Friday, December 30, 2011

Mary's Pit Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No26 – Mary’s Pit Bar-B-Que
Gurley, Madison County

The building has two doors in the front. Back in 1958, when it they opened Mary’s Pit Bar-B-Que in what was then the hamlet of Maysville, you would enter through the right door if the complexion of your skin was pale, and through the left door if it was not so pale. Since then, the left door has been blocked, so everybody uses the right door now, independently of their tan lines, but not much more seems to have changed there in over fifty years.
The actual “restaurant”, and I use this term rather loosely again, is a teeny room with a window in the back where you order and receive your meal, a small narrow counter next to it with six round, worn down bar-stools on metal poles (one of the seats is missing, though), the menu on a pin-board at the opposite wall, a white board with the daily specials on the small wall of the room, a pink trash can in one corner and a very low ceiling with lots of scribblings, cartoons and what I would call “country-graffiti”, on it.
Most of the folks who get their food here do it as take-out fare. And everybody seems to know each other, judging from the conversations I overheard when I was there – it seemed to me as if this place is the “original facebook”, where people from the neighborhood come together and just chat a little with each other face to face, while waiting for their pork sandwiches.
All in all it is a very homey atmosphere, but certainly you would not find “outsiders” like me and my wife there too often. They don’t have a web site, there is no sign on the nearest Highway, US 72, which is about four miles to the west, there is only word of mouth and the locals just simply know that Mary’s is there. So if you don’t have a friend from that area who tells you were to go, you certainly would just drive by the right exit on the Highway ignorantly on your way to or from Huntsville.

This would be a real shame, because apart from the genuine and cozy atmosphere, you would miss out on great food.
As usual, I had the pork plate, which was not a real plate this time, because the supplier didn’t show that week and so they had to improvise. The pork came in a cardboard basket, and the sides in Styrofoam cups. Oh, well, from my point of view this only added to the quirky authenticity of this place. I also had a soda, which came in the original can, and my wife had a slab of ribs. Oddly enough, they had no idea what she was talking about when she ordered a “half rack of ribs”, and we were lucky that a young guy, who apparently had already seen the world despite his youth, translated it for us into the native lingo. It’s the same county we live in, but twenty-five miles apart from each other, three valleys further, we already use different terms for the same things. Amazing.

And “amazing” also describes the ribs real well. Firm and lean, with an excellent dry rub on them, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside; they had a lot of meat on them and just the right amount of fat to enhance the smoky flavor. According to my wife, there was a distinct basic pork aroma in those ribs, and she ranks them in the top three of her list. She didn’t use the accompanying sauce, because that would have just diluted the blissful taste of the pure ribs. The BBQ beans that came with the ribs were, well, very similar to the stuff you get in one of those cans from the supermarket – but the top notch can, to make that clear. The biscuits that came with it were somewhat small and unassuming.
My pork also had a nice flavor, yet it was a bit soggier as I would have liked. It was not submerged in moisture, but I usually like my meat more on the dry side of the spectrum, and this it clearly wasn’t. The sauce that came with it was your run of the mill spicy vinegar variety, which I noticed is kind of a staple on that side of the Monte Sano Mountains. On our side, to the west, the sauces are usually thicker and more fruity than vinegary, or even made with mustard in some places, but once you drive down the hills on the east side, you will find that there the thin liquid vinegary stuff rules. Interesting - you don’t even have to leave the county to be in a fairly different BBQ-world.
As for the sides, the potato salad also reminded me of the concoctions you find in a Supermarket. But the slaw was a different story – it appeared to be hand made, with a very delicious sweet-and-sour taste and with quite a crunchy bite to it.

All in all, we paid twenty-five bucks for a very good meal, where the ribs and the slaw were the two items that clearly stood out. And the atmosphere, the history of that place, the friendliness of the people, the stories you hear there, are just priceless.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Bar-B-Q Smoke House

Quest Log No25 – The Bar-B-Q Smoke House
Decatur, Morgan County

Seventeen Dollars for a BBQ lunch is a bit unusual. Even more so, if the place does not really qualify as a fancy-schmanzy gourmet temple, or does not have yet reached national celebrity status, like some other place in Decatur. No, the rusting, man-high rooster on the bottom of the sign-pole in front of the building, plus some kind of a flying pig on the sign that says “The Bar-B-Q Smoke House” surely indicates a more down to earth eating experience.
Well, down to earth is the level of comfort when you leave this Smoke House, dragging your full belly behind you after trying in vain to leave a clean three-meat combo plate with all the fixin’s – you get a lot, and I really do mean A LOT of food for seventeen bucks. I thought I was hungry enough to master this challenge, but had to admit defeat eventually.
So, what you get when you order the three meat combo plate is three meats (pork or beef, ½ chicken, ribs), slaw, beans, two slices of Texas toast, and a basket full of potato wedges.
Since I am not a big fan of chicken (too much work involved in ripping the meat off the bones – I am not here to practice my hand-eye coordination, but to dig in …), I told the very nice lady behind the counter, just give me more pork instead of the bird.
The pork was actually very nicely smoked, with a fine but distinctive smoke aroma, although it was a bit too dry for my taste. It was very tender and the size of the pulled bites was just perfect. They give you four sauces with the plate, two for the pork and two especially for the ribs. The mild pork sauce is very flavorful, with a rich (apple cider?) vinegar body. The hot variety is the same basic stuff, just with some peppers added. Both sauces do complement the pork perfectly.
The rib sauces are thicker, with a bit more sweetness to them. Also here, the hot sauce is a spiced up variety of the mild sauce. Again, both go very well with the ribs, but I also used them on the pork – with no apparent damage to my health. They also have a white sauce in their repertoire, but since I did not want the chicken, I also did not get the white sauce – tough luck.
My thought on the ribs is that their quality was not even in the same ballpark with the pork. They were kind of pale, and although the taste was actually very good, I prefer a good crust and red meat. There was a lot of real tender meat on them, but the apparent lack of a dry rub to give them a bit more kick was a small disappointment.
The sides, on the other hand, were excellent.
Especially the potato wedges were a revelation. They came fresh out of the oven, with an herb crust on them that was just wonderful. The barbeque beans were very good, as well, without the ubiquitous cinnamon, but with a very nice rounded sweet flavor. The slaw looked kind of funky, being more brownish than the usual green/white color, but it tasted very good and I guess here too the apple cider vinegar was used.
I did not really care that much for the Texas toast, which was kind of dry and uninspired.

On the other hand, the atmosphere in this place is very inspiring. They have only a handful of tables to sit in there, but each table has a nice view at the proceedings on the Point Mallard Parkway that runs directly in front of parking lot.
The furniture is wooden tables on poles with laminated regional advertisements on top of it, and metal tube chairs. No booths, no plastic, no fake fanciness.
There is a constant coming and going, and most customers are greeted with their names, and also seem to know each other, too. I guess that not many tourists like me, from, say, Madison or Limestone Counties, ever find their way to this little jewel of southern cuisine and southern hospitality in Decatur. But if you are really hungry and want to fill your belly with real quality southern food, you should maybe consider an expedition to the Smoke House once in a while – you will be rewarded richly for your boldness.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Nash BBQ on the Beltline

Quest Log No24 – Nash BBQ on the Beltline

Decatur, Morgan County

“You had the rest, now try the best”.
Proud words that they have on their web site. To make a long story short, yes, I had the rest, and quite many of them are better than Nash BBQ on the Beltline in Decatur. In fact, Nash ranks in close proximity to the very bottom of the list of places I’ve visited so far.

Well, they also claim – on their web site again - that “Hickory smoked BBQ is our specialty” and that they are “still using the same recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation”.
I’d say making bold claims is their real area of expertise.

Hickory smoked … yeah, right. My question would be what they were smoking when they put this on their web site. The meat, pulled pork, was as far removed from being hickory smoked, as I am from winning a Nobel Prize. It tasted very sour, which probably came from the fact that it was drenched in some kind of vinegar-pepper marinade. Even the strongest hickory aroma could not survive that kind of treatment. And quite frankly, I immediately thought “slow cooked” after the first few bites. It was very tender, reasonably lean, and not too mushy, but it certainly lacked every other quality I think an expertly smoked piece of meat should possess.
So, the first and foremost feature of the pork was its sourness, which was then even kicked up a notch through the vinegar-pepper sauce that came in a little cup on the side, and which I foolishly poured over the meat without tasting it first.

That the cole slaw reminded me of a heap of shredded glass that was lying in a puddle of water is not really important here. Looks can be deceiving and actually the relative sweetness of the slaw was a nice counterpart to that vinegar orgy my pork had become. Without that, judged by itself, I fear my appreciation of this particular type of slaw would be less enthusiastic.

Which can be said without any hesitation of the potato salad – it was one of the sorriest excuses to slice a potato in a long time. Can you say “out of a can” …?! Apparently, the folks at Nash can.
Complementing this array of substandard parts was two slices of plain white toast, neatly wrapped in butcher paper.
For all that glorious failure, I paid a little over nine bucks, with a drink. Well, at least the iced tea was freshly brewed and not too sweet.

Oh, I almost forgot – the atmosphere of this place is … special. Nine tables, brown and green checkered linoleum floor, empty walls except for two tiny flat screen TVs and a black board with leaflets on it. That’s it. Frugal. Sober. Boring. Like a freakin’ Hospital cafeteria. But the folks working in there were very friendly and that reconciled me a bit with the rest of my dining experience. “Come again”, were the parting words from the kitchen, when I left. Fat chance. And I would also not recommend betting the farm on me visiting the two other locations of Nash BBQ in Decatur and Hillsboro.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Harlon's Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 13 – Harlon's Bar-B-Que

Houston, Bush International Airport, Texas

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ... 

Seriously, what can you expect from airport food? Exactly.
But since it was there, I just had to try it. Good thing they have all kinds of other restaurants there at Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas, because unfortunately my travel schedule for the next weeks will require that I eat there at least a few times between flights.
So, they have a Harlon’s Bar-B-Que counter there in one of the food courts in Terminal B. Hurrah.
Another Harlon’s is to be found in a Houston shopping mall, two others are in the city of Houston and one in a town called Nacogdoches, and they also sell pre-packaged meats in local supermarkets. Amazing.

Okay then, give me a two meat plate with sausage and beef, and please try not to sneeze on the meat while you preparing it, thank you so much for your consideration.
Well, of course there is no potato salad, we are in Texas here and those folks eat … Mac’n’Cheese with their BBQ?! What the heck, when in Houston … And also give me some green beans, I better counter the bacteria from your constant sneezing with some vitamins.
Yeah, I guess I’ll have a drink, medium un-sweet tea, please. Here you go, almost fifteen Dollars for you, a plate with two meats, cheesy noodles and boring vegetables, and a very generous helping of flu particles for me. Yippieh.

Since this place is in an airport food court, the atmosphere there is like you are sitting in an airport. Doh …
But at least it’s BBQ, right? Well, kind of, in a matter of speaking, you could probably refer to it as such, if you are very polite and don’t mess with Texas.
First of all, the meat came drenched with some kind of spicy ketchup. Great.
The sausage was fatty and tasted only spicy; no room for any real taste here, just the hot sensation of the spices.
Whereas the beef was very lean, but also kind of chewy and had an aroma not much unlike cardboard.
It came as a surprise to me, how good the Mac’n’Cheese actually tasted. Although I think the creaminess of it was more a product of it being under a heating lamp for hours than the actual cooking prowess of Mr. Kraft.
The green beans, on the other hand, which came with little pieces of red pepper, were really good – crunchy and very tasty. And I sure hope they had lots of vitamins to contribute to my body’s flu resistance forces.
So, now that my curiosity is satisfied, next time I am at the Houston airport, I can look out for some, hmm, … healthier … better … tastier food – even if it does not contain the magic three letters. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rib Town BBQ

Non-Quest BBQ No 12 – Rib Town BBQ

Las Cruces, New Mexico

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ... 

You probably wouldn’t go to any Mexican Restaurant here in Alabama expecting original south-of-the-border cuisine. And rightfully so - most places here serve a very much “Americanized” version of Tacos and Fajitas.
On the other hand, is the same true in reverse? Meaning, if you went to a BBQ place in one of the Border States to Mexico, shouldn’t you tone down your expectations some notches, too? By my own recent experience in two of those states, you would be well advised to do exactly that.

On a culinary map, New Mexico would probably feature prominently with Mexican/Tex-Mex food, and most likely steaks and anything beef related.
Real - that is southern style - BBQ is without any doubt not the cooking that would propel this beautiful state into the top regions of any “must-go-to-eat-there-places”-lists.
Granted, I only have a very limited sample size to base this judgment on right now, but the further west I go, the worse the BBQ seems to get.
In the preceding weeks, I had the opportunity to take Texas to the test, and while it was surely not too bad, it was also not really good.

Well, and now New Mexico - the metropolis of Las Cruces, to be exact.
The whole BBQ experience there really starts on the wrong foot, when a Google search spits out only half a dozen restaurants – which is pitiful by Bama standards, for a metro area with over two hundred thousand inhabitants.
And it gets even worse, when you drive to one of those addresses to discover that there is … nothing. That leaves five places, one of which is a Dickey’s chain restaurant, and I already had the opportunity to test this in Ft. Worth a couple of weeks ago and absolutely do not feel the need to go there again.
So, we are down to four now. Reading the critiques on the internet, one place seems to be at the top of the crop, and that is Rib Town BBQ.
Sure, it has changed hands a few times in recent years, also changing the name from Rib Cage to Rib Shack and now to Rib Town. But the BBQ part was always kept.

I guess, another thing that did not change is the small smoker in a chain-link-fence surrounded place next to the building. So, at least they theoretically know how to prepare the meat, and walking up to the place it sure smelled promising.
The red building has a sign in front of the entrance that says “Come in and Pig out” – nice touch, I like whimsical stuff like that.
The inside does not ooze exactly with southern charm, it is more reminiscent of one of those 50’s era soda parlors. All over the walls are scribblings and graffiti from satisfied customers, a few booths with red faux-leather are complimented by some simple tables with wood furniture. The atmosphere is very bright and friendly, which is reflected by the equally very friendly and warm manners of the staff.

So, I ordered the pork plate with slaw and potato salad, not really expecting much, since this was New Mexico and not New Hope, Alabama. And I would not be disappointed.
The meat was very soft and mushy, and by my account seriously overcooked. I can’t really tell how it tasted, because it came drenched in some kind of glorified-ketchup-with-spices sauce, and the sweet flavor of it just simply overpowered any other aroma the meat itself might have had.
The corn slaw – yes, corn, not cole – was a neutral tasting mayonnaisy concoction with some shredded cabbage and, yes, corn. But the kowtow to the south-western cuisine did not stop there. The potato salad had actual black olives in it.
Black Olives. Potato Salad. Two things never to be mixed together – yikes!
A piece of dry toast, and some pickles and onion pieces completed the plate.

For about twelve Dollars with un-sweet iced tea, it was not even that cheap. And quite frankly, I had much better BBQ for much less money elsewhere. But for Las Cruces, New Mexico, so far west from the heartbeat of the BBQ world, it was okay, I guess. Since I was the first Alabamian to visit this place, as the owner revealed in a little chit chat while we waited for the cook to prepare my plate, all the cheerful and supporting writings on the walls were no surprise to me. I tactfully refrained from adding what I thought to the flattery on display there, not wanting to upset anybody. We Alabamians are friendly folks – and we know what good BBQ is.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dickey's Barbecue Pit

Non-Quest BBQ No 11 – Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
Arlington, Texas

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ... 
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit has started as a family business in Dallas, Texas, in 1941. Since then, they franchised their business model and today there are about 140 Dickey’s all over the United States. With the conspicuous exception of the States of Alabama and Tennessee. They are certainly successful, and also obviously wise enough than to test their luck here in the BBQ belt. And rightfully so, because they don’t hold a candle to even most of our more average BBQ places.

This is not to say that the food is bad at Dickey’s – not at all. But if you had the choice between a V8-Truck and a Smart … that’s what I mean. No contest. Game over. Move on. Get out of the way. Now.

The restaurant exterior and interior are strictly and clearly designed to appeal to the usual Sports-Bar/Family restaurant crowd. Nice wooden furniture, a few neon signs and antique looking photos on the walls, a couple of flat-screen-TVs in the corners, booths on the walls, tables in the middle, blue-and-white checkered table cloths, plastic plates and metal silverware. Standard issue American family restaurant equipment, no style points for authenticity here, that’s for sure.
And then there is the misleading name – Barbecue Pit. Laughable. They use gas powered smokers, which by my count is as far away from anything you could justifiably call “Barbecue Pit” as I am from being mistaken for Brad Pitt.
So, although the original place in Dallas still exists, and the franchise is also still owned by the original family, their restaurants aren’t exactly Mom-and-Pop-style joints, and they also cut some corners in other areas during their growth to national food chain. But how is the food now, actually?
Well, to find this out, I ordered the two meat plate – with pulled pork and polish sausage, and baked beans and a so called baked potato casserole on the side. And for good measure, and because it just happened to stand there so invitingly at the counter where you load your side on the plate, I also took a cup of apple cobbler. And good thing that I did, because that was definitely the high light of the whole meal.

First of all, the pork was not pulled. It was kind of cut into big chunks, which where not very tender and also contained a good bit of gristle and fat, while the meat around that was unbelievably dry. The taste was actually surprisingly acceptable, but after spitting the third chunk of gristle into a napkin, I really wasn’t in the mood to enjoy it any more. And it also didn’t help much that the pork was smothered with sweet sauce – vinegar and pepper to bring out the flavor, anybody? Goodness gracious.
The polish sausage on the other hand was real good – a little spicy, but that was complemented in a very nice manner by the thick red sweet barbecue sauce the carver at the counter had poured over it. Although the sausage was certainly not of the lean variety, taste and texture were really pleasant.
The baked beans on the other hand were just merely acceptable, and you can get the same quality out of almost every canned brand from the supermarket.
And then the baked potato casserole – what a grand name for mashed potatoes with bacon bits and cheese on top. It was kind of a tasteless concoction, only resembling anything flavorful when I happened to have bacon, potatoes and cheese together on the fork. Don’t those people (outside of Alabama and Tennessee) know what potato salad is? And cole slaw? Maybe it is good they apparently don’t – it would end in certain disaster anyway. So, Texas (and Florida and everybody else), stay with your potato casseroles and fries, and leave the real stuff to those people who can handle it.

As mentioned above, the apple cobbler was very good, not too sweet and without that dreadful cinnamon spice. Also, you get a free ice-cream cone with each meal, which is always a crowd pleaser. And for such a lot of food, including a large drink, the price of just over thirteen buckaroos is a very fair deal. But I would gladly have paid more to get decent pulled pork. And potato salad. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Hope Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No23 – New Hope Bar-B-Que
New Hope, Madison County

A prominent part of the saga called Americana is the legend of the old Mom and Pop shop at some sleepy two lane highway, where you can get the best of something, be it home made quilts, knives, rocking chairs, straw hats, or any variety of local food.
Of course, only a few living souls outside the neighborhood are privy to the information where to find these places, but sometimes an unprepared traveler might also stumble into the store, restaurant, or whatever Mom and Pop shop there is.

One of those authentic places exists in New Hope, and it is a BBQ joint. Operated by local folks, who fall more in the category of Mom and Pop of Mom and Pop (which would be Grandma and Grandpa, just to be clear here …), it seems to be one of those places which are part of the local tradition and basically embedded into the landscape.
New Hope Bar-B-Que is first and foremost a carry-out operation, and no, there is no such modern flim-flam as a drive through. You get out of the car, young man, walk up to the counter and politely place your order there.
Which I did. Could I have a pork plate, please. Sure, it comes with slaw, baked beans, and baked potato salad, is that okay? Yes, thank you, that is fine. And what kind of sauce do you want – we have hot and mild. Well, how hot is your hot sauce? Well, it’s made of apple-cider vinegar and cayenne pepper, my own recipe, and it will bring out the meat flavor really well. Tell you what, I just give you one cup of both, and you can just pour a drop of the hot sauce on it and decide if that would be too spicy for you.

So, I gave him ten bucks and he gave me the meal - which came in one of these Styrofoam carry-out boxes with plastic utensils - with a canned Coke to drink, and the two different sauces.
Since I did not want to eat this in my car, and they have three tables and a few chairs there, I just sat down at one of the tables. A little boy, probably their grandchild, carrying a toy hunting rifle with a scope, immediately came over, but left bewildered after he saw me taking pictures of the food. That is most probably not the normal behavior in New Hope. They usually just eat their food there, I reckon.

Of course, after I was done with my camera, I ate the food, too. And not having done so would have been a shame, because it was actually very good.
The meat did not have that kind of overwhelming smoky flavor that totally covers the pork taste. It was very tender and a little bit on the dry side, which I really like. No mushy wetness here that leaves the meat spongy and soggy. Big chunks, too, which I also like very much. And grandpa was absolutely right – his home made hot sauce really underscored the meat flavor in a very pleasant way. And it really was not too spicy, but had a wonderfully aromatic sour flavor through the apple-cider vinegar.
And the mild sauce, a thick red concoction with only a hint of spiciness on it, but also more on the sour side, was very delicious, too.
The best part of the sides was definitely the slaw. I like it when the cabbage flavor is not completely suppressed by the sauce, and in this case the sauce added just the right amount of tartness. The potato salad was not too bad, either, but basically on par with numerous others I had so far. As for the baked beans, the taste seemed to hint on the possibility that they came out of a can.

So, although I do not live even in the remote vicinity of New Hope, but it took me almost an hour to get there from my house, it was an enjoyable experience. The food was really good, and it doesn’t possibly get any more authentic than this. And also, during my meal there, I learnt all about the different hourly rates for work in the local job market. It seemed to be the topic du jour, because everybody who came in to order just chimed in, so it was kind of a never ending chat, only with constantly changing participants. This must be one of those local customs, which are indispensible to adding flavor to the saga that is called Americana. And it also helps to have that experience over a good meal of southern BBQ.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ted's Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No22 – Ted’s Bar-B-Q
Huntsville, Madison County

Do you like the outdoors? Do you crave fresh air all the time, don’t mind the elements, and the occasional insect crawling over you? Or are you one of them pathetic sissies who absolutely positively need air conditioning, bug repellent and hand sanitizer to not get the creeps?
If the latter is true, then you better use the drive through at Ted’s Bar-B-Q in Huntsville, or take your meal as carry-out. But if you at least drive a big hunkin’ truck and pride yourself in being a robust country man, you may decide to battle the elements and sit on one of the half dozen tables that are located curbside in front of Ted’s joint. And if you are real lucky, you’ll get one of the two tables that are actually situated under the arcade of the building.
Those tables, though, are recognizably out of place there – they have stickers from some Mexican place on it, and the arrangement of putting them on the curb smells like improvisation. Originally, Ted’s Bar-B-Q was supposed to be a drive-through/carry-out kind of place only. But since they opened a few weeks ago, the need for sit-down places seems to have arisen. Alas, there is no space for that inside, with the kitchen taking up most of the square footage, and the rest being occupied by the counter where you order.
So, on a sunny October day with temperatures in the low eighties, sitting outside is just a fabulous idea. But I do not dare to imagine doing that on a three digit August day, or in miserable winter weather in January. Basically, that puts this place into the drive-by-BBQ category, with a sit-down option, weather permitting.

That of course means that the atmosphere is greatly dependent on, for instance, how much diesel fumes the trucks that drive by will blast into your face. On the plus side, the staff will bring your meal to the table, although in the same plastic bag, with Styrofoam containers and plastic utensils, as the carry-out customers get. But the folks there are very friendly and accommodating, and the place is also very clean inside. Outside might be a different story, see above.

So then to the food they serve.
I had potato salad and slaw with my pork plate, which also came with a piece of corn bread. When ordering, you will be asked if you want mild or hot sauce with your pork. Well, can’t I have both? No, not really – they pour it over the pork already in the kitchen, which I do not really like. It’s a freedom of choice thing, you know. A cup of the hot sauce, which I chose this time, came with the plate, but the damage was already done – the pork was drenched in sauce. If you don’t like it that way, tough luck Dude.
Because of this, it was real hard to discern the taste of the pork alone, but I managed to find an uncovered piece and, well, it was not too bad. Acceptable, really, but not real great. And the pork was very tender, too, but that came with a trade-off – it was kind of mushy, wet, moist. Hard to tell which exactly, because of the sauce, but the moist softness of the meat lead to my thinking that it was not really smoked all the way, but somehow boiled in between.
Well, with the sauce all over the meat, it really did not make that big of a difference, I guess. Although I must say that this hot sauce actually is quite tasty, with a fruity body with just the right amount of spiciness.
Also, the potato salad was real good, with a very well rounded taste that had just a hint of sourness and made out of “al dente” red potatoes. The slaw, although a bit too much on the neutral tasting side, was a very good match with the hot sauce.
All in all, certainly not the best pork plate in town, but definitely acceptable.

My wife had ordered the Beef brisket and she got … pulled beef. Maybe the order was bungled, or maybe they just call it brisket and it really is just pulled beef. Anyway, it was not a taste-revelation at all. The flavor was okay, but if you expect brisket and get ordinary pulled beef, your judgment might also be a bit biased.
As sides, she had BBQ beans, which seemed to come directly out of a can, and green beans, which were actually not bad at all. But still, she told me that the “brisket” was no reason for her to consider Ted’s Bar-B-Q the “place to go” for this kind of meat.

One rather odd item you find on Ted’s menu are Tamale. Wikipedia says that “Tamale is a traditional Latin American dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can themselves be filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned”.
Why this should be on the menu of a southern BBQ place beats me. But I tried it anyway.
Well, it actually came in corn-leaf wrapper, and it had the same pork with hot sauce in it that I already knew. Quite frankly, the corn-dough absorbed much of the spiciness of the sauce, and the taste of the pork, and that resulted in a rather uninspiring and characterless overall flavor. And for almost two and a half bucks with tax, this thing was not even adequately sized.

So, would I go there again? Not for the brisket, and not for the tamale, but actually, yes, you might find me there once in a while. Because Ted’s Bar-B-Q is only about five minutes away from my office, it is a convenient way to get some BBQ for lunch. Kind of like going to one of those burger places – you don’t expect much, but it is okay food. The addition of the tables, and the tamale on the menu  show that they are quite adaptive and innovative at Ted’s, and maybe at some time, they will also introduce a kid’s meal with a toy there. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Old Gin House Bar-B-Q

Quest Log – Old Gin House Bar-B-Q
Elkmont, Limestone County

I am Captain Ahab, and this is my white whale.
The Old Gin House Bar-B-Q in Elkmont was supposed to be really good. Authentic atmosphere, authentic food, great locality inside an old cotton gin – a sure fire Top Ten contender, I was assured by people who live in this part of Limestone County.
I’ve been there three times.
The first time on a Monday in April, with my wife. The restaurant was closed. No service on Mondays. Well, it’s a forty-five minute drive from our house, so it took us a while to try again. But when we showed up in July, they were on summer break.
And today, they had a sign outside saying that they are closed for good.
Ahab was eventually killed by his whale, so I guess I should not complain. But it frustrates the heck out of me, nonetheless.

Friday, September 30, 2011

New Market Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No21 – New Market Bar-B-Q
New Market, Madison County

No money in the world can buy style and authenticity. But how do you find out if, say, a BBQ place has that? When you begin smiling as soon as you step over the threshold, because it feels like coming home, that is a good sign. A no frills atmosphere with wooden furniture, ceiling fans and a big menu next to the hole in the wall where you order also is an indication. And then, of course, an assortment of stuffed animal heads on the walls, and no sign of a flat screen TV also help to determine that.
Most of all, however, you know that a place has style and authenticity when the owner, who just prepared your meal, comes out, places himself a rocking chair and begins to chat with you. It doesn’t get any more authentic than that here in the South.

But very seldom does a BBQ place survive only because of its looks – if the food isn’t right, nobody really cares.
Well, as much as a snowball has a fightin’ chance in Hell, the New Market Bar-B-Q won’t go out of business because of bad food.
Everything there is home made, and they sell out frequently before closing time. The place itself is kind of a hybrid between a full fledged restaurant and a take-out joint, and is only open Friday to Sunday. There is no drive through, so if you want to get take-out food, you must step out of your car and come to the hole in the wall inside the building. It is kind of archaic in these modern times when everything else is always “on-the-go”, and I like it very much.
Of course, I stayed there for my meal and occupied one of the maybe ten chairs that are lined up along the long side of the building at a long wooden counter. This is kind of a novel layout, but it surely contributes much to the very distinctive style of the place.

But I detour again – so, back to the home made food.
As usual, I had the pulled pork, with slaw and BBQ beans this time. A small bun, a pickle and a small cup of sauce complete the meal, which comes in one of those doggy-bag carry-out boxes. A plastic fork and soft-drinks in cans add to the plain country style.
The food, however, is anything else but plain. The pork had a wonderfully smoked aroma, and it was very tender and not especially moist – just the way I like it. Don’t get me wrong, it was not dry at all, but sometimes when you are finished with your pork, there is a residue of wetness at the plate, which I can perfectly live without. This was not the case here, and I would say this pulled pork can run with the big pigs (pardon my French).
As for the slaw, I had to choose between the vinegar and the mayonnaise style, and went with the first one. Didn’t regret it, no Sir, not at all. That was downright one of the best slaws I ever had. Crunchy and fresh, with just the right amount of sourness and seasoned in a wonderfully balanced way.
Almost as good were the semi-sweet BBQ beans, which lacked, thank goodness, any hint of the dreaded cinnamon, but had little pieces of meat in it.
However, there is one part of the meal that did not find my univocal applause – the sauce. It is basically vinegar with a few spices in it, which produces, no surprise here, a very sour taste with a little zing to it. It actually harmonizes quite well with the semi-sweet beans and the semi-sour slaw, but poured over the pork it lacks the richness and body of a tomato or mustard based sauce. There is certainly room for improvement here. But they also have a killer white sauce for their chicken and a creamy-thick red sweet-and sour sauce.

But all in all, this is certainly one of those places to return to when you are in the area. And for about seven and a half bucks, including a soft drink, you can go there often. And maybe have a home made dessert, too, which I inexplicably refused this time. Could kick myself in the behind for that missed opportunity – so I guess, I just need to come back and have another lunch there. I heard their ribs are the killer, too, so I will probably bring my wife, the family’s leading expert in that category. We’ll see - so much BBQ and so little time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cecil’s Texas Style Bar-B-Q

Non-Quest BBQ No 10 – Cecil’s Texas Style Bar-B-Q

Orlando, Florida

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ...

What exactly is this “Texas Style” that so many places carry in their name? Is it the fact that you order at a counter where the meat is prepared before your very eyes? Or is it the different wood that they use to smoke the meat? Or is it the sauces that are different from what we have here in the BBQ Belt? Is it all of the above?
Or maybe it’s just the posters of dudes in Cowboy hats on the walls. I don’t know, but I will find out next month when I will be on ravel to Dallas.

But right now, I have to be content with “Texas Style” places outside of that great state, in this case namely Cecil’s Texas Style Bar-B-Q in Orlando, Florida.
Which is a nice clean and somber classical restaurant, with wooden furniture split half and half between four-person tables and four-person booths, a few Texas-oriented pictures, posters and mementos on the walls, and an overall no-frills atmosphere to it.

You order at a counter and the meat is prepared before your very eyes. Then the plastic plate is handed to you and you go around a corner to the buffet with the sides. They have beans, beans, and some more beans there, in different varieties. You put two sides on your plate and proceed to the cashier, get your drink out of the soda machine, and then go to an island in the middle of the dining room where you will find the sauces, condiments, pickles, onion rings and the like.
Cecil’s is only the second place in Orlando where I found pulled pork, so I got that, and chose BBQ beans and some strange potato-casserole like thing as sides. A slice of the usual Texas toast comes with the meal, too.

Apparently, they know how to smoke pork in Texas – it was very tender and juicy, with a nicely pronounced smoke flavor, and surely well within the acceptable standards. Nothing really spectacular, though, just plain good ol’ pulled pork.
You have the choice between three sauces, and here is where the trouble begins. The sweet sauce is a notch better than pure ketchup, the mild sauce has the color of charcoal and tastes like burnt chicory, whereas the hot sauce is more bitter than spicy. A cup of the sweet sauce with just a few drops of the hot sauce generates an acceptable mixture, but quite frankly the sauces are not the strong point of this joint.
This can also be stated for the sides I had. The BBQ beans were nothing special, maybe a bit too much on the sweet side, but this potato-casserole thing was downright blah. Half-cooked potatoes with onion rings, all covered with American cheese – and it tasted like cardboard. So, still no sighting of potato salad in Orlando.
The Texas toast on the other hand was not too bad, but then again, what can possibly go wrong here?

One nice touch is that with each in-house dinner comes a free ice cream cone. The machine they have for this is a rather picturesque apparatus but the vanilla ice cream that comes out of it tastes very good.
For just under fourteen bucks, which seems to be a standard Orlando price tag for BBQ, including a drink and an ice cream cone, the meal was not a bad deal. The highlight was certainly the meat, followed by the ice cream as dessert, and it is a nice non-fancy restaurant. All in all, an acceptable dining experience with okay food, but I am clearly anxious to see how they do it in Texas proper.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bubbalou's Bodacious Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 9 – Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Que

Orlando, Florida

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ... 

Life is full of despair, disappointments and regrets. The item on ebay that you bid so vigorously for is snatched away from you in the last moment, you overlooked the police car that was waiting only for you to run that red light in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, the big winning lottery ticket is one number higher or lower than the ticket you have, and finding a decent BBQ place in Orlando is an exercise in futility.
But once in a while, the sky is blue, the birds are chirping and at the end of the rainbow actually sits a pot of … pulled pork.

Well, it was not a sunny, friendly day, but actually a grizzly, rainy, hot and humid day in Orlando, a day typically reserved for occasions like the one you have left on your vacation to finally go to Disneyworld. Suffice to say that the weather perfectly fit my mood – another day in Orlando, another frustrating BBQ experience that was waiting for me. The places I tried so far had been merely okay, and I feared that this string of bad luck would continue. Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Que … are you freakin’ kiddin’ me? If that was not a name straight out of the Tourist-Trap 101, what else?!
And the logo – three dancing pigs with designer sun-glasses on – kind of fit in there perfectly.
So, the first impression, from the outside, was devastating. But since I was here, I might as well go inside and check the touristy-mainstream food out, right?
Inside, the place actually looked a lot like some of the BBQ joints we have here in North Alabama. Wooden furniture, dead stuffed animals on the walls, interspersed with faded newspaper and magazine articles, a few flat screen TVs with sports on, a roll of paper towels on each table – I didn’t check for dead flies on the window sills, but even without that minor detail, the place looks authentic.

But I was not there to do a sightseeing tour, so where’s the beef? Well, actually I ordered my usual, pulled pork. The dinner plate comes automatically with slaw, beans, fries, and the inescapable Texas toast, which is fine by me.
Hey, wait a minute … pulled pork in Orlando? Aren’t those the clowns who are slicing the good stuff instead of pulling it? You can surely understand my amazement when I saw the pulled pork option on the big menu card that hangs behind the counter where you order your stuff. They also have the sliced variety on that menu, but who in their right mind … okay, let’s move on, I had the pulled pork this night.
Tender, juicy, with big chunks of bark, nicely smoked with a bit of a vinegary sour aftertaste – that’s how it was. Or, to sum it up in just one word: superb!
And yes, I checked if there was some kind of tele-porter which could have beamed that delicious meat here straight from Alabama. Couldn’t find any, so I guess they actually know what they’re doing at Bubbalou’s.
You have the choice between four sauces to refine the pulled pork experience even further.
The sweet sauce is a thick red concoction that is mildly sweet, has just a little zing to it, and has a well rounded bouquet. Furthermore, there are two sauces that are called “Hot” and “Killer”. Both are somewhat spicy, but also kind of tasteless and surely do not warrant any special attention.
That should be reserved for the mild sauce, which has a very nice spicy tang, with a mustardy aftertaste and a slightly sour background. That sauce is the real killer in the quartet.
The sides are also noteworthy, especially the slaw. It seems to be made with yoghurt dressing instead of mayonnaise, and together with the exquisite crunchiness of the cabbage, it gives the slaw a very fresh taste.
You’ll find some meat residue in the BBQ beans, which is always a plus, and there is also no hint of cinnamon, which is definitely a good sign, and also the sweetness of this side is less pronounced, and so these beans are quite delicious.
The ubiquitous Texas toast is of the very tasty and crunchy variety, and the fries are just that – fries. Still no sighting of potato salad in Orlando’s BBQ places.

For about fourteen bucks with a drink, this is a lot of food you are getting. They also give you real metal silverware, but the dinner comes on quite the flimsiest plastic plates I’ve ever seen. But who cares about stuff like that – it’s like complaining about the dirt on a World Series homerun baseball you just caught.
So, just when I was just about prepared to write Orlando off the BBQ map of the South, I found a Home away from Home at Bubbalicious, ahem … Bubbadacious … well, the place with the three dancing pigs in sun-glasses. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jack Danies Pulled Chicken

Non-Quest BBQ No 8 – Jack Daniel’s Seasoned and Cooked White Meat Pulled Chicken

What to do, if there is no time to go out and fetch some BBQ at one of the numerous places around here, but the cravings must still be satisfied?
Well, just reach into the freezer and put the two pound tray of frozen Jack Daniel’s Seasoned and Cooked White Meat Pulled Chicken with Jack Daniel’s Barbecue Sauce into the microwave.
Put some buns on the table while it is heated, and throw some cabbage and carrots into the blender. Et voila, a homemade BBQ meal is fixed in minutes.

Well, we did that tonight for the first time, just to try if this would be a viable alternative to getting into the car and driving to the next BBQ place, which is about two minutes away, if I am really hungry.
Suffice to say, the cole slaw my wife made from scratch was the best part of our dinner. With fresh cabbage and carrots, shreddered finely and dressed with vinegar, oil, salt and pepper, it was a delight. I would have been content with only that on the bun, to be honest.
But we also had heated the Jack Daniel’s pulled chicken now, so that had to go on the bun, too. There is a lot of Jack Daniel’s BBQ sauce on the chicken, which is surprisingly tender and of very good quality. The sauce is supposedly made with real Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, but the influence on the taste is rather minimal. I would have preferred to have the sauce in a separate pouch, instead of the meat being drowned in it.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, also like their mustards very much – but the BBQ sauce is merely okay. Too much on the sweet side, and also the ingredients list has “Silicon Dioxide” on it. Normally, they make glass windows out this stuff, but it is also used as flow agent in foods. Thanks, but no thanks, you can keep your weird chemicals to yourself.
So, I guess next time when the cravings come, I will throw over some clean pants, saddle my Nissan, and fetch something dioxide-free from the next best BBQ place here. I admit, I just like that whole health food thing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

306 Barbecue

Quest Log No20 – 306 Barbecue  
Athens, Madison County

When a friend of mine told me that there is a new BBQ place on Highway 72, just outside of Athens, I was thrilled. I had noticed some activity lately in the old building, but always thought that was more or less in preparation to tear it down.
Well, now it hosts Madison County’s newest BBQ restaurant, so naturally I had to go there as soon as possible.

The 306 Barbecue is open now for about a month and it all began like so many BBQ businesses around here – a few friends regularly did BBQ at local High School football games for a few years, then they entered their first competition and did well there, next they put the big new smoker they purchased for the competition to good use at a local car show, and ultimately the idea to open a restaurant of their own was kind of stuck in their minds.
Good thing that due to the shaky economic environment empty floor space around here is easy to find and cheap to have. I really do not know exactly what business had been in the building before, but a withered street sign in one corner of the premises could give you the idea that it was some kind of antique mall or novelty shop.

The 306 has its own big and colorful street sign up, and that is also necessary, because the building alone would not reveal its new purpose. As inconspicuous as it is on the outside, it is also very unassuming inside. Everything is spotless clean, but it has no atmosphere whatsoever. The walls are empty, except for a few TV screens in the corners, there are no pictures, license plates, sports banners, or anything which would give the place a “face”.
The furniture is folding chairs and folding tables, and only the counter seems to be custom made and has a little bit originality with its front out of corrugated metal.

But I am willing to overlook many flaws in the interior design department, if the food is special.
Because I was very hungry, I ordered the 2-meat combo, with turkey and pulled pork, and with potato salad and slaw on the side. My wife had the ribs, and because they were out of baked beans, decided for the slaw and the squash instead.
When the meal was served, I was shocked – the turkey came in slices! Are we in Orlando here, or what?! I made a mental note to call the State BBQ police later …
But the pork was pulled, and it was delightful. They obviously know exactly what they are doing when it comes to smoking pork. It had a very rustic smoke flavor, with a hint of sweetness that I had not tasted anywhere else before. Together with the quite tangy and somewhat sour sauce, it was just the perfect combination. For this, I would come back here anytime.
Alas, there was also the turkey. Not only was it sliced, but it tasted predominantly salty and was an utter disappointment. Also, my wife’s ribs were very fatty and the taste was merely average, but at least they were of the so-tender-it-falls-off-the-bone variety.

The sides were also a mixed bag. The slaw was actually tangy and fresh tasting, with a sour note and a very nice crunch. And although the potato salad was not bad, it was also not more than average tasting. However, the squash, which was actually a concoction made with egg and cheese, was wonderful.
So was the red sauce – they have only that one at the table, plus a very good white sauce, as well.
As I stated before, very seldom have I encountered a sauce that complements the pulled pork so perfectly as this one.
Prices are in the normal range for BBQ in this area, we paid twenty-four bucks for everything, including our drinks, which is okay also for the amount of food we got.
The meals are served on those compartmentalized Styrofoam plates, with plastic forks and Styrofoam cups.
We also noticed that the sweet tea was not brewed fresh, but was replenished by those gallon plastic jugs you can buy at your local supermarket.
All that, and the lack of adornment on the walls, makes the eating experience there a somewhat ambivalent affair. This restaurant, through its great location on one of the busiest Highways around here, and their undeniable expertise and mastership of pork smoking, could be a raving success. But the lack of atmosphere and the comparatively lower quality of the rest of the food they serve prevents it to rise to my Top 10 list for now.
But they are doing this only for a month now, and the learning curve is certainly steep. And those flaws are easily fixable, so we will be back some time to check on their progress. Even if nothing changes, at least I know that I will get fantastic pulled pork there.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fat Boys Bar-B-Q

Non-Quest BBQ No 7 – Fat Boys Bar-B-Q
Kissimmee, Florida

During my occasional travels, I try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I just really, really like that stuff ... 

In the Orlando area, chain restaurants rule. Even most of the BBQ places there have at least two locations in the city – there are virtually no lone riders around.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Why not branch out if you have a good product, and make more profit? Streamlined logistics, rebates on expanded orders for your raw materials and dining room supplies, spill over of the customer base from one location to the other, and all kinds of other benefits can come from that.
Of course, there is always the lingering possibility that in the name of profit maximation you streamline everything too much and end up serving bland mainstream food after a while. Which, quite frankly, is what most of the BBQ places in the Orlando area reverted to. It seems to me that they predominantly cater to the Tourist who has “eating original southern BBQ” on their to-do-list, just after “see all four Disney World parks in one day” and “get a photo with an alligator on one of them farms”.

What a pleasant surprise is was then, when I found this little non-franchise authentic BBQ joint just half an hour south of Orlando in Kissimmee.
Fat Boys Bar-B-Q is there since 1971, it has no satellite station, is not part of any franchise, and it’s just your typical family-owned southern BBQ place.
The inside exudes this friendly family atmosphere that makes you feel welcome and at home. The walls are plastered with photographs of family, friends, and customers, and the medium sized dining room is divided in three rather cozy parts. In the background, you hear a local Country&Western radio station, and everything seems to be just laid back and casual.
The staff is also very friendly and the service is quick. The meals are served on resin plates with actual metal silverware, and the whole place is very clean.

So, I ordered my usual pork plate, with BBQ beans, slaw and potato salad as sides.
Of course, as customary in this region of the world, the pork comes sliced instead of pulled, but it had a very nice pink ring and a very pronounced smoky flavor. It was quite tender, but as is often the case with sliced pork, it was a bit on the dry side. Never mind that is also was less than hot … well, parts of it were actually rather cold. Must have been sitting there on the shelf for a bit before it got served.
As for the sides, I didn’t eat the slaw, which was just too sweet for my taste. The BBQ beans, on the other hand, were quite exquisite, with a very strong bacon taste and just a faint undercurrent of sweetness. The potato salad had a distinct dill flavor, and a tendency towards a mustardy taste, which I really liked.
The sauces were the usual concoctions for that area – one extremely sweet Sweet sauce, one not so sweet and actually a little tangy Mild sauce, and one rather spicy but otherwise tasteless Hot sauce, for which you had to ask separately.
And, as usual, the Mild and the Hot sauces mixed together would then result in an acceptable BBQ sauce.
The plate also came with two slices of toasted white bread, which was very dry and had a rubber-like texture.
For around thirteen bucks, including a drink, it is a fair deal, keeping in mind that prices in this region are a bit elevated anyway. Granted, they could heap a bit more meat on the plate, but that is just a minor detail. The big picture is that you get good BBQ there in an authentic atmosphere. One can only hope that this place stays there for another forty years, as a beacon of true BBQ tradition in a see of middle-of-the-road barbecue chains.