Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stokin' the Fire BBQ Festival

Non-Quest BBQ No 5 – Stokin’ the Fire BBQ Festival
Birmingham, AL, Sloss Furnace

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 ... 

Competition BBqing is a world of its own. The teams have colorful names that nobody in their right mind would dare to slap on the street sign for a regular BBQ joint – “Two Fat Boys and a Grill”, "Motley Qüe", "Smell my Butts", "Chainsmokers", "Smart Ash Smokers", to name just a few of those that were at the Stokin’ the Fire BBQ Festival at the historical Sloss Furnace in Birmingham today.
Some teams wear rather outlandish costumes, some at least matching T-Shirts and some don’t care at all about fashion.
The BBQ rigs you see there range from the ubiquitous black drum to machines that require a Ph.D. to operate. All recipes are of course of the cosmic secret variety and espionage is punishable by banishment to New York, where they think that BBQ is just some meat you put on a grill.

For the seventh year now, the good folks at the Sloss Furnace have put together this Festival, and last year the grand prize winner actually came from Madison. Not that this is the least bit surprising – this here is, after all, the BBQ Nirvarna.
But some other folks, not from North Alabama, can cook real good BBQ, too. And at this festival, you can sample a lot of different styles.
The smell alone is worth the seventeen bucks they want from you at the entrance – after a few hours wandering around, sampling, chatting, and listening to the live music, your clothes will be soaked with the fragrance of smoked pork and burnt hickory.

As I write this, sitting here and still having the smell in my nose, although I showered and discarded my clothes hours ago, the results of the competition are not yet online. But I am sure that the winner is totally worthy of that honor – and it would be no surprise if they came from this neck of the woods, again.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cracker Barrel

Non-Quest BBQ No 4 – Cracker Barrel
Madison, 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 ... 

I know, I know – Cracker Barrel ain’t a BBQ place. And that’s why I list them under the Non-Quest topic, to be fair. But they are serving a BBQ brisket plate there, so of course I needed to check that out, right?!
Everybody here in the South knows Cracker Barrel, of course. It is a big restaurant chain that serves you good southern cooking on a mainstream level, but nevertheless, while it may not be the original finger lickin’ home cooking of your great-aunt Bobbie Sue, it is still in a different league than those ubiquitous Burger joints and “Family Sports Bar Restaurant” thingies.
They also have a store in each restaurant, where you can purchase all kinds of neat stuff, like John Deere Christmas ornaments, College Football Team memorabilia (Roll Tide!), Quilts, Candy and Condiments.

So, there I was, having a Country Brisket Plate at Cracker Barrel – “…slow cooked hickory smoked beef brisket slices on Texas toast. Comes with a side of sweet BBQ sauce, thick cut steak fries … and a sampling of cole slaw …”.
Well, it wasn’t bad at all, and for a mainstream restaurant, it was downright exceptional. The brisket was very juicy and tender, and it had a real nice hickory taste, and just a small amount of fat. I would not rank this at the top of the crop, but it was clearly much better than I had expected.
And in combination with the very garlicky Texas toast, it actually soared to culinary heights never reached by such a mainstream joint before. You really do not need the BBQ sauce with it, which is a good thing, because the sauce is not as sweet as advertised, but rather on the sour side. And that does not complement the brisket on the toast too well for my taste. Don’t get me wrong – the sauce in itself is not bad, but for this particular brisket I would have chosen a more sweet and tangy concoction.
As for the sides – the slaw is a bit watery in all its mayonnaisy glory, but I certainly had worse and though it would not hold a candle to the top dogs in a stand-alone competition, it certainly complements the brisket real well.
And the fries are just that – fries.

So, was it worth the ten bucks with a drink (take the raspberry lemonade, if they have it …)? Although the portion itself was not very generous, the quality of the food was real good, so I guess that is a fair deal. Another bonus is, that in being a chain restaurant, certain sanitary standards apply – no flies on the window sills, for instance. On the other hand, the big dining room is not the least bit cozy or authentic. But the food is served on real china, with actual metal silverware – a far cry from the Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils in most real BBQ joints. But that, a real BBQ joint, Cracker Barrel ain’t – and the very decent brisket plate they serve ain’t gonna change that anytime soon, too.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chuck Wagon BBQ

Quest Log No17 – Chuck Wagon BBQ
Madison Boulevard, Madison, Madison County

Chuck Wagon BBQ in Madison is a bit different, in many ways.
First of all, it is Texas style BBQ. Yes, they have pork, but their specialty is brisket and sausage. You order at a carving station, where the owner will carve the meat before your very eyes, measures the weight on a scale that has a very visible sticker “Made in the USA” on it, then puts it on a plate and gives it to the guy who puts the sides on it. In the meantime, the owner has discarded the excess juices from carving the meat into the bowl with the BBQ beans. Yeah! That’s how they freakin’ do it in Texas!
Needless to say that the BBQ beans are the very best I ever had – not only does the meat juice go in there, but there are also real big chunks of beef in it, too. Yeah! Or Yippieh, or Yeehaw, or whatever they do in Texas when something is really outstanding.
And that is true for the potato salad, which is, of course, home made, too. It is of the mayonnaisy variety, but has a nice sour note to it. Oh, and one more thing about the beans, which are the owner’s great-grandfather’s recipe and are cooked campfire-style over the wood fired grill – unlike many around here, these do not have this overwhelming cinnamon taste, but have a very strong meaty flavor instead. Yeah! Yippieh! Yeehaw!
But enough of the sides - although those alone would make it worthwhile to go there. But if you decide to pay a visit, arrive early. They open at 11 AM and usually by that time a line has already formed that wraps around the place two or three times.
The restaurant itself is rather small, it holds maybe half a doyen tables for four in the main room and maybe a few more tables in the adjacent expansion room. That room was apparently attached after the word about the beans got around and the place was overrun by the masses.
The interior decoration is very authentic for such a joint. Wooden tables and chairs, a few very small booth-style tables in the back, plastic table cloths, wooden walls and floor, a few Western-style decorative items – nothing fancy, nothing special, just homey and kind of snuggly.
Outside of the building there is a big trailer - it looks like one of them horse trailers – where the meat is smoked, Texas style. That means that the fire never touches the meat, so that only the smoke cooks the meat. Which is, kind of, the way we all do it here in Bama anyway … any other way would be just uncivilized and not real BBQ, am I right?! Thought so.
Usually, I would have pulled pork, but this time I decided to go with the brisket instead. It just looked so fantastic when the owner prepared it for the lady in front of me, and plus it is really their staple, so I decided to break with tradition.
Didn’t regret it for a second.
The meat was moist, very tender, extremely tasty, with a hint of mesquite wood, and with just a little fat on it. There is really no need to pour sauce on it at all. But if you must, they have two kinds – mild and hot, which are of the dark red, thick, tomato-fruity variety. The hot sauce is a bit more spicy than the mild sauce, but it is really not that hot at all, it just has a nice kick to it, that’s all.
You have to grab a small cup and fill it with sauce when you get your plate after it is loaded up with the sides, so no sauce drowning orgies at the table here. Which is okay, because - really, trust me - you don’t need the sauce. Well, maybe to dunk the toast that comes with the plate in it.
There is also the special Chuck Wagon Sandwich that is not on the menu – just ask for it. This comes with two meats of your choice, and whatever your second meat might be, let the first meat be the smoked sausage. I heard that there are people who came back several times to try out any possible combination with the sausage.
With a drink – you can buy a can of Soda, no glasses or cups here – the brisket plate cost me about thirteen bucks. Not really on the cheap side, but the quality of the food, the fantastic taste, the BBQ beans (Yeah! Yippieh! Yeehaw!), and the really nice atmosphere at the Chuck Wagon BBQ makes this a very fair deal.

Remark (23 April 2013): The now also have a killer white sauce, a killer vinegar-pepper sauce and a über-killer mustard based sauce. If this is not heaven ...

Friday, August 5, 2011

Floyd's Barbeque

Quest Log No16 – Floyd’s Barbeque
Pulaski Pike, Huntsville, Madison County

The food is dirt cheap at Floyd’s Barbeque on Pulaski Pike in Huntsville, my small pulled pork plate with two sides was a bit over five Dollars. And the folks there are friendly.
Right now, after mentioning all the good things there, I should probably stop. Because unfortunately from now on, it ain’t gonna be pretty anymore.
Floyd’s is a drive-through/walk-up joint only. There is a rather bumpy and worn out driveway from the main street, which wraps around the equally worn out blue building, leading to the window where you order, pay and get your goods.
The menu is typical southern BBQ stuff, pork and turkey, slaw and potato salad, baked beans and sandwiches, and all is real cheap, too.
So is the quality of the food. The meat was soggy and mushy, with lots of fat in it and although the taste was not even too bad, I only had a few bites before my stomach would raise the white flag.
Each plate comes with some yellowish concoction that rather mysteriously is called “cole slaw”: That; it definitely ain’t. It tastes like nothing else I ever tasted and not at all in a good way. I refuse to even try to describe the taste, because the memory of that small bite I took is still painful.
It was probably a good thing that they were out of potato salad, so I chose two helpings of baked beans as sides instead. Those were of the out-of-the-tin-can variety and thus the least revolting thing on that plate.
No, I stand corrected – the toast that came with the plate was actually not too bad, either. So, this can end now on a positive note after all.