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.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Dreamland Big Daddy's Rib Shack

Non-Quest BBQ No 38 – Dreamland Big Daddy’s Rib Shack

Regions Field, Birmingham, 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 ... 

Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd; buy me some peanuts and BBQ … BBQ? Of course, BBQ – we are in the South here, and Hot Dogs and Burgers are so Cooperstown (which is located in the beautiful State of New York, of course). So when the Birmingham Barons built their new wonderful downtown stadium, one of the concessions was claimed by Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Yes, that Dreamland, from Tuscaloosa, where at game day the Tide fans pack the restaurant tightly, to eat some fine ribs before they watch Bama roll over another hapless opponent. I tried to get in there once on a Saturday morning – no freakin’ chance in hell. But it is on my to-do-list, just not on a game day.

So then, Regions Field was finished just in time before the season started, and I was at the inaugural game there, which was kind of a transcendent experience. The architecture, the crowd, the atmosphere, the view of the lighted up downtown Birmingham – magical. Alas, no Dreamland. In early April, there was just the framework of the building where the BBQ place once should reside. So I ate a hot dog. Frustrating.
But then in early September, after a glorious season, the Birmingham Barons got into the playoffs of the Southern League – and I went to Regions Field again. In the meantime, Dreamland Big Daddy’s Rib Shack was fully operational, and so I gave it a spin.

First off, I have to say that nothing in the world beats the atmosphere of a Baseball stadium on a play-off day in late summer. And to eat BBQ there is equivalent to celebrating a religious service in a gothic cathedral. It does not get any better than this. Period.
Too bad then that the Q was not really that special. I ordered the pulled pork plate, which essentially was a BBQ sandwich with some potato salad. The pork came already drenched in sauce, on a standard bun. There was also a tiny cup of cole slaw hidden underneath the bun.
I struggled to find a non-sauced piece of pork, and eventually succeeded, only to find out that I had not need to bother – it was kind of neutral tasting, no real flavor in it. But the sauce, the Dreamland sauce, would certainly save the day. Ain’t so. The Dreamland sauce they serve in their location in Huntsville is a spicy, very flavorful concoction. The sauce on the pork here was your standard super-market-variety-sauce. Disappointing. The slaw was a letdown, too, it had also no distinguishable aroma.
The potato salad on the other hand was nothing short of spectacular. It came in a creamy dressing, with peppers and dill in it. The taste was more to the sour side, but the dill balanced it out marvelously.
But quite frankly, I did not come to the ballpark to have superb potato salad, I was expecting superb BBQ. And here there is definitely much room for improvement. And the price was also not to my liking - $11.25 for a BBQ sandwich and a sweet tea is kind of steep. Well, next year, I will go to Regions Field again, pack some money and maybe try some ribs. After all, it is probably called “Rib Shack” for a reason. We’ll see. In the meantime – Go Barons!