Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Johnny's Bar-B-Q

Non-Quest BBQ No 34 – Johnny’s Bar-B-Q

Cullman, 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 ... 

What’s so great about the South is that you still find those old fashioned family businesses that are handed down from generation to generation. The pressure by those ubiquitous national chains, especially in the restaurant business, has certainly been relentless over the past few decades. But since the folks in the South are very traditional and keep loyal to something once they decided to like it, small family restaurants can still survive here. That is especially true for the area of BBQ restaurants, where the biggest competition comes from a few regional chains – no real national challenger is in sight yet. And when you drive through the South, it may occur to you that each county, each bigger city, each valley usually has their favorite BBQ place. Just ask the locals, they know what’s good.

Since 1949, Johnny’s Bar-B-Q in Cullman seems to be such an institution. The have won several prizes for their BBQ and are especially proud of the home made sauce.
The restaurant is owned by the same family since 1963, so they have reason to celebrate this year. The building is clearly of that vintage, and that is no reason for celebration. From the outside, it looks quite unassuming and dreary, and the inside looks, well, like a dungeon. It is dark as the devil’s soul in there, and without the modern flat screen TV in one corner providing a dim light, you probably won’t be able to even read the menu. Of course, I am exaggerating here, but not by much. The interior could use a serious overhaul, starting with the lighting. The rest is your standard red-faux-leather booths, metal-with-faux-red-leather chairs, with space for about forty people in the dining room, with an adjacent room for even more people, some BBQ related decoration at the walls, and a big rack with bags of chips in one corner.

So, the interior design oozes the charm of the early 1960s, which can be taken as old style, or as just plain old. But at least the food is fresh there.
Because I was very hungry, coming from a baseball game in Birmingham where I was so busy taking photographs that I didn’t find the chance to eat even a hot dog, I ordered the BBQ plate with double meat. You do not have the choice of sides, it is served with French Fries, Cole Slaw, & BBQ Beans. Oh, well, no potato salad, bummer.
When the plate came, I was shocked. The fries were piled on top of the pork, and the pork was drenched in BBQ sauce. What the heck?! Why can’t you let me decide whether I want sauce over my meat? Do you have something to hide? Does your pork taste like cardboard? I had to find out.
After I carefully removed about half of the fries from the pork, I was finally able to find a spot that had no sauce on it. One bite and I knew what was going on – the pork was tender, with a nice pink ring, and with a very pronounced smoke flavor, although rather dry. Without sauce, it might not have gone down as smoothly.
The sauce itself was a somewhat strange conglomerate of tastes. It reminded me of the sweet-and-sour sauce of your typical Chinese buffet, but then a healthy dose of peppery spiciness kicked in. Together with the very smoky flavor of the meat, it was a delightful experience.
The same can be said about the slaw, which came in a sour crème dressing with a good crunch. The flavor had a hint of spiciness, and I could imagine this slaw on pork sandwich very well – and actually, that is how they do pork sandwiches at Johnny’s.
The BBQ beans on the other hand rank a few notches below, being of the you-can-as-well-use-a-can variety. And I still consider fries with a BBQ plate as offensive to my (acquired) southern pride. I would rather eat just plain white bread instead, and thankfully that is what they serve as an additional side item.

For all this, plus an endless refill of Sweet tea, I paid just over fifteen bucks. No really cheap, but taking into consideration how much food was involved here actually, this still is a good deal. Especially when not only the quantity is satisfying, but also the quality of the food is generally top notch. So, I am looking forward to the next fifty years of Johnny’s Bar-B-Q in Cullman, Alabama.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Chief & Snoogie's Hickory Pit BBQ

Quest Log No 52 – Chief & Snoogie’s Hickory Pit BBQ
Trinity, Lawrence County

The Captain & Tennille, John & Yoko, Bonny & Clyde, Jake & Elliot, Bush & Cheney – those are partnerships everybody knows. In the culinary world, there are usually only lone wolfs, jealously guarding their precious recipes and trusting nobody with the preparation of the works of art they put on the menu.
And with BBQ, there is no real difference. It’s like in those country songs – you can take my car, my house, my job, my wife, but if you try to steal the recipe to my secret miracle rub, my killer sauce, my mother’s cole slaw, all hell will break loose.

But in Trinity there is a BBQ place where two pals are collaborating to make a righteous cue. Their very neat, clean and homey little shack is located directly on Highway 24. They have decorated the inside with all kinds of nice memorabilia, like an old gas pump, and some pig-related things. Half a dozen tables or so provide seating space for about fifteen people. There is a small porch with a few extra tables under parasols, and a drive through window. Speaking of driving, you better approach the building very slow, because the driveway is just a patch of heavily potholed gravel. But the friendliness and attentiveness of the staff makes you forget the aching shocks on your car as soon as you set foot in the restaurant.

The menu has all the usual items you expect for a complete BBQ experience. As usual, I stayed with the pork plate, with potato salad and baked beans – slaw and a bread roll, as well as a pickle spear come with it by default. Additionally to the default mild vinegar sauce that came with the meal, I had the choice between the hot vinegar sauce, the thick red sauce, and the white sauce. In a stupid attempt to appear modest, I only chose the thick red sauce – I should have taken the offer to take the hot vinegar sauce as well.

Well, the mild vinegar sauce is just what the name says – a mild vinegar-pepper sauce, which is more on the sour side than in the peppery corner. Nothing special here, but it goes very well with the pulled pork, as it should. The thick red sauce is also nothing earth shattering, just your basic Kansas City style concoction.
With really well done pulled pork, a simple vinegar-pepper sauce is all you need as a ticket to BBQ heaven. And that is absolutely the case for Chief & Snoogie’s pork – very tender and lean, yet still succulent and with a very prominent hickory flavor. Those guys apparently know what they are doing.
So, while the pork was just exceptional, the sides on the other hand where a mixed bag.
The slaw was finely chopped and very crisp, with a vinegar sauce that made it very sour – just the way I like it. The potato salad came in a creamy sour crème dressing, which gave it a more neutral, but also a more fresh taste as with mayonnaise. It could use a bit more salt and pepper to make it really pop, though.
The beans on the other hand were just beyond salvation. Those beans were so sweet that they could have served them as dessert. I did not taste cinnamon in there, but that is quite understandable, because the sweetness completely overlaid any other flavor that might have been in there. Next time I am having a bag of chips instead.

Yes, there will be a next time. The pulled pork was just too exquisite to not return. And for just under eleven bucks with a sweet tea, the large pork plate is a big heap of food. So, if quality and quantity and price are right, we have a winner. Or, in this case, two of them.