Friday, January 27, 2012

Dirt Road BBQ

Quest Log No27 – Dirt Road BBQ
Trinity, Morgan County

Wikipedia says: “Dirt road is a common term for an unpaved road made from the native material of the land surface through which it passes …”.
Well, here in the BBQ belt, we certainly have no shortage of dirt roads. And we are also not in short supply of BBQ places that you can only reach by that kind of road.
So, when this new restaurant by the name of Dirt Road BBQ opened a while back, I had a certain image in my mind. Trees, wilderness, red earth, a wooden shack, 4x4 trucks parked beside it … you know what I am talking about.
I certainly did not expect to eventually find this place in a posh little strip mall, with pastel colored shop facades, next to the busy four-lane Highway 24 between Decatur and Moulton.

While the location and the exterior is a bit, well, unexpected, the interior conforms more to the anticipation one might have towards a BBQ place.
There are half a dozen tables in the middle of the room, and some booths on each side of the room. All furniture is made out of somewhat raw looking wood, and there are some nice details, like the lamps being made out of zinc water buckets. That all generates a nice rustic atmosphere, which could probably be boosted considerably by adding some artifacts and pictures from the dirt roads of the region. But since they opened only recently, decorating obviously was not at the top of the to-do list. Substance over style, I reckon, is their motto until they are out of the woods, financially.
But then there is the concierge table at the entrance – yes, you will be seated by a server. And your order is taken and brought to you at the table. Haven’t had that at many actual dirt road joints lately.
The drinks are served in mason jars with handles, which some people may find a bit pretentious. But in my point of view, it fits the overall interior style of this place quite nicely. I can see this whole concept spawning to become a franchise in later years.
Looking at the menu and listening to the waitress, it was very clear that they love to fry things there. Fried pickles, fried green beans, fried okra, fried Oreos, fried onion straws … the decorating money seems to have gone into the deep fryer fund.
My wife ordered the fried green beans as an appetizer and that was a big mistake. One bite and we both were hooked. The actual green bean only served as carrier for the batter, and did not register that much, flavor-wise. But the batter – sublime! We used very little of the accompanying spicy dipping sauce, because the flavor of the deep fried beans was just perfect by itself.
So, after that already very nice experience, for the main course we expected the same high standard.

As usual, I had pulled pork, this time with slaw, fried potatoes and onions, and loaded potato salads as sides.
My wife opted for the brisket with baked beans, fried okra, and fried potatoes and onions as sides.
The pulled pork was succulent, tender and lean. It had a very distinctive meat flavor with a hint of smoke aroma to it. I’d say, they know what they are doing in the kitchen.
It comes with sauce already poured over it, which is always a reason to frown. But since it was just a sprinkle, and also the sauce is very good, I did not mind it that much this time.
A sticky red concoction, the sauce is slightly spicy and not very sweet, it is fruity and well balanced. I put it on the slice of toast that came with the meal and thoroughly enjoyed it even without the meat.
The slaw looked a bit iffy at first sight, some micro-sized pieces swimming in brine. But actually, the taste was just wonderful. The brine was not salty at all, but had a finely rounded sweet and spicy flavor, which tickled my taste buds in a very exquisite way.
The loaded potato salad was creamy and fresh, with a hint of Dill and only a slightly sour flavor overall – wonderful.
Unfortunately, the fried potatoes and onions were a bit disappointing – they were just bland. But with a good helping of Salt and Pepper, it also became a very good tasting side.
My wife’s brisket was just the way she likes it - a bit on the fatty side, very flavorful with a distinctive meat aroma. She also loved the fried okra, which were very fresh and very crunchy. She had a gripe with the baked beans, which were too sweet for her taste, but fortunately they did not have that overwhelming cinnamon aroma that seems to spread like a disease in some baked beans. She also salted and peppered her fried potatoes and onions, like I did.

Well, she did not finish the meal, but decided to leave some room for a desert. The banana pudding she ordered was freshly made and still warm. It supposedly is an old recipe from Granny, and it was certainly not bad, just a little too sweet for her taste.
For just under thirty bucks, we got a big amount of food of very high quality, all fresh and home made with great taste, and it was an overall very pleasant eating experience in a nice atmosphere. If only I could overlook the silly name …

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Yellow Dog Eats

Non-Quest BBQ No 16 – Yellow Dog Eats
Windermere, Florida

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 ... 

Here in the BBQ belt, we rightfully take good smoked meat for granted. There are so many great places where you can get your daily fix that you don’t need to spend much time thinking about where to go- just hit the next restaurant around the corner and enjoy. Other areas of the lower 48 are not as blessed, and there it is mostly depressing trial and much error involved in years of long searches for a decent BBQ place. But once in a while, there is a diamond sticking out from that ghastly puddle of mushy sliced pork, chicory infested sauces and funky tasting slaw, which surely would have a place in the North Alabama BBQ Championship Belt, if such a thing existed. Or, at least, it makes my personal Top Ten of favorite BBQ places in the whole world. I think, it might be time to generate some kind award for that.

Since I travel to Orlando often, I am constantly on the look out for good BBQ places there. Nothing soothes the mind better after a long day spent in nauseating business meetings than a pulled pork dinner plate.
A friend of a colleague recommended Yellow Dog Eats, and so we went there, to the historic little township of Windermere/Gotha, which is surrounded by Golf courses, lakes and villas, to check it out.

First of all, this is truly not your usual BBQ place. The atmosphere is more akin to a bohemian bistro, with the restaurant being situated in the century-old Gotha Country Store building.
Also, the customers clearly are not the typical BBQ crowd – not very many College team shirts, blue overalls, and greasy baseball caps to be seen, instead a mix of middle class business attire, gold rimmed eyeglasses and golf slacks.
And then there is, of course, the name – Yellow Dog Eats - which is predestined to produce a mental image of some kind of Korean Buffet or Mongolian Grill with many people. This somehow misleading name comes from a yellow dog in a painting that the owner evidently cherished very much. He really likes dogs, and if you have a picture of your own mutt handy, they will stick it to one of the walls in the building, which are already littered with dozens of them.
There is also a wall covered with shelves holding all kinds of home-made stuff – jellies, jams, sauces, pickled this and that, pumpkin butter and such things.
Another big area is dedicated to a very nice assortment of wines, and there is even a special room for wine tastings with the chef.

So, the setting is decidedly not run-of-the-mill by BBQ belt standards, and the food is most certainly not, either.
They have an assortment of salads and sandwiches, and about half the menu is dedicated to BBQ related items.
I had a sandwich, The Rufus, which is – hold on tight now, it’ll be a wild ride – succulent pulled pork, topped with thick cut Brie cheese, cherry ring peppers, drizzled with raspberry melba and yellow dog’s citrus BBQ sauce on a bun.
My colleagues had The White Trash, which is pulled pork served on a Sunbeam white bread, topped with spicy cole slaw, Gouda cheese and bacon, and The Elvis, which is a bun topped with pulled pork, thickly sliced bacon, Gouda cheese, fried onions and cole slaw. The cole slaw is made with cranberries, nuts and a little spice.

Sounds weird? It is not. It is eclectic - and unbelievably delicious.
The mix of textures and flavors on The Rufus were nothing short of exceptional. The Yellow Dog sauce, made with mustard, served as the sour component, the peppers added spiciness, the pulled pork, smoked over apple wood, had a wonderfully meaty taste with a laid back smoke flavor, the Brie gave the whole concoction a certain creamy tartness, and the melba sauce provided a hint of sweetness. It all went together splendidly in a harmonious mixture of unexpected ingredients.
A quick query showed that the other two sandwiches, The Elvis and The White Trash, were received equally enthusiastically by my colleagues.
We agreed that this place would be from now on a fixture in our usual rotation of eateries in the Orlando area.

Friday, January 20, 2012

4Rivers Smokehouse, Winter Garden

Non-Quest BBQ No 15 – 4Rivers Smokehouse

Winter Garden, Florida

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 area around Orlando has a confusing variety of settlements that have “Winter” as part of their names. Winter Park, Winter Hills, Winter Garden … you name it, they have it. This is even more confusing if you take into account that the normal winter in this region consists of low temperatures around the half hundred mark, blue skies and sun all day, and that most people can’t even remember how it feels to make a snow angel. Maybe it is some kind of reverse psychology at work here, indicating that these places are the perfect sanctuaries to flee to from the dreary cold and dark skies usually involved with real wintery conditions.

So, after visiting the 4R Smokehouse in Winter Park the other day, I decided to try out the second of three locations of this small chain in Winter Garden.
Why, you ask? Good question, since I really did not like their food that much the first time, at the Winter Park location. Well, when I left the restaurant that evening, something caught my eye which intrigued me. They have a dish there that is called the “Six Shooter” and I just had to absolutely try this.
The Six Shooter consists of cheese grits topped with pulled pork, southern slaw, pickles, jalapenos and 4R sauce.
Strange concoction, isn’t it? But let me tell you this – it works. Even with the dreadful 4R sauce on it.
Or maybe because of it. There are so many layers of different texture and flavor, and they all work together splenditiously.
Except for the jalapenos, which I removed right away – too much Tex-Mex for my taste. I like them in burritos or tacos, but do not necessarily need too see them with anything related to BBQ.

The whole heap of food, again slapped directly onto the paper on the tray, looks less inviting than your typical road kill. Think exploded carcass, a big blob of anything that can be scraped off the blacktop on a hot smoldering summer day.
The process of preparing this culinary extravaganza starts with a block of compact cheese grits that is chopped into dice-sized pieces. Then comes a good helping of the pulled pork – unnecessarily drenched in the red 4R signature sauce, but since I already discussed my dismay of this practice exhaustively in the post before, I’ll let it slide this time – followed by their extremely good southern slaw, the jalapenos and the pickle. And then some more sauce. Lord have mercy.
But this time, the sauce actually is a perfect match, because it provides sweetness and a hint of bitterness to the heartiness of the cheese grits and the creamy sourness of the slaw.
The grits could as well stand on their own merits, they have a very creamy texture and a wonderfully full cheese flavor. Together with the other ingredients, it forms a very unique symbiosis of flavors. And for just under ten bucks with a drink, and taking also into account the sheer volume of food you get, this Six shooter hits the mark.

For this, I would come back gladly to the 4R chain. It seems to me as such a natural thing to combine grits with pulled pork, that I wonder why I haven’t seen this in one of our BBQ joints here in Northern Bama yet. How fantastic it could be with real good BBQ sauce, one can only speculate … and dream.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

4Rivers Smokehouse, Winter Park

Non-Quest BBQ No 14 – 4Rivers Smokehouse

Winter Park, Florida

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 ... 

“Some people heat up some meat, slap some sweet’n’smoky sticky sauce on it and call it BBQ. That ain’t right.”
That quote from one of my buddies, although he is an avid Auburn Tigers fan and thus his judgment should be considered, well, questionable in many areas, hits the nail on the head.
Sure, the sauce is important for BBQ, but it should not be the main ingredient, or even the one aspect which qualifies using those three holy upper case letters.

As I stated repeatedly already, the Orlando, Florida region is not quite a hot bed for good or even real, BBQ. The area is littered with chain restaurants and most of them serve what the average tourist from overseas expects under the moniker of BBQ.
And that is, sadly, some heated up meat with a red sticky sauce, which has this rather uniformly smoky sweet and spicy taste, otherwise also known as “St. Louis style”.
During my numerous endeavors to find a halfway decent BBQ joint in Orlando, I came across just one so far – the subtly named Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ.
But then I heard about this fabulous place, 4Rivers Smokehouse, and was practically urged to go there by people who knew about my conundrum.

Spoiler alert – it was not bad, but the sauce …
You can visit a 4Rivers Smokehouse in one of three locations outside of Orlando. I chose the one in Winter Park, a virtual extended suburb of the big city, about fifteen miles to the north.
When I arrived at about six in the evening, the place was already packed and when I left the line of would-be BBQ customers extended outside the building to the curb. It seems that this is a very popular place for the locals. I reckoned that I was the only bloody tourist there, because it is located quite far away from the typical stomping grounds of the Disney crowd. Plus, I heard more Spanish around me than any other language.

The place in Winter Park is predominantly a carry-out affair. They have a covered porch with simple wooden picnic-style furniture, but what is really lacking is enough parking space. The one small parking lot at the main street was packed and the other one, also very small and of the gravel variety, behind the building was also almost full. As I said before, this seems to be a very popular place with the locals.
The main area of the restaurant is the tiny room were orders, preparation and payment of your meal is done. You chose from the quite extensive menu, which is written down all across the wall behind the counter, step to the counter and state your choice. A plastic tray is grabbed by the order guy, who then slaps a piece of thick white paper (or thin white cardboard, if you like …) on the tray and scribbles the initials of your order on one corner of the paper – PPD for Pulled Pork Dinner in my case.
Then the tray behind the counter and you in lockstep in front of the counter, progress to the next station – the meat.
Different from other Texas style BBQ joints, where the use of this assembly-line style system is quite typical, here they do not carve the meat before your very eyes, but some guy just scoops up a few spoons of pulled pork from a metal holding box and slaps it right onto the paper on the tray. Then he spouts a good helping of the signature 4R BBQ sauce on it. Lovely.
But, no time to pout, on it goes to the next station – sides.
Potato salad, slaw and BBQ beans, please. The sides are filled in Styrofoam cups, a biscuit also finds its way on the tray and off you go to meet your dinner plate at the cashier. The whole meal, including a bottle of Red Rock Cola (they have a very nice assortment of gourmet and specialty soda refreshments there …), was mine for about fourteen bucks.

When I stepped outside, to go around the small side of the building to the covered porch, I could not help but wondering how in the world I should eat this heap of saucy meat and the equally wet sides (… more 4R sauce on the beans … mayonnaise on the slaw and the potatoes …) in any form of a civilized manner – nobody had offered me a fork, and I hadn’t seen any inside, either.
The mystery was lifted when I saw the fork, universal spoon, and knife dispenser next to the Coke machine. Nice touch, it works just like a toothpick dispenser.
Thus armed with plastic utensils, I tried to find a piece of meat that was not drenched with this signature 4R BBQ sauce, to find out if they knew how to smoke a pig. No such luck. The color of the meat told me right away that the real taste of the meat would stay shrouded in obscurity. Although it was quite tender and succulent, it was red, like in “after we pull the meat, we drown it in our signature 4R sauce”. Well, that was a bit unfortunate, but I could maybe overlook it if the sauce was something special and exquisite. Not the case. I bet there is chicory in it, because it had a somewhat bitter aftertaste. And at the same time it was sweet, so damn sweet that it actually hurt one of my sensitive molars on the right side of my teeth. Yes, it has some spiciness to it, and at the table they have another variety of this sauce with a bit more kick to it. And I really can’t quite lay my finger on it, but the sauce tasted rather artificial, with too many preservatives and synthetically enhanced flavors in it perhaps.
Their web site states that “The recipe is multi-regional making it a perfect combination of sweet and tangy with a smoky spice finish.”
A multi-regional BBQ sauce. And what regions should that be? The web site does not give an answer, but it was a rhetorical question anyway – I really don’t wanna know.

Too bad that the BBQ beans swam also in this 4R sauce, bottles of it you can buy also directly in the restaurant, of course.
The potato salad’s taste was very good, with a hint of dill and just the right mixture of tangy and fresh. But unfortunately half of the potato pieces were basically raw, so I refrained from tormenting my guts with that indigestible stuff, tasty as it may be.
Actually the best part of the meal was the slaw. Crunchy and fresh, with a light yoghurt sauce that does not smother the flavor of the vegetables, and a creamy overall texture, it was a delight.

So, overall, this experience just fortified my conviction that Texas-style BBQ and I will never become best buddies. It was a big amount of food, and it was certainly eatable. But the taste was, mostly through the overly generous use of the sauce, not what I would call my personal favorite.