Friday, April 27, 2012

Moe's Original Bar B Que - Providence Village

Quest Log No 33 – Moe’s Original Bar B Que
Huntsville (Village of Providence), Madison County

All Moe’s are created equal. We now have two of those in Huntsville, but if you know one, you already know the other, too.
The one in Providence Village is brand new, just opened two weeks ago or so, and has the same general layout as the other one – a sports bar where you can eat BBQ. Flat screen TVs in every corner, bar stools along the windows, loud music from the 1960s to the 1980s, metal frame tables and chairs, unpainted wood columns for decoration – you get the picture. Only at this here in the swank new Village, they don’t go overboard with the Tide paraphernalia.

Since we already had their pulled pork and ribs the last time we visited a Moe’s, and since all Moe’s should pretty much adhere to the same quality standard, my wife and I decided to go poultry this time.
So, we had the chicken and the turkey, with baked beans each, potato salad for me and Brunswick stew for her as second sides.
Wait a minute – Brunswick what??! Yes, stew. Hmm, although it was very tasty, with lots of meat and potatoes in it and some very laid back spiciness, I couldn’t help but wonder if my lovely spouse would not be stricken down by a bolt of lightning at any moment. Brunswick stew after April 1st … that is almost as sacrilegious as putting white sauce on ribs.

Well, the BBQ gods exacted their revenge swift and promptly, by letting us choose the turkey. Which came sliced, drenched in sauce, with a very prominent layer of fat on the outside and virtually no taste at all. Cardboard. Okay, tender cardboard. Still, no taste. Even the sauce did not help much here, although by itself this condiment is one tasty conglomerate.
They just shouldn’t pour it over my meat without asking me first.
And of course, the chicken came drenched in it, too.
It was half a bird, squeezed into one of their little cardboard trays, which made it a pure mess to eat.
However, it was very succulent and tender, with a very nice smoky flavor. We just shared it and left the turkey untouched after the first initial bites.

Good thing that we did not have to share the beans, too, because those were also very tasty. Lots of meat in it, with a very well rounded sweet aroma, and no discernable cinnamon in it.
The mayonnaise based potato salad was as neutral tasting as the last time, with lots of fresh, raw veggies like onions and celery in it.
With each plate, you also get a slice of rather dense cornbread, which tasted okay to me, but my wife did not like the sour aftertaste. That sourness did not appear in my piece, so I am guessing that the cornbread-making process lacks some homogeneity.
Just for kicks, we also had fried pickles as starters – which arrived after the lunch plates were already at our table. Although the taste was fine, we only could eat just the top layer, which was crunchy and firm, whereas the bottom layers got more soggy and spongy the deeper we dug.

For all that and two drinks, we paid almost twenty seven bucks, which is not cheap and also not a good deal if you take the quality of the food into account. I guess it serves us right – having Brunswick stew on April 27th just has to provoke some negative cosmic effect.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Homestyle Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No32 – Homestyle Bar-B-Que
Hartselle, Morgan County

Conventional wisdom, or maybe just wishful thinking, or even only good advertisement, says that Decatur is the BBQ capital of the World. You know, with all the Trophies, TV appearances and the sauces you can buy at your local Kroger store.
Well, not so fast Paula Dean – your buttered-up gravy train obviously never made a stop in Hartselle. Granted, this lovely small town of fourteen-thousand people is just a few miles south-west of the big town, and might look like an outskirt of Decatur from thirty-thousand feet above. But here on the ground, where we mere mortals try to live and survive a certain TV personality’s onslaught of so-called “southern cooking” on TV and in books that uses fat and sugar as its main ingredients, it is a whole different vista.

There are three BBQ places in Hartselle, which gives this town a decent ratio of 1 BBQ per 4700 people (just for comparison, the numbers have been calculated by using data available on the Internet: Huntsville has 1 BBQ per 12800 people; Decatur has 1 BBQ per 6200 people; Madison has 1 BBQ per 5700 people; and Athens has 1 BBQ per 4000 people). What stands out here, though, is the uniformly great quality of the BBQ – all three serve top notch food.
And the third and last place on my list turned out to have the best food of the whole bunch.

Homestyle Bar-B-Que has been in business just next to the Jet-Pep gas station at I-65 Exit 328 since 1996. It is strictly a drive-through establishment, but there is some adjacent space nearby where you can park your car and eat your food in peace and quiet.
As usual with such a typical southern setting, the friendliness and cordiality of the owners is just refreshing every time.
Since I was very hungry, I ordered the large pork plate, and my question about what sides they had to choose from, I got the answer: “Don’t worry, it comes with everything”.
Which meant potato salad, baked beans, slaw, and two rolls. Together with the large portion of pulled pork, it was a huge amount of food. To say it forthright, I was not able to finish all of it, regardless of how badly I wanted, because it was so very good.
My wife also ordered her usual, a slab of ribs, but was told that due to the extra effort of smoking ribs, they would only have them on the weekends. Oh well, then how about a chicken plate? Sorry, dear, the chicken is not ready yet, was the answer (we were kind of early, close to 11 AM). Well, but the turkey is done and is sure is yummy.
So, turkey it was – and of course, it also came with everything described above.

We parked the car in the shade of some trees at a little gravel spot near the BBQ, and dug in.
The pork was lean but succulent, very tender, with a wonderful smoky aroma to the superb pork flavor. That meat clearly ranks very near the top of all pulled pork I’ve ever had. Also, the turkey was of the same mold, and amazingly it was not dry as it happens so often with that meat, but is had a very nice moisture to it.
The potato salad, always a critical piece for my wife and me, because we both come from a tradition of great potato salad makers, was made with yellow potatoes and mayonnaise, with little pieces of egg and pickles. The flavor was wonderfully creamy and balanced, with just a hint of tartness.
The baked beans had meat in them, which is always a good sign, and just the right amount of cinnamon to give it a little kick. They were not very sweet, more on the savory side of the flavor spectrum.
The slaw was very fresh and crunchy and made with just the cabbage, vinegar, salt and pepper. It was straight sour, without any hint of sweetness, and a refreshing change to all those standard sweet-sour slaws.
For the sauce, you have the choice of mild and hot – I opted for the hot one. It was a creamy red concoction with an underlying fruity tomato taste and with some well rounded peppery spiciness. Not too hot, just the right kick in the butt to get the best flavor out of the pork.
My wife had the white sauce with her turkey, which was predominantly on the sour side, and really quite the only part of the meal that did not find our unreserved applause.
Everything else was just outstanding, and for just under twenty-one bucks, with two sweet teas, it was a phenomenal deal.

Surely, we need to come back one weekend to try the ribs. Good thing that Homestyle Bar-B-Que is located just next to the Interstate, which makes it a short thirty minute drive from our home – to the new BBQ capital of … my world. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Full Moon Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 18 – Full Moon Bar-B-Que
Birmingham, 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 way from the Barons vs Stars game at Regions Park in Hoover to Vulcan Park in Birmingham, I had to eat something. At the ballpark, they had only those disgusting cheese nachos and other similar things, so by the time the Barons had finished their rally and beat the Stars 4-2, I was really hungry.
There are numerous BBQ places in Birmingham, but I thought, well, Full Moon is something you might expect a chop suey place named after, but not necessarily a southern chopped pork one, so I was anxious to check this out.

Full Moon Bar-B-Que is a franchise with eight locations in and around Birmingham. The business started in 1996 with the original place in Downtown Birmingham, but I went to one of the satellite stations at Valley Avenue, near Vulcan Park.
Well, the short story is, it is a family restaurant/sports bar that serves BBQ. Big screen TV’s all over the place, sports memorabilia, like a signed game shirt of Joe Namath on the walls, general layout and furniture like every other place with like an apple or a red pepper in its logo - the atmosphere of a streamlined eating culture.

But I was there to sample their food, although a nicer atmosphere would not have hurt my feelings.
They have a specialty there which is called “chow-chow”. Yes, like the furry dog with the blue tongue. It is a pickled cabbage dish that, according to Wikipedia “… found its way to the Southern United States during the expulsion of the Acadian people from Nova Scotia and their settlement in Louisiana.” So it is Canadian by origin, has a Chinese name and is served in Birmingham with BBQ.
How does it taste? Sour and spicy, with a nice crunch to it. I made the mistake of ordering it as a side dish, because I wanted to try it and the guy who took my order did not mention that it was included anyways. So, I ended up having a lot of chow-chow on my plate, plus baked beans, a freshly baked biscuit and the pulled pork. With a fountain drink, it came to just under thirteen bucks.

The pulled pork came with sauce on top, which I still find borderline criminal. Just let me choose what I want to put on my meat – I am a big boy and don’t need to have my plate fixed like a five year old. So I picked some sauce-free strands of the meat from the pile to get a taste of the flavor. Not bad, tender and moist, but also a bit on the fatty side. A hint of smoke flavor, not really a strong underlying meat aroma, though. Middle of the road pork, at best. The sauce on the other hand was just a one-dimensional thick red conglomerate, with spiciness as its main characteristic.
Better to take the chow-chow as sauce, which was also spicy but had a very distinctive hint of sourness, and some nice mustard aroma to it, as well. It was kind of like having a vinegar-pepper sauce mixed with a vinegar based slaw, plus some mustard.
The baked beans had quite a funky taste, which reminded me of onions. Never had that aroma in baked beans, and don’t need that ever again.

So, again the common wisdom that – generally, there are a few exceptions - you can’t get really good BBQ in franchise/chain places was confirmed. All you might get is okay BBQ with Canadian pickled cabbage.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jailhouse BBQ

Quest Log No31 – Jailhouse BBQ
Somerville, Morgan County

From 1819 until 1891, Somerville was the county seat for Morgan County. Back then, it had a cotton gin, a cabinet maker, a law office, two hotels, a college and a male academy.
The old courthouse from 1837 is still standing there, and also the former jail building.
But the cotton gin, shops, hotels, and colleges are long gone and today this little town is home to about 350 people – and one killer BBQ place.
Located in the vicinity of the old jail, in what appears to could have been an annex of the jail back then, it oozes old southern charm and hospitality.

When I arrived there, I could only spot a walk-up window on the porch as the means of getting BBQ. Well, I thought, it surely is a most beautiful spring day, and I would not mind at all taking my lunch on that porch, which has a handful of wooden tables with benches on it.
So I approached the walk up window, where the owner took my order. After I answered his question “for here or to go?” with “for here”, he asked me if I not rather wanted to sit in their dining room. Well, sure, I would be delighted. So, said the man, come around, I meet you half way.
So I left the porch, trotted around the small backside of the building and sure enough, there was a tiny handwritten sign that pointed out that there actually was a dining room.
And what a splendid room that is – all wooden walls on three sides (the fourth side next to the kitchen is of corrugated metal), wooden ceiling, a ceramic tile floor, wooden furniture (about half a dozen tables for four), nicely decorated with old pictures and signs, with some whimsical pieces of BBQ culture (meaning pig sculptures …) sprinkled in.
And the people in there, the owner and his serving help, are just so nice and friendly people that one might think that by entering that dining room, you might step through a door back in time, to those better old days 150 years ago.

I ordered my usual pork plate, with potato salad and slaw on the side and was regaled to an almost perfect BBQ lunch.
The pork was chopped and utterly flavorful, with a perfect mixture of meat and smoke aromas. Although it had a small amount of visible fat, it nonetheless was very tender and had just the right amount of moisture. I probably ate half of it right away, until I remembered that I also probably should try the sauces. Quite frankly, the meat did not need any sauce, so I poured just a tad of the thick brownish-red sauce on it. Fruity aroma, no spiciness, just a good sweet BBQ sauce. The other sauce is based on vinegar, but also with no spiciness worth mentioning it is just sour. Mixed together it provides a very nice conglomerate, but as said before, using this with the formidable meat is not a must at all.

The potato salad, also home made as everything on the menu, was nothing short of phenomenal and ranks in the Top 3 in that category. Mayonnaise based with a very refreshing tartness, it complements the BBQ meat perfectly.
Also on the sour side, the slaw is certainly very tasty as well, but in comparison to the meat and the potato salad, it does not play in the same league.

Usually I shy away from having dessert in BBQ places, because that is generally not their area of expertise. But this time, after the waitress assured me that the lady who makes the pies for them knows what she is doing, I ordered a lemon pie.
Should have ordered two pieces – very fluffy, with distinct lemon flavor, not too sweet, just great.
For all that, including an unlimited supply of sweet tea, I paid a bit over twelve bucks. And another fourteen bucks for one of their T-Shirts (it has a pig behind bars on it … you got to have that if you are a BBQ person …).

So, this place is surely a cut above most of the rest, and the only drawback is that they are only open for business from Friday ‘til Sunday. Well, that and the fact that Somerville is not exactly a place where you could do any other business, recreation or just would hang around for a while, and then go to lunch at the local BBQ. Once you have seen the old courthouse, and maybe the new post office, you are done there and need not come back. But for that kind of BBQ experience, I would travel there for that sole reason. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pig Stand Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No30 – Pig Stand Bar-B-Que
Hartselle, Morgan County

When you Google “Hartselle, BBQ”, there are two places that show up. But there is also a third place that somehow does not register with Google – Pig Stand Bar-B-Que. This is rather unfortunate, because this place is way above your average BBQ joint, even by the lofty standards we here in North Alabama are accustomed to.
My wife and I spotted this place when we drove home from a visit to beautiful downtown Hartselle, on Highway 31 towards Decatur just outside of town. And I came back two days later to check it out.

With its red roof that resembles a barn, white windows and brick walls, the building looks very country-esk. Inside, there is a window in the wall where you order, pay and pick up your stuff, and right next to it is a white board where you find the daily specials. The red checkerboard vinyl floor and the red chairs and alternating red and white tables have a distinctive 1950s charm. The dining room furniture seems to be fairly new and everything is well maintained and spotless clean. It is a very nice atmosphere to dine in, brightly lit through the big windows at the sides, and there is space for maybe thirty people to sit.

As usual, I ordered the pork plate – large this time, because I was really hungry – which comes with the three sides of slaw, potato salad and baked beans.
The pulled pork was very lean and tender, a bit on the dry side, but the taste was just wonderful. It was a very well balanced combination of meat flavor and smoke aroma and clearly was one of the best BBQ meats I ever had.
There is really no need to pour sauce over it to enhance the flavor, but since they have them on the table, I just tried them.
The red thick dark red/brownish sauce is very fruity and somewhat spicy. The clear vinegar based pepper sauce is not exactly sour, but tremendously hot. There is clearly more than the standard black pepper in it, and I thought that I saw some red chili flakes in there too. Mixed together, I ended up with a rather spicy conglomerate, which was still very spicy, but was more to my liking than those two sauces by themselves.

As for the sides, the killer here is the BBQ beans. Very savory, not really sweet but with some actual meat in them – that is the way you do beans!
Unfortunately, the potato salad was going in the same direction, with a distinctive bacon taste – not my favorite, I like the sour variety better.
That I had with the slaw, which marinade was vinegar based and quite sour, yet with a strong hint of sweetness.
All together, the mixture of hearty, sour, smoky, and sweet flavors of the meat and the sides works very well together and lets Pig Stand Bar-B-Que stand out of the crowd. Too bad that Google, and so I guess the rest of the world, does not find the place. But take my word for it and drive there when you are in the neighborhood – sometimes, having to share such a great place with the world isn’t necessarily a good thing. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Southern Hickory Barbecue

Quest Log No29 – Southern Hickory Barbecue
Hartselle, Morgan County

There ain’t no inside seating, just a few old weather beaten benches in a little nook just next to the walk-up window to the side of the building. There is a big spacious drive-up lane that leads to the drive-in window, though. This place, Southern Hickory Barbecue in Hartselle, is clearly geared towards the pick-up crowd.
There are two more Southern Hickories in Arab and in Cullman, and I wonder if they have inside seating there.
But it was such a gorgeous April day that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at the porch. Two months farther along in the year and our enthusiasm might be vanishing a bit on the prospect of having lunch under the baking Alabama summer sun.

As usual, I had a pork plate with slaw, potato salad, and baked beans, and my wife had a slab of ribs with the same sides.
The pulled pork was just great, very tender and very lean and just with the right amount of moisture, and the taste was very hickory-y. There is really no sauce needed to enhance the flavor, but it also don’t hurt if you sprinkle a bit of the peppery vinegar sauce it comes with on the meat, because the added spiciness gives the meat an additional aroma. That is how you do BBQ the right way, let the meat stand on its own merits and make the sauce optional for those of us who need an additional kick in the butt.
My wife’s ribs were also very tender, but not especially lean with some fat on it. Well, the taste was good, but certainly nothing to exchange the pulled pork for it.
We both thought that the baked beans were of the open-a-can-variety, but at least there was no cinnamon in it.
The slaw was sweet and vinegary-sour, whereas the sweetness dominated too much for both our taste. The potato salad was of the yellow-mayonnaise kind and also sweet and sour, but I found it to be deliciously on the sour side, whereas my wife was not really satisfied with the taste, which she found to be too sweet. She generally does not like sweetness in her potato salad – it’s a cultural thing, where she comes from the potato salad is tart and sour and never with even a hint of sweetness.
One very special item was the rib sauce. It was extremely fruity, with a good amount of spiciness and tasted not like anything we ever had in the BBQ sauce area. It seemed to have an Asian influence, and could even have such exotic aromas as Mango or Papaya in it. Anyway, whatever it is, it goes fabulously with the ribs.
A bread bun and a couple of pickle slices complete the plates.

For all this, plus two sweet teas (what else …?!) we paid about twenty one bucks. That is certainly not very cheap for a place with no inside seating, no table service and Styrofoam to-go containers as plates. But the quality of the food justifies the prices, and on a beautiful spring day, there is no better place to have your lunch in Alabama.