Friday, March 29, 2013

Shane's Rib Shack

Quest Log No 50 – Shane’s Rib Shack
Huntsville, Madison County

Opening a BBQ place of your own is the dream of every backyard pit master. Very often, it is the sauce that everybody in the neighborhood just loves, which plants the seeds of the idea to go professional. Not a bad basis, but BBQ is more than that. If the meat is terrible, the best sauce in the world will not save the business. And what about the sides? Many of those restaurants of ex-backyard pit masters only concentrate on the meat and the sauce, and put rather pedestrian sides on the table.
And even worse, what can you expect from an ex-backyard pit master, who not only opened his own BBQ place, but then expanded the business into a franchise with about 70 locations in the Southeast, the Southwest, and the Northeast? Surely he had to cut corners, standardize the whole process, and rationalize the preparation of the food, so that it could be done with comparable quality everywhere.
That this does not necessarily mean adhering to the highest possible standards, but rather finding the least common denominator, should be self evident.

So, now Huntsville has been blessed with its own Shane’s Rib Shack. Hallelujah, just what we needed here to survive the BBQ shortage that plagued us all so terribly the last few decades.
It is located in a plaza with other eateries like Bonefish Grill, Subway’s, Nothing but Noodles, and Zoë’s Kitchen, so the local lunch crowd now also can have its BBQ cravings satisfied.
The fairly big inside of the restaurant is your typical sports-bar/family place, with wooden furniture and semi-booths dressed in red faux-leather.
You order at a counter in the back, put the sign with a number on your table and after a short while your meal is brought to you. The staff is very friendly and attentive, and the place is spotless clean.
The decoration mostly consists of flat screen TVs on the walls, and some framed football shirts. It was kind of odd to see a Raider’s shirt there, and no trace of a Tide or Auburn shirt, or maybe one from the Atlanta Falcons. The Raiders, really?! Not a team known for its success lately, like, oh well, some Alabama football teams. Just saying.
But it is surely a place you can go eat with the kids; they even have four different kid’s menu items.

Although the name of the name implies that they see their ribs as the main attraction, I refrained from that and had the pork plate instead, with baked beans and fries. They don’t have potato salad on the menu and I didn’t want to have chips or mac’n’cheese, and from the picture on the big menu behind the counter, the cole slaw did not look very special to me, so I deviated from what I usually order.
Big mistake, I should have taken something else. The fries were too salty, almost borderline inedible, and the baked beans were of the sweeter-than-sweet variety, and I could swear that I had very similar beans once out of a can from a supermarket.
The meat was very tender and lean, but a bit dry and with just a slight smoke flavor. Not bad, but I had better. The "Original" sauce, on the other hand, is a killer. Vinegar, tomato and pepper, with a hint of mustard, a little sweetness to it – I ate it on the toast when I was through with the meat.
But is that enough to justify a thumbs-up for this place? Well, it will find its fans, and since it is relatively kids friendly, my guess is that it will be there for a while. And what the heck, should I be ever in this part of town when a sudden BBQ craving overwhelms me, and my gas tank would only allow me to travel another mile or so, I would probably go there again. But instead of the two sides that come with each plate, I would order two additional slices of bread – for the sauce.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Lawlers Barbeque Express #6

Quest Log No 49 – Lawler’s Barbecue Express #6 (Madison Hospital)
Madison, Madison County

Now there are six. They are growing like mushrooms. They surround us, they following the urban development in this county. Are they evil, do they strive for world domination through BBQ?
Nope, they just use a clever business idea and establish new restaurants of their chain where there is a gap in the BBQ coverage.

This newest Lawler’s is right next to the also brand new Madison Hospital, on Hwy 72 just at the west side of Madison. What a clever move – not only will they get a steady customer base from the Hospital workers, and the surrounding shops and the yet to be built hotel, but also from people who come to visit patients there have now a place to eat BBQ. That location is practically a license to print money. If the product is good …

The exterior of this newest addition to the Lawler’s empire is nothing special – it is located on a corner of a small block of shops and the style of that little mall is of the contemporary functional variety. You can spot those mini-malls in the same style dozens of times when you drive through the Huntsville-Madison area.
The inside is kept in the Lawler’s corporate style – wooden furniture, with some fishing memorabilia decorating the walls. The dining room is separated by a small wood-structure from the counter where you order and receive your meal. It has about half a dozen two-person tables at two of the outer walls, and a few more four person tables in the middle. The whole layout is very cozy and homely for such a small place – except for the ubiquitous flat screen TV above the dining room separator. Needless to say that the place is spot clean and the service is very friendly and customer-oriented.

After already visiting the other five Lawler’s Express Barbecue restaurants, the menu has no surprises for me anymore. I chose the ribs this time, with the BBQ beans and the potato salad as sides.
Well, what can I say? Everything tasted like at the other Lawler’s. The ribs were juicy and tender, with a bit too much fat around the ends for my taste. But the taste itself – very good. The beans and the potato salad were as good as always, without bringing me to any enthusiastic public declarations. No wonder, because Lawler’s has the meat and the sides prepared elsewhere in Tennessee each day and drives them down to their places here in the Tennessee Valley, which are strictly distribution centers. Well, the place in Athens on Hwy 72 seems to smoke their own chickens, but that is the big exception to the rule.

But quite frankly, I do not care, as long as they keep the quality as high and the taste as good as it is now. I rather have good BBQ that is smoked elsewhere, than bad BBQ prepared at the spot. And that actually let’s me look forward to number seven, wherever that may pop up eventually.

Friday, March 8, 2013

BBQ Caboose Cafe

Non-Quest BBQ No 30 – BBQ Caboose Cafe

Lynchburg, Tennessee

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 ... 

Yes, THAT Lynchburg. Whiskeytown USA. The Hollow. Gentleman Jack. Old No 7.
In downtown Lynchburg, on a little square around the Moore County Court House, with its dozen or so stores, the BBQ Caboose Café is located at the south-western corner of this tourist trap-like assembly of places to buy Jack Daniel’s memorabilia and paraphernalia.

The BBQ Caboose Café, however, is virtually a Jack Daniel’s free zone – at least I could not detect one thing in black and silver there. It is decorated heavily with autographed pictures of celebrities on the walls, lots of train and railroad related items, weird signs and other stuff, so it is easy to miss things in this smorgasbord of colors, shapes and styles. On the ceiling, they have fixed numerous sheets with names and comments of people who have dined there before. There are four of five small booths on one wall, but the main dining room has just three or four long tables with chairs. And there is also a small platform next to the entrance, where they play live music regularly. The owner and his wife have recorded some records, which they of course sell in the Caboose, too.

So, the atmosphere is quite unique and really charming, despite the considerable clutter on the walls and on the ceiling.
And this extends to the menu as well. Besides a BBQ (pork) sandwich and a BBQ (pork) platter, they also have BBQ Pizza, Jambalaya, Hot Dogs and the like to offer. Service is friendly and competent, and my BBQ platter with potato salad and slaw arrived in record time.
Well, fast delivery is not necessarily a bad sign, even in a BBQ joint where by definition everything should be done in a more relaxed and slow manner. But in this case, it fit the product they are serving – I would classify this not as BBQ, but as FFQ … Fast Food Q.
The pork was way too dry, and although it had some smoky flavor to it, I could not really identify whether that came from a pit or from some artificial flavoring agent. The potato salad was very comparable with something you might get at the next supermarket, and the slaw was, apart from a hint of sweetness, without any taste whatsoever.
They have two different sauces, both thick red concoctions of the “Original Memphis BBQ” variety you can also find at the next supermarket. One was supposedly to be mild, the other hot. I could not spot a big difference, and poured one or the other on the meat indiscriminately to give it sufficient moisture for swallowing it down.

For about thirteen bucks, I had way better BBQ before – sometimes in shack-like places without all the fancy trimmings of the BBQ Caboose Café. This place is apparently geared towards the tourist crowd that visits the Jack Daniel’s distillery two blocks further down the road, so that the visitor from New York can boast at home that they had original southern BBQ. Yeah, let them believe that. We know better, right?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Red's BBQ & Diner

Quest Log No48 – Red’s BBQ & Diner
Somerville, Morgan County

Change is the only constant in life. Well, that and death. But let’s not get too depressed here, let’s talk about the ever changing landscape of BBQ places in North Alabama.
One observation that I have made lately is that we are getting more and more chain restaurants here. Lawler’s just opened their sixth satellite station in Madison, Moe’s has expanded into the Village of Providence in Huntsville, and there is even a new franchise in town, Shane’s Rib Shack.
Also, there is also a new non-franchise restaurant on Winchester Road, with the somewhat weird name of Blackjack and Things BBQ.
Special cases are restaurants that just change their name and owner. That, of course, also constitutes a new entry in my list, so my quest is not getting easier, and the list of BBQ places to visit has actually grown again in the last couple of months.

One of the latter category is Red’s BBQ & Diner in Somerville, which was, until October 2012, the Jailhouse BBQ – one of the top restaurants on my list.
I was curious, of course, to find out whether the new owners could maintain the quality of the food, the special atmosphere of the place, and the superb service of their predecessors.
So, I went there today, amidst a few snow flurries, to have a look – and a bite to eat.

The first thing I noticed was that now this place has more consumer-friendly business hours then before. They are open seven days a week, from 11 AM to 9 PM, which is a big improvement over the former, which was only open at some odd hours on weekends.
The second thing that caught my eye was that on the outside, only the sign with the place’s name on it had changed. Also, the dining room was virtually unchanged. They have a little wood fired furnace and some electrical heaters in there now, which came in very handy today with the temperatures hovering around the freezing point. They also have two small flat-screen TVs in the corners now, which takes away a bit of the unique atmosphere the old place had. Who needs that in a BBQ restaurant? If I want to have some entertainment, I just chat with the staff – they usually have more intereting things to say then the TV anyways.
Speaking of the staff, the service was also first class, very friendly and attentive, like in the old restaurant.

So, now on to the food. My suspicion is that they not only bought the place from the old owners, but also their recipes with it. I just read what I wrote about the Jailhouse BBQ’s food, and decided to basically recycle it – with a few minor changes.

I had the large pork plate, with potato salad, baked beans, and slaw on the side.
The pulled pork was 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. Although the meat really did not need any sauce I poured some of their red concoction on it, which was besides a very tasty peppery and sour white sauce, the only sauce available. Fruity aroma, no spiciness, just a good sweet BBQ sauce.
The potato salad, also home made as everything else on the menu, was nothing short of phenomenal and is the best I ever had in a restaurant here. Only my wife and my mother make a better potato salad, but this here came very close. Mayonnaise based with a very refreshing sourness, a hint of mustard and dill.
The slaw did not disappoint me as well, being of the sour-without-sweet variety, but in comparison to the meat and the potato salad, it does not quite play in the same league.
The large plates come with a third side, but the baked beans were nothing special. Without any hint of cinnamon, which is a clear plus, but still with some nice sweetness to them, they could have come out of a can – which would then be a very nicely picked can.

So, is the new place as recommendable as the old one? Definitely. I even have Red’s BBQ and Diner ranked one place higher then the old Jailhouse BBQ – because the potato salad was a tiny bit better, and the meat too. The old owners apparently knew what they did, and so do the new owners. And I am glad to report that, despite the somewhat less than inspiring new name (quite frankly, there are not very many names that could beat Jailhouse BBQ …), they still have a Top 10 address for really good BBQ in Somerville.