The Theodore's saxophone neon sign and "Booze, Blues & BBQ" sign tell you all you need to know about this downtown Springfield hangout. As soon as you enter, you get the feeling of familiarity, of being in a place that's been around for years (a quarter century for Theodore's; a full century for the building). There are old brick walls with lots of vintage cigar and soft drink signs. The ceilings are high and the wooden floors are well worn. An assortment of booths, tables and stools provides comfortable seating. There's a huge bar area with more stools. TVs are scattered throughout the place. Theodore's has a stage for nighttime entertainment and an entrance to a separate billiards area with another bar. You get a bowl of warm popcorn as soon as you're seated. The beer is ice cold. The smokers are Cookshacks.
True to its name, Theodore's is booze first, barbecue (no higher than) second, but the menu has a surprisingly deep roster of barbecue items: smoked wings, burnt ends, babyback pork ribs, St Louis cut pork spare ribs, beef shortribs, smoked and pulled chicken, pulled pork, sliced brisket and smoked sausages. As expected, there's plenty of finger food to pair with the beer after the popcorn runs out.
I first visited Theodore's in the summer of 2006, liking the place overall and appreciating the value, but not being all that impressed with the 'cue, which I didn't think came from a smoker. Fast forward five years to the Facebook age, where I 'liked' every barbecue joint in the region to keep tabs on activities. Some of the photos I saw of the Theodore's 'cue caught my attention, making me think they might be using smokers afterall. They are. The food looked different and it looked good enough to warrant a return. On the first weekday I had available (they're not open for lunch on Saturdays), I paid them a visit.
Unless otherwise stated, all descriptions and photos are from the more recent 2011 visit.
Fried pickles: Tried on the first visit, these were hot, tasty spears with a crunchy batter and a creamy, slightly spicy dipping sauce. I had a hard time not eating all of them.
Wings: The menu lists about a half dozen selections with an assortment of wet, dry, sweet and spicy options. A small order ($7.99) of "Blackened" yielded a couple more than the promised eight pieces and more than enough rub, applied as the finishing treatment. The troika of paprika, salt and chile powder provided a blast from all three ingredients. The smaller-than-average size of the wings may have accounted for their less-than-moist inner texture. Smoke content was low. Overall flavor intensity and outer crunch managed to make these a minor hit, but the chance to make my wings list came and went with the minimal smoke and moisture.
Burnt ends: A basket of crisp meat cubes ($7.99) supplied concentrated overall flavor with light smoke. Most of the flavor and moisture came from the sauce, however; the typical fat inclusion that lubricates and flavors this cut was AWOL here.
Beef short ribs: The two slabs of beef with bone handles were the most eye catching items on the 3-Rib Combo platter ($25.99 for a quarter rack each of babybacks and St Louis, plus two beef shortribs). There wasn't much smoke ring to speak of, but the lusciousness of the cut was immediately obvious by its clearly visible moistness. The ultra tender meat cut easily with a fork, drooping apart in well-lubed strings whose pinkness became more prominent. The shortribs were ordered unsauced, and unlike the burnt ends, they needed no sauce whatsoever for moisture. Flavor mixed salt, rub and smoke, all with just enough strength to sing capable backup to the natural beefiness. Each rib provided plenty of beef for one person and could easily be split among two if sharing several meats. I'd call the Theodore's shortrib a definite strength and would rank it somewhere in the upper half of those I tried (probably closer to the middle than the top). Pricewise, this one's a bargain.
Babyback ribs: We ordered the 3-Rib Combo's quarter rack of babybacks sauced to safeguard against overly lean meat, and they arrived lightly coated and gently grilled. Crusting was light, probably owing more to the grill finish than the smoking process. The inner meat was surprisingly thick, pleasantly smoky and extremely tender. As are most, these babybacks were no doubt overcooked, but didn't have any of the boiled characteristic that often plagues this cut. Overall flavor was good, with the bourbon barbecue sauce a helper and not a crutch.
St Louis ribs: This quarter rack from the rib trio was served as three separate bones, each with an extremely dense and crunchy rub crust. I liked how the seeds in that crust crackled upon bite, releasing their inner oils. The rib cross sections revealed no pink and the innermost meat was more plain than the more flavorful exterior, but the freshness and free flowing juices made these enjoyable anyway. Purists could rightfully argue that the tenderness was past ideal, but for most customers the doneness here was right on the money.
Brisket: This $5.99 add-on arrived on a separate plate, with the lengthy slices perfectly fanned to reveal each one's crispy, barky crust. A light smoke ring, a thin band of fat and a modest trickle of juices near the edges completed the visual that was impressive for a joint that five years earlier was serving product whose cooking method I wasn't so sure about. Flavor was decent, but not as strong center slice as near the edges. Texture was a bit of a letdown—not downright dry but not as moist as appearance led us to believe. Overall, the brisket was about average, maybe a tick below, but they're on the right track.
Pulled pork: Another $5.99 add-on, the plate of pulled pork had more than enough meat to make two hearty sandwiches. Bark level was high, pink level was low and tenderness was delicate and bouncy. To the fork it felt moist and fresh; to the tongue, it was less moist but wasn't quite dry. Flavor was light, with a very faint smokiness and not much else going on. With some sauce, it fared much better; this pork is probably at its best in
Three table sauces in squeeze bottles hit the usual flavor spectrum with basic competence. The Bourbon and Chipotle sauces were similar to each other in body and all around flavor, with the former slightly sweeter and the latter slightly spicier. Carolina mustard is a thick but free-flowing mustard sauce with some sweetness to counter the typical "yellow" mustard taste. A fourth sauce is teriyaki, a surprise hit because it straddles the territory between straight barbecue sauce and overly salty straight teriyaki.
Sides were about average, but I admire the quantity (three sides plus
cornbread) if not the flexibility (honey slaw, collards and baked beans
are fixed, with upgrades available for a surcharge).
Cornbread: A tiny triangle of cornbread was moist, sweet and not all that different from Jiffy mix. But fresh.
Baked beans: Light beans looked canned but had an uncanny flavor jolt from a unique blend of vinegar, hot sauce and possibly mustard.
Collard greens: Thick leaves were cooked to retain a little crunch inside a mostly vinegar bath.
Honey slaw: Its name had me fearing a cloyingly sweet condiment, but there was some restraint. The cabbage was crisp.
Mac and cheese: I liked the perfectly cooked elbows hit that sweet spot between mushy and al dente. The loose and creamy cheese sauce leaned toward the sharp side but would please a child's palate equally well.
The Bottom Line
Back in 2006 I liked the Theodore's vibe, generosity and some of their food, but questioned the quality and authenticity of the 'cue. Five years later the vibe is still solid, the free popcorn is still warm and the beer is still cold. The barbecue? There's plenty of room for more improvement, but they've made some strides. The smokers may be the oft-maligned Cookshack, but a lot of ground is made up by serving the meats fresh rather than reheated. On the hits, the flavors and textures came together nicely, and the misses for the most part were at least misses with promise. No way would I call Theodore's upper echelon barbecue, but the added freshness makes the overall Theodore's package at least worth a look. Now somewhere in the middle class, Theodore's has come a long way since 2006.
My 2006 review of Theodore's Booze, Blues and BBQ
Yelp reviews of Theodore's Booze, Blues and BBQ
Urbanspoon reviews of Theodore's Booze, Blues and BBQ