Friday, March 25, 2011

Goldie's Trail Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 3 - Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Que
Vicksburg, MS
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 ... 

A visiting alien from outer space (or a tourist from Huntsville, Alabama for that matter …) could very easily come to the conclusion that the civil war was fought entirely in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Everything there is somehow, indirectly or directly, related, touched, or inspired by the great conflict.
Without the big siege of the town to gain control over the Mississippi River, the battle that together with Gettysburg sealed the fate of the Confederacy, Vicksburg would just have remained another sleepy little town in the sleepy rural South.
Even with that storied history under the belt, it is not quite the hectic metropolis today, but a nice little town where they make a living of their legendary past.
The hotels have old cannons as gate guards at the entrance, and one of their streets is named “Confederate Avenue”. Of course, they also have this humongous military park at the old battle site; heck, they even have a salvaged civil war Union river ironclad gunship on display there. And the BBQ place I went to, Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Que on South Frontage Road, has displays on the walls that show old civil war era guns, all kinds of soldier utensils, bugles, knifes, Minnie balls and the like. It does not quite look like in a museum, but it is a nice collection of civil war memorabilia nonetheless.

Goldie’s seems to be quite an institution in Vicksburg – when I was driving by at lunch time, the parking lot was filled up to the brim, so I decided to return later when the rush was over. It is a family owned and run business for fifty or so years now, and it was actually located at a few different locations in Vicksburg during all those years. It is now situated a stone’s throw away from I-20, just a mile or so from the Mississippi River Bridge.
There is also an “Express” location downtown, where you can get their BBQ as take-out.

Their service is very friendly, yet a bit slow. That could have something to do with the fact that I was there right at the time of changing the shifts after the big lunchtime rush, so the outgoing shift was probably exhausted and the incoming shift not yet at full speed.
The dining room is very clean, and so are the restrooms. I liked that they had actual metal silverware, but the plates were those ubiquitous plastic ones.
And the atmosphere is, well, interesting with all those civil war memorabilia hanging at the walls. Let’s just call it a unique place and move on to the food.

First of all, they do not serve pulled pork. I know, it is Mississippi, but even those folks should have heard about that by now. Or maybe it is a cultural thing, something that is required by law, or just plain stubbornness not to follow the world wide accepted best way to serve BBQ pork. I felt like a Roman who had no alternative but to eat raw meat in some strange barbarian country, when I finally mustered the courage and ordered the “sliced” pork plate.
The waitress must have picked up on my disbelief and dismay, because she quickly assured me that they usually would slice the pork so thin and then kind of mash it in a way that you could not tell the difference. Still, I was not amused. And what was that part about “mashing” the pork, anyway? Well, when in Mississippi, do as the Romans do …

When the food came, my bewilderment grew. It was a very generous amount of meat, thank you very much, that was topped by some raw onion rings. Say what? Yes, raw onion rings. Never seen this before, except on Greek Gyros, which is a totally different culinary beast.
And then, after removing the onion rings, I found out what she meant with “mashing” the pork – it was actually sliced very thin and then they had poured a very charitable amount of Goldie’s special BBQ sauce over it and … mashed it together. The structural integrity of the slices would not withstand such a mangling, resulting in a big saucy mess that very remotely resembled pulled pork – or something you may have seen before occasionally, by the side of the road.
There were stripes of fat hanging around, some sinew I believe, and I expected at every moment to find myself starring into the eye of the poor beast.
Oh well. Besides that, I prefer to decide by myself how much of which sauce is put on the pork. But with only one sauce available at the table – the same sauce that was already on my pork – this became a somewhat moot point. At least they had not completely drowned the meat in the sauce; the quantity they used was actually how I would have done it myself.
So I put the onion rings back on, heaped some of the fat-striped, sauce-drenched meat together with a piece of onion onto the fork, closed my eyes and … really not too bad. Surprisingly tender and juicy, although that juiciness might have actually come from the sauce. Unfortunately I could not tell if the meat had a good smoked flavor, because try as I might, there was no single piece to be found on the whole plate that was not covered with sauce.
Nevertheless, the sauce is really tasty, tangy but not too spicy, with some fruity sweetness, and it also goes well not only with smoked meat, but with raw onion, too.
As I dug through the meat, I realized what a big amount of it that was on the plate. When you order the “double the meat” option, it better is on a day you hadn’t had breakfast. Also, they serve a very tasty garlic toast with it, two big slices to be precise.
Their homemade potato salad and cole slaw is fine, but nothing I would put on a pedestal, like they do on their facebook-page. 

I am a big guy who does not shy away from piles of food. That day, I was especially hungry, because I actually hadn’t had any breakfast and this lunch took place at about three in the afternoon. But I freely admit that when I was done with my double-meat plate with potato salad, cole slaw and garlic toast, there was a slight feeling of queasiness coming from my tummy. But it was totally worth the $14.99 I paid for all that good food, plus a drink.
Although I still can’t bring myself to consider that sliced pork should be an accepted or even tolerated form of BBQ anywhere in the world, I have to admit that those folks in Vicksburg, Mississippi, apparently know what they are doing. Well, without that phenomenal sauce, which covers that mangled mess, it might be a different story.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Red Top BBQ

Non-Quest BBQ No 2 - Red Top BBQ
Oakman, AL
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 ...

Driving south from Parrish, Alabama on State Route 69, you will come through the small town of Oakman - one gas station, a Dollar General, some mobile homes, a proud past and a promising future (it says so on the welcome sign). This is such a typical small town here in Alabama, that the passing stranger who, because this kind of unremarkable settlement does not grab is attention anymore, might easily overlook the Red Top BBQ on the big empty dusty parking lot next to the Dollar General at the southern end of town.
Big mistake.

The Red Top BBQ has no enclosed room for its patrons to sit. There are some folding chairs in the back, but those seem to be reserved for friends and family of the employees. A category, under which probably each living soul in Oakman would fall.
Most people chose to dine in their cars instead, and so they circle the little shack which houses the BBQ with their rides. Once in a while a newcomer will swell the ranks for a short time, until one or two cars will break away from the pack, their passengers undoubtedly satisfied and in a somewhat sleepy mood with their BBQ filled stomachs.

Living in the greater Huntsville metro area, where we actually have restaurants with chairs and tables and waitresses and all the other trappings of urban civilization, I am not accustomed to the rituals and traditions of rural Alabama. At first, I wondered how this would work, and since I did not want to embarrass myself by doing it the wrong way I pulled into the Dollar general parking lot and observed how the locals did it for a few minutes.
Well, it is a rather simple process. You just drive to the front of the shack, leave your car and walk up too the left window, where it says “Order here!” (apparently the right window is only for decoration purposes, or for lighting).
A very friendly woman will open the window and greet you. She invariably will address you as Honey, Sugar, Sweetie, Darling or the like, and you will feel happier than a second ago immediately.
Their menu is typed on a sheet of paper in plastic sheet protector, which is nailed to the wall next to the window. You can get all kinds of BBQ things, but thinking of the potential horrors of balancing a full slab of ribs on my knees in my car, I opted for a plain and simple large BBQ pork sandwich, some potato salad and unsweetened tea.
Once the ordering is finished, you walk back to your car and wait – or take pictures of the place, which I did.
After a few minutes, you are called back to the window, pay $8.28, grab your meal, which comes in a very handy brown paper back, receive a few more Honeys, Sweeties, Sugarplums, go back to your car, and eventually drive to a spot in the vast parking lot, where nobody has to involuntarily observe how you uninhibitedly dig into the good stuff.
After all, isn’t that the major pull for such a place, that you do not have to observe any stupid etiquette like in a real restaurant – you can eat that pork like a pig and nobody cares.
Well, that you can (are expected to …?) behave like a five year old might be one of the appeals of this place, but the food itself would also be a reason to come back – often.

Good thing that I ordered a large sandwich, since the regular size would probably have been some kind of miniature bun with a small blot of pulled pork on it. But the so called “large” variety was actually of quite a nice size, something that would probably be called “regular” in other parts of the state – or not even called anything special at all.
The blot of pulled pork on it was not overwhelmingly big, but sufficient to cover the bun from end to end. On top of it presided some curls of BBQ sauce and a pickle.
The taste was actually quite good, the pulled pork had a nice smoky flavor to it, and the sauce was of the fruity-sweet, non hot, dark red kind. But I would have wished for more of the sauce, to make the sandwich a little more moist overall.
But I was very hungry, and so I washed this unnecessarily dry sandwich down with some gulps of the iced tea.
Then I dug into the potato salad, which they serve in a Styrofoam cup, with plastic silverware and a tiny package of salt and pepper.
Have I ever mentioned my relationship to potato salad? I really love BBQ, but potato salad is part of my religion.
And my new temple is the Red Top BBQ in Oakman, Alabama – where they serve the best potato salad east of the Mississippi River. Maybe they get it from the Dollar General, maybe it is an old secret recipe from Grandma, I don’t really care. It is just the best I ever had in any public place on this continent. No comparison to the potato salads my wife makes (yes, she is master of more than one variety …), but outside of home, no comparison to any other that I ever had.
It is very compact, and you can throw the cup it comes in around without the slightest potato slice falling out. The taste is on the sour side, with a hint of mustard – as it should be. All those potato salads that are drowned in rather sweetish mayonnaise, or drenched in vinegar, contaminated with all kinds of green vegetables, even apples or raisins, or all of the above, are just awful. But this here, found in this most unexpected of places, is just … divine. There, I said it, and I do not regret it. Yes, it is divine! Or maybe I was just so hungry … ahhh, heretic thought be vanished! I hereby declare the Red Top BBQ in Oakman, Alabama the new navel of the potato salad faith. May the spuds be with you!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lawler's Barbeque (Madison)

Quest Log No5 – Lawler’s Barbecue Express #4 (Huges Road)
Madison, Madison County

If is says “HOT” on a BBQ sauce, it is usually between a bit spicier than ketchup and a few notches below Tabasco. This should be tolerable even for those of us who eat only at those Mexican Restaurants, which have a “mild” section on the menu.
And that was what I was expecting when I poured the hot sauce at Lawler’s Barbeque on my pulled pork. In retrospect, it surprises me that the meat would not go off in a fiery inferno when touched by this devilish concoction, and burn down to a smoldering, charcoaled mass. Good thing that the local fire station is just a few hundred yards down the road – that stuff is lethal!
You would never guess it’s volatility by just reading the ingredients list – water (of course, check …), sugar (harmless, check …), vinegar (I like it sour, check …), and pepper (nothing wrong with a bit of …. HOLY MOLY…..!!!!).
My eyes were tearing up in a heartbeat, my nose was running, I had to sneeze constantly, I could hardly breathe and every single breath seemed to infuriate the firestorm in my mouth more and more.
And what is especially perfidious, is that nowhere, neither on the bottle, nor with a big, bold, flashing 6-feet high warning sign, they care to tell you that you better be careful with that stuff, and please do not spill it on your clothes because it will burn holes in it.
Instead of that, they have all those neat bible verses on the walls … and you will probably find them kneeling beside you, graciously praying for your deceased taste buds, once you regain consciousness.

Yeah, I know, call me a big sissy. But I rather stick to the less toxic varieties of sauce, you know, those which let the actual taste of the meat through, at least a little bit. And fortunately, they have those at Lawler’s, too. The rib sauce is the kind of gooey, dark red, semi-sweet and spicy sauce that my wife loves to scoop up with a roll. It goes very well with pulled pork, too, and also with ribs, of course. The mild sauce is a much toned down version of the hot sauce and I used it to mix it with the rib sauce, to give it a bit more bite. Used on pork alone, it really functions not unlike salt and pepper, but does not add too much flavor of its own to it.
They also have a white sauce there, too, and that is also quite good.

As usual, I had the cole slaw (vinegar style) and the potato salad, which are both very tasty and certainly above average. My wife had the BBQ beans and the green beans as sides, which also qualify for some praise.
But the real reason to come to Lawler’s is the meat. My wife had a plate of ribs, which came not in four to six single ribs, but in one big piece with about half a dozen ribs on it. The ribs are dry rubbed with spices and although my wife is also a big sauce fan, they were so good that she did not use any this time. The taste was exquisitely hickory and they were very tender – in fact, the ribs fell off the bone, with very little fat but quite a good amount of meat on them.
I opted for the Combo Plate with pulled pork and turkey, and while the pork was very good, tender and lean, the turkey was nothing short of spectacular. Not too dry, not too moist, with a wonderful hickory flavor – just perfect.

And not only the quality of the food was excellent, but it was quite a good amount of food, too. For about $9 for the large combo plate, and about $11 for the rib plate (all excluding drinks and taxes), each with two sides and a bread roll, this is a very good deal.
The place in Madison is quite new, just a few years old, and it shows. It is spotless (they had a 96 out of 100 from the health department when we were there), very bright and the wooden furniture also looks very new. It seats about 60 people, which contributes to the very homey atmosphere there. There is no service at the tables, you order at a counter and just a few minutes later you get your order there.
I already mentioned the bible verses on the walls, and apart from that they have quite some fishing related pictures, (fish)sculptures and other gear hanging there, and one big screen TV at the small side opposite of the counter – the owners are supposedly big fishing fans. Well, it shows.
The meals are served on compartmentalized Styrofoam plates, with plastic silverware and Styrofoam cups. You are supposed to clear your table after the meal and put everything in the trash bins near the exit.

You can find a Lawler’s not only in Madison, but also in Athens, Huntsville, Monrovia, and Lewisburg, Tennessee. All in all, there are seven restaurants of that mini-chain around here. They are proud that the pork is still “hand-pulled” at Lawler’s, and the franchise is still owned by the two guys, Phil and Jerry Lawler, who opened the first place back in 1978 in Pulaski, Tennessee.
The meat is not smoked at the restaurant itself, but to guarantee the same quality at each place, this is done at a central smoking facility.
Well, let’s see how good that actually works – although that would mean to do kind of a duplicate visit to the same place (which would take away a slot on my packed BBQ-places-to-visit calendar for another, new restaurant I had not been previously), I surely will be going to their place in Athens pretty soon. It’s just, they have such fantastic BBQ …

Friday, March 4, 2011

Gibson's Bar-B-Q (Whitesburg Dr)

Quest Log No4 – Gibson’s Bar-B-Q
Whitesburg Dr, Huntsville, Madison County

The Gibsons are for BBQ in Northern Alabama what the Kennedys are for politics in New England – not only a dynasty, but an aristocracy.
It all began in Decatur, Alabama in the 1920s, when Big Bob Gibson began cooking BBQ in his backyard and soon after opened a regular restaurant.
In 1956, his daughter Velma came to Huntsville with her husband and they opened a BBQ restaurant there, on a dusty road in the middle of cotton fields, what once would become Huntsville’s Memorial Parkway.
Since then, ownership passed through four generations of the family and they opened a second restaurant, not very far from the original place, on Whitesburg Drive.
There is also place in Huntsville that is called David Gibson Barbeque, on Bob Wallace Avenue, which is run by a different branch of the Gibson family.
You might think this family knows how to do BBQ and you’re darned well right about that – they definitely all play in the MLB (Major Leagues of BBQ, just in case you might confuse that with something else).

From the outside, the Whitesburg Drive restaurant is inconspicuous. The big lettered name of the place is even on the opposite side of the entrance, because that’s where you can see it best from Memorial Parkway. Inside, the one big dining room is reasonably clean and friendly, but quite frankly it could use some renovation. The ceiling is not exactly spotless, the restrooms have the flair of a 1950s trucker bar, and the walls could need some painting, too. The furniture is simple wood, which makes for a somewhat homey atmosphere.

You order at a counter from the quite extensive menu, which has all the staples of Southern BBQ cuisine to offer – including hushpuppies and fried okra. The food is brought to your table in a very short time, and the employees are all very friendly and attentive. They serve the meals on compartmentalized plastic plates, with metal silverware and Styrofoam cups for the drinks – china plates would be totally out of whack here, anyway.

As usual, I had the Pulled Pork Plate (large), with potato salad and cole slaw, and my wife had a half slab of ribs with cole slaw and fried okra.
First of all, the portions are large. The price is fairly standard, but they give you a lot of food for your money. The pork plate came in at about $11, the ribs at $13, plus drinks, and as an appetizer, you will get a tray of hushpuppies with butter.
The hushpuppies were fresh and big and very tasty, although a bit too dry for my taste. My wife absolutely loved them and we split the tray five to one. After that, she was already not very hungry anymore, but the ribs just looked and smelled too good to pass them by.
As I mentioned before, the portion of ribs was big, and they had a lot of meat on them, too. Juicy and yet firm, with just a little fat, they were as ribs should be. And the taste was great, even without the special sauce that came with it. This sauce was very dark red, and at first I mistook it for baked beans. But no, it was a special sauce for ribs, with a little spiciness to it, yet fruity and absolutely mouth watering. In fact, I have a little fountain in my mouth right now, as I write this.
The fried okra was crunchy, very fresh and the taste was great. We both had the cole slaw, which is of the vinegary kind, and from the very uneven cut pieces in there you could tell that it was hand made. My wife liked that it was not too sour, but more on the neutral side, taste wise, I would have wished for a bit more zing. But it was not bad at all and also tasted very fresh.
As for the potato salad, it was good, but no revelation. I still wait to be blown away by a potato salad one of these days. Until then, I can live perfectly well with what they serve at this place.

It absolutely pays off that they smoke their meats for twelve to fourteen hours - the pulled pork, as well as the ribs, had a wonderful hickory taste and was very tender and succulent.
You have the choice between two sauces and the ubiquitous ketchup. The first sauce is thick and red, and I expected it to be sweet. There actually is some sweetness to it, but also a good amount of spiciness, which gives it a very nice kick. It is not too hot, though, and would not leave a tingling impression in your mouth. For that, they have the second sauce, which has bit more thrust in that direction. It looks like a vinegar/oil basis with some ground chili in it. Very thin and watery looking, you it will surprise you with a kick in the pants.
As usual, I mixed those two sauces and it was very much fun to test the various mixtures, because all of my compositions were very tasty and complemented the hickory smoked pork perfectly.

So, would I recommend this place to a friend? Definitely, and also let’s say that I would do many things to keep knowledge of it from my enemies. And I certainly will also test the second restaurant they have in Huntsville – should be as good as this one, so I am really looking forward to this.