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Sweet Tea Express on track with quality barbecue

From modest beginnings on Medford’s West Main Street, Sweet Tea Express embarked on an expansion to bring much-needed dining options to Central Point’s east side.

Also doing a brisk business in catering and takeout, the restaurant is tucked into an East Pine Street shopping plaza, made more visible by its steam-engine smoker out front. The business emblem piqued my kids’ interest in a “special lunch” on a recent Saturday.

Because Sweet Tea serves breakfast until 2 p.m., a fair number of diners were finishing meals of eggs, hash browns and griddled meats. Omelets, burritos, pancakes, biscuits and gravy and breakfast skillets also are offered. Prices are fair, compared with local counterparts, with no item more than $12 and most in the range of $8 to $11.

But this outing was all about the restaurant’s popular barbecue, a genre of cooking that requires considerably more effort than we often muster at home, even with a pellet smoker. And ribs are a particular labor of love for many pit masters.

My 3- and 5-year-old sons have a penchant for gnawing meat from bones. So I knew a ribs platter would entice.

I misinterpreted the menu’s half-rack price of $15 as including side dishes. Scanning farther down the menu, diners see that a half rack with three side dishes costs $25. That’s not to be confused with the ribs platter served with garlic bread, baked beans and a choice of side for $15. The platter has “four bones.” A half-rack comprises seven.

If ribs don’t fill the bill, the array of barbecue includes brisket, pulled pork or chicken, or smoked chicken breast. Choosing a trio costs $16, which also affords garlic bread, baked beans, coleslaw and an additional side. Regular or sweet potato fries, potato wedges, onion straws, corn on the cob, potato salad and macaroni salad constitute the side-dish selections.

A full barbecue meal for two or four people costs $30 or $58, respectively. For bigger crowds — or appetites — Sweet Tea sells meats by the pound and side dishes by 12-ounce, pint and quart containers.

Given the extensive menu, several quintessential barbecue accompaniments seem to be lacking. It’s hard to believe that a classic, baked macaroni and cheese wouldn’t be a hit, as well as an upgrade from the kids’ menu version that looks suspiciously like Kraft (or an imitator) topped with shredded cheddar. Braised greens also are finding favor across the country as a younger generation has embraced kale and its ilk.

In the absence of a grown-up macaroni and cheese, I requested macaroni salad with our half-rack ribs platter, as well as the baked beans and coleslaw. My 3-year-old stubbornly insisted that he wanted the kids’ macaroni and cheese, served with garlic bread for $5.

After ordering at the counter, we claimed a corner table in the clean, bright dining room. Despite the kitschy connotation of its name and old-time train logo, Sweet Tea’s ambiance resembles an industrial-modern burger or pizza establishment. Corrugated metal siding delineates the grill line from the seating area, bordered in the same material. Wood tabletops and red paint warm up the aesthetic.

The stainless-steel sensibility is echoed in the restaurant’s service items. Miniature metal baking sheets convey barbecued meats and mounds of side dishes to the table. My husband had advised that every meal at Sweet Tea is “massive.” In regards to the ribs platter, at least, I’d say the quantity of meat is about right while the side-dish portions seem disproportionately large.

Sauce covered the meat adequately without being sloppy. It isn’t often that I’ve eaten ribs without sauce dripping back onto the plate. I did sully several napkins, however, between using my fingertips and fork.

Diced celery furnished a crunchy counterpoint in the macaroni salad, which had a mustardy, subtly spicy note that I didn’t expect. Dried cranberries are Sweet Tea’s signature addition to coleslaw that was almost exclusively composed of green cabbage. With the beans’ sugary flavor, not to mention the barbecue sauce, the overall effect was of sweet-on-sweet-on-sweet. So much that I could only stomach a few sips of Sweet Tea’s peach tea, although I had mixed it with the unsweetened brew.

An acidic contrast would be welcome in the coleslaw, beans, macaroni salad, barbecue sauce — or all of the above. Even a lemon wedge in my iced tea would have helped to prevent palate fatigue.

Next time, I’d be more inclined to purchase meat by the pound or a la carte ribs to serve at home with my own side dishes. For those similarly inclined, for whom quality barbecue is a significant undertaking in the home kitchen, Sweet Tea is right on track.

Located at 1710 E. Pine St., Central Point, and 1830 W. Main St., Medford, Sweet Tea Express is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Seesweetteaexpress.com or call 541-727-7364 or 541-772-3159.

Reach freelancewriter Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

A half-rack ribs platter at Sweet Tea Express in Central Point comes with a choice of three side dishes, including coleslaw and macaroni salad. Photo by Sarah Lemon