Sunday, July 29, 2012

Texas Roadhouse

Non-Quest BBQ No 25 – Texas Roadhouse

Huntsville, 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 ... 

Line dancing servers. Buckets of peanuts on the tables. Peanut shells all over the floor. Big screen TVs with sports programs running on the wall. Willie Nelson as spokesperson. Andy the Armadillo as mascot. Margaritas with shot glasses inside. Over 380 locations in 47 states. One restaurant in Dubai. Annual revenue of over one billion dollars.

So, eventually we now have a Texas Roadhouse in the Huntsville area, too. Hurrah. Another chain, another “family steakhouse” restaurant. With the growth of this area, it is quite inevitable that places like this spring up more frequently in the future. After all, all the new people that are transferred from Army bases in the North need something to make them feel at home – you possible can’t expect them to eat in one of them BBQ shacks around here. Some of them have flies on the window sills, you know, it’s not sanitary and who knows what kind of road kill they smoke in their backyards to serve to the unsuspecting foreigner.
And if you think, well, maybe a Texas Roadhouse would only make folks from Texas feel at home, think again. The franchise was founded in Indiana, it has its headquarters in Kentucky, and most of the locations are above the Mason-Dixon Line, in the Atlantic North-East area. So much for authenticity.

But they have some BBQ items on the menu, so I was compelled to pay them a visit. To make it clear from the beginning, amongst all those Applechilithankgoditstuesday chain restaurants, the Texas Roadhouse is my favorite. They have very good food, the service is great, and even the extreme noise level works for us – it blends out the voices of our very active and loud kids.
So, although it would not classify as a BBQ restaurant per se, the fact that they serve pulled pork, BBQ chicken and ribs qualifies them to be part of this survey.

You can have the pulled pork and the chicken either as a sandwich, or a part of a two meat combo dinner.
I chose the pulled pork and ribs combo, with steak fries and green beans. No potato salad, no baked beans, no slaw on the menu. Bummer.
The first impression of the plate – lots of food, but my gosh, why did they drown the poor pulled pork in the sauce? That really borders on animal cruelty, just leave the meat as it is and let me decide what to do with the sauce.
My choice would have been to rather take ketchup instead. The sauce is one of those supermarket Kansas City style middle of the road non specific conglomerates, a little too sweet, and a little too sticky. Not really bad, but just the sheer amount of it made the pulled pork look like some kind of a stew. That’s certainly not the way to do BBQ. And how did the pork taste? No idea. Since it swam in the sauce, there was no one tiny piece of it left uncovered. It was tender, with just a very small amount of fat. But that is all I can say about it.

The ribs also came with sauce on it, but that was baked in as a wet rub. They had a very delicious and crunchy crust, but immediately under it came a thick layer of fat. There were some real nice chunks of tender and lean meat on the ribs, but that was hidden quite well by all the fat. The ribs were of the fall-off-the-bone variety, which seems to be the expected standard in those kinds of restaurants. The taste was quite smoky and actually very delicious, but it was frustrating to leave so much of the ribs, that is all the fat, on the plate in the end.

The green beans were garnished with some crumbles of fried bacon, and they tasted very good. The steak fries were okay, too.

So, while I would not recommend the Texas Roadhouse as a BBQ place, the food there is generally top notch for a chain restaurant. And for real BBQ, we have more than enough other places here in this area.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Little Paul's Gibson Barbecue

Quest Log No 34 – Little Paul’s Gibson Barbecue
Huntsville, Madison County

There are some strange places where you can set up shop for a BBQ restaurant. A former jail might qualify as mildly funny, some old barn on a country road in the middle of nowhere would probably not raise even one eyebrow, and an airport concourse could even be seen as innovative.
But across the street from a hospital emergency bay? That has to be the most morbid place ever. Imagine, sitting there, munching on your pork sandwich while a steady stream of ambulances, with lights flashing and all, disappear into the big grey building on the other side. And then, imagine the BBQ place crowded with hospital people in their green uniforms, some even still with those paper hair caps and masks on. Scrubs meets pulled pork.

Of course, on the other hand it is a very clever move to have a BBQ place at such a place - who needs soul food more than nurses, doctors, surgeons, and relatives of the patients? My guess is that Little Paul’s Gibson Barbecue in Huntsville, across the street from Huntsville Hospital’s emergency bay, is a gold mine.
And the equally clever move to incorporate “Gibson” into the name of the restaurant will not hurt business either. After all, everybody knows about the Gibsons here in the Tennessee Valley – they are for BBQ what the Kardashians are for the reality show industry.

Well, if I wanted to be cynical, it would be easy to say that this place combines a live reality show with a unique dining experience – like a TV diner, but only real and with better food.
But since I am not cynical, only sarcastic at times, this is not how I would describe the place. Actually, the interior is quite nice; it has a certain 1950s charm with tables covered with black-and-white checkered cloths, shelves full of quirky BBQ and food related stuff, fans on the ceiling and a tiny cross above the counter.
At this counter, you order from the quite extensive menu, pay and receive a sign with a number on it. Not that the place is actually so big that the servers would be lost without this numbering system for the orders. It has seating for about thirty customers, but I guess when it is really hectic during the lunch break of the emergency room people, it can help.
The food is then brought to your table – in our case, we only had to wait a couple of minutes, but we were there after the typical lunch time.

As usual, I had a (large) pork plate with potato salad and (vinegar) slaw. My wife had a two meat plate with brisket and chicken and baked beans and creamy slaw as sides. The plates come with a cornbread muffin and a tiny cup of sauce. At the table, there is a different sauce in a big bottle, and of course ketchup and some kind of hot sauce.

The pulled pork had a good smoky taste, and it was very tender. I found a few strands of fat in it, but not to an extend that it bothered me much. On the other hand, the pork was a bit on the dry side, so I was grateful that my wife relinquished her cup of sauce to me.
The sauce that came with the plate was a very simple mixture of vinegar, water and (cayenne) pepper. Not very spicy, but with some delightful kick nonetheless. And sour. But I actually like it that way, and it went very well with the smoky aroma of the pork.
The potato salad there is listed as “mustard potato salad”, which describes the flavor you get quite well. Also on the sour side, smothered in a mustard infused mayonnaise, I enjoyed it very much. The vinegar slaw, however, was a bit watery and of the sweet-and-sour variety. Not bad, but also not top notch. On the other hand, a third component that was “just sour” would have been probably too much, and so it was a welcomed diversification.

I am not a big fan of cornbread, but my wife is, and she assured me that the cornbread muffin that I traded for her sauce was excellent. And so was the chicken – tender and very flavorful, clearly the best meat of the three we had on our plates. Because the brisket, while also tasting very good, was a bit dry and without the layers of fat inside would not have been easy to chow. Of course, she could have poured the tiny cup of white sauce that came with the chicken over it – but that would have been pure barbarism. Plus, the white sauce was not so special, but merely okay. It needs the very flavorful chicken to shine, not the other way around.
The baked beans were a bit sticky and very thick – a clear sign that they had been sitting in the pot for more than just a couple of hours. But the taste was great, not very sweet but savory, without cinnamon but with some strands of meat in it.
The creamy slaw was crunchy and had a very good flavor.

Together with sweet tea for both of us, this meal for two cost us a bit over twenty-six Dollars. Not exactly cheap, but the food was very good, although not really outstanding. We did see some hospital personnel in the restaurant during our time there, but there was no ambulance that disturbed our meal with its sirens. And quite frankly, I do not believe the emergency room is something I ever want to connect with BBQ in my mind – let alone in reality.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Uncle Kenny's BBQ

Non-Quest BBQ No 24 – Uncle Kenny’s BBQ
Clermont, 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 ... 

Why everybody who won a trophy at some BBQ cook-off does think opening a Restaurant is somehow a must then?
Usually, those folks win their trophy for a certain aspect of BBQ – for the meanest sauce, for the juiciest ribs, for the most succulent pork, for best garnishment, for most authentic cooking utensils, for the most crazy team name and so on.
Uncle Kenny, who “participates in BBQ competitions sanctioned under the Florida Barbeque Association (FBA) and Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS)” seems to win his prizes mostly with the sauce – according to the restaurant’s web site, Uncle Kenny's Original Sauce is Ranked 14th In The World!!!!!!!!! But 1st in the Country!!!!!!!!!” (Note: Exact number of exclamation marks directly transferred from the web site)

14th in the world – I wonder who did this ranking.
Alright then, this I had to check out. But first I had to find this place. The street address I entered in my GPS led me on a wild goose chase, and I almost settled with some other BBQ place along the way, after I had searched unsuccessfully for quite some time. But then I remembered that the web site said explicitly “under the Citrus Tower”. So I looked for a water tower in form of a giant lemon. There was none. The only tower in the vicinity was a garish looking concrete structure with more antennas on top than a green man from Mars.
And sure enough, there it was, Uncle Kenny’s BBQ in Clermont, Florida, under the Citrus Tower.

Well, there are certainly more appealing surroundings for a BBQ place. The little strip mall under the Citrus Tower has certainly seen better days, and the outside of the restaurant itself is also not very likely to win any style awards.
On the inside, there is a big counter where you get your take-out stuff, and a somewhat small area with some booths and a few tables. On the walls hang Uncle Kenny’s framed accolades from various competitions. All not very cozy and special, but a nice atmosphere, nevertheless. Which is boosted considerably by the extremely friendly and attentive staff. I thought the counter would be the place to order, but instead I was seated and treated like royalty. They even refilled my drink for me, although I sat directly in front of the iced tea dispenser.

Because I was hungry and also had heard about the ribs being the best choice here, I ordered a two meat plate with pulled pork and four ribs. As sides I chose baked beans and potato salad. Two slices of Texas toast came with it additionally.
Yes, the ribs are the better choice. Very succulent and tender, dry rubbed, and with a distinctive oak aroma, the taste was wonderful. They did not fall off the bone, but were not tough at all, just a little compact. The first three ribs had a fair amount of fat with them, which could be easily avoided when pulling the meat from the bone. But the fourth rib was more fat than meat and so I the high praise from before in regards of the taste is becoming a little less enthusiastic towards the end.
The pulled pork was also tender, although somewhat dry, and it unfortunately came mixed with Uncle Kenny’s Original BBQ Sauce. So I have no idea how the pork actually tasted, but I know exactly what the flavor of the sauce is: dominantly sweet.
There are three sauces to chose from – the Original, the Spicy, and the Mustard.
As said before, the Original is overwhelmingly sweet, with nothing else worth mentioning. Sweet. That’s it. The 14th ranked BBQ sauce on this planet is just a sweet, sticky, otherwise bland concoction. Again, I wonder who did that ranking.
The Spicy sauce on the other hand is just that – very, very spicy. And that’s it. Spicy. Like the label says.
The Mustard sauce on the other hand leaves the one dimensional flavor of the two other sauces behind - it is sweet and has a mustardy undertone. I did not dare to pour it on the pork, though, because that was already contaminated with the sweet Original sauce. My curiosity stops where I have to add sweetness to an already sweet dish.
And quite frankly, the ribs were so good that I did not even think about spoiling them with either of those sauces. But with the Texas toast, the Mustard sauce was quite excellent.
Unfortunately, that cannot be said of the sides. The potato salad tasted like something you buy in a large container at the next super market, and the beans were quite bland. I probably should have drenched them with the Original sauce to get some taste on it.

So, this restaurant has its highs and its lows. Would I pay over sixteen Dollars for that again? Guess not. From where I stand, they do not need to fix the GPS error anytime soon. There is better BBQ to be found more easily.