I'm making it my personal mission to single-handedly eat my way across the nation, one delicious animal at a time. Fire up the pit, here I come!!!!!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

St. Patrick's Irish Picnic 2015 (McEwen, TN)

I've been jonesing for a good church picnic ever since my wife and I moved from Texas to Tennessee last year. We've attended some fun festivals and events here and there, but it's just not the same. Luckily for us, St. Patrick's Church in McEwen, Tennessee holds an annual picnic which was once heralded by The Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest outdoor barbecue. How could I possibly resist?

In order to raise funds for a new church bell, St. Patrick's held their first picnic in 1854, with pigs and sheep donated by local farmers. The event was such a success that church members turned it into an annual fundraiser for the church's school. Over a century and a half later, the picnic is still churning out barbecue that numerous publications have labeled as some of the best in the state. Clearly the folks at St. Patrick's know what they're doing. One thing that keeps the crowds coming back year after year is the legendary and secretive St. Patrick's barbecue sauce, the recipe for which is known only to one church member whose family brought it over from Ireland. I couldn't wait to try it.

Each year, St. Patrick's serves up some twenty thousand pounds of hickory-smoked pulled pork to hordes of hungry picnic-goers. While McEwen's normal population is in the neighborhood of seventeen hundred, it's not at all unusual to see that number rise to twenty-five thousand during picnic weekend. To satisfy the massive crowds, church members and other volunteers man the smokers for twenty-four hours straight and start selling pork by 7:00am. Wow! They also had chicken halves for Friday's lunch, but sadly I missed out on that.

The Czech/German church picnics that I frequented during my Texan youth were primarily focused on things like fried chicken, polka, bingo, and beer. I was excited to see what wonders an Irish barbecue picnic would hold. In addition to the run-of-the-mill ring toss, fish pond, and cake walk-type games, there was some really great live music. We listened to the Maple Valley Boys for a while, then the Harpeth Band. They were both really talented, with a mixture of country and bluegrass styles. It wasn't polka, but it made for a fun afternoon nonetheless.

While I had initially considered getting a pulled pork sandwich or some barbecue nachos, I couldn't resist their $8.00 dinner plate of pulled pork, green beans, potato salad, coleslaw, dessert, and sweet tea. That was quite a deal, plus they had a fried chicken option for my wife, who isn't nearly the barbecue fanatic that I am.

I was completely taken aback by the gigantic plate of food that I received for a measly eight bucks! The potato salad was really delicious, with a great crunch from all of the pickles and onions. Its base was a mustard/mayo combination, which provided a nice mustardy flavor without being completely overpowered. Unusual color aside, the coleslaw was rather excellent. According to some after-the-fact information given to me by one of my readers, the yellow color in their slaw comes from turmeric. This is also most likely the source of the spiciness that caught my attention every now and then. Mayonnaise-based coleslaws are not my favorite side dish, so this was a welcome change of pace. Although the green beans obviously came from a can, the addition of spices and pork transformed them into something homemade.

Despite being cooked in absolutely massive quantities, the pulled pork was phenomenal. It was much smokier than the majority of pulled pork that I've encountered. The meat was also very tender and juicy. The seasoning was simple, but just right. The pieces of bark, of which I found plenty, were even tastier. This was definitely some of the best pulled pork that I've had. I'm not generally a big fan of barbecue sauce, but I really liked this one. The tomato and vinegar sauce had a good kick and a nice acidity. St. Patrick's also sells this stuff by the bottle, and it's clear why.

For my dessert, I ended up picking what I thought was carrot cake, but which turned out to be a sort of gingerbread-esque spice cake. It was moist and delicious, with a great punch of cinnamon and nutmeg. The homemade buttercream frosting was sweet and perfectly whipped. I wish I knew which of their parishioners had made this amazing cake so that I could thank them in person.

My wife wanted to grab a snack before we left, and I was in complete agreement. Although her cinnamon and brown sugar funnel cake looked fabulous, I wasn't really in the mood for anything sweet. I certainly didn't need it, but I threw caution to the wind and picked up a pulled pork sandwich for my snack/early dinner.

This sandwich was absolutely packed with pulled pork in quantities that rivaled my prior lunch plate, and it was just as tasty. No sauce was needed here either, but the pickles did add some nice sour notes. I ended up with even more bark than in round one, and I loved every bite.

The only bad part to our day was having to make the hour-and-a-half drive home on an incredibly full stomach. We will definitely be attending the 2016 picnic, and next time I'll come prepared to bring back several pounds of St. Patrick's delicious pulled pork!


161st St. Patrick's Irish Picnic
St. Patrick's Church
175 Saint Patrick St
McEwen, TN 37101
(931) 582-3633

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint (Nolensville, TN)

This weekend I realized that, although my wife and I had been back in Nashville for a year now, somehow I hadn't yet eaten at Martin's. My head hung low, but I turned my shame into determination and drove down to Nolensville to bask in their barbecue-filled glory.

The smell of delicious pit smoke caught my attention before I'd even set foot outside my truck. This was a good sign. Martin's parking lot was already filling up, forcing me to head toward the back of the building. Fortunately, it was here that I found their enormous "Whole Hog Rig" mobile smokehouse, which I sincerely hoped was ready for action.

In true "barbecue joint" fashion, Martin's has a really lively and fun atmosphere. I don't think they could have possibly stuck more crap on the walls, although it didn't really feel that junky. The large lunch crowd already amassed at 11:15am told me that this was clearly a favorite amongst Nolensville locals. I was tempted to make use of their great outdoor patio space, but it was far too hot and muggy for that today.

Pat Martin's barbecue philosophy is right on the menu: "No freezer, no microwaves. We cook everything fresh every day." Good, because I expect nothing less. My eyes immediately zeroed in on the Big Momma Sampler, which the menu says feeds two people. That sounded like more of a challenge than a suggestion, and I was up for it. The Big Momma comes with four ribs, a quarter-pound of pulled pork, and a quarter-pound of brisket, as well as two sides. Hushpuppies were a no brainer, and for some bizarre reason I picked broccoli salad as my second side dish...on purpose. I opted for spare ribs over baby backs (dry rub, of course) and got my other meats sans the sauce.

The broccoli salad was pleasantly sweet, with a good tartness from the cranberries. Pine nuts were a welcome addition in terms of texture. I was also glad to see that the broccoli wasn't overrun with mayonnaise. It was tasty and light, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The hushpuppies definitely looked homemade. They were crisp on the outside with an amazingly fluffy center. Each bite had the right amount of seasoning, too. The side dishes were great, but it was time for the main event.

As a native Texan, I instinctively went for the brisket first. It had a nice dark crust and a beautiful smoke ring to match. There was also plenty of smoky flavor to go around, though the bark was especially good. A simple rub was all that was needed to enhance the natural beefiness. My slices were lean, but by no means dry. To put it mildly, the brisket was delicious.

There were smoke-kissed bits scattered throughout the huge pile of pulled pork. I was also glad to see large pieces of pork rather than chopped sandwich-style meat. There was a fair amount of black pepper mixed in, with a decent smoke level to boot. The pork was very tender, but the fattier portions were definitely my favorite. I considered adding some sauce for fun, though it didn't really need it.

I generally leave my ribs for last during barbecue outings, which was difficult since these looked incredible. Few things upset me more than to find overcooked ribs mistakenly described as "fall-off-the-bone tender." Martin's ribs, however, were cooked perfectly. The third-rack cut apart with ease, but still had just the right amount of bone retention. The juicy rib meat was beautifully pink and was definitely the smokiest of the three. While the ribs were great on their own, the awesome dry rub took things to a whole other level. It added some nice heat, too. I had inhaled three of my four ribs before I could bring myself to stop and jot down a few notes. They were absolutely phenomenal.

Despite being more food than any one person should consume, I'm proud to say that I ate every bit of my Big Momma Sampler. Martin's met, nay exceeded, every expectation that I had. Although I'm sure that their Mt. Juliet and Belmont locations are great, too, I'm glad that I got to try out the original joint.


Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
7238 Nolensville Rd
Nolensville, TN 37135
(615) 776-1856

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Red, White & Boom 2015 (Nashville, TN)

This year, Music City was pulling out all the stops in celebration of America's birthday. They had planned a fireworks display like none other, one which would supposedly be the largest in the country. As much as I wanted to see this explosive extravaganza in all of its glory, there was no way I was going to fight the downtown crowds or deal with the nightmare that would be finding a parking spot. When I heard that the Adventure Science Center would be hosting a "Red, White & Boom" fireworks viewing party from their parking lot, which overlooks downtown from up on the hillside, I immediately jumped online and bought a pair of tickets for my wife and I.

Fireworks were clearly the main draw, but our "Red, White & Boom" tickets also included entry into the Adventure Science Center from 6:00pm to 10:00pm. We had a great time running around and playing with all of the children's science stuff. They had a few live science demonstrations which were really fun, like balloon bursts and liquid nitrogen bombs. The astronomy area was definitely our favorite part of the Center. It was especially cool learning more about the New Horizons space probe, which I've been waiting to arrive at Pluto since 2006.

After about an hour or so of science-filled fun, we were ready to grab some dinner. I was ecstatic to see a duo of food trucks parked right out front, as well as an ice cream tent. Fantastic!

Electric Sliders
(770) 241-2489

Sliders can be a little boring, but the folks at Electric Sliders have put some serious innovation into their menu. With ingredients like apple-almond-fig jam, sriracha mayo, and lemon-herb cheddar cream cheese, these mini-burgers are anything but boring. The employees themselves were also very lively and embodied a cheerfulness that mirrored their food. Everything on the menu sounded great, but I ended up ordering a Two-Slider Combo with the Piggy Stardust and the Disco Demi.

Their Piggy Stardust slider is stacked high with pulled pork, pimento cheese, fried pickled onions, and a bourbon-balsamic barbecue sauce on a brioche bun. Although the pulled pork wasn't as smoky as it could have been, it was certainly smokier than I expected it to be. It was also seasoned well, but I would have liked some bark in the mix. The fried onions added a great crunchy texture, while the pimento cheese gave it a nice creaminess. The barbecue sauce was more like a bourbon-balsamic vinaigrette, and I liked that much better. My Piggy Stardust was really tasty, especially for food truck barbecue.

Despite its all-beef patty, the Disco Demi is a far cry from the standard cheeseburger. It's got sharp cheddar, pickled onions, arugula, white truffle vinaigrette, and a rosemary demi-glace on brioche. Yum! The beef patty was delicious with an awesome sear on it, and the melty sharp cheddar was a perfect pairing. The pickled onions and arugula gave this burger a good crunch and a great flavor. The white truffle also made things super tasty, but I didn't catch any rosemary. Regardless, I liked it a lot.

I made a huge mess of myself with these sliders, and it was totally worth it.

Music City Pie Co.
(615) 918-0001

Even though we had already filled up on sliders, there's always room for pie. Music City Pie Co. had some interesting savory pies to choose from, and their pizza slices were selling like hotcakes. Under different circumstances I probably would have sampled some of these menu items, but today I had my sights set on the Banana Pudding Pie.

Like any good Southerner, I'm a sucker for 'nana pudding. Theirs had big chunks of banana mixed into a sweet, gooey pudding. The warm buttery crust was also spectacular, and the sugary whipped cream tied everything together nicely. This was basically just banana pudding served in a pie crust bowl. To be honest, I was hoping for more of a fried pie, but it was still really delicious.

Let Freedom Sing!

Science? Check. Food? Double check. Now let's blow some stuff up! Nashville's "Let Freedom Sing!" fireworks display was happening rain or shine. The forecast called for plenty of rain all night long, so we made sure to pack a few ponchos and umbrellas. At 9:45pm on the dot, the Nashville Symphony's musical accompaniment cued up and the mortar shells started flying.

Considering all of the trees and the annoyingly-large Country Club Vodka billboard, our view wasn't quite as unobstructed as was promised. The rain clouds and the obnoxious people standing right in front of us didn't help either. I really enjoyed the fireworks, and the Nashville Symphony did a great job as always. That being said, I feel like it was rather egregious not to end things with the "Star Spangled Banner," or at the very least include it somewhere in the musical score. I'm not sure that the Adventure Science Center's "Red, White & Boom" was worth the $35.00 tickets after all, but we still had a fun night. Happy Birthday, America!



Adventure Science Center
800 Fort Negley Blvd
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 862-5160

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Buck's Smokehouse (Destin, FL)

Mrs. Barbecue Fiend and I drove down to Destin for a week of nothing but relaxation, pina coladas, and fresh shrimp. She is definitely the beach bum of the family, while I tend to get a little hot and bored out on the sand. Thankfully, she was kind enough to allow me a lunchtime barbecue indulgence. I knew I had to make my choice count, so I picked new local favorite Buck's Smokehouse.

When we pulled up and saw large piles of wood stacked in the parking lot, I was certain that I made the right choice. Buck's opened in 2014 with the goal of bringing what they call "old school BBQ" back to Destin. By the look of things, this entails serving un-sauced smokehouse-style meats on butcher paper, much like you'd find in the old Central Texas meat markets. They also have a handwashing trough just outside the door in case you get a bit sloppy with your 'que. This is a brilliant idea, but somehow I doubt that my wife will let me install a trough at home. A man can dream though...

Buck's Smokehouse has a very welcoming feel to it, mostly because of the abundant natural light beaming through their large windows. The choice of mounted fish and nautical decor combined with deer heads and barbecue nicknacks seemed a little motley at first, but it actually did a great job of bridging the gap between sea and smoke. As nice as the interior was, we had our sights set on their big outdoor patio. Though it lacks a view of the Gulf, it does provide a great breeze and a pleasant dining experience. Sitting outdoors also seemed to placate my wife, who was itching to get back to the beach.

We were going to be sharing, so I had the honor of ordering for both of us. They were out of chicken and turkey that afternoon, but fortunately I don't really care for either of them anyway. I loaded up on a two-meat Combo Platter of brisket and sausage for myself, with potato salad and chips (they were also out of fries) on the side. For my wife, I ordered a second two-meat Combo Platter of prime rib and pulled pork, as well as some mac and cheese and BBQ pork and beans.

I could hardly contain myself when I saw the caliber of barbecue I'd just unwrapped, but I somehow managed to suspend my carnivorous yearnings long enough to taste the side dishes. The chips were of the basic Lays potato variety, and as such were not worth commenting on. I simply took them with us to eat later on the beach. The macaroni was full of gooey, melty cheese, but could have used some pepper or jalapeno to jazz things up. As for the BBQ beans, they were pleasantly sweet and had ample seasoning. I also loved the chunks of pork mixed right in. The potato salad was definitely my favorite here. It was slightly spicy, almost like they used a remoulade for the base rather than basic mayonnaise. There was also a great crunch from the vegetables, and the finely-diced potatoes were cooked just right. Our side dishes started off weak, but kept crescendoing up to an awesome finale.

My inner-Texan insisted that their brisket be the first meat sampled. I'm glad I listened, because it was beyond reproach. As beautiful as the rosy smoke ring looked, the smoky brisket tasted even better. The crust was seasoned nicely and also added quite a lot of flavor to the meat. We ended up with leaner cuts of beef, but they weren't the least bit dried out. All in all, the brisket reminded me of Texas, which is probably the highest compliment I could possibly give.

The pulled pork was equally spectacular, which I knew it would be judging by all of the bark, fat, and smoke-kissed bits scattered throughout. Every bite was extremely flavorful, both in terms of the smoke level and the seasoning. The meat was very tender without having that mushy quality that far too often plagues pulled pork. My wife thought the pork was just a tad dry, but I absolutely loved it.

It's hard to get good sausage outside of Texas, with the vast majority of barbecue joints shamefully serving store-bought links. This sausage, however, was near perfect. The crisp casings had a great snap to them, and the coarse-ground meat inside melted when bitten into. I don't know if Buck's makes their own sausage, but it certainly tasted homemade. The spices sprinkled on the outside provided a good kick and more flavor than I expected to find in this neck of the woods.

Last but not least, the prime rib. I don't see this offering on many barbecue menus, but I'm always ecstatic when I do. The meat was cooked close to medium-rare, as it should have been. The razor-thin slices were incredibly tender, and the high fat content made things extra juicy and extra delicious. There was a great array of spices, but most of the flavor came from the massive amount of smoke packed into each bite. In fact, the prime rib was probably the smokiest of the meats, presumably because the fat had soaked up a ton of it during the smoking process. I found it really hard to stop eating once I had built up some inertia.

I'm not normally a big fan of sauce, but Buck's had three different homemade barbecue sauces that looked too fantastic to pass up: Carolina mustard, classic red, and Alabama white. Besides, all of the meats were already phenomenal on their own, so why not put a cherry on top? The mustard sauce was my wife's favorite of the three. It was tasty, with a great bite to it. Since it was less liquidy than expected for Carolina-style, it was the perfect dipping sauce for the sausage. The classic red barbecue sauce was slightly sweet and really, really good. I could have eaten it by the spoonful. Unsurprisingly, it paired best with the brisket. Their Alabama white sauce was also very flavorful. It had a lot of pepper and other spices, which made it quite savory and gave it some nice heat. Although white sauce is generally reserved for barbecue chicken, I actually like it most with pulled pork.

We came to Florida for sun, sand, and seafood, but I'm really glad that we added a little barbecue to our itinerary. Buck's Smokehouse has certainly achieved their goal of bringing "old school BBQ" back to the Gulf coast.


Buck's Smokehouse
303 Harbor Blvd.
Destin, FL 32541
(850) 837-3600

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Big Bad BBQ Battle: BBQ Brisket Battle (Fort Worth, TX)

When I started writing this blog in November 2012, it was little more than a personal hobby and a way for me to alleviate the pressures of a very demanding and stressful career. I never imagined that it would turn into anything serious, although in the back of my mind I always secretly hoped. After about two and a half years of blogging, I've reviewed many diverse forms of barbecue at nearly 175 different restaurants, food trucks, festivals, etc. across ten states and three continents. Just a drop in the bucket as far as I'm concerned, but a worthy accomplishment nonetheless.

In February 2015, I received an email from a New York-based production company, Back Roads Entertainment. They were starting up a new "Big Bad BBQ Battle" series for The Cooking Channel, and for some incredible reason they were interested in having me as one of the judges for their premiere episode in Fort Worth. Wait...what? Admittedly, my initial reaction was to ask myself, "Is this some sort of Internet scam?" Nope, completely real!

They were scheduled to film roughly a week and a half from when we first spoke, which wasn't a lot of advance notice. Even though my wife and I had moved from Dallas to Nashville about eight months prior, there was no way I would pass up the opportunity to judge a televised barbecue competition. Of course this meant I had a 1500-mile round trip ahead of me, but it also meant that I could stop for some Memphis barbecue along the way, have a quick visit with my in-laws in Little Rock, and catch up with some Dallas friends I'd left behind. Plus I could pick up a few sacks of B&B oak lump charcoal, so win-win.

The premise of Big Bad BBQ Battle is pretty straightforward: they were bringing down Shannon Ambrosio, a classically-trained chef from Brooklyn to compete against Cliff Payne, the 32-year veteran pitmaster of Cousin's BBQ in Fort Worth, in a head-to-head brisket showdown. Cousin's has been on Texas Monthly's last two lists of the "Top 50 BBQ Joints" in Texas (and by extension, the world), so this guy had his work cut out for him. Shannon operates the Come 'N Get It gourmet barbecue food truck up in NYC, so he does have some barbecue experience of his own, but would it be enough to take on a true master like Cliff?

Shannon's showdown with Cliff wouldn't really be a fair fight without first getting a lesson in Texas barbecue. They set up a training session with local pitmaster Jack Perkins over at Slow Bone in Dallas. Jack has had immense success in The Big D with his burger joint Maple & Motor, and since 2013 he's been absolutely crushing it in the barbecue arena as well. I think Will Fleischman of nearby Lockhart Smokehouse may have given Shannon some better insight into traditional Central Texas 'que, but I also don't know the rationale for the show's choice in mentors, so I won't criticize too much. After hanging out with Jack and getting some pointers, Shannon and his brother/teammate Big Rich were heading west across the Trinity to River Ranch in the Fort Worth Stockyards to meet up with Cliff and his daughter Shannon. No doubt these guys would be up smoking most of the night, but my presence wasn't required until 1:00pm, with the actual judging taking place closer to 3:00pm. Although I intended on arriving early to schmooze with the pitmasters and the other judges before the cameras started rolling, my plans were foiled by the winter weather and the general inability of us Texans to drive in light snow.

I suppose I should just be grateful that I made it at all. One of the other two judges was supposed to be Chef Tim Love of Fort Worth, but he cancelled at the last minute due to a family emergency, and the unpleasant weather may have played a role as well. The third judge was Catherine Downes, Online Assistant Dining Editor for D Magazine, who hadn't arrived yet either. Needless to say, they were happy to see me no matter how late I was. It took considerable effort not to laugh when they gleefully introduced me to the crew as The Barbecue Fiend. I believe the televised version of the show described me as a "top food blogger" as well. This isn't a claim which I have ever made, but I happily accepted their praise nonetheless.

The director wanted this to be a blind tasting, so we weren't allowed to go outside and observe the pitmasters in action. That part was a little disappointing, but I understood the reason for it. I grabbed one pre-show fajita just to stop my stomach from rumbling and then mostly putzed around with the production crew for a few hours until it was time for judging.

This was the first time I've ever seen a TV show being filmed, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Everybody was much more laid back than I anticipated. The production manager and I chatted a bit while the crew ate. They had a tentative May 31 air date, and ordinarily I suppose they'd try to make it seem like the cookoff was being filmed around that same time. Today, however, there was no hiding the solid white blanket of snow covering all of DFW. All you can do is address the weather early-on with a lighthearted joke and hope the home viewers move past it. Oh well, I'm sure the live bull and the ten-gallon-hat cowboy (Steve Murrin, the unofficial "Mayor of the Stockyards") would be enough of a distraction. They ended up nixing Steve's entire on-camera interview, which I think was a huge mistake. He had some really interesting stories to tell, and he delivered them with the kind of old-Texas panache that's hard to find nowadays.

All we were told in advance about the food was that it involved brisket and sides. Good enough for me. I anxiously watched while two unidentified plates of amazing barbecue were set before me, labeled only as "A" and "B". It wasn't all fun and games though. If you've never had two dozen people staring at you while you eat in complete silence, let me just say that it is incredibly awkward.

First up was the entry for Team A: brisket, broccoli salad, and beans.

Although this was supposed to be a blind tasting, the homestyle presentation of the Team A plate was a dead giveaway for Cousin's BBQ. The brisket also had certain Central Texas qualities to it which likely weren't the product of Yankee culinary skills. Here's a little behind-the-scenes secret: The final version of Big Bad BBQ Battle which aired on TV seemed to indicate that I found Cousin's brisket lacking in the flavor department, which I assume was done for entertainment value and to ensure that our comments matched up with the end result of the competition. To the contrary, the deep black bark contained a seasoning that, despite its simplicity, was bursting with flavor. This is my absolute favorite kind of brisket, since it doesn't mask the natural meat and it allows the spices that are present to really shine. I also found the meat to be very smoky, with a bright red smoke ring to match. The fattier portions of my brisket were quite tender, while the leaner portions were just a bit dry, but that's really my only complaint.

I wish the Team A sides had been as spectacular as the brisket. The beans were a little mushy and really didn't have much flavor at all. There was a slight hint of spiciness every now and then, but it faded quickly. [NOTE: I think my comments regarding Team A's bland beans ended up getting spliced onto the end of my televised brisket critique] Unlike the beans, the broccoli salad was excellent. The raisins gave this side a pleasant yet mild sweetness, while the nuts added a great crunchy texture. I believe my exact comment was, "The broccoli, I loved." Never before have I uttered those words, nor will I ever do so again. A few days after filming I discussed the show with my grandma, and I learned that she makes her broccoli salad almost exactly the same way as Team A did. Wow, talk about a missed opportunity for an awesome TV sound bite.

As much as I wanted to keep eating the first plate, it was time for Team B's entry: brisket, mac and cheese balls, and sauteed kale.

Even if I hadn't seen the other plate of food first for comparison, Team B's plate obviously had the sophistication of a trained chef rather than a Texas pitmaster. This brisket also had a nice dark crust, but no visible smoke ring. I couldn't taste any smoke either. What I did taste was a honey-like sweetness, almost like a rib glaze. Later I discovered that the brisket had been seasoned, injected, and glazed with some combination of honey, coffee, Guinness, and Jameson whiskey, although honey was by far the only noticeable flavor. I'm not a proponent of using flavor injections to enhance barbecue, which didn't seem to have accomplished much here anyway. Shannon also explained that his brisket had only been smoked for a few hours before being finished in the oven. That certainly explains the lack of smoke ring, but I've made brisket this way myself and still managed to produce a ton of smoke. The Team B brisket was tasty in general as a meat dish, though I'm not sure about it in terms of actual barbecue. According to Shannon's on-camera comments from the show, Texans strive to create a "juicy, fall-off-the-bone texture" in their brisket. I can't quite wrap my head around this statement, since a brisket has no bones to begin with (at least not the USDA-approved cut available for commercial purchase). Confusion aside, his brisket was definitely tender.

Interestingly, the batter on Team B's mac and cheese balls was crumbled ginger snap cookies, with cinnamon and nutmeg mixed right in. This combination of ingredients added a really delicious array of sweet flavors to the macaroni. It also created a pleasant crunchy texture, which was a nice contrast to the gooey cheese. On their own, the mac and cheese balls were amazing, but when served alongside the sweet brisket, it was just too much sugar for my liking. I'm not much of a vegetable person in general, so I mistakenly pegged the kale side dish as collard greens. They should be lucky I even know what kale is. Either way, I found it fairly bland with a bitter aftertaste. Dark greens tend to be a tad bitter in general, but these unpleasant flavors can usually be alleviated somewhat if the greens are blanched prior to being sauteed. I don't know whether or not Shannon blanched his kale before tossing it in the saute pan, I just know that I didn't like the end result.

Our judging points were to be assigned based simply on 1) Taste, 2) Texture, and 3) Appearance, rather than traditional barbecue criteria. Personally, I don't think that the meat and the side dishes should carry equal weight in terms of the competitors' total scores. It was a barbecue competition after all. Cooking some tasty macaroni and cheese isn't even half as difficult as smoking a good brisket, but that wasn't my call to make. The judging sheet I was given also required me to score the side dishes together, rather than individually. I had initially created two separate columns and gave the sides individual points, but I was told to go back and combine them. Since each plate had one good and one poor side dish, this forced me to estimate an average for the two. Additionally, I believe that there was too much of an emphasis on appearance and plating. I've given solid five-star ratings to barbecue joints that serve meat wrapped in butcher paper and sides in little styrofoam cups. Even Shannon's Texas mentor, Jack Perkins at Slow Bone, plates his food on what are essentially modified cafeteria trays.

Nevertheless, I assigned my points as instructed, and in the end Cliff's awesome brisket and Shannon's tasty macaroni balls resulted in an even tie from me. My fellow judge was apparently more partial to Shannon's food (particularly the mac and cheese) than I was, so her scores gave him the three-point edge he needed to win the battle. If Cousin's beans had been less mushy, more flavorful, and plated better, Cliff would have easily come out on top. It seems pretty ridiculous that Cliff lost a barbecue cookoff because of his beans rather than his brisket, but I digress. The final version of the show which aired seems to have officially trimmed this competition down to "brisket and one side dish," even though each plate of food clearly had two sides on it. It looks like they should have used my individual side dish scores after all. I'm not sure if this would have affected the end result, but we'll never know.

Both of these guys did a tremendous job, no matter the outcome. After the judging, Shannon explained to me that people in New York are so unaccustomed to tasting smoke in barbecue that their palates usually find those flavors very unappealing. I can appreciate that his food is geared toward his specific customer base, but that's really just an explanation rather than an excuse. Even though I'm still not sure that New Yorkers even know what real barbecue is, Shannon had some interesting twists on traditional 'que. I think his win was more about culinary innovation in general than it was about barbecue prowess. Regardless, he should be proud of the meal he created, as should Cliff.

Public speaking doesn't usually intimidate me too much, but having to voice my opinions on the fly was much harder and much more stressful than I expected. Mrs. Barbecue Fiend's only advice was "Be yourself, don't be douchey." Although that's great advice for just about any situation, I was still a bit nervous. I'm used to going home, reviewing notes, writing, and reading over everything before I post. This was completely different, and in the end I feel like I wasn't nearly as eloquent on camera as I wanted to be. As much as I would love to have met Chef Tim Love, I'm actually a little glad that he didn't show. Undoubtedly he would have made me look even more amateurish than I'm sure I did already.

I'd love to judge more episodes for Big Bad BBQ Battle, but I don't know if that's in the cards. Based on my after-the-fact Internet research, it appears that this "series" has been reduced down to a two-episode television special. No matter what, I'm completely ecstatic that I was given this amazing opportunity, and I'm incredibly grateful to The Cooking Channel, Executive Producer Colby Gaines and Casting AP Jessica Gill of Back Roads Entertainment, Co-Executive Producer/Director Todd Broder, production manager John Wilcox, and all of the hardworking members of the production crew. Most importantly, I'd like to thank Shannon Ambrosio and Cliff Payne. Without their hard work and commitment to barbecue despite the freezing temperatures outside, none of this would have been possible. Well done guys, well done.

Watch The Full Episode


Big Bad BBQ Battle
"BBQ Brisket Battle"
May 31, 2015

Shannon Ambrosio
Come n' Get It Gourmet BBQ
Brooklyn, NY (various locations)
(917) 939-0743
(201) 725-6787

Cliff Payne
Cousin's BBQ
6262 McCart Ave
Fort Worth, TX 76133
(817) 346-2511

Back Roads Entertainment
7 Pennsylvania Plaza
Suite 1105
New York, NY 10001
(646) 360-2592

The Cooking Channel
9721 Sherrill Blvd
Knoxville, TN 37932
(865) 694-2700


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Round 2: Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant (Nashville, TN)

When my mom and aunt came to town for a visit, I instantly thought of Puckett's as a great dinner option. Mostly for the live music, but also for the chance to eat more of their awesome barbecue!

This was my second dinner at Puckett's, and it poured down rain both times. If Mother Nature is trying to stop me from eating here, she's going to have to do better than that. Tonight's entertainment was a musician named Matt Marinchick. I'd never heard of him, but he did a great job covering many different forms of country music. His Bass Pro Shop trucker hat may have been a tad unnecessary though. Regardless, it made for a really enjoyable meal.

I had planned on a smaller-size entree than usual, so I made sure to get an order of Bubba's Bones as an appetizer. Bubba's baby back ribs are dry-rubbed, cherry wood-smoked, flash-fried, and tossed in a sweet-hot barbecue sauce. That's a lot of hyphenated deliciousness.

These were undoubtedly some of the best baby backs I've ever eaten, mostly because Puckett's actually knows how to cook them correctly. Each bite of meat stayed put and waited its turn, none of this "falling off the bone" nonsense. The ribs were very tender and equally juicy. I couldn't taste any smoke, but that's likely due to the heat level more than anything. Bubba's sauce was as hot as advertised, yet it was also oddly pleasant. It burned my lips for a few minutes afterward and definitely got my palate revved up.

On my first trip to Puckett's, I got a traditional two-meat barbecue plate. Today, however, I had only one thing on my mind: Piggy Mac! It's basically a personal-sized skillet of pulled pork topped with smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese. The Piggy Mac is supposed to come with an unnecessarily-healthy house salad, but I requested a side of smashed sweet potatoes instead. There was also mention of a jalapeno johnny cake.

The johnny cake was excellent. I could definitely taste the jalapeno, and there was only a moderate spiciness so I could enjoy it, too. The slight sweetness also helped to temper the heat quite nicely. Their sweet potatoes were as butter-heavy as good comfort food should be. I would have liked some marshmallows though, and maybe a little cinnamon or nutmeg to jazz up the flavors.

With the delectable Piggy Mac sitting before me, it was impossible to spend more than a minute or two tasting the side dishes. The macaroni was gooey and delicious, and its crumbly topping was a perfect crunchy addition to the overall texture. Gouda is one of my favorite melting cheeses, and I think it was a great choice to pair with barbecue. The pulled pork was just as tender and tasty as it was during my first visit, which speaks highly for their ability to consistently churn out great barbecue. I managed to uncover a few bits of pork that still had their smoke ring. There were a few hints of smoke here and there, although cheese was certainly the dominant flavor. The melted cheese also made this dish a little greasy, but otherwise it was spectacular.

Their Deep Fried Brownie Sundae is almost irresistible, so the fact that we skipped out on dessert should tell you how full we all were. I hope my family comes to visit again soon, because I'm already aching for another excuse to eat at Puckett's.


Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant
500 Church St
Nashville, TN 37217
(615) 770-2772

Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant