Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dickey's Barbecue Pit

Non-Quest BBQ No 11 – Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
Arlington, Texas

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 ... 
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit has started as a family business in Dallas, Texas, in 1941. Since then, they franchised their business model and today there are about 140 Dickey’s all over the United States. With the conspicuous exception of the States of Alabama and Tennessee. They are certainly successful, and also obviously wise enough than to test their luck here in the BBQ belt. And rightfully so, because they don’t hold a candle to even most of our more average BBQ places.

This is not to say that the food is bad at Dickey’s – not at all. But if you had the choice between a V8-Truck and a Smart … that’s what I mean. No contest. Game over. Move on. Get out of the way. Now.

The restaurant exterior and interior are strictly and clearly designed to appeal to the usual Sports-Bar/Family restaurant crowd. Nice wooden furniture, a few neon signs and antique looking photos on the walls, a couple of flat-screen-TVs in the corners, booths on the walls, tables in the middle, blue-and-white checkered table cloths, plastic plates and metal silverware. Standard issue American family restaurant equipment, no style points for authenticity here, that’s for sure.
And then there is the misleading name – Barbecue Pit. Laughable. They use gas powered smokers, which by my count is as far away from anything you could justifiably call “Barbecue Pit” as I am from being mistaken for Brad Pitt.
So, although the original place in Dallas still exists, and the franchise is also still owned by the original family, their restaurants aren’t exactly Mom-and-Pop-style joints, and they also cut some corners in other areas during their growth to national food chain. But how is the food now, actually?
Well, to find this out, I ordered the two meat plate – with pulled pork and polish sausage, and baked beans and a so called baked potato casserole on the side. And for good measure, and because it just happened to stand there so invitingly at the counter where you load your side on the plate, I also took a cup of apple cobbler. And good thing that I did, because that was definitely the high light of the whole meal.

First of all, the pork was not pulled. It was kind of cut into big chunks, which where not very tender and also contained a good bit of gristle and fat, while the meat around that was unbelievably dry. The taste was actually surprisingly acceptable, but after spitting the third chunk of gristle into a napkin, I really wasn’t in the mood to enjoy it any more. And it also didn’t help much that the pork was smothered with sweet sauce – vinegar and pepper to bring out the flavor, anybody? Goodness gracious.
The polish sausage on the other hand was real good – a little spicy, but that was complemented in a very nice manner by the thick red sweet barbecue sauce the carver at the counter had poured over it. Although the sausage was certainly not of the lean variety, taste and texture were really pleasant.
The baked beans on the other hand were just merely acceptable, and you can get the same quality out of almost every canned brand from the supermarket.
And then the baked potato casserole – what a grand name for mashed potatoes with bacon bits and cheese on top. It was kind of a tasteless concoction, only resembling anything flavorful when I happened to have bacon, potatoes and cheese together on the fork. Don’t those people (outside of Alabama and Tennessee) know what potato salad is? And cole slaw? Maybe it is good they apparently don’t – it would end in certain disaster anyway. So, Texas (and Florida and everybody else), stay with your potato casseroles and fries, and leave the real stuff to those people who can handle it.

As mentioned above, the apple cobbler was very good, not too sweet and without that dreadful cinnamon spice. Also, you get a free ice-cream cone with each meal, which is always a crowd pleaser. And for such a lot of food, including a large drink, the price of just over thirteen buckaroos is a very fair deal. But I would gladly have paid more to get decent pulled pork. And potato salad. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Hope Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No23 – New Hope Bar-B-Que
New Hope, Madison County

A prominent part of the saga called Americana is the legend of the old Mom and Pop shop at some sleepy two lane highway, where you can get the best of something, be it home made quilts, knives, rocking chairs, straw hats, or any variety of local food.
Of course, only a few living souls outside the neighborhood are privy to the information where to find these places, but sometimes an unprepared traveler might also stumble into the store, restaurant, or whatever Mom and Pop shop there is.

One of those authentic places exists in New Hope, and it is a BBQ joint. Operated by local folks, who fall more in the category of Mom and Pop of Mom and Pop (which would be Grandma and Grandpa, just to be clear here …), it seems to be one of those places which are part of the local tradition and basically embedded into the landscape.
New Hope Bar-B-Que is first and foremost a carry-out operation, and no, there is no such modern flim-flam as a drive through. You get out of the car, young man, walk up to the counter and politely place your order there.
Which I did. Could I have a pork plate, please. Sure, it comes with slaw, baked beans, and baked potato salad, is that okay? Yes, thank you, that is fine. And what kind of sauce do you want – we have hot and mild. Well, how hot is your hot sauce? Well, it’s made of apple-cider vinegar and cayenne pepper, my own recipe, and it will bring out the meat flavor really well. Tell you what, I just give you one cup of both, and you can just pour a drop of the hot sauce on it and decide if that would be too spicy for you.

So, I gave him ten bucks and he gave me the meal - which came in one of these Styrofoam carry-out boxes with plastic utensils - with a canned Coke to drink, and the two different sauces.
Since I did not want to eat this in my car, and they have three tables and a few chairs there, I just sat down at one of the tables. A little boy, probably their grandchild, carrying a toy hunting rifle with a scope, immediately came over, but left bewildered after he saw me taking pictures of the food. That is most probably not the normal behavior in New Hope. They usually just eat their food there, I reckon.

Of course, after I was done with my camera, I ate the food, too. And not having done so would have been a shame, because it was actually very good.
The meat did not have that kind of overwhelming smoky flavor that totally covers the pork taste. It was very tender and a little bit on the dry side, which I really like. No mushy wetness here that leaves the meat spongy and soggy. Big chunks, too, which I also like very much. And grandpa was absolutely right – his home made hot sauce really underscored the meat flavor in a very pleasant way. And it really was not too spicy, but had a wonderfully aromatic sour flavor through the apple-cider vinegar.
And the mild sauce, a thick red concoction with only a hint of spiciness on it, but also more on the sour side, was very delicious, too.
The best part of the sides was definitely the slaw. I like it when the cabbage flavor is not completely suppressed by the sauce, and in this case the sauce added just the right amount of tartness. The potato salad was not too bad, either, but basically on par with numerous others I had so far. As for the baked beans, the taste seemed to hint on the possibility that they came out of a can.

So, although I do not live even in the remote vicinity of New Hope, but it took me almost an hour to get there from my house, it was an enjoyable experience. The food was really good, and it doesn’t possibly get any more authentic than this. And also, during my meal there, I learnt all about the different hourly rates for work in the local job market. It seemed to be the topic du jour, because everybody who came in to order just chimed in, so it was kind of a never ending chat, only with constantly changing participants. This must be one of those local customs, which are indispensible to adding flavor to the saga that is called Americana. And it also helps to have that experience over a good meal of southern BBQ.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ted's Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No22 – Ted’s Bar-B-Q
Huntsville, Madison County

Do you like the outdoors? Do you crave fresh air all the time, don’t mind the elements, and the occasional insect crawling over you? Or are you one of them pathetic sissies who absolutely positively need air conditioning, bug repellent and hand sanitizer to not get the creeps?
If the latter is true, then you better use the drive through at Ted’s Bar-B-Q in Huntsville, or take your meal as carry-out. But if you at least drive a big hunkin’ truck and pride yourself in being a robust country man, you may decide to battle the elements and sit on one of the half dozen tables that are located curbside in front of Ted’s joint. And if you are real lucky, you’ll get one of the two tables that are actually situated under the arcade of the building.
Those tables, though, are recognizably out of place there – they have stickers from some Mexican place on it, and the arrangement of putting them on the curb smells like improvisation. Originally, Ted’s Bar-B-Q was supposed to be a drive-through/carry-out kind of place only. But since they opened a few weeks ago, the need for sit-down places seems to have arisen. Alas, there is no space for that inside, with the kitchen taking up most of the square footage, and the rest being occupied by the counter where you order.
So, on a sunny October day with temperatures in the low eighties, sitting outside is just a fabulous idea. But I do not dare to imagine doing that on a three digit August day, or in miserable winter weather in January. Basically, that puts this place into the drive-by-BBQ category, with a sit-down option, weather permitting.

That of course means that the atmosphere is greatly dependent on, for instance, how much diesel fumes the trucks that drive by will blast into your face. On the plus side, the staff will bring your meal to the table, although in the same plastic bag, with Styrofoam containers and plastic utensils, as the carry-out customers get. But the folks there are very friendly and accommodating, and the place is also very clean inside. Outside might be a different story, see above.

So then to the food they serve.
I had potato salad and slaw with my pork plate, which also came with a piece of corn bread. When ordering, you will be asked if you want mild or hot sauce with your pork. Well, can’t I have both? No, not really – they pour it over the pork already in the kitchen, which I do not really like. It’s a freedom of choice thing, you know. A cup of the hot sauce, which I chose this time, came with the plate, but the damage was already done – the pork was drenched in sauce. If you don’t like it that way, tough luck Dude.
Because of this, it was real hard to discern the taste of the pork alone, but I managed to find an uncovered piece and, well, it was not too bad. Acceptable, really, but not real great. And the pork was very tender, too, but that came with a trade-off – it was kind of mushy, wet, moist. Hard to tell which exactly, because of the sauce, but the moist softness of the meat lead to my thinking that it was not really smoked all the way, but somehow boiled in between.
Well, with the sauce all over the meat, it really did not make that big of a difference, I guess. Although I must say that this hot sauce actually is quite tasty, with a fruity body with just the right amount of spiciness.
Also, the potato salad was real good, with a very well rounded taste that had just a hint of sourness and made out of “al dente” red potatoes. The slaw, although a bit too much on the neutral tasting side, was a very good match with the hot sauce.
All in all, certainly not the best pork plate in town, but definitely acceptable.

My wife had ordered the Beef brisket and she got … pulled beef. Maybe the order was bungled, or maybe they just call it brisket and it really is just pulled beef. Anyway, it was not a taste-revelation at all. The flavor was okay, but if you expect brisket and get ordinary pulled beef, your judgment might also be a bit biased.
As sides, she had BBQ beans, which seemed to come directly out of a can, and green beans, which were actually not bad at all. But still, she told me that the “brisket” was no reason for her to consider Ted’s Bar-B-Q the “place to go” for this kind of meat.

One rather odd item you find on Ted’s menu are Tamale. Wikipedia says that “Tamale is a traditional Latin American dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can themselves be filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned”.
Why this should be on the menu of a southern BBQ place beats me. But I tried it anyway.
Well, it actually came in corn-leaf wrapper, and it had the same pork with hot sauce in it that I already knew. Quite frankly, the corn-dough absorbed much of the spiciness of the sauce, and the taste of the pork, and that resulted in a rather uninspiring and characterless overall flavor. And for almost two and a half bucks with tax, this thing was not even adequately sized.

So, would I go there again? Not for the brisket, and not for the tamale, but actually, yes, you might find me there once in a while. Because Ted’s Bar-B-Q is only about five minutes away from my office, it is a convenient way to get some BBQ for lunch. Kind of like going to one of those burger places – you don’t expect much, but it is okay food. The addition of the tables, and the tamale on the menu  show that they are quite adaptive and innovative at Ted’s, and maybe at some time, they will also introduce a kid’s meal with a toy there. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Old Gin House Bar-B-Q

Quest Log – Old Gin House Bar-B-Q
Elkmont, Limestone County

I am Captain Ahab, and this is my white whale.
The Old Gin House Bar-B-Q in Elkmont was supposed to be really good. Authentic atmosphere, authentic food, great locality inside an old cotton gin – a sure fire Top Ten contender, I was assured by people who live in this part of Limestone County.
I’ve been there three times.
The first time on a Monday in April, with my wife. The restaurant was closed. No service on Mondays. Well, it’s a forty-five minute drive from our house, so it took us a while to try again. But when we showed up in July, they were on summer break.
And today, they had a sign outside saying that they are closed for good.
Ahab was eventually killed by his whale, so I guess I should not complain. But it frustrates the heck out of me, nonetheless.