Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q

Non-Quest BBQ No 1 - Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q
Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, FL
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 ...

With close to 140 restaurants in nine Southern States, a Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q restaurant is one of those places where you expect to find the least common denominator in BBQ.
Surprisingly, it is not that bad, well, it is actually quite tolerable.

I visited one of their places in Orlando, FL at South Orange Blossom Trail (there are two more restaurants in Orlando and about half a dozen more in the vicinity of that city).
The atmosphere inside is quite nice, with wooden benches in a light beige color, not too loud music in the background (some Best-of-the-80s mix), and it is clean and bright in there.
One of their specialties is the “All-You-Can-Eat” ribs menu. Additionally to of two flavors of ribs (southern style and dry rub), you can also mix slow smoked chicken, or pulled or sliced pork with it, until you are so filled up that they have to use the jaws of life to pry you out of your booth. For about fourteen bucks, that is a very good deal, I think.
But even if you order a regular meal, the amount of food is not too shabby.
I opted for the 3-Way-Combo, with sliced pork, pulled pork, and ribs, which was about $11, plus drink.
Instead of the usual potato salad, this time I ordered the fries, because the only potato salad on the menu was with sweet potatoes, which I absolutely loathe. Well, it is not really necessary to say anything about the fries, though, other than it was a very healthy portion.
The cole slaw I had as the second side was kind of bland, a bit watery for my taste, but tolerable.
The meal also comes with a choice between cornbread and garlic toast, and I am glad that I chose the latter, because it was really good.

Of the three (pork) meats on my plate, the pulled pork was the best. Although a bit soggy, it had a very nice texture and a good smoky taste. The sliced pork had more of a “porky” taste, which was a bit surprising but I actually liked it. The ribs were a bit disappointing, because they were not very tender and had not much meat on it. However, the taste of the few good pieces I managed to gnaw off the bones was very intense and smoky.

For sauces, they give you a lot of choices – Sweet, Sizzlin’ Sweet, Mild, and Smokin’.
Whereas the hot sauce is just that, without any other quality, the mild one is very fruity and also a bit spicy. Both sweet varieties are not that much different from each other, and are thick and sweet, and actually very good when mixed with the hot sauce.
But my favorite is the mild sauce, which can stand on its own merits.
All in all a very good variety, sauce wise.

One word about the service – slow. Not unfriendly, nor inattentive, but just very, very slow. And the place was not even full, there were only very few other guests in the restaurant with me at that time. Maybe it was one of those days, maybe it has something to do that they serve all those bloody tourists all the time, maybe I was just too hungry and thirsty to could have tolerated that. Whatever it was, it was still slow service.

But all in all, for a restaurant chain, I was pleasantly surprised by this place. You can actually get decent barbeque there, the portions are okay, and the all-you-can-eat option is just a very nice idea to really stuff yourself senseless with BBQ.
It won’t become my favorite place in the world for sure, but when I am back in Orlando, I know where to get my fix now.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Golden Rule Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No3 – Golden Rule Bar-B-Q
Madison Blvd, Madison, Madison County

The Golden Rule Bar-B-Q in Madison, AL belongs to a franchise of 15 restaurants across Alabama, and soon also in Georgia.
While there is certainly nothing wrong in spreading out from humble beginnings, when you have a good product and the chance to grow, more often then not, a franchise does not bode well for quality and uniqueness eventually.
The first Golden Rule restaurant that opened 1891 in Irondale, AL probably was your typical Mom and Pop operation, with home made salads, sauces, and quite possibly also hand made lemonade.
Mom and Pop would take pride in their business and a happy smile from a satisfied customer would make their day.
But with success came branching out, and with that came a franchise concept - streamlining and uniformity.
And that is what you will find at the Madison restaurant today.
On the outside, the Golden Rule Bar-B-Q resembles a barn, which wants to suggest old time goodness and wholesome country cooking.
On the inside, it is a typical sports bar, with TVs on the wall, and a bar at the center of the dining room, and although it is very clean there, the atmosphere is quite sterile and exchangeable. No individuality, no charm, no decorations, no “barn feeling”.

But although the atmosphere certainly always contributes to the dining experience, let’s not get carried away here and concentrate on the main topic – the food.
Well … it very much resembles the interior of this place. No individuality, no charm, no nothing – it is, summed up in one short word, bland.

As usual, I had the pork plate with potato salad and vinegar cole slaw. The cole slaw actually tasted watery and bland, the potato salad was a little better but still bland, and the pork was tender and juicy with a crust, but also very much bland.
No problem, just pour some sauce on it. They have four of their special house sauces on the table, and the ubiquitous ketchup, of course.
The sauces are original, original hot, original sweet, and white. Very good variety, but unfortunately no rescue here either – the hot sauce is spicy but bland at the same time, the sweet sauce is sweet and bland, and the original sauce is only bland. Desperately, I tried to get some taste out of it by mixing all three in varying combinations, but to no avail. Probably should have tried the ketchup instead.
You also get a half a slice of toasted sandwich bread and a small corn muffin with the plate. I just wanted to mention that for completeness, not because any taste revelation had come out of it.
Also, for a so called “Jumbo” plate, the portion was quite regular sized. But I guess for $9, this would be acceptable. I just wonder what the regular sized plate looks like.
They also have a special lunch menu, where they promise that the side dishes are dinner sized. Ahem … what about the meat?! Well, I guess for $5.50 that’s somehow a fair deal.

My wife had the combo plate with ribs and beef brisket and fried okra and baked beans as sides.
The four ribs were not that big, but very lean and tender. They might also have been cooked and cured before being smoked, which would explain their blandness.
The brisket on the other hand was full of flavor and really a reason to come back. Tender and juicy it was, with a thick layer of fat on top of it.
The side dishes, however, are no reason to write home about. Some people may like cinnamon on their baked beans, but my wife surely is not one of them. The whole concoction was way too sweet. And the outer shell – the batter – of the fried okra was so solid, that it was an unusually crunchy experience.

I already mentioned that the place is very clean, and the personnel is also very pleasant and friendly. The meal is served with actual metal silverware on plastic plates, which seems to be quite the standard around here.

So, if you need a quick Bar-B-Q fix and nothing else is around, the Golden Rule might be a place to consider. But with about sixty different Bar-B-Q places in the greater Huntsville-Madison-Decatur metro area, you will probably never face this conundrum. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dreamland Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No2 - Dreamland Bar-B-Que
University Drive, Huntsville, Madison County

The original Dreamland Bar-B-Que opened in Tuscaloosa, AL in 1958. It is still there, but currently you can find a Dreamland in seven more locations throughout Alabama and Georgia – and find it, you will!
In Huntsville, the Dreamland is located smack in the middle of University Drive, the main east-west artery of the city, so you wouldn’t need a map to find it anyway. But even blindfolded you couldn’t really miss it – you will smell it half a mile before you actually see it.
They use hickory wood to smoke the meat, and lots of it. If you eat there, be prepared for the possibility that your clothes will be soaked with that aroma. Not that this would be a bad thing, but it might give you cravings all day long.

Once you fought your way through the smoke filled streets and parking lot, the restaurant might not be what you expected. It resembles a sports bar, with numerous flat screen TVs on the walls, each displaying a different sports program. The remaining spots on the walls are covered with framed shirts of local sports heroes, the ubiquitous Roll Tide and War Eagle banners, old vanity license plates with sports related contents (BAMARLZ) on it, and other sports related stuff.
And because some of the TVs are actually not muted, there is a constant background noise in the room that is never really annoying, and also fits very well to the whole sports-bar layout of the place.

They have a bar there that serves alcoholic beverages, and on the opposite side of the room there is the fireplace where they smoke the meats. For that smell alone it is worthwhile to just sit there in total awe for an hour or two.
But since you are there already, you might as well eat something, right? Smoke that’s smelly ain’t fill your belly …

Well, you came to the right place – they’ve got some great things to eat there.
They start you off with an appetizer of some slabs of sandwich bread and their warm special sauce.
And yes, this sauce is something else. It consists of water, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, and less than two percent of spices and other substances.
It is tangy, without being too hot, not fruity, but more on the sour side. It leaves a tingly impression in your mouth and you should not even try mixing it with ketchup to tame the spiciness of it – this concoction does not play well with other condiments, but is meant to be savored in a pure fashion.
After that, I had my usual pork plate, with vinegar cole slaw and potato salad. There is no choice of small or large, though, one size fits all. But it is a healthy portion you get, and together with the sandwich bread before, it fills you up good.
My wife, who also is a BBQ aficionado, had the rib plate, which comes with four ribs, with sides of creamy cole slaw and baked beans.

The pork at Dreamland does not come in the usual pulled fashion, it is chopped instead. And although the meat is very well done and also tender, it is a different experience to actually chew on relatively big bits and pieces, instead of just squashing already half disintegrated strings of pork.
The flavor is great, due to the hickory smoking the meat is exacted to for hours. The process even leaves a crust on the pork, which is full of unbelievable flavor.
Besides the ubiquitous ketchup, there is no other sauce at the table. The pork comes with the special Dreamland sauce already applied to it, so no tempering with the way old Big Daddy Bishop, the late founder of Dreamland, wanted it to taste.
And there is really no reason for any altercation – it is perfect, as it is. The combination of sauce and the chopped hickory smoked pork is one of the best I ever had. Usually, I like the more fruity-sweet BBQ sauces, but this one at Dreamland, although on the vinegar-spicy side of the spectrum, is really something special. Of course, you can buy it in bottles to take home with you, and they even ship it worldwide.
The cole slaw is marinated in their special house dressing, which compliments the pork sauce very well. The potato salad is also very good, although really nothing out of the ordinary.

But truly famous are Dreamland’s ribs. They are of course also hickory smoked, with this fabulous blackened crust. They do not fall off the bone, so you have to gnarl the meat off, and they are also fattier then your usual run-of-the-mill family-restaurant-style ribs. But the taste, my wife assured me, is just marvelous – and her judgment on meat is generally impeccable, being the reigning carnivore in our household.
She also liked the creamy cole slaw and the baked beans, but the ribs were absolutely the highlight of the meal.

For all that great taste, you have to fork over about $14, including a drink. That is certainly not the cheapest BBQ you can get, but it is totally worth it.
The service is friendly and attentive and the place is clean. The meals are served on Styrofoam plates, with a paper liner, the drinks come in plastic cups with the Dreamland logo on it, and the silverware is actually plastic-ware. That is the standard, I know, and I’ve certainly seen worse, but I still would prefer real metal utensils and maybe even a plastic plate. But that is only a minor detail and does not take away from the great tasting food they serve.