Monday, December 31, 2012

Lawler’s Barbecue Express #1 (Whitesburg Drive)

Quest Log No 45 – Lawler’s Barbecue Express #1 (Whitesburg Drive)
Huntsville, Madison County

The last Lawler’s on the list of BBQ places in the Huntsville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area that I hadn’t visited yet is the one with the 1 as the sequence number.
It is located right next to a gas station, in a small building that it shares with the gas station’s office.
It has a drive through, and also a small but relatively cozy space to sit inside with about half a dozen tables. The furniture is wooden, the walls are decorated with some fishing related posters and plaques, and everything is in good shape and the whole place is very clean, with a health score of 99 out of 100.

Of course, after already visiting the other four Lawler’s Express Barbecue restaurants, the menu has no surprises for me anymore. The only item I did not try yet was the ham plate. And with that I chose the BBQ beans and the potato salad as sides, just because I didn’t feel like going with green beans and chips.
Unfortunately, my order was screwed up a little, and instead I got a combo plate with pork and turkey, plus a cup of ham on the side when the mistake was discovered.
Well, that was a lot of meat and really more than I had intended to eat.
And so I only ate some pork and some ham, and just a little bit of the turkey.

The ham did not taste real smoky, and it did not have even a remote BBQ aroma. It was just baked ham, very tender and kind of mushy, but also very sweet. I like the savory version of ham better, and I kind of expected the flavor to go in this direction, because of the hickory smoke it should have been smoked in.
Alas, it was just so sweet that I had to pour a mixture of the hot and the mild vinegar sauce over it to make it tolerable.
Also, the pork and the turkey seemed to have been of lesser quality than I remembered it. Here too I could not detect a real smoky aroma – I had better at other Lawler’s.

So, that concludes the Lawler’s part of the Quest – until they open Number 6 at the new Madison Hospital sometime in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Henley's Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No 44 – Henley’s Bar-B-Que
Town Creek, Lawrence County

If you follow US Highway 72/Alabama Highway 20, the Joe Wheeler Highway, to the West, past Decatur into Lawrence County, you notice that the scenery changes somewhat. You are leaving the more densely populated part of the Huntsville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area to find yourself in small town America, with farmland and big silos by the side of the highway. The small villages there have names like Courtland, Leighton, or Town Creek. Nothing fancy, nothing special, just regular names.
Each of those towns has a gas station or two, a car wash, maybe a Dollar General, and possibly even a BBQ place. That is where all the local folks from the other towns that are not blessed with such an institution congregate. And after a few decades, that place has taken over the taste-buds of the region, and the BBQ they are serving there is deemed to be the best in the world.

Well, being an outsider, who has travelled the world a bit, I arrive with unbiased taste-buds and some experience of how they do BBQ in other places.
And so, my first impression of Henley’s Bar-B-Que in Town Creek was not very advantageous.
They also sell pizza there. Why, I do not know, and did not ask. I just found it kind of odd, especially since the pizza was not even made from scratch, but apparently came out of a box.
Well, since I did not see any dedicated pizza place along the Joe Wheeler Highway, this might be actually a niche were you can make money. So be it, but it felt a little strange to see a pizza on the counter, placed on a heating plate under a glass dome.
They also sell Blue Bell Ice Cream and milkshakes there, which goes much better with BBQ in my mind.

This all is situated in a big dining room that oozes the charm of an empty train station. The decorations on the walls are sparse, the lighting is bright and brutal, the furniture is boring and functional. The place is very clean and the staff is very friendly and nice, and they have a big screen TV in of the corners – but there is no atmosphere, no individuality, no charm.

Unfortunately, the meal I had was quite the same. Yes, it was BBQ, but it was unspectacular, had a strange taste, and the best part of it was the bread roll that came with it.
As usual, I ordered the large pork plate, with slaw and potato salad. Together with sweet tea and the tip, I paid about twelve Dollars for it – which does not register as especially inexpensive.
The pork, as I alluded to already above, had a very strange taste to it. There was no smoke flavor I could taste, but something very strong like celery, or lovage. Not what I expected, and certainly not very agreeable with my taste-buds. Moreover, the meat was somewhat oily and I found two big patches of fat and gristle in it. Putting the sauce I found on the table on it did help a little – it took the edge off the intensity of the strange flavor, but could not cover it all together.
But that was probably too much to ask anyway from a sauce that you could probably buy at the next super market.
The next disaster waited in form of the slaw. One word: Sweet! Nothing else, just sweet little bits of not very crunchy cabbage. The potato salad on the other hand was not too bad, but it had a strange aftertaste, like too much mustard or pepper went in it.
The folks in Town Creek and vicinity might think differently about Henley’s Bar-B-Que, and the fact that this restaurant is probably there since the dawn of time surely is testament to this, and I may a terrible mistake here, but I would rate the whole experience there as “once and never again”. This was just not good tasting BBQ for me. Sorry about that.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lawler’s Barbecue Express #2 (Jeff Road)

Quest Log No 43 – Lawler’s Barbecue Express #2 (Jeff Road)
Huntsville, Madison County

Another day, another Lawler’s. They are spreading like wildfire across the county, the next one (Number 6) already in the making near the new Madison Hospital.
This time, we went to the maybe smallest of the bunch, located in a tiny strip mall on Jeff Road, a mile or so north of the Kroger store on Highway 72. They have a drive-through window there, a small room with a counter, a soda machine and other useful stuff, and outside, in front of the store windows, there are two tiny tables with two chairs each. Well, since this December feels more mike March, and it was actually T-shirt weather outside, my wife and I sat down there and had quite a lovely meal.

True to my credo to have something different each time I visit a satellite restaurant of a franchise, I ordered the ham sandwich this time. It comes with pickles, mayonnaise and lettuce and what can I say, I like it. It is very good smoked ham, nothing special, but very tasty.
So, up until now, I did not have any bad experience at Lawler’s. They are certainly not in the Top Five of my list of favorite BBQ places. But as an alternative to some greasy burger joint, they are unbeatable.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lawler's Barbecue Express #3

 Quest Log No 42 – Lawler’s Barbecue Express #3 (Highway 72)
Athens, Limestone County

Although Lawler’s is a small chain with currently five locations in Northern Alabama (a sixth place is already in the making, near the new Madison Hospital), those restaurants are not the same. Some are quite sober, functional eateries, while others are outfitted in a special way, with attention to detail and a whimsical touch. Like the one in Athens on Highway 72, were they have an actual rowing boat on the ceiling, and some nice display cases with fishing paraphernalia on the walls. The restaurant has about half a dozen booths on the side walls, and some tables in the center. You order at a window in the back and while you wait for it to be prepared, you may seat yourself on one of the two park banks there.
Adding to that homey and welcoming atmosphere is the staff, which is very friendly and responsive.

This is the fourth Lawler’s I’ve been in, and so far it was the one with the best atmosphere. There is not much difference in the food between the locations, which is understandable because the meat is usually prepared at a central place up in Tennessee and then driven the few miles to the satellite stations in North Alabama each morning. Although, this place in Athens has a smoking facility outside of the restaurant, so I wonder if maybe they shifted the whole meat preparing operation a bit south now.

Anyway, as usual when visiting another location of a chain, I tried something else then the pulled pork plate with slaw and potato salad. This time I opted for the half chicken plate with baked beans and potato salad.
Well, the chicken was very tender and succulent, but I could not detect a very prominent smoke aroma. But with the white sauce on it – Bang! Absolutely great! I dare to say that with a distinctive smoky flavor on the chicken, it would have not harmonized as well with the sauce.
The baked beans were superb, too, not too sweet and without any cinnamon. The potato salad I already had before and I still like it very much. It is predominately on the sour side, and rich and creamy.

So, if I had to choose from one of the many Lawler’s locations here in the Tennessee Valley, the one on Highway 72 in Athens would be my favorite. It looks and feels like a good old BBQ place (only without the dead flies on the window sills …), the food is always very good, and the prices (under ten Dollars for the plate and a drink) are certainly acceptable. So what if they don’t smoke the meat exactly were they sell it – as long as it is not frozen and then put in the microwave, I don’t have any problem with it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lawler's Barbecue Express #5

Quest Log No 41 – Lawler’s Barbecue Express #5 (Memorial Parkway)
Huntsville, Madison County

The purist version of BBQ is certainly pulled pork on a plate, with a couple of sides and some sweet tea. Maybe a pulled pork sandwich does qualify, too. But if you put pulled pork on something else – is this even BBQ anymore? Like, on a gigantonomous baked potato, with cheese and sour crème and the kitchen sink?
Well, that’s what I had at the Lawler’s Barbecue Express #5 on Memorial Parkway in Huntsville today.
You know my rule – if it’s a chain, I’ll have a different item from the menu in each of the various locations.
So this time it was the stuffed tater with pulled pork, for about nine Dollars with a drink.
While I wouldn’t want to eat that every day – I am trying to preserve my girlish figure, you know, and this thing surely has a gazillion calories - I must say that it was very tasty. The pork was very tender, lean and succulent, and it harmonized extremely well with the other stuff they put on the potato. They had their four sauces on the table, but I did not need any of them – it was perfect how it came out of the kitchen.
And yes, I know, they do not smoke their meat in those satellite locations, but do it in a central place up in Tennessee and drive it down to Alabama then. The purist in me cringes at the mere thought of it, but the hungry man says, as long as it tastes good, who cares? It surely beats the food you usually get at the next burger joint.
Although, from the looks of it, this place on Memorial Parkway does not have many special features that would distinguish it from other fast food restaurants.
It is located at the corner of a small strip mall, and the interior is, well, functional. Some wooden tables and chairs, a few decorative signs on the walls, really nothing special. Other Lawler’s have a more special interior, with more attention to detail and a much cozier ambience. This place has a more factory like charm – which is understandable, because it is clearly not a typical family dinner location, but a place where Joe and Jack from the power company emergency unit get their lunches. Big taters and all.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Whitt's Barbecue (Marion St)

Quest Log No 40 – Whitt’s Barbecue (Marion Street)
Athens, Limestone County

There are two Whitt’s Barbecue places in Athens, and after visiting the one on Elm Street, my wife decided that we should go to the other one, on Marion Street, as long as we were in the city. That was fine by me, for I can eat BBQ more than once a day without any problem. Her motivation to go to the second place was pure scientific curiosity – would they have the same quality?

Well, when we pulled up in the parking lot, that question was answered immediately – since the place on Marion Street does not have a pit of its own, they apparently get their meat from the place on Elm Street, which has a pit.
So much for the quality comparison then.
We decided to get a sandwich there anyway. I took a Turkey sandwich, and my wife had a Beef sandwich – with all the fixins’, lettuce, pickles, mayonnaise.
Additionally, my wife had half a pint of potato salad, because she only got a few scoops before on Elm Street, and she really liked it.

My Turkey sandwich was not bad, but it also was not a real BBQ sandwich. If there was any smoky flavor to the turkey, it was overlaid by the taste of the pickles and the mayonnaise. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a very good sandwich, but not really a very good BBQ sandwich. Maybe a white sauce instead of the mayonnaise, or less pickles, or both would do the trick.
And my wife was downright disappointed by her Beef sandwich – slow cooked, she said. No BBW flavor, plus the dominance of the mayonnaise and the pickles. A very good sandwich, but not if you expect at least some BBQ flavor.

Anyway, if I had the choice between a Burger joint and Whitt’s, the latter would win most of the time. And since there seem to be no other halfway decent lunch places around in the Marion Street area, I can absolutely understand that this place was overrun by people when we were there.
But again, as with the place on Elm Street – no way I would drive there 30 miles in a snowstorm.

Whitt's Barbecue (Elm St)

Quest Log No 39 – Whitt’s Barbecue (Elm Street)
Athens, Limestone County

There usually is an economical way to do things, and a no-compromises way. With BBQ, I certainly prefer the latter one – only the best ingredients, the best wood, the best everything, plus a little extra love on the side will satisfy me. But then again, I am not out there to make a profit, so my perspective might be a little different from those BBQ entrepreneurs.
Whitt’s Barbecue started as a backyard family business in Athens in1966, and the extended family, plus some non-family franchise owners, owns and operates 25 restaurants in Tennessee, 5 in Alabama, and 1 in Kentucky nowadays. Certainly, standardized processes, shared resources, wholesale orders, and all the other by-products of the economy of large numbers helped to shape this little empire.
What were left behind were individuality, innovation, and inspiration. If you turn the first letter of the franchise name on its head, what do you get? Another golden arch …

Well, that said, I would prefer Whitt’s southern style fast food over a sloppy burger any day. And fast food, it is – all the Whitt’s restaurants are carry-out/drive-through places. You get your meal in a Styrofoam box that is put in a brown bag with the corporate logo on it. They have a walk-up window in addition to the drive through, for those of us who roam the country side on foot.

I already visited the Whitt’s on 6th Avenue in Decatur a year ago, and there I had a Turkey sandwich. This time, I took the pork plate, with potato salad, baked beans and slaw. It also came with a roll and a small cup of sauce. For this, and a cup of sweet tea, I paid about eight Dollars. Overall, I’d say that this is a very good deal – you get a decent, though not great BBQ meal. But let’s get into the details now.

The meat was succulent and very tender, although it did not have a very distinctive smoky aroma. I had better, but I also had much worse, so although this probably does not represent the pinnacle of pit mastery, it is okay. So was the sauce that came with it – a vinegar based, non spicy pepper sauce with a somewhat lame kick.
Not okay, on the other hand, was the slaw – much too much artificial sweetener in there, just awful. The baked beans were also very sweet, but at least I could not detect cinnamon in there. I hate cinnamon in baked beans, and the absence of it made even this sweet concoction bearable.
The potato salad on the other hand was really good. It had a slightly sour taste, some real egg in it and an overall savory aroma. My wife liked it so much that she declared it the best potato salad she ever had in a BBQ place. I would not go as far as that, but will concede it to be above average.

So, if you need something good for lunch and you are in the vicinity of a Whitt’s, there is no reason not to go there. I just would not drive thirty miles for it in the middle of a snowstorm, like with a few other places I know around here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dirt Road BBQ & Grill

Quest Log No 38 – Dirt Road BBQ & Grill
Decatur, Morgan County

As I was driving to Dirt Road BBQ & Grill on the Beltline in Decatur today, a strange scene caught my eye. There was a pig and a blonde chick standing by the side of the street, frantically waving at the passing cars.
I stopped and asked, "Where did you get that?"
The pig said, "I won her in a raffle!"

No, this is not an entirely true story, just a very lame blonde joke, based on an actual pig-and-blonde-chick sighting. They were trying to entice drivers to stop at the restaurant for lunch. But besides me, I did not see anybody follow this siren song. Well, since I had planned to eat there anyways, so that does not count either. Bummer.

My wife and I visited the original Dirt Road BBQ in Trinity about nine months ago, and since then a small franchise was born. The newest addition to the Dirt Road BBQ family is this new restaurant on the Beltline in Decatur, which opened in August 2012. Its middle name is “Grill”, which describes the general focus of this establishment pretty well – think “Sports Bar”, and you are not far off. They even have Karaoke nights.
The restaurant is situated at the end of a strip mall, next to some optical shop. The exterior is dominated by a very large sign with the name on it. The interior is your typical family restaurant/sports bar layout, with the exception of about half a dozen booths on side that are made out of raw hewn wood planks. The original location in Trinity has more charm, but as a franchise concept I guess you have to streamline some things.

So I entered one of the booths, got my free sweet tea (they not only have Karaoke nights, but also free tea Fridays …) and ordered a Junk Yard Dog and a Turkey Sandwich.
Wow, wait a second – what happened to pork, potato salad and slaw, you might ask? Well, I invented this new rule that whenever I go to a different restaurant of the same franchise, I have to try something else then before.
Hence, the dog and the sandwich today, because last time I had the pork plate, comprende?

The Junk Yard Dog is a mess. I didn’t even try to eat it using only my hands – I would have looked totally stupid trying to tame the massive amount of stuff piled on that bun. A six inch long sausage with the diameter of a football (okay, that may be an exaggeration …), a very healthy helping of pulled pork, topped of with the special Dirt Road BBQ sauce and two handfuls of shredded cheese. Oh, and two pickle spears that were buried underneath the sausage.
I am not ashamed to testify here that I used a fork to partition this heap of meat, cheese and bread.
It says on the menu that the Junk Yard Dog is the favorite of Jason, the Pit Boss. I can understand this, because it is really good. But you have to make sure that with each bite you get all of the ingredients. The sausage alone is very mildly seasoned and kind of bland. Thankfully, it is also not fatty at all and the texture is surprisingly exquisite. The pulled pork is lean and tender and has a very nice smoke flavor. The cheese is the typical cheddar you find everywhere, and the pickles are … pickles.
The special BBQ sauce is much too sweet for my taste, without any zing to it. But together will all the other stuff, it makes for a very harmonious yet interesting taste. The sweetness of the sauce, the sourness of the pickles, the smokiness of the pork – never thought that this would work so well. Personally, I would probably exchange the cheese for some fried onions – then this Dog would possibly be sensational. As it is, I would rank it as amazing right now.

So, after this heap of food, I was surprised to not being filled up, but that I had some space left for the Turkey Sandwich.
Two thick slices of smoked Gobbler, some slaw and white sauce, all on a standard bun. The turkey was very well smoked, with a superb flavor, but unfortunately a bit on the dry side. The slaw was of the “let’s shred the cabbage into microscopic pieces” variety and has a sweet’n’sour taste, which dominated the whole sandwich, and I really didn’t taste the white sauce at all.
But don’t get me wrong – although the slaw flavor was quite overwhelming, the sandwich was tasty and at the end, when I reached some bites with only the turkey with a little slaw left on it, it was actually very good. The smoky flavor of the turkey came through quite nicely, which was overlaid by the slaw before. A little less of that, and this sandwich would actually have potential.

Well, I am no expert of the restaurant business, but I think we might see the beginning of a success story here. Yesterday Trinity, today Decatur – what’s next? I hear that Birmingham could use some good BBQ restaurant …

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

O'le Dads Barbeque

Quest Log No 37 – O’le Dads Barbeque
Hazel Green, Madison County

The Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association publishes a guide called “North Alabama Barbecue Trail”. Of the 16 BBQ place featured in there, I have visited only seven. Well, I might need to expand my coverage beyond the three counties of Madison, Morgan, and Limestone eventually. But do I really need to travel to Cherokee or Boaz for good BBQ? We have about sixty BBQ places in those three counties mentioned above, and I am struggling to visit each of them – which is still my goal - as it is. And quite frankly, there aren’t many BBQ restaurants outside this area that are really worth driving two hours for. We are truly blessed not only with a fairly high density of BBQ joints here, but also with some of the best BBQ one can imagine. The quality at the top is just amazing, and even the average restaurants are usually better than what you can find elsewhere.

So then, the seventh of those restaurants mentioned in the brochure, which I visited during my quest was O’le Dads Barbeque in Hazel Green.
My large pork plate came with three sides – potato salad, vinegar slaw, and baked beans. Also, you have the choice between a roll and three hushpuppies. Well, what choice? Exactly.
The meat was tender, with a very distinctive but not overbearing smoke flavor. It was also quite moist, which lets me think that maybe a liquid of some kind was added to keep it from drying out. Thankfully, it was not oil, which would have given me the cramps (see The Main Dish for reference). I am not a great purist, and since the pork was very tasty and the meat, while more moist than it probably should have been, was not soggy or flabby, I don’t want to make a big fuzz out of it.
The baked beans had some meat in them and were not sweet at all – very good.
The potato salad, on the other hand, was a bit blah, basically your standard on the sour side tasting mayonnaise-based concoction without any outstanding features.
And the slaw was of the sweet variety, which I personally don’t fancy that much. All sides together, however, with the meat and the hot sauce on it, generated an amazing taste experience. Sweet, sour, peppery, smoky, plus the different textures – amazing.
Oh, and the hot sauce is really hot. It is a simple vinegar based pepper sauce with some kick – and a very attractive orange color. It might even glow in the dark.
The mild sauce is just a standard thick brownish-reddish sweet’n’spicy sauce – you can grab one of those at the next supermarket.
So then, we come to the absolute highlight of the meal – hushpuppies. Three of them, fresh out of the fryer, each the size of two golf balls.
In my humble opinion, and in my wife’s expert opinion, these are the best hushpuppies on this planet (sorry Greenbrier Restaurant, you just lost that title …).
Crunchy on the outside, fluffy yet firm on the inside, with a perfect golden color and not too sweet - just the way hushpuppies were intended to be.
Dip them into the remnants of the baked beans sauce and this is better than any dessert.

For all of that, times two because my wife had the same meal, plus a large cup of sweet tea and a can of soda, we paid just under sixteen bucks - which is a more than good deal in my mind.
Of course, there is the drawback that for this you have to drive out to Hazel Green, the well known center of the universe. But the place is very easy to find, it sits right at the very busy US Highway 431/231. Most people get their BBQ as carry-out, which clearly has its reason in the fact that the dining area of O’le Dads Barbeque is half a dozen tables in a screened porch at the front of the building. The porch has no air condition, but features the lovely background soundtrack of speeding eighteen wheelers, ambulance sirens, and general heavy traffic.
It is not the homiest place you can imagine, but surely one of the most authentic you can find. And the food more than compensates for that little nuisance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Porky's Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 28 – Porky’s Bar-B-Que

Grant, Alabama
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 ... 

The name Porky’s will forever have a specific meaning for us folks old enough to remember the teen-movie from 1982. In the movie, Porky’s was a place of ill-repute, a hillbilly-redneck gentlemen’s club where a group of Florida High Schoolers were treated poorly and then took revenge on the slimy owner and his goons. Great fun movie, the critics hated it, the kids loved it, and it is in fact the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time.

To name a BBQ place Porky’s is not really a revolutionary idea – it actually seems quite obvious to me -, but during almost two years of being on this quest now, I only found one restaurant that had the moxy to call itself so. Maybe it is the association with the place from the movie that let people shy away from this name.
Be it as it may, in Grant, Alabama, they have a Porky’s Bar-B-Que.
It is situated right at the main street in the middle of town, and other than the movie place that sports some outlandish big neon-piggys on the roof, the place in grant only has a simple sign with the name on it.
Well, it kind of fits the somewhat sober interior. About half a dozen booths on the wall, two rows of tables and on the other side of a six feet high wooden barrier the same layout. It is just a typical, nondescript eatery like so many along America’s highways.

Although, one thing sets it apart from many other restaurants – there is a smoking section in the seating area beyond the barrier in the middle of the room. This is quite unusual to find these days in restaurants, and rightfully so. I like my meat smoked, not the air that I breathe.

And quite frankly, their meat could have used some of that smoke that floated around the room when I was there. It was lean and tender and had a very distinctive pork taste, but no smoke flavor whatsoever, and it was very dry.
The sauce on the table was of the run-of-the-mill thick red sweet’n’spicy variety. I only noticed other sauces at a table next to the soda fountain, when I refilled my drink after the meal.
The slaw was made with vinegar and had a very nice peppery flavor and a good crunch to it. The potato salad was made with mayonnaise and tiptoed on the sour side of life.
In addition to that, the pork plate came with a slice of Texas Toast.

For just under nine bucks with a fountain drink, the amount of food was very fair, and the overall quality was acceptable. But the smoke was definitely in the wrong place at Porky’s in Grant, Alabama.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Big Cove BBQ

Quest Log No 36 – Big Cove BBQ
Huntsville, Madison County

The King died because he stuffed himself with Burgers, Fries and Cherry Cola. Coming from Tupelo, and eventually living in Memphis, this was a somewhat strange choice – had he stuck with good old southern style BBQ instead of the junk food (and pills), he might still perform in Vegas. Because BBQ done right is not only soul food, but it is health food as well.

When you enter Big Cove BBQ, one of the first things you will notice is the life-sized cardboard cut-out of Elvis in his glorious years, standing in one of the corners. Whether he was placed there to remind the customers of the dangers of an unhealthy diet, or to serve as a tribute to the southern way of live, or as a guardian angel for all that is old style, I do not know. But it works – this place is as southern, old style and healthy as the young Elvis, straight out of Tupelo, once was.

You order at a small hole-in-the-wall counter just opposite the entrance door. The menu is of the k.i.s.s. variety – keep it simple, stupid. Pulled pork sandwiches and plates, stuffed baked potatoes, slaw, baked beans … nothing fancy here, just good old soul food.
The dining room has about half a dozen tables, decorated with neat red-and-white-checkered plastic table cloths. The chairs are of the usual black-metal with faux black leather seats variety. The walls are covered with wooden panels, with some old pictures, news paper articles, and the like as decoration. There is a gumball machine in one corner, and some pig figurines placed in a shelf next to the cooler that holds the soda cans.
Sitting there, it felt almost like sitting in someone’s living room – very cozy and homey, and spot clean. That feeling was certainly amplified by the extreme nice and attentive attitude of the staff – it never hurts to be polite, friendly and considerate.
There is also a patio with more tables in the back, but I doubt that this is used very often. Most folks seem to come here for take-out food and those who stay seem to be regulars. Well, given that this place is kind of hidden on a by-road behind a gargantuan WalMart SuperCenter, not very many outsiders will ever find this BBQ.
This is a crying shame, because apart from the old style atmosphere, they serve a righteous BBQ!

As usual, I had the pulled pork plate – which, for not even eight and a half Dollars including free refills for my sweet tea, ended up to be a killer deal. Not only was the portion enormous, but also the quality was excellent.
The pork was succulent and tender, very lean and with a good smoke aroma. They have two sauces, one thick red mild one that is of the common sweet’n’smokey taste. Nothing wrong with that, but this is the sort of BBQ sauce the WalMart carries, too.
But the hot sauce there is of a different breed. It is actually more orange then red, which should give you the first hint of its character. Yes, it is hot. My guess is a lot of cayenne pepper, some ground jalapenos, and a bit of black pepper mixed into a base of tomato sauce. First, it took my breath away, but after the third bite or so, I actually liked the tingling on my tongue that put a different twist on the smoky flavor of the pork.
The plate also came with three sides. The potato salad was, hands down, one of the best I ever had in a BBQ joint. Slightly sour, with big bites of potato, and a well rounded aroma. Superb!
The slaw was made with a yoghurt/sour crème based sauce and tasted very fresh and light. Actually, I could taste the cabbage, which is not always the case because most slaws are just smothered with mayonnaise and/or sugar and vinegar. Not so here, the flavor was very well balanced between a slight sourness, the freshness of the sauce and the aroma of the cabbage. Also, I like it a lot if the cabbage pieces are ‘bite sized’ – that means not shredded into oblivion, but also not cut so coarsely as to leave the leafs almost intact. This slaw had the ‘right’ size – which is hard to describe and certainly varies from person to person. But it worked for me.
The baked beans on the other hand were a bit bland, way too sweet for my taste. But I liked that they were enriched with green bell pepper, which gave it a little unexpected crunch.
Also part of the plate were two buns, which I did not touch – I just was full to the brim, it was a massive meal even without the buns.

The only negative experience there was that they have real nice T-Shirts for sale, with a guitar playing pig on it, but they were sold out of the 2XL size. Well, judging from the crowd you usually see eating at those places, this should be the most popular size in North Alabama. The skinny types ain’t into southern soul food that much, I guess.
Too bad, I would have proudly worn their T-Shirt, to let everybody know that I am now a fan of their BBQ. So, I guess that I have to return there once in a while to check on their T-Shirt situation – looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Non-Quest BBQ No 27 – Hardee’s

Rainsville, Alabama
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 ... 

For many years now, several Burger empires have accessorized their beef-in-buns with the moniker “BBQ” occasionally. Most of the time that only meant that instead of ketchup, they slapped some dreadful “St.Louis style” sauce on it.
Yeah, right – if the sauce is sweet’n’spicy, that’s legitimate BBQ, regardless of what’s underneath.

So, I was on my way home from a Braves game in Atlanta, and my GPS told me to drive the northern route home. Very scenic, but not much of a BBQ area up there in the Little River Canyon region. Because I was hungry, I decided to not wait for a BBQ restaurant to cross my way, but to eat a quick burger at the first golden arches, castle or place that was named after a Confederate General I could find.

Hardee’s it was.
I always liked their burgers, so I went in and tried to find out what to order. My eye caught a sign above the counter that said “Memphis BBQ Thickburger”. Well, that sounded like one of those other burgers I mentioned above. But what the heck, I was hungry, had never eaten this before, and so I ordered the 1/3 pound variety of it.
Oh, and by the way, said the manager who took my order, this burger is not on the menu yet – I just hung up the sign a minute ago and it is supposed to be sold starting tomorrow. But because I must have looked really ragged, hungry, dangerous, or desperate, he told me that he would sell it to me anyway. And so I became probably the first paying Hardee’s customer in the USA to get a taste of this new creation.

And new it was.
“A 100% Black Angus Beef Thickburger®, Pulled Pork, BBQ Sauce, Crispy Onion Strings all on a Seeded Bun.”
Yes, indeed – it had pulled pork on it. Plus the 1/3 pound beef patty. Which makes this a carnivore’s dream burger, I guess.
Anyway, since the pulled pork was smothered in a not too bad variety of your standard supermarket BBQ sauce, I have no idea how the pulled pork tasted.
But the burger as a whole was just great – one of the best burgers ever. The different textures of beef, pork, onions, and the bun makes eating it a very interesting experience.
The BBQ sauce, as said before, is nothing special but gives it a kick in the right direction. The crispy onions on the other hand are hardly more than garnish and do not contribute much to the taste, which is clearly dominated by the BBQ sauce.

Although I would never classify this as a “BBQ Sandwich” in the classical sense, it is a novel idea to combine a burger with some pulled pork. I am absolutely sure that this is a staple of countless backyard and garden BBQ pit masters, but this was the first time I saw something like this in a mainstream burger joint.
And it was good, real good – as a burger. As BBQ sandwich … not so much. But still, I applaud the good people from Hardee’s to bring us something out of the ordinary, something else than two patties, a bun, pickles, onions … you get my drift.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Marie's BBQ House

Non-Quest BBQ No 26 – Marie’s BBQ House

Heflin, Alabama
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 ... 

On my trip to Atlanta today, to attend two Braves games and spend some money at IKEA, I also looked out for a new BBQ place to visit.
Usually, when I go on a trip like this, I go online and check which BBQ places are located on the way to my destination, or at the destination itself.
This time, the rave reviews on the internet pointed me to a place in the middle of nowhere, adjacent to I-20 halfway between Anniston and the Georgia state line.

Marie’s BBQ House in Heflin, Alabama, was founded in 2005 and is one of those typical Mom-and-Dad joints you can find everywhere here in the South. The whole family, including children, grand-children, nieces and nephews works there.
They reside in a fairly new and custom built looking building that is littered inside with flags, pictures, and other decoration sporting the emblem of the other Alabama College Football team which won a National Championship in recent years.
There are some booths at the outer walls, and some tables in the middle of the room. The interior is bright and clean, and the furniture is modern and functional.
You order at a counter from a menu that has all the usual BBQ items on it – including Brunswick Stew all year long.
You can have your pork either sliced or chopped, but not pulled – which is kind of strange. My first thought was, is it not tender enough to just pull it off, so you have to use a metal object? Well, we’ll see.

As usual, I ordered a pork plate with potato salad and slaw. The pork came chopped – and with sauce already on it. Fortunately it was not drenched in it, but the sauce only covered about half of the pork. So I was able to actually taste the pork – it was tender. But a bit on the dry side, and not without some bigger bits of fat.
The taste was very smoky, yet not too intense. With a simple vinegar-pepper sauce, this pork would have made a wonderful meal. With the brownish-red sauce they poured over it, though, it was merely okay. The sauce tasted not very special, just your middle-of-the-road Memphis/St.Louis kind of stuff. What a pity.
The potato salad was of the creamy-mayonnaisy variety and had big chunks of egg in it. I like that, and the taste was fresh and just slightly sour, which made this salad one of the better ones I’ve had.
The slaw was also done with mayonnaise, and also tasted very fresh and creamy. There was a very nice crunch to the shredded veggies, and together with the smoky pork and the slightly sour potato salad, it produced a very harmonious taste.
You also get a thick slice of Texas toast, which is soaked in liquid butter.

For just a bit over nine Dollars, including sweet tea, the pork plate at Marie’s BBQ House in Heflin is a very good deal. The portion is fair and the taste, if you forgive them the so-so BBQ sauce, justifies a repeat visit. Too bad, that my next trip to Atlanta in two weeks will be by plane …