to envelop patrons, but other things remain the same as well, from the old movie posters that decorate the walls of the two dining rooms to that quizzical apostrophe in its name on the sign out front.

Pictures of Marlon Brando, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart greet patrons at the entrance. Behind the bar is a poster of Frank Sinatra and his famous Las Vegas Rat Pack, plus one for Marx Bros.' Go West - "rip-roaring with laughs, girls, songs!"

Even some of the namesake dishes on the menu date the place: the Don Rickles reuben, Burt Reynolds burger, Don Knotts chicken salad plate, Mae West BBQ Beef sandwich, and the Brigitte Bardot French dip.

But it's gratifying to see that there's nothing fusty about the food, which is as good as I remember it. On two recent lunch and dinner visits, we tried not only the ribs but steak, pasta, appetizers, soup, big salads, and sandwiches. Overall, the food - and the wisenheimer repartee from the servers - rated high marks.

A dinner appetizer of nachos, beef, and beans ($5.95) set the stage for the main event. A 22-ounce king slab of pork ribs ($17.95), the color of dark mahogany, was sweet and tangy as advertised, and the meat pretty much fell off the bone. A princely 14-ounce New York steak ($18.95) came butterflied and cooked to a medium turn as advertised, and the meat pretty much fell off the bone. A princely 14-ounce New York steak ($18.95) came butterflied and cooked to a medium turn. Other steak items, all in the same price range, include Gus's garlic steak, tenderloin, filet mignon, and a Delmonico ribeye.

Also ordered was a daily special of chicken parmesan with an abundance of mostaccioli in tomato sauce (around $12) - plenty enough to make two dinners at home with the leftovers. Other chicken and seafood dishes round out the menu, along with ribs in combination with chicken, shrimp, or pork chops.

At lunch, a cup of beef vegetable ($2.95) was generously more stew than soup, but an appetizer of big onion rings at $4.50 looked pre-formed and way overbattered. Compensating were the Bonnie & Clyde sandwich ($7.50), salami and corned beef with muenster cheese and fried peppers, and the W.C. Fields super club ($7.75), a huge, raggedy sandwich of turkey, ham, and bacon that, like the chicken parmesan, proved too much to handle at one sitting.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com.



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