Tuesday, December 31, 2013

60 and counting

When I started this quest, I originally had a little over 60 BBQ places on my list. My goal back then, two years ago, was to visit half of it.
Now, I have visited 60 restaurants here in the quest area, and 44 outside of this area, and I spent almost $1500 on it. That makes for a lot of red meat in the past two years - and for a lot of fun and great stories.
There are only a handful of places left here on my list - and I truly believe that I have assembled an utmost comprehensive list of BBQs in the Counties of Madison, Limestone, Morgan, and Lawrence. There are two reasons, why those few are still on the list - I have only limited time to do this, basically only every other Friday, and some of the places are more than an hour's drive from where I live; and secondly, I have shied away from some of those, because judging from the outside, they seemed not desirable to visit for me. 
But let's see what the future brings -  my goal for the new year is to cross out every entry on my list ...

Oh, and I have found a new quest, too. The newspaper blog AL.com ran an article about 22 Greasy Spoon Burger Joints you have to visit before you die (http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/11/22_greasy-spoon_burger_joints.html)  ... I read that article and discovered that half a dozen or so are in my neighborhood. So, while I do not intend to work through the whole list, those that are in reach are absolutely something I need to visit. And write about my experience, of course: http://greasyspoonsinbama.blogspot.com/

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Larry & Harry's Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 44 – Harry & Larry’s Bar-B-Que

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 ... 

My experience after now three years of working on the Quest is that BBQ places in North Alabama are on average better than anywhere else I go. Once in a while you find a jewel also in other areas, but they are few and far between. Because my job involves frequent trips to Orlando, I had the opportunity to try many BBQ restaurants there over the years. I found many that are easy to forget, and only two that are up to par with the best ones at home - Yellow Dog Eats in Windermere, and Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Que in Orlando. Today, this short list received a new entrance - Larry & Harry's Bar-B-Que in Winter Garden.

A hole in a wall – seldomly has this expression described the actual situation better than with Harry & Larry’s. Winter Garden is a town of about 35000 people some fifteen miles northwest of Orlando. The historic downtown has been beautifully restored and today contains an assortment of restaurants, shops, and cafés, a couple of museums and a performing arts venue. And, of course, a BBQ place, which you might miss driving by, because it is hidden behind a big old tree that covers almost the entire front. Immediately after you enter the place, you stand in front of a counter where you exchange your money for a card out of a poker deck that is sitting in a metal base. This you carry to your table and place it there, so that the server can identify who gets what. The dining room itself is a long narrow tube with five simple red wooden booths on each side. The decoration consists of several old signs for food and drink products from an era long gone, a large print of the place’s name, and some odd wooden birds. It is one the most cozy atmospheres I ever found in a BBQ place. Also, the staff is extremely friendly and nice, and if you want to, you can even sit outside on the boardwalk on a couple of iron garden tables and eat your Q.

Although it was 86 degrees in the middle of December, I chose to dine inside. As usual, I had the pork plate, which came with two sides – baked beans and fries in my case – and a slice of Texas toast. Unfortunately, they did not have potato salad, but I do not hold that against them, because nobody is perfect.
Nevertheless, the baked beans were almost perfect. There were two kinds of beans in it, Pinto and Red Kidney, with a good helping of smoked meat. Top notch. Very savory - maybe a bit more sweetness could have improved the taste - and with a smoke aroma you would not believe. That of course came directly from the meat – the pulled pork had a very distinctive smoke aroma, a perfect pink ring and an intensive BBQ taste straight out of the BBQ bible. Marvelous. The pork was pulled, but came in big chunky pieces, and I had a lot of very tasty bark on it. It was very tender and juicy, without being mushy. Unfortunately I also found a few pieces of fat, but due to the coarse cut of the meat, it was easy to spot and remove them. A little bit more diligence when pulling the meat would have prevented that.
They have five sauces there, of which four are of the thick red variety, in different stages of hotness. Nothing special there. But the fifth sauce is something else. It is mustard based and has just the right spiciness to make your mouth tingle when eaten on the Texas toast. Together with the smoked pork it is just BBQ heaven.
All this wonderful food has its price, though – over thirteen bucks for the plate with a fountain drink is not cheap. But it was surely worth every cent.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Cave Inn BBQ

Non-Quest BBQ No 43 – Cave Inn BBQ

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 ... 

As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. I usually never do that, always checking at least the describing text on the book jacket. Or, in the case of BBQ joints outside the BBQ Belt, I try to find their menu on the internet to check if it is worth my time. I also get an overview on the reviews that other people posted. And that is an especially good tactic in a place like Orlando, Florida, where you very easily can end up in some kind of tourist trap if you haven't done your homework.

And that is why, before I committed myself to the Cave Inn BBQ in Winter Garden, just a few miles outside of Orlando, I checked the menu on their website - and found all those familiar items on it like pulled pork, ribs, and brisket. Well, classic case of false labeling here. When I ordered the BBQ MMMEAT Sandwich, which consists of pulled pork, beef, sweet'n'spicy sauce, and red cabbage slaw on a pita bread, the friendly server alerted me to the fact that they do not smoke their meats, but grill them because "it just tastes better". They also smother them with sauce to "keep in the juices". Excellent. That's how you do ... well, if you do it this way, please don't call it BBQ, that is just plain sacrilegious.

So, this sandwich has basically the same right or reason to call itself BBQ, as I have to call myself King of the Tennessee Valley. Moreover, the sauce it was smothered with totally overwhelmed almost any other aroma that might have been present. Only the marinated red cabbage slaw had a chance to being noticed, the meat could have been cardboard, it would not have made any difference. Also, while the pork was reasonably tender, the beef was quite chewy. Smoking it for a few hours might have helped with that. And then, and only then, you might call it BBQ. And charge 13 bucks for it, with a drink and a side of fries. Oh, and over all this rant about the food, I kinda forgot to mention the actually very nice atmosphere there, the dinosaur themed decoration, and the very friendly and helpful staff. They also have live music there regularly and a very cozy bar area. What they do not have is BBQ. Except in their name. What a shame.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mr. Crite's Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No 60 – Mr. Crite’s Bar-B-Q
Athens, Limestone County

Far away from the beaten path, one will sometimes find the best things. Mainstream might be safe and familiar, but surely it is also boring and unexciting. Of course, something outside of the area of the common denominator might be disappointing, unacceptable, or even dangerous. But first, you have to find those places, because they usually do not advertise, there are no street signs, they are not on facebook, and they are hidden in locations where you probably never thought to find them. So, listen to the locals, they know. But do not assume that you can duplicate their experience. They grew up with that particular whatever-it-is, and so they are biased and think it is the greatest whatever-it-is in the World.

That is the way I heard of Mr. Crite’s. A Buddy of mine lives in Florence, and on his way to and from work in Huntsville, he often stops there and gets some BBQ for the family dinner. Another co-worker lived nearby for some time, and it was her family’s tradition to get BBQ from Mr. Crite’s each Saturday. Both raved about this place, so a year ago I checked it out. Alas, only from the outside, because it was closed. They have weird business hours there, and during the winter months it is open basically only Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 AM to 4 PM.
But I would have not gone in anyway. Not only is this restaurant, and I loose the term very loosely here, in the freakin’ middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods and fields and all kinds of rural landscape. The building looks positively rotten from the outside, and one year ago I was not yet ready to accept that there was not necessarily food poisoning lurking in those shacks. Now, with a lot more experience under my belt and also having been to worse places during this quest, I am not that squeamish anymore. Or maybe I just am at a point in my life where I just accept my fate and don’t try to avoid it.

Anyway, as rotten as the building looks from the outside, the inside will not win any designer prizes anytime soon either. The light in there is dim, the ceiling is low, the floor is worn out, the furniture is a motley mixture of wooden picnic tables and ordinary tables, the space is tight, there is a beat-up air conditioner hanging in one of the two windows, while at the other window the glass pane is missing and all that is keeping the Alabamian Nature from creeping into the building is a holey fly screen. The only redeeming aspect of the interior is a cheerful mural on the wall that depicts some farm people with hatchets who are going after some hapless pigs. I’ve seen horror movies that started in places like this. Fortunately for me, I did not have a bulbous, blonde scream queen with me today, so there the probability for me ending up being chased through the woods by some toothless, overalls wearing Half-Zombies with Shotguns was pretty low.

What I did expect, though, based on the tales of my Buddies, was above average BBQ.
Didn’t happen.
When I hear the sound of a Microwave coming from the Kitchen, my mood goes down immediately. I am not sure whether it was the beans or the meat, or both, that was re-heated that way. And I was not there late in the day, when some stuff might have needed a little fire under the behind to bring it up to serving temperature. No, I was there ten minutes after it opened that day, so everything should have been bubbling and steaming without exacting it to those waves.
It certainly did not help to make the food better, but the baked beans were not very memorable to begin with. Not very sweet, not very tangy, kind of bland, of the open-a-can-and-throw-it-in-the-microwave variety. The potato salad on the other hand was creamy and very tasty, and had a made from scratch character.
The meat was kind of mushy and not the most tender I ever had. It also had a very prominent aroma, which either came from too much smoke or some weird spice they put on it. The taste was not bad, but it will also not become my favorite anytime soon.
I tried to counter that with some sauce, of which there were two varieties – one rather bland thick red sweet’n’spicy concoction, and one also thick and red and just spicy. Well, the sweet’n’spicy bottle came with a dried up plug of the sauce in the spout, which was kind of icky, so I just squeezed a tiny bit out to take a me measurement, but then stuck with spicy sauce. But here too, nothing to write home about. It was just a thick red spicy sauce, without any outstanding attributes.

Together with a can of soda from a fridge right next to the table I sat at, I paid just under nine bucks for the meal. I consider that a good deal, although the food was clearly sub-par. But I did not get food poisoning, was not bitten by a snake, had not black widow trying to befriend me, and now have eventually mastered my inner fear of rotten BBQ shacks. Bring it on.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sparky’s Burgers, Barbeque & Espresso

Non-Quest BBQ No 29 – Sparky’s Burgers, Barbeque & Espresso

Hatch, New Mexico

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 ... 

Remark: Sometimes I revisit a place. And if there is something to add to my comments, I do that. This happened here - see below.

Original comments from 30 Nov 2012:
The small town of Hatch, New Mexico, claims for itself the title of “Chile Capital of the World”. Coming into town from the interstate, you have to cross a bridge over the Rio Grande, the “Great River”. And Sparky’s Burgers, Barbeque & Espresso, which is located smack in the middle of the town, is claiming that they are the “Best BBQ in the Southwest” and also the home of the “World Famous Green Chile Burger”.
That is a lot of superlatives for a town of about 1700 souls at the crossing of nowhere and lost. And since I hadn’t had any halfway decent BBQ in this area of the world yet, I was naturally curious to give it a try.

At first, the combination of Burgers, Barbeque and Espresso seemed a little odd to me. But I thought, it is in the desert and to survive there you have to leave specialization behind and become a generalist. And why not have a good espresso after a sumptuous pork plate?
And quite frankly, when I finally saw the place, it was not weird at all anymore. The building itself is a tourist attraction of the first degree – a big Uncle Sam with a green Chile in his hand next to the parking lot entrance, whimsical figurines on top of the roof, Ronald McDonald and the Kentucky Fried Colonel sitting on a bench at the entrance, a sign inside that says “Even if you are the president of the U.S., we still won’t accept your check”, a big stuffed Moose’s head in the dining room … “quirky” does not even begin to describe the atmosphere of this place. I instantaneously loved it. There are so many wonderful details to discover, inside and outside – this restaurant has charm and originality, without drifting into the fake and artificial décor of so many “original” places made especially for tourists.

So, after the surroundings were very much to my liking, I was anxious to test the claim of “best BBQ in the Southwest”. Well, how good could it be, knowing from my own experience that the standard of BBQ in that region usually ends where the standard at home, in the BBQ Belt, just begins?
To find out, I ordered a pork plate with spicy beans and pineapple slaw. You have to cut the folks out west some slack – they cook with what the land provides, and so they put things in their dishes that may seem strange for the rest us sometimes.
But I must say that the pineapple slaw was extremely tasty, fresh and crunchy. Made with yoghurt and seasoned only very lightly, the pineapple in it was a very nice twist that gave the salad some distinct sweetness with every bite.
The spicy beans were labeled correctly – it was pinto beans with a kick in the butt. I bet they put some of that Chile in there, and maybe also some Cayenne Pepper. It was not uncomfortably hot, but surely not the sweet concoction we are used to here in the South. It harmonized beautifully with the sweetness of the pineapple slaw and the great hickory flavor of the meat.
The pork also had a nice pink ring and some seriously tasty bark. However, it was kind of mushy, with a squishy texture, plus there were some rather annoying blotches of fat and gristle in it, and that somewhat dampened my enthusiasm about this place. For top notch BBQ, you need to use high quality meat, and this pork was merely okay. That the BBQ sauce they had on the tables - a fruity tomato based creation with a moderate spiciness to it - was also very tasty did not really much to redeem the verdict on the meat.
Then again, for seven and a half bucks, what can you expect? Well, I had fantastic meat repeatedly for less than that, here at home.

So, is their claim to be the “Best BBQ in the Southwest” only one of those stupid superlatives they seem to be so fond of in that town?
Probably they are actually telling the truth. In that region, out of my own experience, good BBQ is hard to find. And while here, in the BBQ Belt, Sparky’s would probably rank in the lower midfield of the list of BBQ places, I believe that in New Mexico and the adjoining areas, they might actually be the top dog.
But what the heck, next time I am in the vicinity, I will go there again. To discover more whimsical details, to maybe try the famous Green Chile Burger, to have an Espresso and a piece of cake after that – but probably not to eat more BBQ there. 


Additional comments from 07 November 2013:
And a year later, I came back – and had The Oinker. And a Cappuccino. Which led me to revise my previous judgment. Mea culpa.
So, The Oinker. A Green Chili Cheeseburger with pulled pork on top. Fantastic flavor, on the spicy side, of course, but nevertheless – a must have. I also bought a T-Shirt, because I had to make good something. In combination with a beef patty, some cheese and green chili, the pulled pork there actually works. Sometimes you just have to look a little to the left or right to find truly awesome stuff. So, whenever you are in the vicinity, go to Sparky’s and have The Oinker. And a cappuccino. And then just sit there for a while and contemplate the awesomeness of things. In general. Or with green chili on it. Oink, Oink.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 42 – Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que
El Paso, Texas

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 ... 

Texas is, of course, a big state. You’ll find deserts in there, as well as woodlands, pasture lands, big cities, one horse towns, hills and mountains, valleys and plateaus. And as diverse as its landscape the cuisine is, too. From steak to enchiladas, from green chili to potatoes, from beer to wine, they have everything there. And naturally, they also have BBQ. They often use mesquite instead of hickory as fuel for the smokers, and because Texas is certainly more famous for its cattle than its hogs, they generally excel at beef more than at pork.
El Paso is something special, even in this heterogeneous state. It close proximity to Mexico, the exchange of ideas, people, and recipes over decades, as well as the fact that today over eighty percent of the population are of Hispanic decent, has created a cuisine that is heavily Mexican-oriented. Since slow smoking of meat is not a staple of that particular kitchen culture, there are only relatively few original BBQ restaurants for a city of that size, and of course there are some restaurants of BBQ franchises there.

Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que is one of those franchises, having a whopping 195 restaurants from Arkansas to Wyoming – though none in Alabama yet. And I guess that all look the same, a mixture of your typical neighborhood family steakhouse and an angler’s trophy case.
In El Paso, they have two locations, and I went to the one on North Mesa, right off I-10.
It was Sunday around noon, and the place was packed with El Pasoians, with Cowboy hats all around me and half the people wearing Dallas Cowboys shirts. It was a very pleasant surprise that my server was wearing a Tennessee Titans shirt, me being a Titans fan and all – made me feel a little homesick.

As usual, I ordered the pork plate, which at Famous Dave’s they inexplicably call “Georgia Chopped Pork”. I’ve been to BBQ joints in Georgia, and they don’t usually chop their pork. On the other hand, since that’s what they seem to do in Mississippi, I surmised that them Texans just got their geography mixed up. Georgia, Mississippi, same difference – all in the dirty South, might as well be one state after all, who knows, who cares. Anyway, as sides I chose baked beans and, on the suggestion of the server, Mac’n’Cheese. The plate also comes with a corn bread muffin, which has, of course, green and red chili in it. Not my cup of tea, I do not really like the mixture of sweet cornbread with spicy stuff. But in El Paso and vicinity it is next to impossible to avoid spicy ingredients in places where you least expect them.
So, I took a bite and that was that. I also tried the BBQ chips with Sweet’n’Zesty sauce that is served as are chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants. The chips are tasty, but also made with a lot of spices. Carramba, are they trying to kill all non-natives with their cooking? And then they have six different BBQ sauces at Famous Dave’s: Georgia Mustard, Texas Pit, Sweet’n’Zesty, Rich&Sassy, Wilbur’s Revenge, and Devil’s Spit.
If your tongue is not laced with leather or impregnated with Teflon, stay away from most of those. It is good sense to avoid any sauce that has the words “Revenge” or “Devil” in it anyway. The other four are not as hot, but still pack a punch, more or less. I decided to stay with the Georgia Mustard sauce, which is also spicy, of course, but not as much and it has a very nice mustardy undertone. The other three sauces were not that special, just plain old boring red, thick, and spicy sauces. But then a problem arose – the pork came with Sweet’n’Zesty sauce already poured over it. Again, the question is yelled at the BBQ world: Why, oh why, do you think that I want my pork pre-conditioned with sauce? Let me decide what to pour on it, especially when you have six sauces to choose from! Carramba!
So it was inevitable to mix those two sauces, at least for parts of the pork. Which was reasonably tender, but also had big flakes of fat and gristle in it – not my favorite texture. It also tasted not so much wood-smoked than infused with bacon flavor.
The baked beans were also only so-so, with a taste straight out of a supermarket can. The Mac’n’Cheese on the other hand, while not being anything close to a revelation, were at least interesting, with green chili and corn in it.
For all that, and bottomless refills on my soft drink, which I certainly needed, I paid a bit more than fifteen bucks. Not the cheapest BBQ meal I ever had, and certainly not with the quality to warrant that price. Next time I am in El Paso, I will stick to the real local cuisine – maybe there is a place where they have two different menus, one for the locals and one for us tourists with actually edible stuff on it. Carramba!

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Non-Quest BBQ No 41 – Arby's

Madison, 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 ... 

So, once in a while one or another of the national fast food chains decides to spice up their menu with a BBQ-themed item. It should go without saying that those ventures cannot be compared to our local BBQ – they are worlds, no, strike that, they are universes apart. But as an alternative to the regular menu items, it might just work.

Next in line is Arby’s, your friendly neighborhood slicer of luncheon meats. They claim that the brisket they serve now on their new Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich has been smoked for thirteen hours. Sounds good at first, but what does that really mean? That their marketing department knows how to play the numbers game? That they have a portable smoker attached to each store now? That they read a book or two about BBQ? That they are really trying their best to bring us authentic brisket?

Well, let’s give them a few breaks. First, it goes without saying that smoking the brisket each day in every store appears to be very impractical. So they smoke it elsewhere, pack it in cellophane, truck it around, and cut it fresh at the stores. I have no reason to doubt their claim smoking it for thirteen hours. But that in itself does not say anything about its tenderness and flavor. It only tells you that their marketing department indeed read a book or two about BBQ, especially the chapters about how much time it generally takes to prepare the meat for consumption. Bravo. You get an A for reading skills, now sit down and listen to the verdict about tenderness and flavor.

Since the brisket meat is not really sliced, but rather shaved, it comes with a kind of default tenderness, for it is very tough to really chew hard on paper thin meat. As for the flavor, I have to say that there was something that resembled smoke aroma, but just for a brief moment. It was immediately overwhelmed by the extreme saltiness of the meat. As I write this, about eight hours after eating the sandwich, I still have heartburn. The sandwich comes with fried and battered onion rings, liquid Gouda cheese, mayonnaise, and Arby’s own BBQ sauce. Of the 610 calories that monster tries to stack directly on your hips, a whopping 320 are from fat. 1230 mg of Sodium more than explain the salty taste, I think. And there are more ingredients that read like an advertising brochure for a cardiologist. So, from a nutritional standpoint, you better stay away from this conglomerate of irresponsibility. But does it at least taste good, so you could order it as your last meal on death row, if you ever came into this conundrum?
Don’t bother, die hungry instead. There is no discernible influence the smoked brisket has on the taste of the sandwich. The prevailing aroma is that of cheese and BBq sauce. And salt. I need a Pepto. Now.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Triple D Bar-b-cue

Non-Quest BBQ No 40 – Triple D Bar-b-cue

Rome, Georgia

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 ... 

I love planes. And I love to watch planes flying around. Straight or in circles, in loopings or in Cuban-8s, in formation or solo, slow, fast, low, high, it doesn’t matter. And what better place to be then, than at an Air show? And if this Air show also has a BBQ competition attached, I am in heaven.

So I went to Rome, Georgia, to the annual Wings over North Georgia Air Show and their Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned Smoke’n’Thunder BBQ Classic competition.
The weather was perfect, the flying was exciting, and there were at least half a dozen big BBQ stands that sold their stuff to the Air show spectators. I picked one to have lunch from based on three criteria: it had a pink trailer, they were smoking in a small rig just beside the trailer, and the line in front of the cashier was the longest. Just must be good, don’t you think?

Well, I had the pork sandwich with a sweat tea and a bag of chips for ten bucks. The sandwich came wrapped in aluminum foil and without any fixins’. There were a couple of jars with onions and marinated peppers, but I took a pass on that. They had three different sauces standing around, from which I picked the one that had “Spicy” written on it.
Suffice to say, it was either mislabeled, or my taste buds were already numb from the smell of aviation gas that lay over the flight line. It was not spicy at all, and not really flavorful either. It is really hard to describe, because of the total absence of any aroma. But it lubricated the fairly dry pork real well, so it was tolerable. The meat actually had some smoke aroma, and it was tender and lean. It was also a sizeable portion, coming on one of those big buns, so I think, given the circumstances, I got my money’s worth.

I have no idea where the Triple D guys ranked in the BBQ competition. But based on my lunch experience, it can’t be too high. Or maybe they have a different standard in Kansas City. I rather stick to the North Alabama version of it. If only we had an Air show here once in a while.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Ken's Bar-B-Que

Non-Quest BBQ No 39 – Ken’s Bar-B-Que

Oneonta, 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 ... 

There are BBQ places in places where your first reaction is: where the heck is that??! Oneonta, Alabama is one such place, you probably never knew even existed. This town of about 6500 inhabitants is the county seat of Blount County, which is situated about 30 miles north of Birmingham. Their greatest claim to fame is that there are three beautiful covered bridges within the county borders, which are actually still in use. There is an annual Covered Bridges festival in Oneonta, their High School Football Team is named the Redskins, the US Highway 231 runs through it and the official town motto is “A small city with big ideas”. That’s it. Oneonta, Alabama. Not quite the center of this planet’s gravity.
And if you type “BBQ, Oneonta” into Google Maps, the only result is a place called “O'so Good Bar B Que”, although I can vouch for the fact that there is at least one more – Ken’s Bar-B-Que, just adjacent to the WalMart, at this location since 1970.

I stumbled upon Ken’s Bar-B-Que by accident, being on the way of one of the covered bridges. As I do usually on my trips through the countryside, I had planned my food stops ahead, and based on the information that Google Maps gave me, I had chosen to visit the other place in Oneonta after I was done with the bridge. But since I already had driven for six hours that day, and thus was hungry as a lion, and Ken’s looked quite nice from the outside, I ditched that plan and decided to eat right here, right now.

Did I mention that I was really, really hungry? The combo platter on the menu, with pulled pork and smoked sausages, with fries, slaw and beans looked like it could satisfy my appetite, so I ordered it.
When it arrived, I almost regretted my bold decision, made out of an empty stomach, which is never a wise move. Man, was that a lot of food! And to be frank, I did not finish all of it, left the pickle, half of the slaw and the slice of toast behind. Together with some sweat tea, I paid about thirteen Dollars – I had less food and of lesser quality, too, for that kind of money before.

The pork appeared to be chopped, not pulled to me, but it was very tender and juicy, very lean and had a very subtle smoke aroma to it. Unfortunately, it also had the sauce already on it, which I really don’t like. What if the sauce does not taste good and I want to use ketchup instead? Am I supposed to wash the sauce off the meat with the sweat tea, or what? Yeah, right. Fortunately, this time the sauce was not too bad - a thick red concoction, with underlying sweetness and a bit of understated spiciness. But with pork that good, I wished they would serve a simple vinegar-pepper sauce. Also, there was no extra sauce on the table, just a bottle of Ketchup and some generic hot sauce. But when I ran out of sauce, I just substituted it with the sauce from the baked beans. Those came with big chunks of meat in it, and the sauce was not too sweet, as it is the case more often than I would care for. Definitely, they take their sides seriously. That is also true for the slaw, which came in a light sour crème dressing with only some pepper and salt. It tasted very fresh and the cabbage was also very crunchy. Too bad that at the end of the meal, I did not have any capacity left to gobble it all up.
That was certainly partly the fault of the smoked sausage. Also with a very subtle smoke aroma, and mildly spicy, they undoubtedly brought more calories from fat with them then the lean pork. But they were oh so good that I just could not stop myself and switch to the unquestionably more healthy cabbage.
Well, the fries were just that – regular fries.

The dining room is decorated with mostly Tide paraphernalia, although I also saw a couple small signs from the other team bashfully hidden in a corner. They have two lamps hanging over the cash register in the form of futuristic planes – very 1950s, very strange, very quirky. I like those kinds of details. There are also tiles in the ceiling, which display words like “Bless You” in neon colors. The atmosphere is very homey and the staff is extremely nice and friendly.
For a place that is not even on the map, Ken’s Bar-B-Que in Oneonta serves a very high quality BBQ with very generous portions for a reasonable price in a very nice setting. I just might need to write to the Google folks, to alert them to their grave mistake. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Hazel Green Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No 59 – Hazel Green Bar-B-Q
Hazel Green, Madison County

Although BBQ is a serious affair here in the south, usually there is also some mild eccentricity involved. Typically, the quirkiness revolves around pigs, with all kinds of statues, posters, photos, metal and neon signs displayed in the restaurant.
But if there is a ten foot long smoker in the backyard that has pig’s ears, nose and eyes out of metal attached to it - that is the definition of eccentric quirkiness.

And that is what I found outside of the Hazel Green Bar-B-Q. It actually fits very well the rustic atmosphere of the restaurant, which is built in a kind of pseudo-log cabin style. Inside, there is a big room with only four tables with two chairs each, which are metal patio furniture out of the home improvement store. The window we were sitting at had just a fly-net and no glass in it, the ceiling was covered with old tin plates, and the floor looked like the victory circle of a NASCAR speedway, with black stains all over it. Most of the business, from Friday to Sunday only, is done as carry-out, so I guess there is no need for more places to sit down, or better furniture, or a non-stained floor. So, it is very rustic, but also very clean.

As usual, I had the pork plate with three sides, potato salad, baked beans, and slaw, and my wife had the brisket with baked beans and slaw. The plates come with a slice of white untoasted toast bread, and we both had sweet tea, which comes in 16oz plastic bottles from Milos. For all that, we only paid about twenty bucks, which is a very fair deal in regards of the amount of food you get.

The quality, however, was no reason for jubilation.
They claim that all sides are home made, and I truly believe that. But that in itself is no guarantee that the taste is something special. In this case, the potato salad and the baked beans were rather pedestrian, taste-wise. Not bad, don’t get me wrong, but if it says “homemade” my expectations are a bit more demanding. The slaw, on the other hand, was kind of sweet, but with a spicy note in it. Very interesting, very tasty.
The pork was a bit oily, and had some fat in it, but it was very tender and had a deliciously smoky aroma. While one sauce comes with the plate, I allowed myself the luxury to add a second kind of sauce for a small amount of money. I chose the mustard based Sweet’n’Spicy and the tomato based Kansas City BBQ Sweet. They also have a white sauce and a vinegar based Hot and Spicy sauce.
I must admit that I have a soft spot for mustard based sauces. Mustard and pig just naturally belongs together in my culinary world, and while this variety here was not bad at all, the mustard aroma was too strong for my taste. Give the sauce a hint of mustard, make it the key note in the aroma, but don’t let it take over the show. It was just too much, almost like pure mustard. And the Kansas City style sauce was just boring, a concoction with no outstanding features besides its sweetness.
My wife’s brisket also had a very nice smoke flavor and was very tender, too. But about half of it was pure fat, and while fat certainly is a carrier of flavor, it is also not very healthy and too much of it should be avoided. She had the white sauce with it, which we will deny vehemently if the BBQ police ever get wind of this sacrilege. The sauce is a thin mayonnaise and vinegar based concoction with, again, no outstanding features.
In summation, I liked the rustic but very clean environment, and also the price was very good. The food had some highlights in the slaw and the flavor of the meat, but also had too much fat in it, and the other sides and the sauces could use some re-work. No bad BBQ here, but also certainly not one of my go-to places.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Biffle's Slow Smoked Barbeque

Quest Log No 58 – Biffle’s Slow Smoked Barbeque
Madison, Madison County

BBQ out of a trailer – that does not immediately garner my confidence that I will get something decent to eat. On the other hand, during the almost three years of my quest I had BBQ at some permanent locations that was also somewhat dubious, to say the least. So I guess the old saying, don’t judge a BBQ place by its cover really has some truth to it.
In Madison, on Sullivan Street just behind the train tracks, opposite the Downtown area on Main Street, stands a brand new red trailer that hosts Biffle’s Slow Smoked Barbeque. The Biffle’s are a retired couple who were looking for something to occupy their time with, so they decided on a food truck operation of sorts - only that their trailer remains stationary and does not move between locations.
There are two canopies in front of the trailer, where you can sit on a few chairs around a table or at a bench-table combination. The trailer itself is equipped with a smoker and a full kitchen. Due to the limited size of the smoker and the storage space in the kitchen, at times they sell out some items before their official closing time. As I was there, they only had some fruit punch left to drink, which was not a big deal, but don’t expect everything to be available at any given time.

As usual, I had the pork plate with potato salad and slaw. The plate also comes with either a bun or two slices of sandwich bread, and all together it cost me seven bucks.
Not a bad deal for a sizeable amount of food.
Alas, the quality was not up to par. The meat was rather oily and lacked the tenderness I would expect from slow smoked BBQ. There was no real smoky flavor, and the sauce, while apparently home made, was just a variety of the typical St.Louis-style supermarket sauces. It had some spiciness to it, but was mostly sweet. The potato salad had a mayonnaise dressing and was quite tasty, with a sour tang, but the slaw, while certainly fresh and crispy, had no taste at all.

I certainly had much worse BBQ in the last three years, but also distinctively better. So, I guess, it really is not so much the building you do it in, but how you do it that determines your BBQ. This is, of course, not really a brand new discovery, but rather a known rule. And while this peculiar style of BBQ certainly will find its audience, I do not see myself stopping by that trailer again anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

John's Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No 57 – John’s Bar-B-Que
Moulton, Lawrence County

I like it when small businesses are successful and expand, opening satellite stations. That usually means that the public approves of the product they sell, which is a fairly good indicator of quality and price. And as long as the expansion does not compromise those attributes that have made the product a success in the first place, the future might even bring further success and expansion.

There are two locations where you can find John’s Bar-B-Que in Moulton. One is a log cabin that I already visited half a year ago, and one is in a typical boring small strip mall on Highway 157.
Since I could not remember what I had the last time, I made the mistake to order the exact same thing again, although one of my rules is to order something different at each satellite location of a chain. Mea culpa.
So, let’s just concentrate on the differences between those two places – which should be minimal.

As before, I got the two meat plate with pulled pork and chicken, with potato salad and Jailhouse Slaw. But contrary to the Log Cabin, this time there were no hushpuppies served before the meal. Bummer!
The pork was very tender and lean, with a nice smoke aroma, and that was also the case at the Log Cabin location.
Same goes for the chicken, which was again a bit dry and with a lesser smoke aroma, but with a nice pepper infused crust that I did not register the first time.
As fort the sauces, there was no difference. Their white sauce is sour and peppery as it should be, and very fresh tasting. Top notch, and still one of the best I ever had.
The other sauces, a boring mild sauce and a mildly spicy red vinegar and pepper sauce, were acceptable for the pork if mixed together.
The Jailhouse Slaw is one of the most interesting and tastiest side dishes I ever encountered at a BBQ place. It comes drenched in a mustard based sauce with enough spiciness to give you a recognizable kick in the pants. It can double as BBQ sauce, and they should really sell it in bottles (I’d take a case or two …).
The potato salad had a hint of cinnamon in it, but not as pronounced as the first time.

The meal, including sweet tea, was not the cheapest I ever had in a BBQ place, with about fourteen and a half bucks. But the quality of the food, and the very nice atmosphere do actually justify that price. The dining area has the usual red faux-leather benches and chairs, and some tables. The decoration is a whimsical mixture of BBQ related paraphernalia, like posters, pigs, and neon signs, and also some fishing related things like fishing poles and a stuffed fish. There is also the model of a three-mast bark, which is kind of odd at such a place, but speaks to my maritime past very much. The walls are wooden panels, and the counter is made out of brick. This all contributes to a cozy atmosphere, and the place is very clean, too. The Log Cabin is just a bit more authentic and quirky, and they serve fantastic hushpuppies, so all in all I would prefer that to the location on Highway 157. But if you just want excellent BBQ, and don’t care about the surroundings, either location will fit the bill.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No 56 – Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q
Meridianville, Madison County

A while ago, I debated the question, whether dead flies on the window sill belong to an authentic BBQ place. The conclusion was that I did not mind them and that in certain circumstances they actually could contribute to the special atmosphere of a place. Living flies, on the other hand, are still a total no-no.

And that is the problem with those places that are primary take-out restaurants, with maybe just a few folding chairs and a table outside. You are usually better off to eat in the car, unmolested by pesky insects, or take the stuff with you at home, if this is not too far away.
The Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q in, ahem, Meridianville is one of those places. There is one table with  four chairs outside the order window under a little roof, but since the trash cans are right next to it I would suggest using this offer – unless you like sharing your meal with winged pests.
Other than that, there is the occasional spider web with insect carcasses in it to be found in some corners, and a grimy substance covers most outside surfaces. That is, of course, coming from the US Highway that runs just a few yards away from the building. The building is also wedged between two gas stations. That all, and more serious violations inside once have led to a score of 75 (of 100) at a health inspection. You must score an 85 to get off the re-inspection list. So before I tried this place, I wanted to wait until the health score was in a region where I did not have to reserve a hospital bed before eating there. Now, they have a 94 and so I went.

First of all, the meals are really inexpensive there. I paid nine bucks for a large pork plate with three sides and a large sweet tea. Well, they do not have any overhead costs for maintaining a dining area, so it should not be pricey.
My pork plate came with baked beans, potato salad and slaw, a bun and a cup of sauce.
The meat was very tender and lean, not very moist and with a very subtle smoke aroma. Together with the simple vinegar-pepper sauce it tasted great, and I would say while it was not spectacular, it was how BBQ pork should be.
The sides were also nothing special, but also very good. The potato salad came with a mildly sour yellowish mayonnaise dressing, the slaw was a bit too much on the sweet side for my taste, and the baked beans were no different from what you can buy in a can. But while not one item was something special, all harmonized very well together, and the taste was extremely pleasant when one bite of the pulled pork with sauce on it was followed immediately by the potato salad and the baked beans or the slaw.

So, what you get at the Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q is middle-of-the-road stuff for a very reasonable price. Just try to avoid the spider-webs and you’ll be fine.