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AUSSOM AUSSIE BBQ

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The Vermont Flatbread restaurant in the Strip has shifted geographically south and east and is now Aussom Aussie Boomerang BBQ. Gone are the dark greens of New England; the joint has been repainted inside and out a dusty reddish-orange. The walls now sport boomerangs, Australian beer signs and a Foster's beer-themed surfboard; the new hammered-copper light sconces glow with images of Down-Under wildlife: koalas, kangaroos, platypuses and crocodiles.

"Crikey!" I bet you're thinking, "What about the pizza and beer?" To quote the new vernacular: "No worries, mate." The taps are still dispensing microbrews (Foster's lager is the only Oz beer on tap, though there's others in bottles), and the fire burns on in the pizza oven. But the minute you walk through the door, you'll smell the smoky, sweet signal that food is now on the barbie.

The menu confirms the primacy of the BBQ: There's barbecued appetizers, an invitation to add barbecued meat to a salad, and sandwiches with barbecued meat; even the dessert listings offer a grilled pineapple. You can still get the wood-fire pizzas, including the popular build-your-own with a wide selection of sauces, cheeses and toppings. A new theme pizza has been added -- the cryptically labeled "N.O.B." -- that sounds like an Australian rugger's breakfast: mushrooms, bacon, egg, mozzarella and a swirl of Aussom Aussie "Saucearoo."

And speaking of Saucearoo, the Aussom Aussie gang are not just 15-year veterans of rib fests and "Pig Gigs" nationwide, but multiple winners of "Best BBQ," Best Ribs" and "Best Beef" awards. You should see the size of the trophies -- displayed behind the bar -- that they award at those events: three feet high with tiered columns and a shiny pig on top.

We were anxious to try all the barbecued meats so we began with the barbie sampler plate that offered the pulled pork, beef brisket and chicken. This was a substantial plate of meat -- two big piles of shredded pork and beef, and a chicken leg and thigh -- served with four points of cheese-sprinkled crunchy pizza crust. Both the slow-cooked pork and beef were fall-apart tender. Neither was overwhelmed by the sauce, so that while there were moments of sweet and tangy, the natural flavor of the meat came through. The chicken had a lighter glaze, and like all barbecued chicken, could be eaten only with one's fingers in enthusiastic bites lest the seasoned skin slip away under the knife and fork.

To enjoy the rest of the meats, we ordered a pork and beef rib combination plate. They offer several combination platters of barbecued meat: beef ribs, pork ribs, chicken, shrimp-on-a-stick, pulled pork and beef brisket. These platters come with a choice of two sides from three options: barbecued beans, pineapple coleslaw or corn salad. I never turn down sweet beans, and the coleslaw sounded interesting. The slaw was a hit -- a relatively basic cabbage slaw with a light, creamy dressing was made sweet and a trifle exotic by the addition of small pineapple pieces. We'd also added a side of cornbread. It was a little dry (though it came with plenty of butter, and there were ample sauces for sopping), but had a nice sweet and ever-so-faint spicy flavor as if a wee pinch of mace or cinnamon might have been added.

Here, the ribs are slow-smoked with cherry and apple woods, then grilled. They came to the table -- six pork, six beef -- slathered with sauce. These, according to the menu, are fruit-based sauces, though other than the orange-glazed chicken, just exactly which fruit is not specified. I should imagine that in the high-stakes, tall-trophy milieu of rib fests such details are ferociously guarded, and I'd only be guessing wildly at the sauce make-up. But these sauces were distinctly different from the usual thick sauces that are tomato-based (though, we must note, the tomato is a fruit).

The sauce was dark, sweet, tangy, very flavorful, and not hot and spicy. I like a little heat generally, but I found myself warming to these sweeter ribs. The meat came obligingly off the bone. We indulged in all the gnawing, chewing, scraping and licking fun that passes for good manners when eating ribs. It seemed like we were eating through a decade's worth of meat, but in the end, we took home only three ribs.

Helpfully, each table has a built-in roll of paper towels that dispenses as much wiping-up paper as you might need. And frankly, after our plates were cleared, I discovered we'd made quite a mess of our table. Hopefully, there's a Down Under credo that states, "food first, cleanup later," though I reckon the cheerful catch-all "no worries!" covers spilled BBQ sauce. * * *

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