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!