Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Mrs. Barbecue Fiend and I were staying at The Peabody hotel for one night of Memphis-style R&R, and of course Beale Street was on our itinerary. If I had been flying solo I probably would have picked Rendezvous for dinner, but at least with Blues City Cafe there would be some tasty non-barbecue options for my wife to enjoy.
This place has a very laid back diner feel to it that's right on par with the general Beale Street motif: plastic cups and paper towels. There wasn't much ambiance at all, with the exception of a halved pink Cadillac in one of the dining areas. I hoped this meant they were simply focused on the food.
Our waiter was running on Memphis time (like glacial), so don't come here if you're in a rush. At least they have some good live blues playing every night. These guys were rocking pretty hard and made up for the service somewhat, but not completely.
We had a fairly early lunch, so an appetizer was definitely in order tonight. BBQ Pork Fries sounded like a great option. These are their normal cheese fries topped with pulled pork, as if you couldn't have guessed that without the additional description. I actually had my eye on the Gumbo Cheese Fries, but my wife has an intense aversion to mixing seafood and cheese. Pork was an acceptable compromise.
I can honestly say that this was by far one of the largest appetizers I've ever received. We could have shared this as our meal and still had leftovers. The fries were crisp, though certainly of the frozen store-bought variety. Some parts of the pork were a little dry, but the majority was decently tender. The sweet barbecue sauce gave this dish most of its flavors, and the diced jalapenos really kicked things up a notch. There wasn't any noticeable smoke, though that's likely due to the potent sauce and peppers, at least partially. I liked the gooey cheddar, but it didn't really add much.
For my entree, I couldn't resist their "The Best Meal on Beale Combination Platter," which comes with a half-rack of ribs, a catfish filet, baked beans, coleslaw, and your choice of new potatoes or steak fries. The waiter didn't ask for my preference of spuds before he turned and scampered off, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for steak fries. Our appetizer hadn't been on the table more than a few minutes before our entrees arrived: mine first, then my wife's about five minutes later. The server gave me the option of holding off for a little bit, but since my food would inevitably be sitting out whether it was in the kitchen or on our table, I told him to just go ahead and give me the entree.
The slaw wasn't that great. It had a good crunch, but it also had an odd aftertaste that I couldn't exactly pinpoint. The beans were pleasantly sweet and cooked well. I also liked the onion mixed in. My entree came with steak fries after all, but sadly they ended up being the exact same pre-frozen ones that came with our cheese fries. Oh well.
Catfish is usually either really spectacular or really awful. Interestingly, this filet was right in the middle. The crisp cornmeal batter was great, and the fish tasted fresh. It definitely could have used more seasoning though. The accompanying tartar sauce (I'm guessing) was at least 98% mayonnaise and had less flavor than the packets of tartar sauce you get with a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Blues City's ribs are supposedly rubbed with their secret seasoning and then slathered with a maple barbecue sauce. I like a combination of wet and dry ribs when I'm in Memphis, but here they only come wet. There was a good crust, or so it appeared. The only flavor I could really taste was the barbecue sauce, with the smallest hint of smoke. Sadly, the ribs were overcooked to the point that the meat was crumbling (not falling) off the bone. Somehow they were also extremely difficult to cut and some bites were tough to chew. After struggling to get through three ribs, I discarded the rest and pretended to be full.
My wife had their Southern Fried Chicken Chopped Salad, which was mostly junk lettuce with some tomatoes and croutons tossed in. The chicken came in tender form and there wasn't very much of it to go around. Much like my catfish, her chicken was in dire need of salt. She took a cue from me and left most of her food on the plate as well.
At the end of our meal we waited nearly twenty-five minutes to pay the bill. In a fit of delirious exhaustion, Mrs. Barbecue Fiend started singing her own blues songs about the flavorless food and how slow our waiter was, which was hilarious and quite apt. I gave up on the waiter ever coming back and fortunately had enough cash on me to throw down and just walk out. I should have given them one measly star considering the crappy service, but I won't. How this place has a four-star rating on Yelp is beyond me. As my wife succinctly put it, "The music is better than the food." I couldn't agree more. Blues City Cafe will continue to make good profits simply because of its Beale Street location, but it doesn't deserve the business.
Blues City Cafe
138 Beale Street
Memphis, TN 38103
Monday, March 9, 2015
Austin is home to 10% of the most recent Texas Monthly "Top 50 BBQ Joints" list, with several other spots that you're likely to see on their next unveiling. Of the five list-worthy places in Austin, Lambert's was the only one that had a few non-barbecue menu options for my wife. I didn't think she had any interest in a multi-hour wait for Franklin Barbecue or Micklethwait's, so Lambert's was probably the best pick anyway. Plus it would be a great jumping off spot for perusing some of Austin's quirky downtown shops.
Since Lambert's is an extremely popular restaurant in an extremely popular area of town, I made sure to get reservations for lunch. That's right, this is the kind of barbecue joint that takes reservations, and they're highly recommended. The smell of delicious pit smoke permeates every inch of Lambert's. If you aren't hungry when you walk in, the aroma will change that quickly.
Lambert's is a smaller restaurant with a very cool downtown Austin feel to it. The interior seems like a renovated house, even though the exterior suggests otherwise. Upstairs they have a fantastic bar and music stage (it's Austin, after all), but nothing was hopping this early. We had a very friendly waiter who, in addition to being knowledgeable about the meats, had great advice on beer pairings. The draught of the day was a dark stout Quadraceratops out of Brooklyn, NY. It looked like the La Brea tar pits, but tasted quite nice.
I wanted to save room for a meat-tastic entree, but I couldn't resist trying their Deep Fried Boudin Fritters for an appetizer.
Besides the obvious, the boudin fritters come with crispy fried shishito peppers and a grain mustard dijonaise. The fritters themselves were exceptionally tasty and had a lot of flavor packed into a tiny ball. The soft boudin was both prepared and cooked perfectly. As good as they were on their own, the dijonaise added a nice zest to the fritters. I also loved the crispy batter on the shishitos. These peppers have a sweetness reminiscent of a bell pepper, with a heat level somewhere around a pepperoncini. Supposedly only one out of every ten shishito peppers is spicy, but each of mine had some decent kick to it. The peppers also paired well with the dijonaise, and it also tempered a little bit of their spiciness. Every bite of this dish was outstanding.
My appetizer already had me salivating, so I was pretty anxious for the entree round. I picked Lambert's Three BBQ Meats lunch plate: brown sugar and coffee rubbed brisket, maple and coriander crusted pork ribs, and homemade jalapeno hotlinks. Wow. As if that wasn't enough already, I also got the baked mac and cheese and the classic new potato salad for my two sides. I could hardly wait.
Their mayonnaise-based potato salad had hints of pickle here and there, but wasn't as flavorful as I had hoped. It was also served a little too ice cold for my liking. The mac and cheese, on the other hand, was really wonderful. I enjoyed the tasty cheddar crust just as much as I enjoyed the creamy macaroni below. It was somewhat spicy, which was a pleasant surprise. Overall, this was great comfort food on a cold, rainy day.
Side dishes are a nice addition to any barbecue plate, but I came here for the meat. I started my trio with the brisket. Oh my God! This brisket was really incredible. There was a great smoke level, as well as some beautiful black bark with a ton of flavor. The coffee notes didn't jump out right away, but they crept up nicely on the back end and added an acidic sweetness to the meat. I had asked for a fattier cut of brisket, and this was melt-in-your-mouth tender. All of the fat was perfectly rendered, adding to the juiciness of the meat. I can't express enough how delicious the brisket was.
Rather than traditional East Texas hotlinks, what I found at Lambert's was coarse-ground Central Texas sausage with jalapenos laced throughout. Honestly, I found that much more appealing. The jalapenos added a good heat level, but weren't overpowering. The casings were also crisp with a nice char to them. These links were very enjoyable.
The single, huge pork rib looked fairly menacing on my plate. It had a beautiful crust with a heavy dusting of black pepper and some other tasty spices. The coriander added an unusual but pleasant sweetness to the meat, but the dominant flavors were rather savory. I also thought the moderate smokiness was just right, allowing the other spices to shine. The rib was tender and cooked perfectly, no "falling off the bone" nonsense here.
My tablemates seemed interested in dessert, but I couldn't have possibly eaten any more food. Don't let their reputation for "fancy barbecue" scare you off. Potato salad aside, Lambert's Downtown Barbecue was absolutely spectacular, and I can't wait to go back.
Lambert's Downtown Barbecue
401 W 2nd St
Austin, TX 78701
Sunday, March 1, 2015
I had already stopped for some Memphis barbecue on the drive to Little Rock a few days prior, but for my return trip to Nashville I decided to try out one or two random highway joints instead. I timed my drive so that I hit Forrest City, Arkansas right at 11:00am when Delta Q opened. That would give me enough downtime before a possible mid-afternoon barbecue snack later on.
When I pulled up and saw a drive-thru window on the side of Delta Q's building, I wasn't quite sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. Their dining room is small but comfortable, and it has a rather modern feel to it. They had some good music pumping out of the sound system which made things more lively. By no means is this a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint. I bet Delta Q is a fairly popular dining option in Forrest City.
Shortly after arriving, the incredibly friendly cashier brought me some complimentary pork rinds for no reason in particular. What a sweetheart.
The pork rinds were crisp, but thankfully they weren't rock hard like so many of the homemade pork rinds I've eaten elsewhere. These had a nice seasoning blend on them, which was a combination of sweet and spicy. It was a very enjoyable start to my meal.
Delta Q doesn't have any multi-meat combos on the menu, so I did my best to create one of my own. I started with an appetizer of Delta Q Loaded Fries, followed by a half-rack dry-rubbed Rib Plate. My plate came with two sides, for which I picked Potato Salad and Mac and Cheese.
The Loaded Fries have a somewhat vague name. You might be inclined to think that they're basic loaded potato wedges, but no. Instead, these spuds are smothered in gravy and topped with cheese curds and chopped pork shoulder. It's sort of like a barbecue poutine. Whatever they are, the Loaded Fries looked amazing. The pork was really juicy with a decent amount of smoke. I also found some good bark mixed in. The spices sprinkled on top added a nice level of heat and another degree of flavor. I also loved the gooey cheese curds, which helped to temper the spiciness well. In short, they were delicious.
I could see some black pepper scattered throughout the Mac and Cheese, but I couldn't really taste it. Even without the pepper, the mac was creamy and really tasty. It was also great comfort food to combat the cold, rainy weather outside. The mayo-based Potato Salad looked more like a German-style potato salad, which is the best kind really. There were a lot of pickles and other veggies that added a good crunch. It was slightly sweet, with a nice bite from the onions.
This was certainly a big serving of ribs for a half-rack. They had a beautifully dark crust, complete with a tasty char from the grill finishing process. I noticed some hints of sweetness on the crust as well. The meat beneath was tender and very juicy. It was only slightly smoky, despite the bright red smoky color on the meat. Thankfully the meat wasn't quite falling off the bone, but it did come off fairly easily. These ribs were much better than the over-seasoned dry-rub sort that I find in Memphis.
My experience level with Arkansas barbecue is somewhat limited, but Delta Q had some of the best I've eaten so far.
1112 N Washington
Forrest City, AR 72335
Thursday, February 26, 2015
In a completely unexpected and amazing turn of events, I found myself headed for Fort Worth, Texas to judge a barbecue cookoff show for a certain food-themed television network which shall remain nameless. How awesome is that?!?!? As excited as I was, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to grab some Memphis barbecue along the way. Interstate Bar-B-Q is a joint I've had on my Memphis list for a while now, so I thought I'd stop and check it out.
Interstate is owned by Jim Neely, uncle of Food Network's Pat Neely. This seemed like an appropriate pick under the circumstances. It's also close to the interstate (hence the name), which made it an easy pitstop. This place has a fairly simple atmosphere, no fuss. The walls were filled with framed awards and articles, as well as a ton of autographed celebrity photos. Clearly Interstate has had a long and popular history amongst Memphis barbecue lovers.
They have a pretty extensive menu here. I opted for the Sampler Platter: pork ribs, beef ribs, hotlinks, brisket, pork shoulder, bbq spaghetti, beans, potato salad (instead of the advertised coleslaw), and bread. All that for just $21.00, which is relatively inexpensive considering that it's basically a five-meat, three-side plate. This was definitely more food than I needed, but my only other option for a combo was a two-meater, and that wasn't going to cut it. Oh well, if nothing else the sampler was a great way to taste as much of Interstate's barbecue as I could.
Interstate's beans had a pleasantly sweet flavor, with a nice spice blend as well. There was a lot of tender meat mixed right in, too. The potato salad had only a mild mustard flavor, coupled with a good amount of pickles. The bbq spaghetti also tasted great. It was slightly spicy and was loaded with shredded barbecue.
Their brisket came thinly sliced but still had some decent visible bark. My slices were a nice combination of fatty and lean, both of which were very tender and juicy. I was also able to taste the smoke through their tomatey sauce, which is a rather impressive accomplishment. There wasn't any visible smoke ring, although I'd rather have my brisket taste good than look pretty.
I found the pulled pork a little bland, with only minimal seasoning and not much smoke. In fact, the only thing that had any real flavor to it was the sauce. Maybe mixing some bark into each portion would help things somewhat. The meat was tender enough, but just a tad dry. I'm not the biggest pulled pork fan in general, so I might just be biased.
The all-beef hotlinks had a great flavor and a nice char. They were definitely spicy. I tasted a little smoke, but it's actually quite difficult to make sausage that's exceptionally smoky. Although the coarse grind suggested homemade links, I believe these came from Evergood Fine Foods. Either way, they were really tasty.
Since the pork ribs were drenched in sauce, I decided to just use my fork and save a few dozen napkins. The meat came off with no effort at all (and no, that's not a positive attribute). At least they were tender. There was just a hint of smoke, and the crust had only minimal seasoning. I think if it hadn't been for the sauce, these ribs would have been pretty flavorless.
I saved the beef ribs for last, mostly because they were on the very bottom of my pile-o-food. The beef ribs that I'm used to have a high fat content and literally melt in your mouth. These, however, took considerable effort both to cut and to chew. The flavor was good, but lacking the degree of smoke I expected. Fattier, higher quality beef back ribs would have been a better choice, although I suppose that would definitely increase the price of this combo.
The service at Interstate also left a lot to be desired. My waitress was an incredibly sweet lady, but I never saw her again after she brought my food. I ended up walking to the register and just telling them what I had ordered. Similarly, the hostess sits right up front and talks on her cell phone the entire time, only setting it down temporarily to seat customers. I think this lack of care from the front-of-house staff mirrors my concerns about the pitmasters out back.
While I was finishing up my meal, I overheard a phone call from the table next to me. "Hey man, bring your butt on down to Interstate Bar-B-Q." That should definitely be their official slogan no matter what, but I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by Interstate. I think the term "mediocre" is an unfortunately perfect description of their barbecue. A two-and-a-half star rating for Interstate would probably be more accurate, but I didn't feel like modifying my entire rating system, so I rounded them up to three stars because of the tasty sides.
Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q
2265 S 3rd St
Memphis, TN 38109
Saturday, February 21, 2015
The wife and I had tickets to see Jason Aldean over at Bridgestone Arena, and an early pre-concert dinner seemed like a great idea. Since the tickets were part of my birthday present, I also had the privilege of choosing a restaurant. Puckett's was only a short walk from Bridgestone, which my wife was agreeable to despite the rain and cold temperatures. With several enticing barbecue options on their menu, how could I resist?
Puckett's has a really lively atmosphere, but I suppose that's par for the course in downtown Nashville. It has a much more relaxed feel than a lot of the other restaurants on Broadway though. They sat us right next to the stage. Too bad we were a few hours too early for the live music, which occurs nightly at Puckett's. The music is part of what makes this place popular, so reservations are a must for dinner, even on a weekday.
Our waiter was an extremely friendly local, a "good 'ol boy" as my mother-in-law would say. He gave us some really knowledgeable tips about the menu items, as well as some minor tweaks to make our selections even better. We never had to wait for a drink refill, and he came to check on us fairly often. I always appreciate service like that.
We had skipped lunch in preparation for our 4:30pm dinner, so my stomach was already rumbling. An appetizer was definitely in order. We decided to try the Fried Pickles. Yum!
The pickles were thinly sliced, making them more like chips. They had a mellow pickle flavor, and since I only like pickles in limited quantities, it was just right for me. Some pickle fans might find them lacking though. My wife thought they were a touch too salty, but it didn't bother me. Their fried pickles come served with some sort of chipotle-bacon ranch dressing. The ranch was an awesome compliment to the pickles, though the mild flavor left me wondering where all of the chipotle went.
I had originally planned on getting some of the dry-rubbed, cherry wood-smoked ribs, but at the last minute I decided they might be too messy. After all, I didn't want to spend the whole concert covered in rib juice. The menu says that the "Puckett's BBQ Platter" comes with your choice of pulled pork or chicken. Neither of those are my first choice when it comes to barbecue. Fortunately, our waiter told me (unofficially, of course) that not only could I get beef brisket on the platter, I could also make it a two-meat combo. Done and done. I ordered a duo of brisket and pulled pork. The platter also comes with sweet potato fries, baked beans, and coleslaw, but I substituted potato salad for the slaw.
The fries tasted fresh and homemade. They had a great sweet flavor, which was even better when dipped in the leftover ranch from our fried pickles. Puckett's beans were somewhat spicy and only slightly sweet. They were actually much better than the baked beans I normally encounter. The potato salad was full of big skin-on potatoes, giving it more of a German potato salad quality. It had a nice flavor from the pickles, and the low mayo content let the veggies shine.
I've been trying to acclimate myself to pulled pork ever since moving to Tennessee last summer. It's been a hard row to hoe. My affinity for beef aside, Puckett's pulled pork was nice and tender, with only a moderate amount of smoke. Although, I eventually found some nice pink pieces which had soaked up more smoke than others. The meat also had a nice seasoning blend mixed throughout. I would have liked more bark, but that's a personal preference.
Even though the brisket came out chopped, at least it was chopped into large pieces. And to be fair, I think they usually only serve brisket on sandwiches, so I can't really complain in light of my special menu request. The brisket had more smoke than the pork. It was also decently tender, especially the fattier bits. There was a commendable amount of flavor considering that the seasoned bark had all been trimmed away. I still prefer my brisket sliced, but this was still very tasty.
I tried a bite of my wife's smoked chicken sandwich, along with its jalapeno cornbread pancake bun. It tasted like there was molasses baked right into the bun, although I didn't taste much jalapeno. The chicken was both tender and juicy. There wasn't much smoke that I noticed, but that's not altogether unusual for chicken in my experience. She was happy with her meal, which is all that really matters.
The dessert menu includes something called a Deep Fried Brownie Sundae: brownie batter mixed with their triple threat cookie dough (chocolate, peanut butter, butterscotch chips, and pecans), which is then battered, fried, and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. Apparently this dessert took home the blue ribbon at the Southern Fried Festival. As full as we were, there was no way we could resist such obvious deliciousness.
Holy crap it has bacon on top!!! This thing was absolutely incredible. There were so many scrumptious flavors all piled on top of each other. With its state fair-style crispiness, the deep-fried brownie was even better than I imagined it would be. The salty bacon was great with the chocolate, and I really liked the crunchy pecans, too. Not even a crumb was left by the time we were done.
Puckett's isn't a traditional barbecue joint, but they're serving up some really tasty 'que nonetheless. I'm really glad we gave them a try, and I'll definitely be back.
Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant
500 Church St
Nashville, TN 37219
Thursday, February 5, 2015
When my dad invited me along to Las Vegas for this year's Safari Club International convention, I could hardly contain myself. For weeks I anxiously awaited our trip, which of course meant researching and planning some spectacular restaurants to try out. My dad has an odd fascination with eateries he's seen on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, but we saved those for lunchtime. I found John Mull's Meats and Road Kill Grill on Guy Fieri's list of Las Vegas hot spots, and I knew it was sure to satisfy us both.
John Mull's is way out by the North airport, about twelve miles or so from the south end of the strip. Needless to say, this was not a cheap cab ride by any means, so I hoped the food would be worth the trip. This joint has been around since 1954, and the surrounding suburban neighborhood you see today has grown up around them. Their "dining area" consists of canopy-covered picnic tables out on some gravel. I'd bet that gets a touch warm in the summer months.
Even at 1:15pm on a weekday, the line to order stretches outside the entrance door, and they only let people inside five or six at a time. There was a kid making his way through the line taking orders, but all he did was write it on a ticket and give it back to us. I guess that's meant to speed things up, though it didn't seem to be helping the slow-moving line. It ended up taking about twenty-five minutes for us to get inside, and another twenty before we had food in hand.
Inside things are running like an assembly line, yet somehow still far from efficient. All of the meats were pre-sliced and sitting in metal warming trays for serving. It makes me wonder why there was such a long wait for food, since the plating involves minimal effort. The guy working the line was incredibly friendly and energetic though, so I'll give them that one.
True to form, I ordered a 3-Meat Combo of brisket, ribs, and hotlinks. For my two sides, I rather brilliantly picked a potato salad/macaroni salad duo.
The macaroni salad had a high mayo content, which the southerner in me always appreciates. I also liked the plentiful pimentos. The potato salad wasn't very different from the macaroni, as if they just used the same base and substituted potatoes for pasta. Similarities aside, I liked the macaroni salad better, although I suppose I should have gotten beans or something instead.
My meat trio had the hotlinks right on top, so that seemed as good a place to start as any. The casings had a nice snap, while the meat inside was very finely ground. This is an actual meat market, so I'm assuming that the sausage is made in house, but this assumption is unconfirmed as of yet. There wasn't any smoky flavor that I could pinpoint. Even more disappointing, most of the slices weren't spicy at all either, with just one slice that had any real kick to it. East Texas hotlinks these were not.
The razor-thin brisket looked more like deli meat than barbecue. Looks can certainly be deceiving though, because this brisket had a great smoke level and was incredibly tender. The flavors I found were mostly natural beef, salt, and smoke, since they had cut away all of the delicious bark. I can't help but think their brisket wouldn't have been nearly as good had it been sliced thicker, but it was quite tasty in this form.
I saved the massive spare ribs for last. There was plenty of meat to go around here, that's for sure. The ribs were juicy and cooked just right, with only a slight tug needed to separate meat from bone. I tasted some smoke, but not as much as I expected. Smokelessness aside, the slightly sweet glaze was a great flavor addition.
Eating outdoors is something I'm rather accustomed to, but what I don't enjoy is having to spend the entire time fending off swarms of bees. I had to sacrifice my sugary soda just to get them away from me long enough to eat. Granted the presence of bees isn't the restaurant's fault, but you'd think by now they might have figured out a way to combat them.
My overall impression of John Mull's was that they're definitely lacking in terms of organization. Between the $100.00 worth of round trip taxi time (including tips) and the excessive and unnecessary wait for food, I don't think John Mull's is worth all the trouble.
John Mull's Meats and Road Kill Grill
3730 Thom Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89130
Monday, January 26, 2015
I had a few errands to run on the North side of Nashville, so I made the most of things and added some barbecue to my to-do list. After seeing Hendersonville's Center Point Pit Barbecue featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, I had high hopes for today's meat-filled adventure.
To my surprise, there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot when I rolled up at 11:30am. Oh well, more barbecue for me. Center Point has been in operation since the mid-60s. They have a rather interesting setup inside, which probably made more sense back in 1965. There is a combination of soda shop counter seating and a raised bistro-style section up front, with a small traditional dining room in the back. The front section has a good view of the kitchen, so I sat there to observe these guys in action.
One of Center Point's specialties is the Fried Green Tomatoes appetizer, which comes topped with yum yum sauce, sour cream, and chives. This seemed like a great way to warm up my palate. I had no idea what yum yum sauce was, but I was sure it would be amazing.
As expected, the fried green tomatoes looked spectacular. They were piping hot and fresh from the fryer, complete with crisp seasoned cornmeal batter. Center Point's yum yum sauce was as delicious as its name suggested, but I'm pretty sure it's just a close cousin of remoulade. The sour cream tempered the heat of the yum yum sauce nicely and also paired well with the acidic tomatoes. This was definitely a good way to get things started.
The only combo plate on Center Point's menu was a Pit Master Special, which comes with three meats of your choosing. For mine, I picked brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. There was a note on the menu which said that smoked hot sausage could be added for only $2.00 more. As tempting as this was, an appetizer and a three-meat plate was already sure to push my appetite past its tipping point. Maybe next time. Center Point's plates also come with a cornbread patty and two sides. The Southern-style potato salad and the white beans both sounded like good additions.
I generally start with the side dishes before diving into the meat, so why break with tradition? The potato salad was very good. I could really taste the pickles and onion, both of which added a pleasant crunch. It was also mayo-based, which I greatly prefer to the mustard variety. This was only my second time trying white beans. Thankfully, these were far less soupy than my first encounter. The beans were cooked just right: past al dente, but not mushy. I also enjoyed the mild seasoning, which let the natural bean flavors stand out.
Sadly, my brisket came out chopped. Well, that's not entirely accurate. The brisket on the very bottom of my pile was still in slice form, so I guess the rest just crumbled during the plating process. I'm not sure which is worse. At least I could see plenty of chopped red smoke ring scattered throughout, but I would have liked some bark, too. There was only a slight smoky flavor to be found. Some pieces were decently tender, but most of my thin, lean pieces were a little dry. The meat fell apart at the slightest touch, which told me that it was likely overcooked. Clearly this wasn't a Texas brisket.
Unlike the brisket, the pulled pork was rather monotone. I couldn't find any bits of bark anywhere here either. It was also quite bland and a little stringy. I didn't taste any smoke, so I decided to try some of their barbecue sauces out of pure necessity. The Sweet Surprise sauce definitely jazzed things up a bit, with a good kick on the back end. The Mild Barbecue Sauce was ok, but not as good. I left the third barbecue sauce alone and just moved on to the ribs.
When I ordered, I had asked for barbecue sauce on the side. My waitress assured me that all of the sauces were just on the table to be added as I saw fit. You can imagine my confusion and disappointment at being served sauce-covered ribs. Thankfully they provided an actual knife so that I could cut them apart. It took more effort than expected to slice through the crust, but the meat below was surprisingly tender. The ribs were cooked well, with just a slight tug needed to remove meat from bone. The thick sauce was rather spicy, such that I couldn't taste any smoke there might have been, or really anything else other than capsaicin.
In my opinion, $31.00 is too expensive for an iced tea, an appetizer, and a three-meat combo, even if the portions were fairly large. My three-meat combo plate was almost $20.00 by itself, while most places I've been charge somewhere in neighborhood of $14.00-15.00. Interestingly, the menu link on Yelp.com has outdated pricing, and the menu on Center Point's own website has the prices redacted. Chalk this up to inflation or the ever-rising cost of meat if you like, but I managed to find a menu picture from 2011, and the price of their three-meat Pit Master Special was $16.99 even back then. I'll end my pricing rant with a suggestion. Perhaps if Center Point wouldn't remove all of the delicious bark and fat from their brisket, then it wouldn't take nearly as much beef to fill up a plate, and barbecue lovers like myself would be much happier, too.
The barbecue was almost passable, although I'd honestly say that the best parts of my meal were the meatless appetizer and sides. I really agonized over my rating for Center Point Pit Barbecue. When I find myself struggling to find enough positive attributes to justify even an average rating for a barbecue joint, that speaks for itself. The fried green tomatoes and the side dishes were all fantastic, but the carnivore in me just can't overlook subpar meat.
UPDATE (January 26, 2015): Just to satiate my own curiosity, I decided to investigate pricing at other Nashville-area barbecue joints which offer three-meat, two-side combo plates of brisket, pork, and ribs. Of those joints whose menus I was able to find online, only eight offered this sort of combo. One of those offered the combo as a full pound of meat and specifically stated that it was meant to be shared by two people ($24.00), so I took that joint off my count. The remaining seven barbecue joints had three-meat combos which ranged in price from $11.50 to $20.00, with $15.18 being the average price. I also found two other joints offering four-meat combo plates for $16.29 and $18.99 respectively, both of which would be cheaper than a meat trio at Center Point. Although Center Point didn't have the highest priced three-meat combo, it came in a very, very close second and outpaced the third-highest joint by about $3.50.
Center Point Pit Barbecue
1212 W Main St
Hendersonville, TN 37075
Saturday, January 10, 2015
Mrs. Barbecue Fiend and I were in much need of a short vacation. Gatlinburg is only a 3.5 hour drive from Nashville, and even though I pictured it being a city-wide Country Bear Jamboree, it does have beautiful scenery. There's also moonshine and barbecue, so she didn't have to twist my arm too much. My wife's one request in allowing a barbecue lunch was that I select a place with a few non-barbecue options for her. Bennett's was the best option to suit both of our appetites.
According to Bennett's website, it's "the best bar-b-que in the world." They've also apparently won a TripAdvisor "certificate of excellence" for the past four years, as well as some sort of People's Choice Award for having "the award winning taste of Texas." No doubt these are all embellished claims, but I still hoped for some tasty 'que. After all, they've been in operation for over two decades.
Strangely, Bennett's is housed in the same building as Big Daddy's Pizzeria. In fact, the only thing separating these two eateries is the entrance-way. Both establishments are owned by the same parent company, which also owns nearby Alamo Steakhouse, Mama's Farmhouse, and Mad Dog Creamery. They've got quite the monopoly on Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge restaurants, so I suppose sharing space makes sense.
Bennett's wood-covered walls matched the general Gatlinburg ambiance perfectly, as did the antique nicknacks scattered about. They have a large soup and salad bar if you're so inclined, but I came for meat not vegetables. Our waitress was very friendly and gave great service. She was a sweet lady and struck me as a local gal.
Since we were on vacation, we indulged ourselves with an appetizer. I had my eye on the brisket-stuffed mushrooms, but my wife wasn't in the mood for fungi. The potato skins sounded equally delicious though. They come loaded with cheddar, scallions, and bacon. We also added some pulled pork for good measure.
The potatoes themselves were crispy and warm, and the gooey cheese and salty bacon were a great combination. To my surprise, Bennett's pulled pork was extremely flavorful. It had a great smoke level and was quite tender. The few bits of bark I found were also really tasty. I enjoyed them better without the accompanying sour cream. This was a great start to the meal.
As much as I wanted to try Bennett's Texan Sampler (generous portions of pulled pork, brisket, sausage, chicken, and baby back ribs), that sounded like way more food than I needed, at least for lunch anyway. Plus, I had just eaten a big pancake breakfast a few hours earlier. I ordered the three-meat Bar-B-Que Combo lunch platter instead, picking brisket, ribs, and sausage for my three meats. The platter comes with two sides. Normally I get potato salad, but that seemed redundant considering our potato skins appetizer. I settled for macaroni and cheese and bar-b-que beans.
When my order came out, I immediately noticed pulled pork instead of my requested sausage. Our waitress was very apologetic and quickly struck off to remedy the mistake. Rather than taking away the pulled pork, she brought out a plate of sausage and left me the pork as an amends. What a sweetheart.
The beans had a good sweet flavor, but there was too much goop for my liking. They were also a little al dente. Conversely, the macaroni was a tad overcooked, but not quite mushy. At least there was more flavor here, including a touch of black pepper mixed in. It was also nice and creamy, and was great comfort food in 20 degree weather.
I generally like to ask for a fattier cut of brisket, but this didn't seem like the kind of place to make requests of the pitmaster. What I received was certainly a leaner cut, though still nice and tender. It also had a strip of fat down the edge which had soaked up a decent amount of smoke. It's a shame that the meat itself did not have quite the same smoke level, despite the pronounced smoke ring. The bark was seasoned well, but the seasoning pretty much stopped there.
My accidental pulled pork was even better than it was atop the potato skins. It was juicy, full of flavor, and by far the smokiest of the meats. The big pieces of red and black bark here were exceptionally tasty. Just for kicks, I tried it with their "Mustard's Last Stand" barbecue sauce. It had strong mustard and vinegar flavors, with a slight bite of pepper on the back end. The sauce was ok, but I preferred the pork on its own.
The sausage was disappointingly not homemade. It was very finely-ground, reminiscent of the grocery store. I didn't find much seasoning, but I did find plenty of grease. As my wife said, "It tastes like a hot dog." She nailed it perfectly.
Ribs are generally my last meat to sample, mostly so I can jot down blog notes without messy fingers. I'm more partial to St. Louis spare ribs myself, but baby backs will do in a pinch. This was the only one of my meats that came sauced, and it was a bright red sauce clearly full of ketchup. I also found hints of vinegar and honey. The crust was sweet, but not very crisp. They were pretty thick for baby back ribs. One bone had meat an inch or so thick. The meat was fairly tender, but had almost no smoke. Oddly enough, these ribs reminded me of the soft, tomatoey, Aussie-style barbecue I found in Scotland, not Texas-style ribs.
Our lunch at Bennett's satisfied my hunger, but it didn't impress me all that much. As a Texan, it pains me to say that the best part of my meal was the part I didn't even order: pulled pork.
Bennett's Pit Bar-B-Que
714 River Rd
Gatlinburg, TN 37738