There ain't no bad BBQ in all of Bama.
It's all good ... some more good, some less good.
A darn shame, though, that one's lifetime is too short for visiting all the BBQ places there are between Huntsville and Mobile.
So I decided to scale it down to a more manageable quest - all the 60+ BBQ places in the counties of Madison, Limestone, Morgan, and Lawrence in Northern Alabama (that is the Hunstville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area).
And that is my Great North Alabama BBQ Quest.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Hickory Barn Bar-B-Que
Quest Log No15 – Hickory Barn Bar-B-Que Highway 72, Between Athens and Rogersville, Limestone County
If you happen to drive on Highway 72 between Muscle Shoals and Huntsville, go there. Well, even if you are somewhere on I-65, near exit 351, go there. In fact, when you are on I-65 in Mobile, drive to that exit near Athens, and go there. Heck, if you are on the Jersey Turnpike, turn around and go there. Just go there, where ever you are.
Because “there” is, where Bill Davis cooks. No, he is not the caped superhero BBQ-Man, nor is he the fat bellied demi-god of serene BBQ, and he is also not the winner of the last installment of American BBQ Idol. He is just an ordinary guy who won the Jack Daniels “Shade-Tree cook-off” Grand Championship in 2006, and now owns a little BBQ joint at Highway 72, like there are so many in this neck of the woods.
He calls it Hickory Barn Bar-B-Que, I call it the Big Rock Candy Mountain BBQ.
It is not a big place, with sitting accommodations for maybe forty people or so – if those people don’t mind to share their personal space with other folks.
The furniture consists of a few of those combined wooden picnic table/bank units, with red and white plaid plastic tablecloths that have oversized ants printed on it. The sauces are stored in old soft drink six-pack containers, and the plastic tableware is in a small tin box on the table, where you will also find a roll of kitchen paper towels.
Sounds rustic? You bet.
This rustic atmosphere is even more amplified by the wall decoration, which consists mainly of old car license plates. My wife liked the one that says “SAMPLE” the best, I thought that the plates with “BBQ” in some form on it were the most interesting.
Other tings you might spot on the walls and on the ceiling are old Coke vending machines, a plush armadillo, campaign signs of local sheriffs, and all kinds of other stuff one might pick up at garage sale or two.
Nevertheless, the place is spotless clean – they got 97 points out of a possible 100 at their last health inspection. No dead flies on the window sills here, and yet the authenticity of this place and the wonderful atmosphere it exudes, intensified by the background music of classic Country and Western, Blues, Southern Rock, and the Englishsouthern redneck language that is spoken there is unmatched.
And then there is the food. Let me pause for a minute to pray to thank the good Lord for pork, fire and spices, and that he put people on this Earth who know what to do with it.
The pulled pork I got there was nothing short of sublime – lean, but juicy and tender, with a fine hickory taste, some bark and a wonderfully defined pink smoke ring. The sheer quality of the meat just blew me away before my brain even started to process the firework of information the taste buds were sending out.
The ribs my wife had where equally fantastic. Although there was a little fat, this only contributed to the overall superb taste. You can buy the dry rub used on those ribs in a jar there for five bucks, which would be an investment with infinite dividends for every serious home BBQ event. The meat was extremely tender, it fell off the bone easily and it also had a crunchy bark that was saturated with the dry rub. And don’t you even think of pouring sauce over the ribs – this would be a sacrilege of the first magnitude.
On the other hand, not drenching everything on your plate with one of the four home made, original sauces on the table would probably be an even bigger sin.
There is the mild sauce, which is a thick red tomaty-fruity not-too-sour-not-too-sweet-but-way-better-than-ketchup concoction. The hot sauce is essentially the mild sauce plus dominantly pepper, which provides a certain spicy tang but does not make it real hot and gives it a very nice and balanced taste. Then there is the ubiquitous white sauce, which is on the vinegary side and also with a peppery undertone. And then – to the sound of a lonely harmonica - comes Cortez the Killer, disguised as a mustard based BBQ sauce.
There are not very many places that serve this variety and that is truly a shame. If it is done right, this kind of sauce is the perfect match with pulled pork – and done right it is at Hickory Barn. There are many layers to this sauce – first comes the mustardy basement, then the structure of pepper and other spices, and on top a certain, very light sweetness. You can buy this sauce in a very home made looking jar and take it home with you. Or you can just come back to the restaurant over and over again and enjoy it with the perfect meat they serve there.
Well, and they also have sides that are exceptional. The potato salad is made of a rather compact type of potato, with some yellowish mayonnaise and just a minimum of spices. At first I found it to be a bit bland by itself, but than I discovered that the salad is in total harmony with the meat and the sauces.
The slaw on the other hand kicks your behind. It is quite peppery with a hint of vinegar and sugar, and with some crunch to it, too. The BBQ beans my wife had with the rib plate had little pieces of ham in it and there was no trace of cinnamon, which usually spoils baked beans more than it does any good.
My pork plate came with a roll, which was very nice for scooping up the excess sauce, and a pickle spear, the rib plate had only the spear.
We paid twenty-five bucks with taxes and drinks, which is not actually cheap, but the portions we got for this were more than adequate, and the quality was … well, see above.
My only gripe with this place is that it is only open from Thursday through Saturday. And of course, those 25 miles I have to drive from where I live to get there is something I need to complain about - a satellite station across the street would be nothing short of my personal Nirvana.