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The Real McKoy 

Surprisingly good food at a biker-friendly bar

The difference between a biker bar and a biker-friendly bar is that of a Harley to a Vespa. Biker bars are genres unto themselves with their dark, pulsing, brooding atmospherics and restricted patronage while biker-friendly places are just that -- friendly.

The 136-seat, biker-friendly McKoy's Smoke House and Saloon opened in January 2007 as the culmination of a life-long dream by owner and native Charlottean Ryan Register, who had been the general manager of The Men's Club, Charlotte. And while the emphasis at McKoy's is not the same as The Men's Club, the words "hot girls" scream out from a sanctioned link on McKoy's official site. In response, Register noted that in addition to his females on staff he also has a male "dancer" (OK, but "hot guys" -- er, "a hot guy" -- is not being touted on the Web site).

What's unfortunate about promoting fantasies is the food at McKoy's is surprisingly good. Forget the fact the female servers will sit down beside you to take an order or chat -- I did mention this was a friendly place, right? I guess that interpersonal closeness is their way of making the customers feel comfortable and cared for. And perhaps learning the business in a place where the draw isn't the food taught Register that an eagerness to please the customer rather than assuage a chef's or proprietor's ego is cash in the bank.

McKoy's is named for Register's grandfather. Regulars park their bikes in front while cars are relegated to backspace. Not all the customers are stereotypical burly guys -- in fact, McCoy's has the energized sensibilities of a Texas bar where patrons congregate at larger tables and the majority male customers are refreshed with cold beers. The interior jams with neon beer signs and motorcycle paraphernalia. The main smallish dining room is packed on Tuesday nights when the 10-ounce prime rib with a baked potato is only $10.

McKoy's features Southern cuisine. Ask any Southerner where to get the best Southern food, and they will never tell you a restaurant. They'll say at grandma's. In McKoy's kitchen is co-owner and brother Jim Register, whose enthusiastic take on Southern cuisine is laudable. His dishes are an auteurial mix of new and old. Old being the remakes of recipes his grandmother (wife of the restaurant's namesake), made when the Registers were young, and new with his rendition of smoked-and-then-grilled chicken wings. The folksy menu section titles -- Get-cha Goin's, Vittles and Fixin's -- lead you to expect a fried-and-true-Cracker approach to Southern cuisine, but the familiar-sounding, dressed-down dishes are so much better.

While many of Register's dishes aspire to rekindle old taste memories, some want to strike out on new ground. The fried green tomatoes, for example, are flecked with bacon and served with a creamy sauce redolent of dill. His irresistible favor-packed version of the all-too-often bland quesadilla is a stellar combination of smoky bits of chicken and bacon, speckled with cilantro and oozing with cheddar and Monterey jack. These flavorful appetizers are as up-front as a good ol' boy's handshake.

But if quantity of food is what you're after, the entrees are much more likely to rev your engines. The good and plenty deep fried chicken was replete with golden crispy, non-greasy breading, but challengingly hot. Register's spin on macaroni and cheese and collard greens staves off the same-oldness almost requisite in Southern eateries.

I'm wary of places touting barbecue without any tell-tale sign of the smoker/cooker, but the pulled pork barbecue sandwich, while not densely aromatic, is also not disappointing. The sauces though -- one store-bought doctored sweet tomato, the other house-made Eastern style vinegar -- could use more spark. But the smoker is key to many of the dishes here: the ribs, the chicken, the pit pot roast and the wings. According to Ryan Register, his brother's training -- especially his expertise with the smoker -- evolved from an avocation. Make no mistake though: Food is not center stage here. Perhaps that's what makes McKoy's even better, since these dishes are pleasurable even if plainly revealed.

The beer roster is not lengthy and on draft are Guinness, Yuengling and Blue Moon. Only a few wines are offered by the glass. Dad Namon Register, also a co-owner, is on hand at lunch and is responsible for producing the house-made lemonade and limeade.

Appetizers range from $4.95 for grit cakes with tomatoes gravy to $7.95 for fried shrimp. Most sandwiches are $7.95 with a side, and entrees range from $7.95 for country-styled steak to $17.95 for a full rack of barbecued ribs with two sides. Daily specials at lunch are $6.95 with cornbread and two sides.

The key to eating well at McKoy's is to go in groups of three, four or five and place the dishes in common ownership. OK, sharing may be more of a foodie behavior than a biker one; but then again, I may just park out front next time.

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