Friday, March 7, 2014
Baby Back Shak has been on my radar for quite a while, but something always seems to come up at the last minute to prevent me from going. Today was an easier day at work, so I took some personal time and finally made it happen.
You'll find Baby Back Shak down in the Cedars neighborhood of South Dallas. Apparently both the Shak's interior and exterior recently got a complete overhaul, which should play nicely in the Big D. It has a hoppin' jazzy atmosphere. The dining room is clean and open and slightly trendy, which is par for the course in Dallas, but not necessarily for barbecue joints in general. This all seems to fit with their stated slogan: "Taste the sound of Memphis BBQ."
I noticed a plaque on the wall referencing Baby Back Shak's inclusion in the June 2008 issue of Texas Monthly, in which they issued their bi-decade list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints. I'm pretty familiar with the Texas Monthly lists, but didn't remember seeing Baby Back Shak on any of them. As it turns out, they're actually an honorable mention BBQ Joint from 2008 rather than a part of the elusive list. The plaque didn't specifically claim that Baby Back Shak made the Top 50, so there's no reason to cry foul.
It's hard to resist their namesake Shak's Platter, which comes with sausage, ribs, brisket, chicken, and boudain. You also get two sides, for which I picked potato salad and Shak's beans. There was a long line of customers, but my to-go order came out in no time. When I unboxed my order at home, I found a massive pile of meat, which was quite the bargain considering the $15.00 price tag. This order was too unwieldy to leave in the severely undersized styrofoam container, so I transferred things to a dinner plate and dug in.
The potato salad had a nice creamy texture, coupled with a good crunch from the veggies. It was pleasantly sweet, and had a good mild mustard flavor that wasn't the least bit overpowering. The beans were packed with flavor. They were sweet and spicy at the same time. I enjoyed how the flavors lingered in my mouth.
I wasn't quite sure how to begin this meaty smorgasbord, so I picked the sausage links at random. They were nice and crisp, with a good snap to the casings. These links definitely had some kick to them, though not as much as traditional hot links. I found a good garlic flavor too. I really like barbecue sausage, but generally detest hot links. This was a nice middle-ground.
The chicken breast was decently tender and moist, which can be quite a challenge to accomplish on the pit. I liked the seasoning blend, but didn't find as much smoke as I'd hoped for. That being said, the overall flavor was very good.
Next came the brisket, which had a beautiful black crust and a pronounced smoke ring. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender, even the leaner slices. There was just the right amount of salt, though not enough to mask the other seasonings. There was also plenty of smoke to go around. I found it hard to stop eating the brisket once I got started.
The boudain (or, more commonly, boudin) came in the form of a giant link. Its filling was perfectly creamy and rich with flavor, with a good amount of heat in each bite. The rice wasn't the least bit al dente. It also didn't have that sticky texture that far too often plagues boudin sausage. I haven't had boudin in a long time, and this was really tasty, even if it's not made in-house.
Last but not least, the ribs. Despite this joint's name, spare ribs are the only kind you'll find here. These had some good bark and a nice smoky red hue. They were cooked perfectly, with each bite coming away clean. No "falling-off-the-bone" nonsense, even though their website makes such a claim. There was good smoke flavor in each bite. These weren't quite the Memphis-style ribs I was anticipating, which is a good thing. Actually, the ribs were more like a Memphis-Texas hybrid, with really delicious results.
I'm glad I finally got the opportunity to try out Baby Back Shak. They may have been snubbed by Texas Monthly, but rest assured, they've got some damn fine barbecue. I made sure to grab a t-shirt on my way out to commemorate the meal:
Baby Back Shak
1800 S. Akard St
Dallas, TX 75215
Thursday, March 6, 2014
I was in dire need of a snack before I began my 3 1/2 hour drive back to Dallas. Pitt Stop is one of the few remaining barbecue joints in Lufkin I hadn't yet sampled, so I thought I'd give it a try.
The dining room (if you can even call it that) looked like the makings of a garage sale, or possibly an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive. Clearly ambiance was not a priority, so I hoped they were instead focusing on the meat. The aging Ma and Pa who run this joint were a tad grizzled, but were both very nice. Good service goes a long way in my book.
Their Thursday "Blazin' Butts" lunch special was understandably gone by 4:00pm, so I settled for a 2 Meat Plate of brisket and ribs, with potato salad and beans on the side. With no other customers inside, a to-go order seemed most appropriate.
When I unboxed my order, the first thing I noticed was the giant glob of very yellow potato salad. This was an unusual mashed potato take on traditional salad, but I prefer actual diced potatoes. There was a moderate crunch, though not enough to improve the texture. It was ok, but I couldn't get my palate past all the mustard. The beans had some definite kick to them, which was nicely tempered by equal amounts of sweetness. They also had a really great flavor and were clearly homemade.
Sadly, my brisket looked pretty lifeless. There was no crust and no smoky hue. The razor-thin slices fell apart at the slightest touch, suggesting that it was severely overcooked. The brisket was really greasy and had no smoke flavor. All in all, this "meat" was probably better suited for a chopped beef sandwich, but even that might be a stretch.
The completely mangled ribs didn't look any better than the brisket. Half of the meat was already separated from the bones. The crust was rock hard and lacked any seasoning besides salt. I only found minimal smoke at best. I managed to choke down one rib, but couldn't bring myself to eat the other three.
$15.00 was way too expensive for a two-meat plate and a drink, especially considering it was mostly inedible. I realize that late afternoon isn't the ideal time for fresh barbecue, but Pitt Stop's food had problems that went way beyond timing. The owners were so nice that I really wanted to like this place, it just wasn't in the cards.
Pitt Stop Bar-B-Que
2108 E. Denman Ave
Lufkin, TX 75901
I've driven past Stacy's on my way to Lufkin, TX several times, but never during operating hours. Today I made it to Jacksonville just after 11:00am, so I decided to pop in and grab some quick lunch.
Stacy's has been serving up 'que in Jacksonville for over 35 years. They made Texas Monthly's last list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints back in 2008, but somehow missed the cut for the current 2013 list. Maybe their barbecue quality has slacked off over the years, or perhaps the 2013 contenders were just that much better than in years prior. Either way, I was determined to get to the bottom of things.
Apparently Stacy's encourages patrons to scribble all over their walls. Most of this took the form of "Steve was here," with an occasional "Amy + John = Forever." The rest of the decor is straight out of a farmer's rusty barn, which I guess is appropriate for barbecue.
I wanted to sample as many meats as possible, so I ended up ordering a 3 Meat Combo Plate of brisket, ribs, and sausage (regular, not jalapeno). For my sides, I picked potato salad (mayo over mustard) and pinto beans.
The potato salad had a great flavor to it, with a slight sweetness from the mayo. The pickles also stood out in terms of both flavor and crunchy texture. I found a hint of dill, which I don't normally enjoy, but it worked here. The beans were cooked well and had a good seasoning to them. I wasn't wowed by anything in particular, but they were a good side dish nonetheless.
I started my meat trio with the sausage. The casings had a great crispy char. The flavor combination was pretty simple: salt, pepper, garlic. I also found a decent amount of smoke. Some of the best sausage comes from what's not there, rather than overloading it with unnecessary ingredients. I don't know if Stacy's sausage is made in-house, but it was tasty either way.
Although I normally save my ribs for last, I decided to take them next. These were nice meaty spare ribs. They had a decent looking crust with a hefty red hue. Despite the visuals, the ribs were a little lacking in the smoke department. Actually, I found them to be lacking across the board in terms of flavor. Some black pepper would have helped tremendously, as would more salt.
The brisket was buried beneath my ribs, so I had to dig it out before I could try this third and final meat. It had a good smoke ring, but no real bark. It was also a pretty lean cut of meat, likely from the flat of the brisket. Like the ribs, the brisket was pretty bland. There wasn't any seasoning that I could pinpoint, and only minimal smoke. It was decently tender at least. Sadly, this is one instance where I wish I had opted for some barbecue sauce.
I polished off the sausage and called it good on the rest. Overall, my taste buds left Stacy's thoroughly unimpressed. No wonder Texas Monthly left them off the 2013 Top 50 list.
1217 S. Jackson St
Jacksonville, TX 75766
Saturday, February 22, 2014
After months of suffering through icy cold temperatures (well, cold for Texas at least), we were finally treated to a warm, gorgeous Saturday. My wife and I took this opportunity to check out the food trucks in Dallas' infamous Truck Yard. We had several interesting trucks to pick from, but I had my eyes on the smoked meat pizza for sale at Tutta's.
The Truck Yard is set up as a staging area for a rotating variety of local food trucks. It seems to be popular with bikers and coeds alike. If you enjoy the ambiance of dirt, old tires, and wheelbarrows, this is the place for you. Today there was live indie music of some kind, though the band was a bit hard to hear over the roar of afternoon drunkenness. My wife also enjoyed the plethora of puppies bounding about.
Tutta's has more on the menu than just run-of-the-mill pepperoni pizza. Most places that serve a bbq chicken pizza think simply adding sauce to some grilled chicken is sufficient, but not Tutta's. They present an interesting and innovative combination of barbecue and pizza that goes well beyond the norm.
This truck has several options for barbecue pizza available: pulled pork (The Smokey Pig), chopped chicken (The Hot Chick), and pulled brisket (The Texan). They all sounded great, but I'm more of an equal-opportunity carnivore. That's where The Durty Dough pizza comes into play. This awesome pie comes topped with smoked and pulled pork, chicken, and brisket, bacon, chopped Serrano peppers, a five-cheese blend, and Tutta's signature bbq sauce.
I unboxed my order, and was amazed at what I found: big chunks of actual smoked meat. The combination of flavors was great, as were the individual ingredients. The chicken had some good smoke, and was much more tender than I expected. I also found a really seasoning blend. The brisket had less smoke than the chicken, but was still very tasty. These were leaner cuts of brisket than I normally prefer, but the meatier pieces worked better on a pizza than fatty brisket would have. I couldn't pinpoint any smoke in the pulled pork, but it was very tender and had a decent flavor nonetheless.
Meat was certainly the highlight of this pizza, but the other ingredients played a significant role as well. The chopped Serrano peppers added just the right amount of heat without killing my taste buds, though a few bites did light me up a little bit. In addition to its obvious greatness, the bacon added a nice crunchy texture and some much-needed salt. The barbecue sauce was tasty and slightly sweet, but what I most enjoyed was the lack thereof. Most bbq pizzas end up drowning in sauce, but Tutta's correctly used it as more of an accent than a focal point. I also thoroughly enjoyed the perfectly-cooked crust: not too chewy, not too crisp.
Tutta's Pizza offered up a surprisingly flavorful twist on traditional barbecue. The inebriated crowds at the Truck Yard were a little difficult to navigate, but it was definitely worth it.
Tutta's Pizza (various locations)
5624 Sears St.
Dallas, TX 75206
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Today my job took me about an hour south of Dallas to Corsicana, Texas. Things pushed well into the afternoon, so I was pretty famished by the time all was said and done. I didn't want to make the long trek home on an empty stomach, and luckily Bubba's Bar-B-Q and Steakhouse was right along the way.
Bubba's made the Texas Monthly Top 50 back in 2008, but apparently missed the mark when they issued the current 2013 list. Standards at barbecue joints can go downhill for a variety of reasons, including finances and a change in pitmasters. I was curious to find out exactly how far Bubba's had fallen.
This place is decorated with a weird mix of western nicknacks and large model airplanes. It's right next door to a Tractor Supply store, so maybe those were the only decorating options available. Who knows. Regardless, I came here for the meat, not the ambiance.
I ended up ordering a Two Meat Plate of brisket and ribs. For my two self-serve side dishes, I picked potato salad and green beans. Interestingly, the food is all counter-service, but I was assigned a waitress for the sole purpose of bringing my drink and silverware. The waitress also takes your check back up at the end (they swiped my credit card at the counter), so I guess I was expected to tip her for all of her hard work?
As always, I started things off with my side dishes. The green beans seemed like nothing more than Del Monte canned beans. They had very little flavor aside from a hint of pepper. Conversely, the potato salad was pretty good. It was very sweet, with just a dash of mustard mixed in. There was also a decent crunch from the veggies.
My meats were about as disappointing as the green beans had been. The brisket looked pretty terrible from the outset - gray and lifeless. There wasn't much of a crust and only a few small patches of smoky redness. I enjoy fatty brisket, but the tips of my slices were solid, unrendered fat. The fat line also ran the full length of each edge. On the plus side, the meat was decently tender, though not like you'd expect given the high fat content. I also found a moderate amount of smoke, but it wasn't enough to fix things. After half of slice number one, I had eaten enough.
The ribs had more bark than the brisket, and much more visible evidence of smoke. They were also big and meaty, which is always appreciated. The meat itself was smoky enough, but also fairly dry. Aside from the slight smokiness, there really wasn't much flavor that I could pinpoint. Even some extra salt and pepper (or, God forbid, a glaze) would have helped tremendously. Maybe I should have let the waitress bring me some barbecue sauce after all.
Texas Monthly definitely made the right call leaving this place off of their 2013 Top 50. I took my leftovers to-go just to be polite, but they went straight into the trash. Needless to say, I found no reason for a return trip to Bubba's.
Bubba's Bar-B-Q and Steakhouse
210 S. Interstate Hwy 45
Ennis, TX 75119
Monday, February 3, 2014
I had already eaten barbecue for lunch and I had a pending dinner date with my wife, but sometimes it's hard to resist the call of the 'que. I decided to take a quick pit stop in Athens, Texas and find myself a light snack.
Cripple Creek made the Texas Monthly Top 50 back in 2008 (they publish every 5-6 years), but was snubbed by the current 2013 list. Even if it was no longer top shelf, I was sure to find some fairly tasty meat here no matter what. They're clearly going for an old west, wagon wheel atmosphere at Cripple Creek, but it comes off as more of a sad western antique store. Customers were few and far between mid-afternoon on a Monday, so a to-go order seemed appropriate.
This place has all of the usual barbecue offerings, but the big surprise you'll find here is something called "Hog Wings." I think we're all familiar enough with porcine anatomy to assume that the "wings" label is an intentional misnomer. Actually, the Hog Wings are small smoked pork shanks that have been whittled down to resemble chicken legs. If that wasn't outside-the-box enough already, they also come with a sweet and spicy chili sauce for an added Asian twist.
When I unwrapped my order, I found meat that looked pretty grey and lifeless. That being said, these pork shanks were extremely tender and juicy despite outward appearances. I also found more smoke than I had anticipated. Even though it was somewhat lacking in the seasoning department, the meat was really pleasant to eat on its own. The straight-from-the-bottle chili sauce didn't add much in terms of heat, but did add an interesting sweetness to the pork. For my money, I would have preferred a traditional bbq sauce over the halfhearted attempt at Asian fusion.
Cripple Creek may have fallen a tad short of expectations, but it was still a tasty roadside snack nonetheless. I'd definitely give them another try to see if the more traditional barbecue offerings can pass muster.
Cripple Creek Bar-B-Q
500 S. Palestine St.
Athens, TX 75751
Each time I venture to Lufkin, Texas for work, I swear it'll be my last, but I inevitably end up there again and again. This time I decided to take a new route through Tyler. If I have to make this mind-numbing drive, I might as well put some top tier barbecue on my itinerary.
Stanley's missed the original Texas Monthly list of the "Top 50 BBQ Joints" in 1997, but they acquired a new pit master in 2000 and have been part of each list since then. They also won "Best Pork Ribs" at the 2010 and 2011 Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. With that much street cred, I was sure to find awesome barbecue here.
I didn't have just a ton of time to kill, so I planned my arrival for 10:45am and waited for them to open up shop. There were only a few of us waiting for food at the opening bell, but by 11:30 the place was fairly packed. Getting here early was definitely a good idea.
Stanley's has an array of interesting divorce-themed BBQ sandwiches that sounded very tasty, including The Ex-Wife and The Brother-in-Law. Intriguing as these sandwiches were, I couldn't resist their Four Meat Sampler Plate (all meat, no sides). For my meat-tastic sampler, I picked brisket, sausage, pulled pork, and baby back ribs. I wish more barbecue joints would adopt the all-meat platter. Who needs side dishes anyway?
Customers are encouraged to order their preferred cut of brisket. Naturally I asked for fatty brisket with some extra bark. Score! The slices I received looked absolutely phenomenal. The smoke ring, if you can even call it that, went almost end to end. There was also a layer of beautiful black bark on every edge. I dug in and found plenty of smoke in each bite, as well as a good hit of spices. The meat itself was incredibly tender and juicy. There was no reason for sauce here. Actually, there was no reason for silverware either - just grab a handful and inhale.
Next came the sausage, which is admittedly a little harder to make stand out. There was a good snap to the casings and a mild hint of smoke. I liked the seasoning blend, which had a small bite of pepper without being overly spicy. The sausage wasn't bad by any means, but it didn't wow me either.
Although it's not traditionally part of Texas barbecue, I do enjoy pulled pork from time to time, though mostly on sandwiches. I didn't find any visible smoke hue. This was the only one of my four meats that came pre-sauced, which I think was ultimately its undoing. The pork was a little dry for my liking, and the sauce precluded any hope of pinpointing some smoke. The sweet, vinegary sauce was tasty enough, but I prefer mine on the side.
Stanley's lists their baby back ribs as "double-rubbed," so I expected them to be packed with flavor. I know these were supposed to be baby backs, but they were still pretty tiny, like small buffalo wings. There was a good crust and visible smoke. My first bite resulted in a mouthful of bone fragments, but things got better after that. The sugary sweet glaze was really tasty, though I'm not sure where the double rub was at. The meat itself was tender, but not overcooked. I didn't find as much smoke as I'd hoped for, which could be a result of the hefty glaze.
The brisket was the clear winner today. The other meats had their moments too, but could have been better. Small flaws aside, I'm really glad that I stopped to try Stanley's barbecue.
Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q
525 S. Beckham Ave.
Tyler, TX 75702
Monday, January 13, 2014
I'm rarely driving through Giddings at the right time to stop by City Meat Market, but today I was in luck. Even though I had just eaten lunch, there was no way I could pass up the chance for some more top shelf barbecue.
City Meat Market has made Texas Monthly's list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints twice in a row now (2008 and 2013). If you're used to the fast-paced urban lifestyle, don't go into City Meat Market expecting Whole Foods. In terms of the actual restaurant, this little spot is mostly just a meat market with some barbecue on the side. Although, I must admit that the smell of delicious pit smoke does make me feel a little lovey-dovey, so perhaps there is some romantic ambiance after all.
The barbecue part of this venture is situated way in the back near the pits. It was just a little before closing time when I arrived, so all they had left was some pork butt and fatty brisket. Perfect! I got a quarter-pound sample of each, as well as a small side of potato salad. There were 2.5 hours left between me and Dallas, so I took my food to-go. I saddled up and unwrapped the butcher paper to admire my $6.00 worth of meaty goodness.
The potato salad had a great crunch from the plentiful veggies. It wasn't overly mustardy, which I appreciated. There was also a slight sweetness to the potato salad that made it very pleasant to eat.
My brisket had a very pronounced smoke ring and a great black crust. There was a good punch of both seasoning and smoke in each bite. It was so tender that the brisket quite literally melted in my mouth. There was a high fat content, but it was all rendered perfectly. I found absolutely no reason to ruin the meat with sauce. By the time I finished my sampling, I regretted not ordering several pounds.
The pork butt also had a nice crust to it. I found even more seasoning here, and all the black pepper gave it a great bite. There was also a good smokey flavor throughout. I initially thought that the pork looked kind of dry, but it was definitely tender and juicy. I guess looks can be deceiving.
I can only imagine how phenomenal their barbecue is at peak hours. If you find yourself in Giddings for some reason, City Meat Market is absolutely worth the stop.
City Meat Market
101 West Austin St
Giddings, TX 78942
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Shiner isn't exactly a town known for fine cuisine, but it would have to do tonight. At 8:30pm on a Sunday, Werner's was the only restaurant we found open on our drive home aside from the usual cast of fast food joints. It was either this or Whataburger.
The ambiance at Werner's is about what you'd expect from a town this small. It's decorated with a motley assortment of animal mounts, including elk, pronghorn antelope, and buffalo. There really didn't seem to be any overall theme to the place. Most of their booths are ripped to shreds, so we opted for a table instead.
And no restaurant would be complete without a wishing well. This one is filled with pennies as well as bottle caps. I think a Shiner Bock cap is worth more luck than Abe Lincoln, but it was still weird. The fountain also took up half the space in the dining room, so it's bad on multiple levels. The animal mounts coupled with the water effects made this place seem more like a poor man's Cabela's rather than an eatery.
Oddly enough, there was no Shiner beer on tap (just bottled), so we started with some fried pickles for the table instead.
I was expecting frozen pickles, but these actually looked homemade. There was a decent dusting of seasoning which gave them a very pleasant taste. The cornmeal batter was also good and crunchy. These were a really nice way to warm up my palate.
As for my entree, I picked their Sliced BBQ Beef Sandwich on French Bread, and added some Homemade Onion Rings to round things out.
The onion rings could have used a touch more seasoning, but were otherwise tasty enough. The batter was both flaky and crisp, and they were certainly better than I anticipated.
The sandwich, however, was an utter disappointment in every way. Apparently what passes for "French bread" here is a toasted hotdog bun. And no, that's not an exaggeration - it was literally a hotdog bun, which I cast aside with disdain. The meat itself was completely coated with sauce, so there was no hope for finding a smoke ring. I did manage to find a few bits of crust peaking through the sauce. The bottled barbecue sauce was overly sweet and tasted really artificial. It was also the main downfall here, since that's all you could taste. The brisket was tender, but that's the only positive thing I can say.
I realize this probably wasn't the best place to look for barbecue, but their other food wasn't that outstanding either. My mom's ribeye (if you can call it that) was cut thinner than her accompanying chunks of zucchini, and my grandma's hamburger steak was surprisingly tough for ground beef. Actually, the best part of this meal was the fried pickle appetizer, but even they weren't good enough to bump Werner's beyond one star territory. Looks like we should have gone with Whataburger...
317 North Ave E
Shiner, TX 77984