Since opening in 2002, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewery has established itself as an iconic Coachella Valley restaurant. It’s a testament to the legacy Don Callender imagined many years earlier—and his son, Lucky Callender, is now looking to expand that legacy.
Don Callender’s fortune was built through the Marie Callender’s brand he created. After selling that concept, however, he wasn’t ready to settle into retirement.
“My dad had a series of concepts in the mid-1990s,” Lucky said. “We split time between Newport Beach in the summer and the desert in winter.”
When The River was being built in Rancho Mirage, the owners approached Callender—who just happened to have something in mind. In the 1990s, breweries didn’t sell their beers in taprooms like they do today; you had to visit a brewpub if you wanted to taste beer at the source. That saw the growth of chains like BJ’s, Oggi’s, Karl Strauss and Gordon Biersch. But Don wanted to create a better restaurant/brewpub concept.
“He really liked beer, but he was more of a cook and a baker,” Lucky said. “He got on this barbecue train and started messing around, making all different kinds of meats and desserts. He was always bringing different things home for us to try.
“Babe’s was a $6 million buildout in 2002. He didn’t build it to make money. He built it as his ‘shop.’”
Babe’s became Don’s legacy, the culmination of a decade of experimentation. Due to his declining health and his eventual passing in 2009, Babe’s was the only restaurant the family was able to maintain. Babe’s succeeded, in part, due to the affluent local community and tourism. It was also due to the commitment of the management team that continued to drive things forward for the next decade.
Every element of Babe’s was intentionally designed as a showpiece. From the outside, you’ll immediately see the giant silo that holds the grain for the beer. Then there are the three bronze pigs—one named Lucky, the others after Don’s two dogs—that have become Instagram celebrities over the years. The interior features vaulted ceilings and an exhibition kitchen. It’s decorated with an elaborate mix of brass, bronze, copper and black marble.
“My dad really liked bronze,” Lucky said. “He had over 30 bronze statues in his backyard.”
That love of bronze flows over to the restaurant, including the pigs outside, the rail around the kitchen and the bar, and the pigs on every booth. It’s a spectacle that you can’t help but admire on every visit.
Babe’s a multisensory experience. Outside, the gentle aromas of hickory hardwood and pecan smoke waft out across Highway 111. Inside, the Southern Pride rotisserie smoker sits on full display in front of the kitchen. It holds a whopping 120 racks of ribs.
Slow-smoked and prepped in a Memphis dry rub, the ribs take center stage. Baby backs are smoked for five hours; the St. Louis-style ribs are smoked for six. It’s the less-trendy, more-traditional St. Louis ribs that really stand out. This is a fattier cut, something the smoker takes full advantage of in inducing extra flavor and juiciness. The menu offers wet or dry ribs, but you really need to get the sauce. It’s more than the sum of the parts: Adding the barbecue sauce to the ribs on the grill induces a magical chemical reaction, adding exponentially to the flavor profile.
An even bigger surprise is the boneless beef short rib. Seven hours in the smoker results the most decadent, rich and tender meat you’re ever likely to experience. The short-rib dinner is delicious, but you’ll also find it in several formats and combinations. Try the short-rib sandwich with spicy barbecue sauce, fried onions, and mozzarella for an explosion of flavor.
The pulled pork sandwiches are another favorite. A 13-hour smoking process delivers unrivaled succulence.
Beyond the traditional barbecue fare, Babe’s takes things a step further with several creative fusion-style dishes. A choice of meats is available on the signature BBQ salad; the menu also offers reimagined sandwiches, burgers, seafood and steaks.
There are comfort-food elements from the Marie Callender’s past, too. The pies, with their delectable sugar crust, are always a hit; my favorite is the rhubarb. The cast-iron skillet cornbread is soft and delicious, accentuated with sweet corn, green chiles and honey butter. And then there are Don’s tamales—chicken, brisket or goat cheese—wrapped in soft sweet-corn masa, and garnished with turkey chili, tomatillo sauce and cheese.
The beer program has morphed and flourished over the years. In 2002, palates dictated lighter styles. The Honey Blonde and Blackfin Lager that have been signatures since Babe’s opening are still favorites today—but the brews are now much more complex. The Belgian Vanilla Blonde won a medal at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in 2014. Current head brewer Juan Higuera came from Coachella Valley Brewing Co. and is highly regarded. He’s added a popular hazy IPA to the portfolio, and he’s been working in out-of-the box ideas like a strawberry banana pastry sour. Look out for his upcoming seasonal porters—variants that will include gingerbread pastry and pumpkin spice.
If you’re just stopping by for a beer, Babe’s offers an extensive list of appetizers, including items fried okra, brisket mac and cheese, jambalaya, wings, and the famous baked yam with honey butter and pecans.
It’s been a coming of age for Lucky Callender. He was just a child when his father passed away. After graduating college (and developing a love for homebrewing), he purchased full rights to the restaurant in 2018. He hopes to expand the Babe’s brand further, and also has a second, non-Babe’s concept in the works. As such, he hopes to maintain his father’s legacy—while also carving out one of his own.
For more information, visit www.babesbbqbrewery.com.