Thursday, March 24, 2011

Red Top BBQ

Non-Quest BBQ No 2 - Red Top BBQ
Oakman, AL
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 ...

Driving south from Parrish, Alabama on State Route 69, you will come through the small town of Oakman - one gas station, a Dollar General, some mobile homes, a proud past and a promising future (it says so on the welcome sign). This is such a typical small town here in Alabama, that the passing stranger who, because this kind of unremarkable settlement does not grab is attention anymore, might easily overlook the Red Top BBQ on the big empty dusty parking lot next to the Dollar General at the southern end of town.
Big mistake.

The Red Top BBQ has no enclosed room for its patrons to sit. There are some folding chairs in the back, but those seem to be reserved for friends and family of the employees. A category, under which probably each living soul in Oakman would fall.
Most people chose to dine in their cars instead, and so they circle the little shack which houses the BBQ with their rides. Once in a while a newcomer will swell the ranks for a short time, until one or two cars will break away from the pack, their passengers undoubtedly satisfied and in a somewhat sleepy mood with their BBQ filled stomachs.

Living in the greater Huntsville metro area, where we actually have restaurants with chairs and tables and waitresses and all the other trappings of urban civilization, I am not accustomed to the rituals and traditions of rural Alabama. At first, I wondered how this would work, and since I did not want to embarrass myself by doing it the wrong way I pulled into the Dollar general parking lot and observed how the locals did it for a few minutes.
Well, it is a rather simple process. You just drive to the front of the shack, leave your car and walk up too the left window, where it says “Order here!” (apparently the right window is only for decoration purposes, or for lighting).
A very friendly woman will open the window and greet you. She invariably will address you as Honey, Sugar, Sweetie, Darling or the like, and you will feel happier than a second ago immediately.
Their menu is typed on a sheet of paper in plastic sheet protector, which is nailed to the wall next to the window. You can get all kinds of BBQ things, but thinking of the potential horrors of balancing a full slab of ribs on my knees in my car, I opted for a plain and simple large BBQ pork sandwich, some potato salad and unsweetened tea.
Once the ordering is finished, you walk back to your car and wait – or take pictures of the place, which I did.
After a few minutes, you are called back to the window, pay $8.28, grab your meal, which comes in a very handy brown paper back, receive a few more Honeys, Sweeties, Sugarplums, go back to your car, and eventually drive to a spot in the vast parking lot, where nobody has to involuntarily observe how you uninhibitedly dig into the good stuff.
After all, isn’t that the major pull for such a place, that you do not have to observe any stupid etiquette like in a real restaurant – you can eat that pork like a pig and nobody cares.
Well, that you can (are expected to …?) behave like a five year old might be one of the appeals of this place, but the food itself would also be a reason to come back – often.

Good thing that I ordered a large sandwich, since the regular size would probably have been some kind of miniature bun with a small blot of pulled pork on it. But the so called “large” variety was actually of quite a nice size, something that would probably be called “regular” in other parts of the state – or not even called anything special at all.
The blot of pulled pork on it was not overwhelmingly big, but sufficient to cover the bun from end to end. On top of it presided some curls of BBQ sauce and a pickle.
The taste was actually quite good, the pulled pork had a nice smoky flavor to it, and the sauce was of the fruity-sweet, non hot, dark red kind. But I would have wished for more of the sauce, to make the sandwich a little more moist overall.
But I was very hungry, and so I washed this unnecessarily dry sandwich down with some gulps of the iced tea.
Then I dug into the potato salad, which they serve in a Styrofoam cup, with plastic silverware and a tiny package of salt and pepper.
Have I ever mentioned my relationship to potato salad? I really love BBQ, but potato salad is part of my religion.
And my new temple is the Red Top BBQ in Oakman, Alabama – where they serve the best potato salad east of the Mississippi River. Maybe they get it from the Dollar General, maybe it is an old secret recipe from Grandma, I don’t really care. It is just the best I ever had in any public place on this continent. No comparison to the potato salads my wife makes (yes, she is master of more than one variety …), but outside of home, no comparison to any other that I ever had.
It is very compact, and you can throw the cup it comes in around without the slightest potato slice falling out. The taste is on the sour side, with a hint of mustard – as it should be. All those potato salads that are drowned in rather sweetish mayonnaise, or drenched in vinegar, contaminated with all kinds of green vegetables, even apples or raisins, or all of the above, are just awful. But this here, found in this most unexpected of places, is just … divine. There, I said it, and I do not regret it. Yes, it is divine! Or maybe I was just so hungry … ahhh, heretic thought be vanished! I hereby declare the Red Top BBQ in Oakman, Alabama the new navel of the potato salad faith. May the spuds be with you!

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