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.