Friday, June 10, 2011

Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No12 – Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
Hwy 31, Decatur, Morgan County

Frequent guests at the Today Show, winner of the 2004 Jack Daniels World Champion Barbeque Contest, Grand Champion of the 2011 Memphis in May Festival World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, numerous first places in National BBQ Association competitions for their sauces … Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur is an Alabama institution since 1925, and we are all very proud of the big success with all the medals, championships, national recognition and so on.
But is it the best BBQ in the World, as they claim on their website? Well, let’s see first if they can hold their ground against other places here in the BBQ heartland of Northern Alabama, before we let them venture out to conquer this planet.

The main restaurant in Decatur – they also have a satellite restaurant in North Carolina and another one in Decatur – is situated smack in the middle of town on US Highway 31.
It is a big, full service restaurant, and no matter when you go there, the parking lot is always at least half full. The interior is dominated by all the plaques, certificates, and medals they won over the years, and the entrance area hosts three or four humongous metal trophies made out of grill parts. The atmosphere is like in those sports-bar/family chain joints, only that there is only one big room where everybody sits.
The meals are served on plastic plates with actual metal silverware, which is quite appropriate for a place like this. They even have crayons and coloring sheets for the little ones. Needless to say that the service is efficient and the cleanliness of the whole place is impeccable.

Contrary to my typical behavior, I combined the usual pulled pork with beef brisket this time, but, of course, had sides of slaw and potato salad. At about ten bucks with a drink, the amount of food was quite satisfactorily.
But then, a few questions arose …
The first question was – what is the brisket and what is the pork? It looked all the same but fortunately the taste was different, at least somewhat, so eventually, after some trial and error, I was able to tell it apart.
Then the second question arose - can meat be fatty and dry at the same time? Go there and find out for yourself. You will be astonished what all is possible.
Although the taste was not bad, my stomach did not agree with the rather low quality of the meat at all. It felt as if I had eaten millstones.
Next question – are the sides as important as the meat? Well, I really do not wish to discuss the sides here, the memory is too painful. The slaw tasted like raw cabbage without any spices or vinegar or anything on it, and the potato salad tasted like it was scraped off the bottom of a bowl that had been forgotten in the fridge for quite some time.
Final question – are the sauces really world championship caliber? Yes, they are surely top notch, but they also have ingredients lists as long as the Old Testament. Not quite your home made, organic, one-of-a-kind-taste stuff, but more like the industrial grade sauces you can order at Amazon or buy at the next Supermarket.
Their championship red sauce is tangy, not especially spicy, but kind of fruity and with just a hint of sweetness. The white sauce is very peppery and sour and also quite spicy, but without being really hot. Both sauces are very much agreeable to the mainstream audience, and in this area they are certainly at the top of the crop.

But can that be all – to win laurels for the sauces and rest on them, while neglecting all the other things that belong to a good BBQ?
I think not. While I certainly would pack some bottles of their sauces as gifts if I travelled to other parts of the Country, or even the World, there are numerous BBQ places here in Northern Alabama where you will get better food overall. They just don’t have the medals and trophies to prove that.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ole Hickory Barbecue

Quest Log No11 –Ole Hickory Barbecue
County Hwy 69, New Market, Madison County

New Market is a small rural community in Northern Alabama. They grow cotton and corn there, you’ll find the occasional cattle on the meadows in the surrounding area, and the prevalent tranquility is only gently disturbed by County Highway 69, which runs through the town.
Since January 30, 1966, their claim to fame has been the lowest recorded temperature in Alabama ever, -27 F.
But for about six years now, there is a different reason to look up where to find New Market. In the middle of town, right on County Highway 69, under a big old tree, with a plaster pig on the lawn, there sits Ole Hickory Barbecue.
It is run by a former research chef for a major fast food chain, who was lured by the prospect of doing some real southern style cookin’ for folks who really appreciate good food from Boston to this rather obscure place near the Tennessee border.

The restaurant oozes the charm of a country store – you will find forks, sauce bottles, and napkins in an old wooden cupboard next to the soda machine. The decoration is predominantly figurines of chickens and roosters, some pictures with country scenes, a tiny TV in one corner of the room, and they have a small bouquet of plastic flowers on every table. Wooden furniture complements the plain country atmosphere, and the people there are very friendly and courteous, and they also keep the place spotless - which is always nice when you eat food somewhere.
The food is served on Styrofoam plates with plastic forks (I could not detect any knifes or spoons around there … ),, and with disposable plastic cups for your sweet tea or soda.
When you are finished with the meal, you are supposed to dump all that into a big trash can by the exit. Well, I guess it’s necessary to keep the overall costs down, but this is certainly not bringing them any additional style points.

As usual, I had the large pork plate. It comes with slaw, potato salad, baked beans, and a roll by default, and I did not see any reason to alter that.
The outstanding item here is clearly the slaw – vinegary but not sour, with a really nice aromatic flavor. Actually, vinegar is quite the dominant theme at Ole Hickory Barbecue.
The meat comes dowsed in their original vinegar sauce, which is not a bad sauce by any means, but I would prefer to decide myself which sauce and how much to pour on my pork, thank you very much. It is quite unusual for Northern Alabama to have your BBQ meat prepared this way, but I guess a bit leniency is in order here, because the cook comes from Boston, which is not quite the BBQ capital of the world.
The pulled pork is very tender and succulent, but I missed the typical smoky flavor – it tasted rather neutral to me. Well, at least the few un-drenched pieces I could pick out of sauce were that way.
But with the vinegar sauce on it, it is actually quite good. Of course, if you like it sweet rather than sour, you probably won’t go there very often. Even their so called sweet sauce is just a less sour variant of the vinegar sauce. I guess, some ketchup could balance it with a little sweetness, but since I really like sour stuff that was not an option to pursue.
I would have expected that also the potato salad would be more on the sour side, since everything else is, but actually it was quite bland and unspectacular. And the baked beans had a kind of very sweet, cinnamon like taste, which adds a much needed counterpart to all the vinegary sourness that prevails with the rest of the food.

All in all, the Ole Hickory Barbecue is a good example of the variety in BBQ you will find here in Northern Alabama. Their obsession with vinegar is a nice change of pace, and I really liked their food. But my next BBQ will probably be one where they have a really sweet sauce. If you like sour, by any means, go there. Or go to their satellite station in Huntsville, if you don’t want to drive to this out-of-the-way place just to get your vinegar fix. But you will miss a really nice place with style and charm that you usually don’t find in a big town. Not to mention the plaster pig on the lawn.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thomas Pit Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No10 –Thomas Pit Bar-B-Q
Hwy 72 W, Madison, Madison County

It ain’t gonna get more authentic than this.
Thomas Pit Bar-B-Q on Highway 72 in Madison, Alabama, is the real deal. They are at the same place since 1932, when Madison was just a sparsely populated railroad stop, and not home to the largest population of engineers per square mile, as it is today.

The outside of the building certainly looks like from a distant era, and the inside is also not the most modern one could imagine. No flat screen TV’s on the walls, an old chewing gum machine at the counter, the occasional dead spider in a window corner, and the dust of eight decades on the wall decorations – very authentic and old school.
When I am there, and I go there often, sometimes a thought crosses my mind – was Wernher von Braun, the engineering genius behind the Saturn V Moon Rocket that was designed and tested in Huntsville in the 1960s, a BBQ fan? And if so, he surely must have come here. Often.
Because, besides the authentic atmosphere there, he would have gotten the best BBQ in Northern Alabama- as I do nowadays, every time I come here. And I come here often, and not only because it is right around the corner from where I live.

The pork plate at Thomas Pit Bar-B-Q is actually what first got me hooked on BBQ way back in the day. Since then, I’ve tried many different BBQ places, but although a few come close, the unique mixture of authentic atmosphere, authentic food and authentic history is hard to surpass.
This place just has charm – you cannot pay with plastic money there, only cash is accepted. On Saturday nights, the line at the drive through window runs into the next county, and when your order is ready they will shout out the number on your ticket, and you better hurry to fetch your food, or the next shout will be louder and a bit more harsh and impatient.

And really, there is absolutely no excuse to let that delicious food sit on the counter even a second longer than necessary. I always get the large pork plate, with slaw, potato salad and lemonade.
The meat is smoked in a dedicated building adjacent to the restaurant, and it provides half of Madison with this unbelievable aroma each day – except Sundays, when they are closed like every authentic BBQ place here in the Bible Belt.

The pulled pork is juicy and tender, wonderfully flavored and just perfect in every regard. Yes, perfect. I dare to proclaim that publicly, and I stand by it.
The potato salad is very unique, since the potatoes are not sliced, but diced real fine, so it resembles the slaw which is also diced in the same manner. The taste is a bit on the sour side, but not in an overwhelming manner. That is also true for the slaw, which is of the vinegary kind, as opposed to this strange variety you sometimes find that is drenched in mayonnaise. Again, this is just very authentic and old school.
As for the sauce, they have an original hot sauce that has a vinegar base, and which is very peppery and very spicy indeed, and an original white sauce – which you only get if you ask real nice at the counter. And there is the ubiquitous Ketchup bottle at every table.
Yes, I know. That certainly looses them some serious style points with us purists. But to be quite frank here, although I usually sneer at Ketchup in favor of the original sauces, in this case a mixture of the hot sauce with the Ketchup will work miracles. With those two ingredients, after some experimentation, one can achieve the perfect blend of spiciness, sweetness and tanginess.

The large pork plate also comes with two slices of toast and two cups of country crème, and that is truly a lot of food you get for exactly ten bucks.
The meal is served on those inevitable foam plates, with plastic silverware and a single-use plastic cup for the drink. Well, this is certainly not quite authentic and kind of on the cheap, but at least you can leave all the stuff on the table after your are finished – they have a dedicated cleaner who takes care of that.
But there is one major flaw I have to complain about - they don’t serve Hush Puppies. Given their track record with anything else, those puppies would probably be to die for, if they decided to put them on the menu. But maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t have them – it would be too much to ask of me not to go there every day. And so, I only go often.