Monday, April 25, 2011

Lawler's Bar-B-Que and Catfish (Athens, Hobbs St)

Quest Log No7 – Lawler’s Bar-B-Que and Catfish
Hobbs St, Athens, Limestone County

One might think, or even expect, that the food in every location of a restaurant chain would be roughly the same. More so even, if that chain has a “central cooking facility for quality control”, which supplies all satellite locations. Well, in case of Lawler’s Barbeque it is not quite that clean cut.

Lawler’s is not a big franchise, they have six locations in Northern Alabama and one in Southern Tennessee, and five of those are labeled “Express”, with limited or no seating at all.
My wife and I have already been to their Madison (Express) restaurant, which is a quite new, very nice place. Although the food was very good, we did not intend to visit another Lawler’s for quite some time. Actually, we wanted to go to the Ole Gin House BBQ in Elkmont, but they were closed. Then we opted for Denao’s BBQ in Athens, because we were both getting really hungry and it was just a twenty minute drive away. Closed, too.
Next try, Sarah's Waffle Chicken & Barbecue, also in Athens. The place where the GPS unit led us to had no such thing. Either we had the wrong address or the restaurant was closed, permanently. Rats! Our stomachs were getting really angry with us, so we tried alternative number four for that day – hallelujah, they were open! But just barely in time, because although not listed as an Express location but a full fledged restaurant, they close at 2PM, and we showed up twenty minutes before that. Confusing …

So, what makes a Lawler’s Express location different from a regular Lawler’s restaurant? After you order at the counter, in the Express they will call you to get your stuff there, and in the regular restaurant they will bring the meal to your table.
And whereas the Express in Madison is kind of new and shiny and very nice inside and outside, the restaurant in Athens is kind of old and beaten up. You are greeted by duck-taped upholstery in the booths, and sticky plastic table cloths. At least it is all clean, and the service is also quite nice and attentive, and you get metal silverware with your standard plastic plates. They have some old faded pictures on the wall and also some old tin advertisement signs. Here too, the Express in Madison is the more nice and shiny place.

As usual, I had the large pork plate with cole slaw and potato salad, and my wife had the ribs with fries and baked beans. And to our surprise, they have hushpuppies on the menu, so we both got those as well.
Which we shouldn’t have done. Too sweet, too dry, only tolerable with some sauce on it - no comparison with them puppies in the Greenbrier Restaurant.
And instead of four sauces as in the Madison Express location, there were only two at the table – the very peppery and really, really spicy hot sauce and some concoction without label which seemed to be a mildly spiced up vinegar. No mild sauce, no BBQ sauce, no white sauce – disappointing.
The cole slaw was less sour than at the Madison location, the taste was actually more “au naturel”, meaning that the cabbage flavor was very strong. The potato salad was quite the same and also the beans were not different from the Madison location.
The same is true for the pulled pork, which was also very tender and juicy and had a real nice smoky flavor to it.
But the ribs the ribs, the ribs … gristly, not very tender, without real taste. No, definitely not good. Maybe we just happened to run into a bad batch there, because at the Express in Madison, the ribs had been superb. Or we got the last left-over piece that day, because we came in so late. Be it as it may, my wife was not very happy and if she is not happy, I am not happy.
And after our odyssey of fifty or so miles that day to find an open BBQ place, to end up with bad hushpuppies and bad ribs … lets just file it under “one of these days” and be done with it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gereenbrier Restaurant

Quest Log No6 – Greenbrier Restaurant
Old Hwy 20 (Greenbrier Rd), Madison, Madison County

Wanderer, if you come to Northern Alabama, go to the Greenbrier Restaurant in Madison, Alabama, and have the best Hushpuppies on this Planet. Period. No further discussion required. Just go there and eat those things. GO!

There are a few things that are so iconic to the Southern Cuisine, that they be in a museum: Fried Okra, pulled BBQ pork, Grits, Sweet Iced Tea, and Hushpuppies.
Those little fried balls of corn, onions and spices are the Manna of the South, if they are done right. If not, they are an insult to the Southern legacy.
So, what exactly constitutes “right” in regards of Hushpuppies?
First of all, they have to be firm, yet with a certain fluffiness, not too dry, but with just the right amount of gooeyness, golden brown and crunchy on the outside, but easy to crack through the shell and dig into the soft inside.
Then, of course, the flavor has to be savory, with a hint of sweetness, but not too spicy, and you should actually be able to taste the onions. The shape does not really matter, it should vaguely resemble a sphere, but the more different the sizes and shapes they come in, the more certain you can be that they are freshly made from scratch and did not fall out of a microwave-ready box.
Well, except for the last part, you get everything above at the Greenbrier Restaurant. This is not to be confused with the Greenbrier Bar-B-Que, which is a few miles south of it at I-565. Yes, they serve good Hushpuppies, too. No, you would want to have those from the place at the corner of Greenbrier Road and County Road 10, instead.

You will get your first basket of Hushpuppies even before your drink order has been recorded. And be warned – once you start with them Puppies, there is no stopping. And they fill you up pretty good, too, so come with an empty stomach, because no matter what you order, you will get another basket with your meal, and they will bring you even more if you look really hungry. Surely, you can devour them raw as they come. But I found out that they go perfectly with the thick white Tartar-style sauce they have there on the table. The other white sauce, a simple mayonnaise-with-spices-style sauce is also not bad with it, but I prefer the sourness of the tartar sauce over the spiciness of the other white sauce. My wife liked it just the other way around. And even with the BBQ sauce, which is basically vinegar with spices, and more sour than hot, the Hushpuppies are delicious. I haven’t tried them with Ketchup, though, because they were gone too fast, so nothing was left when it was Ketchup’s turn. Too bad, deal with it and move on. I used it later to mix the BBQ sauce, which generated a nice tangy sauce for the pork.

As usual, I ordered the large pork plate, and my wife had the ribs.
Both come with cole slaw by default, and I opted for the fries as second side, because they do not have potato salad on the menu. Instead, you can get baked potato or baked sweet potato, which my wife ordered.
The cole slaw is made with vinegar, and has a very nicely rounded, slightly sour, bouquet. The baked sweet potato is just that – a baked sweet potato, and it comes with little cups of cinnamon and brown sugar, in case you need even more sweetness, and some butter.

The pork was very tender, with a nice smoky taste. Not too juicy, but certainly not too dry, either – just right, I’d say. And it was a large portion, too. With the fries, the cole slaw, the hushpuppies as an appetizer, and hushpuppies with the meal, I was filled up pretty good afterwards.
The ribs were dry rubbed with spices, and also a very large portion. Very crunchy outside, they had virtually no fat on them, and were not exactly fall-off-the-bone tender, but somewhat compact and a bit dry. The taste was on the neutral side, neither very smoky nor very porky. I liked them very much, especially the fatless crunchiness, but my wife would have preferred a more defined taste and some more moisture.
So, I was very much satisfied with my meal, although a bit disappointed that I could not get my customary potato salad. My wife loved the sweet potatoes and found the ribs tolerable but not great. And we both absolutely loved the hushpuppies.

After the meal, I had a little time to look around and take in the atmosphere of the place. There is a deer’s head mounted on one wall, some pictures of College Football players, old menus, and some historic pictures of the town on the other walls. One wall is out of corrugated sheet iron, which contributes to the uniqueness of the interior. Nice wooden furniture with a certain patina on it completes the very homey and distinctive impression it made on me. The meals are served on very large plastic plates, but with actual metal silver ware. Service is very quick and very friendly and attentive, and the place is very clean.

To sum it up – this is one of the best places for BBQ my wife and I have been so far, and THE best place for hushpuppies on this planet. Only for those alone would a further visit be warranted. Soon. 

Amendment, 02 June 2011:
Home made Lemonade ...
Today, I went back there, and discovered that they serve home made Lemonade - after BBQ the second big food-related passion that possesses me.
Really good lemonade is hard to find - it is either too sweet, too sour, too bubble-gummy, too watery, too all of the above ... even most of the home made stuff is merely acceptable.
But not the Lemonade they serve at the Greenbrier Restaurant. It has a semi-sweet sourness with a hint of bitterness in it - I would call it the perfect mixture.
I also discovered that they have a self-serve ice-cream machine in one of the two additional rooms adjacent to the main room. A cup of vanilla costs $0.25 with a meal, and $0.75 without.
And, believe it or not, there is also entertainmment, in the form of a singing deer's head on the wall.
Now, has this place been directly sent down from heaven, or what?!