Monday, June 30, 2014

All good things ...

... must come to an end.
When I started this Quest three years ago, my goal was to visit about 20 new BBQ places in the counties of Limestone, Morgan, Lawrence and Madison each year. Given that there are about 70 BBQ restaurants in those counties at any given time (some will close, others will open ...), it would take about three and a half years at that rate to visit them all.
Well, I did not quite make it to the bottom of the list - time ran out when I was sent back to Germany in June 2014, and the count was 67. So there are a few that got away - around half a dozen, I'd say, that I still have on the list. Whereas, for most of those I do not even know if they still exist - I got their addresses off a Google-search, and they may have faltered since. That happened to me occasionally, when I showed up and only found closed doors instead of BBQ.
I also visited over 40 BBQ places out of the Quest area - Florida, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, and even New Mexico. There will be one additional in this category - I found a BBQ place in Germany, the only one in the whole of Europe as far as I can tell. They do Memphis style BBQ, and they take it quite seriously. That will then be the final entry in this blog.
The Quest was a lot of fun, I ate a lot of very good, much to much of adequate, and some few bad BBQ. I met interesting people and actually was only approached twice in more than a hundred times by staff members about the photography part of it - and that not in a threatening kind of way, but out of sheer curiosity.
So, the last question at a point like this is always "Would you do it again?". The answer is a very certain "Yes, in a heartbeat". Actually, I will miss this in Germany - I will need to find another food item to follow there. :)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Southern Style Bar-B-Q

Quest Log No 67 – Southern Style Bar-B-Q
Decatur, Morgan County

This was on my list for forever, but somehow I never got to go there – had I known how good their BBQ is, I hadn’t waited so long. Maybe it was my dislike of drive-through BBQ places that kept me away – I just hate to juggle a BBQ tray on my knees and spill sweet tea all over the seats. Well, Southern Style Bar-B-Q has some rough wooden benches to sit in front of a window for walk-up orders. But seriously, me sitting on a cool Alabama summer day in 100-degree weather outside, battling flies, heat, and the sun, I don’t think so. So I bit the bullet and ate my pork plate in the car – since it was a rental, I really did not care that much about spills and such.
The meat was very tender, lean and borderline mushy. The flavor was almost perfect, with a very pronounced but not overwhelming smoke aroma. There are huge piles of wood behind the building, so that is clearly where the flavor comes from. It is supported by a no frills basic vinegar-pepper sauce. As sides I had potato salad, which was a bit on the bland side, and baked beans, which were very reminiscent of the stuff you get out of supermarket cans. Nothing special here, but the meat was righteous BBQ pork if ever there was such a thing. All in all a typical southern BBQ place – like the name says.

Moe's Original Bar B Que

Quest Log No 66 – Moe’s Original Bar B Que
Decatur, Morgan County

We already have two Moe’s in Huntsville, and now they also have one in Decatur. And in a very posh location, too – directly adjacent to the wonderful Princess Theatre in the revived downtown area. The restaurant is a place with a very hip atmosphere, with high tables with bar stools, a big cut-out window in the front, a porch with tables, flat screen TVs all over the place and so on. Since the new-ness has not worn off yet, the good people of Decatur are coming out in droves – I arrived there a little after 11 AM, and half an hour later people were desperately looking for a place to sit. By then, I still waited for my hushpuppies, which I was told “were being taken care of”. The pork stuffed potato I had ordered was long gone by then, and son enough so was I  - without ever having seen one hushpuppy.
The pork on the potato was very tender and lean, but clearly not wood-smoked, but kind of slow-cooked. The BBQ sauce they use is kind of funky tasting, a bit sour and not really sweet - it is really hard to describe, but certainly not how I like it. Also, it is kind of pricey there – well, I guess they somehow have to collect enough money to pay for all this posh-ness.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Pig-N-Out BBQ

Quest Log No 65 – Pig-N-Out BBQ
Huntsville, Madison County

Well, well, a BBQ in a gas station. I have seen stranger things, but it is certainly not the usual setting for such place. I also noticed that they have “Korean BBQ” on the menu, which is kind of no surprise given the fact that the owner is a Lady from this nice country.
The restaurant is surprisingly nice inside – not exactly what you may expect to find in a gas station. The place is impeccably clean, and the little corner where the tables and booths are situated is lovingly decorated, bright and friendly.
The BBQ though, is more like you would expect it from a place like this. The meat of the pork plate I ordered was lean but somewhat chewy, with no particular smoke aroma. It came neither chopped nor pulled, but it looked like it had been put through a blender. There are three sauces, a white one that I did not touch, a basic vinegar-pepper sauce without much pepper in it, and a thick red vinegar-tomato-pepper sauce – and that had some real nice kick to it, and was very flavorful. I scooped the sauce up with the roll that came with the pork plate at the end. Very delicious.
The sides are really almost not worth mentioning – the potato salad was bland and the baked beans were your standard supermarket variety.
The portions were not that big, and actually I was still kind of hungry when I was finished. But for not even nine bucks, including a big 32 oz drink, that is an acceptable deal. But just to fill your tank with some food that is better than a burger from one of them chains. For a real culinary experience, this place would not be my choice. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Stroud's Barbeque

Non-Quest BBQ No 46 – Stroud’s Barbeque

Franklin, 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 ... 

On my way back from Nashville, where I watched some Triple-A Baseball, hunger overcame me and I asked my trusty GPS for a BBQ place nearby. That led me to Franklin, to Stroud’s Barbeque. Turns out that this is actually a small local chain with three restaurants in Middle Tennessee. They not only have the usual BBQ stuff on their menu, but also barbeque nachos and barbeque burritos. I resisted the urge to try one of those fairly exotic meals, and ordered a simple pork plate with potato salad and baked beans instead.
To say it right upfront, it was nothing special. The pork was not very tender, but actually a bit chewy. It was lean and the flavor was okay, and together with the vinegar and pepper sauce it was not bad. They also have a standard thick red sweet’n’sour sauce, which also was nothing to write home about. The potato salad reminded me very clearly of the standard supermarket stuff, as did the baked beans. The cornbread muffin that came with the plate was also very standard, although a bit too dry for my taste. But for not even seven bucks, excluding a drink (that was on the house, thank you very much), there is really nothing much to complain about.
The atmosphere of the place is also very middle of the road. There are no booths, only some tables along the wall and the row of windows on the other side. The decoration consists of some pictures with landscapes on them. But, and this is clearly the most interesting feature there, the counter is something else – it is the front end of a 1950s Chevy truck. Very nice touch, although I think it is utterly lonely there and in dire need of some vintage memorabilia around it.
Well, it was no feast for any of my senses, but at least I did not leave hungry and also got a nice picture of the Chevy-counter. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Melvin's Place of BBQ

Quest Log No 65 – Melvin’s Place of BBQ
Huntsville, Madison County

No sign. No name. No indication that this place in a fairly run down inner-city subdivision of Huntsville next to a cemetery, is a BBQ restaurant, than the smoke that is coming from a mobile barrel smoker at the corner of the premises. You park either in one of the two parking spots on a gravel patch beside the house, or on the street. In the courtyard of the L-shaped building are some camping-canopies with well worn out leather chairs. A few orange traffic cones adorn the pavement. The entrance to the dining room is a simple red door. The dining room is surprisingly big, and not surprisingly dark. There is one camping table with six camping chairs, half a dozen of those well worn leather chairs along a three foot high wall, and a counter with an old office chair behind it that has an old shirt lumped over it that says “Melvin’s Place of BBQ”. Next to the counter stand an old TV, and some buffet gear. On the other side of the room, beyond the three foot high wall that separates this area from the dining area, and where it is really dark, there is a small stage with some musicians gear on it, several other camping tables, more buffet gear and other things. On the walls, there is one picture of a 1960s era soul band, and a framed article of the Huntsville Times about this place.
Some would call it a dive. Some would even call it a dump. Others would call it authentic. I would call it all of the above.
To be very clear – it is not a dirty place, not at all. It is just well worn, odd, eccentric, cobbled together. The owner, Melvin, is a very nice old man, with a serious passion for BBQ. When I asked him about his secret how to cook such a marvelous BBQ, I got a fifteen minute lecture. No, actually it was more like a sermon, with fire and brimstone, and preaching and praying.
Melvin does not believe in wood. He uses whatever is on hand – hickory, pecan, cherry, it doesn’t matter. The secret to get the flavor in the meat, he told me, is the rub, not the wood. He does his own rub and his own BBQ sauce – actually, he has nine different sauces, and each of them makes the chicken taste differently in combination with the rub. Melvin also does not believe in smoking the meat for hours. He has better things to do than fire up the smoker in the middle of the night, he said. Forty-five minutes is sufficient for a chicken - that is his believe. He also does not turn the meat halfway through the process, nor does he poke it with a thermometer, lest the juices would drip out. With all that, he is the most unorthodox pitmaster I ever met. But his chicken proves him right – it is divine. DIVINE!

I had heard so many good things about Melvin’s chicken that I broke with my rule to have pulled pork at each new BBQ place. The plate, rather the Styrofoam box, came loaded with two slices of regular toast (untoasted), baked beans, potato salad, and a two drumsticks and a chicken breast. The chicken was sitting in a puddle of his BBQ sauce (which of the nine different varieties, I have no idea), that apparently oozed out from the skin. The skin was a bit leathery and not crisp at all, but the meat under it was the most tender, juicy, flavorful and, yes, divine chicken I ever had. It had a very nice smoke aroma, too – something you do not necessarily expect with a smoking time of only forty-five minutes. The potato salad was top notch as well, being a mayonnaise based, fairly sour, concoction. The baked beans were okay, but nothing to write home about. They swam in a thin liquid and had some vegetables and meat in it, but the taste was really nothing special.
With a can of soda, I paid eleven bucks (the lecture was priceless, yet at no cost), which is more than can be usually expected in such a location. But it is well worth it, and I can only suggest that you let the, well, ramshackle environment and the very interesting interior design of the restaurant not deter you from what would become a defining moment in your live – when you take the first bite out of Melvin’s chicken. It is just divine!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Jim'n Nick's Community Bar-B-Q

Non-Quest BBQ No 45 – Jim’n Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q

Montgomery, 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 ... 

Finally, I had to see what the fuzz is all about. Jim’n Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q is a growing chain of BBQ restaurants that wins awards left and right. Most recently, it was listed as the Number one BBQ chain in America by USA Today, which had to say “If you're going to open a chain of barbecue restaurants in the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Colorado, you better make sure that your product is on-point.”
What started in 1985 in Birmingham, Alabama, has spread now to 33 locations in the states mentioned above, with two more restaurants coming soon to Colorado.
Alabama, as the nucleus of the whole operation, has 14 places where you can dine at a Jim’n Nick’s – I was at their Montgomery restaurant, on my way home from a Biscuits Baseball game at beautiful Riverwalk Stadium.

Well, first of all, their address is somehow screwed up – had I trusted my GPS, it would have led to a place two blocks from there. Fortunately, I saw it in the corner of my eye when I passed it and was able to turn around immediately. The restaurant is one of those typical “family oriented” buildings that could be used by various different chains after one another. The inside, too, is rather unassuming – the typical red faux leather booths, wooden tables, pipes under the wooden ceiling, wooden pillars and beams, and brick walls with a few posters as decoration. All very clean, very nice, and very bland.

And nice was also the food. The meat of my pork plate had a nice smoke aroma, it was tender and juicy, and fairly lean with just a bit of fat that could be easily put aside. It was not pulled, but rather chopped, and it also came already smothered in sauce – as everybody knows, that is a total no-no in the BBQ world. Granted, their original sauce - a concoction based on vinegar and pepper, yet with some more ingredients in it to make it thick and red - is quite tasty, with a hint of spiciness. But please don’t drown your meat in it – that is my, the customer’s job, if I chose to! Their other sauce is called “Habanero” and is obviously supposed to be the hot cousin. While is has a bit more kick to it, I would not dare calling it a “hot sauce”, because for that it lacks some serious punch.
As sides I had baked beans that were not too sweet and also had a little spiciness, and a very well made tangy potato salad.

While nothing of the meal was really outstanding, nothing was an abysmal failure, as well. It was nice BBQ in a nice atmosphere … with a hefty check at the end. Almost eighteen bucks for the plate with a sweat tea, holy moly, that is what I would call steep. I had much better BBQ in a more authentic environment for not even half of that. So, my resume is: Nice but overpriced. At least here in the BBQ belt - they might have more success with this concept in Colorado.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

O Taste & See BBQ

Quest Log No 64 – O Taste and See BBQ
Madison, Madison County

To name a mobile BBQ stand after a Bible verse (Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the LORD is good”) is probably one of those things you have to expect here in the Bible belt. But that kind of commits you to serve a most righteous BBQ, too. Well, their motto “Experience Real Smoke Taste” is certainly a step in the right direction. Actually, if they would add the word “Strong” after “Real”, that statement would be the absolute truth. I never had any BBQ were there was such an intense and prominent smoke flavor in the meat. Not that this is a bad thing, not at all. But it makes you think – either the guys have found the holy grail of BBQ and developed a smoking process that is much superior over everything else, or … well, they found other means to infuse their meat with that kind of overwhelming smoke aroma. The pulled pork I had also tasted as if mixed with some BBQ sauce. All in all very flavorful, and very, very smoky. The meat was succulent, although with some big blotches of fat in it. But those were easy to spot and I could remove them right away. The pork plate I had came with two sauces, a mild one and a spicy one that was more like a more sour version of the former, instead of real hot. The thick red mild sauce was a very nicely balanced sweet’n’sour affair with a nice round aroma, and it was so good that I scooped the rest up with the slice of toast that came with the meal.
Also, the potato salad and the cole slaw I choose as the two sides were top notch. The potato salad had a very nice mustardy tang to it, and the slaw came with sour crème dressing and with just the right amount of vinegar and salt and pepper so that the cabbage aroma was still noticeable. The whole meal, with a can of soda, was not really cheap – I paid about eleven bucks for it. And although the portion size was not that big, the quality of the food kind of justified the price. My wife had the brisket plate with BBQ beans and green beans, and she had quite the same experience – the brisket had a lot of fat on it on the outside, which was easily removed, the taste of the meat was very smoky and very flavorful, it was succulent, and the sides were top notch.
The stand is really mobile, setting up at the East Madison Shopping Center on Hughes Road from Tuesday through Thursday, at Jordan Lane in front of Trees n Trends on Friday, and at the Corner of Winchester Road & Naugher in the Sunoco Parking Lot on Saturdays. That is certainly a lot of work for the really nice folks who own this business, and I hope they can establish a good customer base and make a good living with that nomadic life style. But they seem to love what they are doing, and it shows in their quality food. It is righteous BBQ, after all.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Gin House Barbecue

Quest Log No 63 – Gin House Barbecue
Elkmont, Limestone County

Just call me Ahab from now on. Captain Ahab. I finally hunted down the white whale, which I thought would elude me forever. Well, actually the good Captain in the book died while fighting with the whale, a fate that I fortunately could avoid. But for over two years I thought that the Ole Gin House BBQ in Elkmont would be the one that got away.
I’ve been there three times before in 2011. The first time was on a Monday in April, but the restaurant was closed - no service on Mondays. At the next try, in July, they were on summer break. And then, in October, they were closed for good.
But a couple of days ago, I stumbled across a facebook-site with their name on it that had very current entries of specials and so on. Needless to say, I went there at the first opportunity.

From the locals, I had heard stories about this place, which was formerly run by an elderly lady with pink hair, who had stuffed the restaurant with all kinds of quirky memorabilia and interesting decorating pieces. But together with dropping the “Ole” from the name, the new owners also cleaned up the joint and it is now a fairly bland and unremarkable country eatery. There are two rooms - one fairly darkly lit big one and another to the side, which receives some natural light through windows. Other than an American flag on a pole in one of the corners, there is no decoration worth talking about. There is a small buffet-like counter in the entrance hall where for $5.99 a meal is assembled to your specifications. The choices are the usual southern staples, like fried okra, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and steamed corn. But you also can order from the menu, which has the typical BBQ-stuff on it. Not surprisingly, I opted for a large pork plate with potato salad and cole slaw.
The pork came in large chunks that were lean and hat some bark on it. Unfortunately, the meat was not very tender and it had a very funky sour vinegary taste, and no smoke flavor at all. My guess is that it was either prepared in a slow cooker or by using some very strange wood-less smoking process. The BBQ sauce it came with did also nothing to save the taste – it was a thick red puree, which also had the flavor of pureed tomatoes with a little salt and pepper. Strange. Don’t get me wrong, it was not too bad, and certainly perfectly edible, but also most definitely not your typical country BBQ.
The potato salad on the other hand was very tasty – a concoction with eggs and mayonnaise, not too sour, not too tart, not too sweet. The cole slaw however was nothing special, just some shredded cabbage in a sour crème based sauce that could have used much more salt and pepper than was there.

Altogether, I paid close to ten bucks for the plate and a soft drink. Needless to say, that I had better BBQ for half the price.
But at least there was one valuable lesson that I learned today: Next time I encounter a white whale, I will just let the beast go its merry way, and will let bygones be bygones. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Whitts Barbecue (Moulton)

Quest Log No 62 – Whitts Barbecue
Moulton, Lawrence County

As everybody knows, there are two BBQ dynasties in North Alabama, the Gibsons and the Whitts. The latter has spread over three States, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, where there are about 30 Restaurants, owned by different branches of the clan and some franchise takers. The usual layout is as a drive-through/walk-in, no-sit-down place – basically the BBQ equivalent of a fast food joint. It took me a while, but now I have been to all five locations in the Quest area, 2 in Athens, 2 in Decatur, and the last one just today near Moulton. And while the first four fit the description above, the latter one actually has seating space within the restaurant.
The building is a custom built, no frills affair that oozes the charm of a bygone era. The name is put on the front of the building in big bright red letters, and the dining room is enclosed by a large window front. It has about half a dozen tables with four chairs each, and through the windows you have a great view on the adjacent gas station and on the Alabama Highway 20 that runs next to the parking lot.

I had my usual pork plate, which comes with three sides – baked beans, cole slaw, and potato salad in my case, plus a soft bread roll. With a medium sweet tea, it was only roughly eight and a half Dollars, which is a very good deal, indeed. Even more so, because the food was real good. Not remarkably good, not spectacularly good, just plain good. Middle of the road good. Basic good BBQ with no frills and no outstanding features.
The meat was tender, lean and succulent, with a nice, not too distinctive smoke flavor to it. The two sauces were also good, but not remarkable – the so called “Red Sauce” is the simple standard pepper/vinegar concoction, while the so called “Rib Sauce”, which is supposed to best when eaten on a Sunday, is a thick red, sweet’n’sour affair. The potato salad and the baked beans could have been straight out of a can from the next supermarket, and the cole slaw was shredded into tiny pieces with a vinegar dressing over it. All together that made a very decent BBQ meal, without any outstanding characteristics. There certainly is better pulled pork out there, better potato salad, and so on, but while in most places it is usually only one of those parts of the meal that stands out, here the quality and taste was on the same level – good, but not remarkable. This consistency, I would take that any day.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Smokey C's BBQ & Wings

Quest Log No 61 – Smokey C’s BBQ & Wings
Decatur, Morgan County

Do you judge a book by its cover? I must admit, I’ve been doing this once or twice. So what do you expect how a real BBQ place with Killer-Q has to look like? A raggedy old shack with no windows on a lonely country road, a sleek brick house with neon signs in Downtown, a nondescript store with a hand-written menu on a black board in a strip mall, a wooden palace with hunting trophies on the walls on a busy highway, or a burger-chain look-alike in an industrial area? The correct answer is, of course, all of the above. Been there, ate in that. There just is no telling what kind of BBQ you might encounter when you stand before a restaurant – the only way to find out is to go in and try it. I’ve been surprised more than a couple of times, negatively as well as positively, during this quest.

So, what’s so special about Smokey C’s BBQ & Wings in Decatur? The building looks like any given fast-food-chain restaurant in the country. The patrons are mostly recruited from the workers of all those industrial plants on the west side of the town. It is situated next to a gas station at the Alabama Highway 20, which is quite a busy road in this area.  Inside the building, there is not much decoration on the walls, and the reddish-pinkish plastic furniture does not exactly qualify it for a title story in Southern Living.
You order at the counter right next to the entrance, where you have the choice between the usual selection of meats - pork, turkey, ribs, chicken, you know the drill. You can have the meat either on a sandwich, which comes in two sizes, or on a plate with two sides.
Guess what – I chose the large plate with 6 ounces of pulled pork (4 ounces would be the regular size), potato salad and spicy mustard slaw. The plate also came with a piece of cornbread, and together with a fountain drink I forked over just slightly over eight and a half dollars. Very nice price, but what kind of food can you expect for the price of a fast-food-chain burger meal?
As said before, never judge a book by its cover, always sit down and smell the roses. What can I say? I am a fan now.
The meat looked like Killer-Q, with a wonderful pink ring and some serious bark. And the looks did not lie - its flavor was perfectly smoky, with just the right amount of burnt wood flavor to make it special. I rarely had pork that was as juicy and tender and lean all together like this one. Real exquisite stuff.
I was really reluctant to pour any sauce over it, but eventually I did – starting with the hot and spicy one. Big mistake. One bite and my mouth was numb for a minute or so. Definitely too hot for my taste, so I switched to the one labeled BBQ sauce. Oh, well, that was your garden variety sweet’n’sour concoction, thick and red and, ahem, a little sweet and mostly sour. Not bad, but I would have wished for a simple vinegar-pepper sauce to just support the smoky meat flavor without giving it a totally different direction.
The potato salad on the other hand could have used a slight re-direction into a more distinctive aroma. It was not exactly bland, but also not very flavorful. Which cannot be said of the spicy mustard slaw – that thing gave me a kick in the pants, yessir! The mustard aroma was very prominent, and by gosh, spicy it was. But unlike the spicy BBQ sauce, it did not numb my taste buds, but left a very pleasant tingling sensation in my mouth. At the end, I used the excess sauce from the slaw for the pork, instead of the BBQ sauce. And the tiny rest, I scooped up with the cornbread, which had a very bread-like flavor with just a slight hint of sweetness. I’ve had cornbread before that was more like a sweet pound cake than real bread, but not this specimen, and actually that is how I like my cornbread.
All in all, although from the outside and also on the inside, Smokey C’s BBQ & Wings is nothing special, their food is top notch. And next time I’ll bring my wife – she is the wings expert in our family.