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!!!!!

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Lil' Choo Choo BBQ (Nashville, TN)




I've long been intrigued by the Lil' Choo Choo BBQ food truck and their locomotive-themed smoker. A few months back, a fire broke out in a small retail strip in south Nashville, snuffing out several businesses in its wake. From these ashes, Lil' Choo Choo's first brick and mortar operation took root.


According to their seldom-updated Facebook page, Lil' Choo Choo's grand opening was originally scheduled for August 1, 2016. Due to unforeseen delays in obtaining their Use and Occupancy certification, things got pushed back a couple of weeks to August 15. I had eagerly watched this joint take shape, and my heart was set on attending the grand opening, no matter the date. After all, what kind of barbecue fanatic would I be if I didn't show up on Day One to scope things out?


The interior at Lil' Choo Choo BBQ is a lot more bright and modern than you'd expect for this part of town, no offense intended. Railroad crossing signs, train-line logos, and neons tie their whole aesthetic together nicely. It's cohesive and amusing without being over-the-top or kitschy.

First-day jitters and hiccups are common for restaurant openings, but from what I could tell things here got off without a hitch. All of the employees were super friendly and checked on me often. They also knew the menu well, and I heard them giving good suggestions to indecisive customers studying the menu. Clearly the owners had spent plenty of time making sure that their staff were trained properly. Kudos.


Lil' Choo Choo's train theme unsurprisingly spills over into their menu as well. Menu items with names like The Conductor, The Penn Station, and The Brakeman made things interesting as well as fun. But with three meats and two sides, the L&N dinner plate is definitely the way to go. I loaded mine up with pulled pork, pulled chicken, brisket, Porter Potato Salad and Highrail Jalapeño Mac and Cheese. All aboard! Next stop: obesity.


The mac and cheese had a ton of delicious, melty cheddar coupled with a distinct bite from the jalapeño peppers. It was just spicy enough to make things exciting without destroying my palate. I could really taste the dill in this potato salad. I'm not generally a dill fan, but for some reason potato salad is my one exception. The mayo base wasn't overly thick, which I liked. I also enjoyed the crunch from the assorted veggie mix-ins.

Unlike a lot of smoked poultry
out there, their chicken was tender as could be and not the least bit dry. My serving came with big hunks of spectacular skin scattered throughout. The crispy, blackened skin obviously had the most flavor, but the rest of the juicy meat also carried a great smokiness. This was a stellar effort for barbecue chicken.

The thin-sliced brisket had plenty of nicely-seasoned bark to go around. It had a prominent smoke ring and an equally smoky taste. I received a nice combination of lean and fatty slices, with both kinds being tender and hard to stop eating. What fat I did get was well rendered, enhancing the already smoky meat even more.

Not to be outdone, the pulled pork had a great smoke level as well. Each bite was tender, juicy, and full of savory bark. I'm sure it works well for sandwiches, but I loved it all by its lonesome. Lil' Choo Choo has half-a-dozen different sauces available, though I doubt that any of them could have improved upon the natural pork.


I'm really glad that I was able to make it for the grand opening. If Lil' Choo Choo BBQ keeps slinging out food of the caliber I tasted today, they'll definitely be among Nashville's top players.

**********

Lil' Choo Choo BBQ
1609F Murfreesboro Pike
Nashville, TN 37217
(615) 218-3988
http://www.lilchoochoobbq.com

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que Pit (Nashville, TN)




With an immediate need to give my eyes a break from the endless spreadsheets, as well as a growing need to calm my rumbling stomach, I set out in search of a quick workday barbecue lunch. Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que Pit is one of the few places close to my office that I hadn't yet crossed off my to-do list, so I figured that today was as good a time as any.


This north-Nashville landmark has been in operation for over half-a-century. Mary herself has since passed away, and her granddaughter and grandson-in-law now run the show. I hoped that Mary passed down her culinary know-how along with the bricks and mortar.

Once you get within sight of the old walk-up-service windows on the building's front facade, Mary's immediately seems something quite ancient. The windows are no longer in use, but their nostalgia-inducing presence is still felt. That aside, Mary's is rather unassuming and plain as far as restaurants go. If you were expecting anything remotely resembling ambiance here, then you came to the wrong place. Mary's is about one thing and one thing only: food.


There are no multi-meat combos (and, incidentally, no beef) on the menu at Mary's, but that didn't stop me from creating a sandwich duo to compensate. My lunch o' smoked goodness included a pork shoulder sandwich and a dark-meat chicken sandwich, as well as a side of potato salad. I was surely going to spend the rest of the workday in a full-on food coma.


The potato salad came pre-prepared out of a store-bought tub. Ugh. It was passable, but really not worth describing in detail. My compliments to Kroger, I suppose.

Their regular pork shoulder sandwiches are served on basic grocery store hamburger buns, so corncakes are definitely the way to go. Unfortunately for me, they were out of corncakes today, so I settled for the hamburger bun. Thanks again, Kroger! The pork was tender and moderately juicy but didn't pack a lot of punch in the smoke department. There wasn't much seasoning to be found either, even though there was plenty of bark to go around. I did enjoy the crunch and acidity of the pickle slices that they added though.

To my surprise, the chicken sandwich was literally just a bone-in leg quarter stuck between some white bread, as opposed to the customary pulled chicken. The bread had soaked up so much juice that it was a soggy, useless addition. On first glance, the chicken skin looked a lot more pale than I expected for barbecue chicken. I dug in anyway, and my initial bite revealed an excellent heat level from the spices. The meat itself was a little dry, and the skin was a little limp. There was no meaningful smoke to be found here either. All in all, the chicken was fairly boring despite its spiciness.

I wish I could have visited Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que Pit in its heyday. Sadly, the current iteration of Mary's isn't worth a return trip.

**********

Mary's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que Pit
1106 Jefferson St
Nashville, TN 37208
(615) 256-7696

Mary's Pit Bar-B-Que Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hot Chicks (Nashville, TN)




Somehow I neglected to pack my lunch today, and I was about to make a quick sandwich run when I noticed a flyer for Hot Chicks in my office breakroom. I was already intrigued when I thought it was just a chicken shack, even more so when I discovered barbecue on the menu! Hot Chicks was only a few blocks away from work, so I rolled the dice.


Hot Chicks occupies a renovated house near Nashville's Centennial Park in midtown. I went in the door that I assumed to be the main entrance, but I'm pretty sure I chose wrong. It's mostly still all house in here as far as the layout and ambiance goes, with the addition of a small bar area. Interior tables are a bit limited, with a nice outdoor patio space available to supplement. I left that for another day when the heat index was only in the double-digits.


For a place that dubs itself the "House of Chicken," I was naturally expecting any and all barbecue options here to be, well, chicken. Nope. The barbecue at Hot Chicks consists entirely of pork shoulder and ribs. In fact, chicken makes up less than a quarter of their available entree items. The rest is a mix of shrimp, fish, beef, and pork dishes. Their online menu also seems to vary considerably from what I was presented with in-house. Confused but undaunted, I ordered a Pork Shoulder Plate (since ribs are only Friday/Saturday fare) with mac and cheese and potato salad as my two sides.

Despite being their first customer of the day (even half an hour after opening), my order took over twenty minutes to come out. That's a rather long time for a lunch order, especially in barbecue world with the theoretically-limited effort involved in tossing together a one-meat, two-side plate. The only other table had arrived at least five minutes after I did, yet they were served much sooner. That being said, my lunch did look awesome when it finally made its way to the table.


The mayo-based, German-style potato salad was served only slightly chilled, just the way I like it. Big slices of new potatoes, chives, and crumbled bacon made for a perfect combination. It was very savory and very creamy. Their large elbow pasta tasted fairly standard, although the gooey mac and cheese was the epitome of comfort food. It was also fresh and piping hot, but could have used a little elevation in the taste department.

Naturally, I requested my sauce on the side so as to properly test the pork's mettle. I found it tender and exceptionally juicy. There were plenty of smoke-kissed bits of pork scattered throughout, with only a mild smokiness upon closer examination. The dominant flavor was a slightly-acidic sweetness from their mop sauce, coupled with natural porky goodness. Some of the bark and fattier bites did pack more of a punch though. It's difficult to convert a Texan away from brisket, but this was pretty decent as far as pulled pork goes.

I was admittedly more impressed with the barbecue at Hot Chicks than I initially expected. They have a few kinks to work out, both in terms of service and food, but I definitely want to come back on a Friday to scope out their ribs. Were I writing a general restaurant review rather than strictly a barbecue critique, their slow and sloppy service probably would have knocked them down at least one notch. Fortunately for Hot Chicks, I am not The Restaurant Fiend. The Yelp/TripAdvisor version of this commentary, however, will be rated appropriately.

**********

Hot Chicks
117 28th Ave N
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 649-8816
http://hotchicksnashville.com/

Monday, July 4, 2016

RR BBQ (Rimrock, AZ)




We came to Sedona, Arizona for a quick weekend getaway. The tall red rocks were as beautiful and majestic as the people were quirky. It's the only place I've been where you can take a rugged ATV tour and get your aura photographed afterward. With all of our pre-planned adventure and sightseeing complete, I coaxed my way into a last-minute stop in Rimrock for a quick barbecue lunch on our drive back to the Phoenix airport.


RR BBQ, or, more appropriately pronounced, "Double R", has sort of a southwest bistro motif going on. The entire place is chock-full of painted cow skulls, Native American and cowboy artwork, and, of course, tons of turquoise and copper.  It was all very clean and open and new. They also have a nice bar and a great outdoor patio space, although it was far too hot today to enjoy the latter. Double R makes good use of their scattered chalkboards, suggesting that the menu items and specials rotate often.



I was instantly drawn to the RR BBQ Platter, which comes with a quarter-pound of pulled pork or turkey (no poultry for me today), a quarter-pound of brisket, and a quarter-slab of baby back ribs. For my sides, I eagerly picked their smoked potato salad and pepper jack mac and cheese. This was definitely more food than I needed (a fact pointed out several times by my usually-correct wife), but I couldn't help myself.


Double R's potato salad was absolutely superb. There was just enough mayo to hold everything together, letting the skin-on potatoes do most of the heavy lifting. This made it somehow creamy and chunky at the same time. It had a great texture from all of the green onions and pickles, which only had a mild acidity. The macaroni was a little runny for my liking, but tasted great. The spicy pepper jack cheese added a nice zip, the downfall being that it's not really a cheese that's conducive to melting properly. I did appreciate the big shell pasta though.

The brisket came in the form of lean, thin-ish slices, but it was much more tender than I expected. I didn't find any visible smoke ring, making the only color a rather unappealing, dull grey. There was only a mild smokiness, and it could have really benefited from some extra spices and more bark.

My pulled pork was also very tender, but kind of watery, if that makes sense. I think they may have poured a liquidy marinade of some sort over the top, though I'm not entirely sure. Whatever it was, it didn't add much in terms of flavor. The pork had minimal seasoning, and there wasn't much smoke to be found either.

The baby back ribs were definitely the winner amongst this platter's meaty components. Here again, they were lacking more than minimal smoky flavors, but I did enjoy the light drizzling of Double R's sweet barbecue sauce. The ribs were tender and very juicy, and the meat stayed put until each subsequent bite. This is no easy feat when it comes to baby backs, so I commend them for that. The pork was also nice and pink, just the way I like it.

All in all, Double R BBQ was ok, but their four-star rating on Yelp and TripAdvisor is probably at least one star too high. Although, to be fair, they do rank fifth out of all five restaurants in this tiny community. I will say that my wife thoroughly enjoyed her Santa Fe Grilled Chicken wrap, which I suppose is bound to count for something.

**********

RR BBQ
5155 N Dave Wingfield Road
Rimrock, AZ 86335
(928) 592-9220
http://www.rrbbq.co/

RR BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Clyde's on Church (Nashville, TN)




Even though Clyde's on Church (an offshoot of a popular, similarly-named Chattanooga, Tennessee joint) has only been open since early March, it's already developing quite the reputation amongst Nashvillians. Maybe it's the food; maybe it's the foosball, shuffleboard, and ping pong tables; maybe it's the general funky attitude. Whatever it is, I was certainly intrigued. I could have easily walked the mere half-mile from my office to Clyde's, but considering the heat and the humidity, I embraced my inner laziness and drove.


Predictably, my party of one resulted in seating at the bar, which I actually prefer in these scenarios. The atmosphere here is even more lively than I had imagined. Great classic rock tunes and neon signs surely play well during happy hour, but they made my lunch run more enjoyable as well. I briefly considered attempting a solo game of ping pong against the wall, limited only by persistent thoughts of "what would my wife say?" Maybe next time...



The menu at Clyde's ranges from fried chicken, bahn mi sandwiches, and jerk pork to baked potato soup, veggie/vegan burgers, and kale salads. A motley assortment indeed, although I was most interested in their smoked selections. Clyde's doesn't have any barbecue combos, unless you count their Pork and Wing plate, but that never stopped me before. I started with an appetizer of BBQ Potato Skins. These bad boys come topped with pulled pork, house-made pimento cheese, green onion, and sour cream. I asked for my barbecue sauce on the side, just in case.


Without question, the potato skins looked incredible. A decent amount of smoke shone through, despite the gooey cheese and luscious sour cream. I could also see ample evidence of pink smoky pork jutting out. The crunch of green onions and crispy potato peel added a great texture to each bite. Suffice to say that I never once considered using my side of barbecue sauce.

For the main event, I ordered their Texas Style Smoked Brisket plate, which comes with Texas toast, baked beans, and your choice of slaw. I decided to rock the boat a little bit. Instead of beans, I subbed in some gouda creamed corn (at a slight upcharge). As for the slaw, my options here were for mayo and hot mustard varieties, but not being a fan of slaw in general, I politely requested red potato salad.


The potato salad came with big hunks of red potatoes and only minimal dressing. I found the acidity of the pickles very prominent, perhaps the most dominant flavor present. It was served differently than most potato salads I've eaten, and I really enjoyed it. The creamed corn was absolutely spectacular. The mass of melty gouda on top paired perfectly with the al dente kernels beneath. It was worth every bit of the $2.50 upcharge.

Their brisket is allegedly slow smoked in a sweet and spicy marinade of sorts, which they describe as "traditional". Perhaps I'm simply a barbecue purist, but, when it comes to Texas brisket, the only traditional marinade is no marinade. The same holds true for barbecue sauce, incidentally. [end rant] My brisket came out in regrettable chunks rather than the expected slices. That being said, it had an awesome smokiness and was very tender to boot. I also received my meat from the fatty point (aka deckle), which helped to soak up even more yummy smoke. There was plenty of delicious black bark mixed throughout, all of which had a ton of seasoning. I didn't notice any spiciness from the marinade, although it did make things a little more liquidy than I prefer. Regardless of this minor nitpicking, the brisket was exceptionally tasty.

Clyde's on Church may be more of a bar or local hangout than it is a traditional barbecue joint, but, when it comes to smoked meat, these guys definitely know what they're doing.

**********

Clyde's on Church
1700 Church St
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 432-2928
http://clydesonchurch.com/

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hickory River Smokehouse (Mary Esther, FL)




The weather decided not to cooperate with us, putting our planned beach outing on hold for the time being. Oh well, that gave me a great excuse to suggest a barbecue lunch instead. I initially had my sights set on finding some new non-chain barbecue to try around Destin-Fort Walton Beach, but honestly, the pictures I saw of the deliciously-smoky, Texas-style meats pouring out of Hickory River Smokehouse were enough to change my mind. Besides, with only seven locations (six of which are in Illinois and Ohio), we're not exactly talking Dickey's Barbecue Pit or Shane's Rib Shack here.


It was just a quick pop onto the Panhandle mainland from our digs out on Okaloosa Island. Hickory River has a distinct log cabin feel to it, and the warm woods made me feel right at home. Everyone working here was super friendly, especially our server, and the country music hits blaring over the speakers made things rather lively. In short, there was a great atmosphere all the way around.


Even though I had a big scrumptious doughnut for breakfast, I was certainly in the mood for an appetizer. We ordered a round of fried pickles to warm up our palates.


The pickles came out piping hot, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Their housemade batter was beautifully crisp and well seasoned. I also appreciated and enjoyed the acidity of the pickles themselves. It was certainly a great way to start things off, and needless to say, they didn't last long.

Hickory River has a three-meat "Create Your Own BBQ Plate" option, and you'd be a fool not to order it. I got mine with sliced brisket, pulled pork, and baby back ribs, as well as sides of potato salad and white cheddar mac and cheese. I didn't have any real intention of eating barbecue sauce, but I did get a sampling of their Mixed (not quite hot, not quite mild) sauce on the side just in case.


I love white cheddar, and this macaroni didn't disappoint. There was just enough cheesy goodness without being drowned in goo. The white cheddar offered sharper flavors than the standard yellow variety. I also enjoyed the big hunks of skin-on spuds in my potato salad, which had just the right texture. It was creamy and delicious, with a good crunch of pimentos and pickles. I think there may have been some bacon mixed in as well, but I was inhaling it too fast to know for sure.

The brisket had a prominent smoke ring, which was a good sign. I could tell right away that this was a leaner cut of beef. It was very tender, if only a tad dry for my liking (that sounds oxymoronic, I know). On the plus side, the brisket was quite smoky and had a flavorful spice blend on the bark. I still would have preferred a fatty cut, but it was pretty decent nonetheless.

My eyes were instantly drawn to the red smoky bits scattered all throughout the equally smoky pork. It was more what I would call chopped than pulled, but that lent to its tenderness. The meat was also really juicy from the light drizzling of thin sauce, which thankfully didn't do much to mask the natural pork taste. I had to exercise some serious discipline to leave enough pork behind for leftovers.

The ribs had a good dark crust with perfectly pink meat beneath. This was probably the smokiest of my three meats, making the ribs extra savory. The semi-sweet rib glaze was good, although not really Texas-style. I think they also could have spent a little less time in the smoker so as to avoid the "falling off the bone" thing, but otherwise they were very good.

Mrs. Barbecue Fiend ended up with a smoked turkey BLT sandwich, which she found to be exceptionally tasty. She was kind enough to share some of her poultry, and I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. The turkey was tender and juicy, with a mild yet distinct smokiness.

Hickory River is a few tweaks and touch-ups away from having some really phenomenal barbecue. Even in its current state, it's still a good lunch option that gave us a nice break from seafood.

**********

Hickory River Smokehouse
321 Mary Esther Blvd
Mary Esther, FL 32569
(850) 362-6474
https://www.hickoryriver.com/locations/mary-esther.html

Hickory River Smokehouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tex's World Famous Bar-B-Q (Nashville, TN)




When you start out the day by ripping the zipper on your slacks completely open within two minutes of getting to work, you need to try to salvage things any way that you can. For me, that meant barbecue. I tossed aside my boring, pre-packed turkey sandwich and headed for Tex's World Famous Bar-B-Q in South Nashville. Plus, I apparently earn triple points on my Southwest Airlines credit card there, so win-win.


Tex's has sort of a western/saloon thing going on, one that probably hasn't changed much in the thirty-five or so years that they've been open. Essentially this means a lot of iron, antiques, and unfinished barn wood, likely aimed at Nashville's tourist population. Hackneyed decor aside, the lively gent working the serving line, who is actually Tim Williams, the owner, was all the atmosphere that this place needed.



These guys offer a suspiciously cheap $9.35 Combo Plate that comes with "All the BBQ's" and two sides. At that price, game on! Judging by all of the other orders I overheard while waiting in line, this is an understandably popular meal choice. Tex's has ribs on Thursdays, but they're sadly not part of the combo meats. Like any good Nashville "meat and three", the sides here are all self-serve. I scooped myself a helping of potato salad and their famous jalapeño beans and saddled up for a quick lunch.


Wow, these beans definitely aren't for wimps. They had a significant heat level, as well as a great flavor from the peppers. In fact, I'd suspect that they might have tossed in a splash or two of jalapeño juice for good measure. The beans themselves were cooked to a perfect al dente. I'm glad I picked potato salad as my second side dish, because I definitely needed it to temper the spicy jalapeños. It had a good crunch from the pickles and pimentos and a good array of spices. The paprika sprinkled on top is mostly just for presentation, but I appreciated it nonetheless.

I started my meat sampler with the pulled pork, which was fairly dry. It did have a good smokiness, but I would have liked some bark and a little more seasoning. There's really not much else to say about it. The thick slice of turkey breast, on the other hand, was thankfully much more tender and moist than it appeared. It was very smoky, too, like a Texas Thanksgiving. I still prefer dark meat to white when it comes to poultry, but the turkey was undeniably tasty.

Their fine-ground smoked sausage had wonderfully crisp casings. There was also much more smoke than I expected. Too bad there wasn't a good dose of coarse black pepper mixed in. It's likely not made in-house, but that's par for the course when it comes to sausage in Tennessee. Like its casing-covered cousin, the bologna (or, as they phonetically spell it here, "baloney") had soaked up plenty of smoke. The smoking process had cooked down the typical mushy texture of this meat, although a little grill char would have really rounded things out.

The large hunks of brisket on my plate had a noticeable smoke ring around the edges, but I found only a mild smoke level when I dug in. There also wasn't much seasoning on the bark, which could have benefited from even salt. Like the pork, it was just sort of dry. One of my larger bites was fairly hard to swallow without the aid of sweet tea. At peak hours, even lean brisket such as this shouldn't be dry.

Smoked turkey was the surprise winner at Tex's World Famous Bar-B-Q, followed by the two store-bought tube steaks. Still, at their prices, it's hard to complain too much.

**********

Tex's World Famous Bar-B-Q
1013 Foster Ave
Nashville, TN 37210
(615) 254-8715
http://www.texsworldfamousbbq.com

Tex's World Famous Bar B.Q Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Mission BBQ (Nashville, TN)




I'm always a tad suspicious of chain barbecue restaurants, never quite knowing what to expect or how far the apple might fall from the original tree. Perhaps it's because I've been burned far too often by their over-promising and under-delivering. Despite my reservations, I was willing to give Maryland-based Mission BBQ a try when I heard that they had recently opened up a new operation at Opry Mills mall.


Mission BBQ describes their restaurants as having a "patriotic dining room filled with tributes to those who've made Our Country great." Apparently this tribute also includes a daily "salute to the Stars and Stripes" at lunchtime. I certainly don't doubt Mission BBQ's sincerity, and far be it from me to dispel or discourage anyone's patriotism, but on the surface it honestly feels a touch too heavy handed. That being said, their POV will play well here in Middle Tennessee, and the Mission BBQ employees were some of the friendliest I've encountered anywhere, from the ladies at the registers to the guys chopping meat.



To get a true feel for Mission BBQ's meat smoking abilities, I ordered their 3-Meat Market Sampler with brisket, pulled pork, and sausage. Customers can make any of the meat market plates into either XL or XXL combos, with a drink and one or two sides respectively. I picked the XL with a serving of Maggie's Mac-n-Cheese, and I tacked on a "Bay-b-back" rib and a spare rib for good measure. Meats can be sides, too, right?


The mac and cheese was surprisingly good. I loved the crunchy crust on top, as well as the gooey pasta beneath. It was savory and comforting, with the distinct taste of real cheddar cheese.

It was hard not to notice the deep black crust on my solo baby back rib. The meat was nicely seasoned with a great smoke level. However, they sadly gave me the end bone of a rack, so it was rather tough and dry. The meat also came off with the slightest nudge, as is fairly common with overcooked baby backs.

My spare rib appeared to be another end-of-the-rack cut. Sigh. The crust was more of a reddish-orange than pit-black. This pork was significantly more tender than the baby back had been, and the meat stayed put until I was ready to bite down. It was also nice and smoky, with a more mild seasoning than my first rib.

Their brisket is advertised as "Texas inspired" and oak smoked. I admittedly had my doubts, but this was no false advertising. Mission BBQ gives customers the option for moist (aka fatty) or lean brisket, and you'd have to be a fool not to opt for moist. The well-rendered fat made this brisket melt-in-your-mouth tender, a fact I discovered while delicious meat juices rolled down my chin. These slices had a beautifully rosy smoke ring, with flavors to match. The simple seasoning also let the natural beef shine. It was superb.

I opted for Mission BBQ's jalapeño and cheddar sausage, a wise decision if I ever made one. The split links perfectly showcased all of the cheddar and diced peppers. On further examination, I found a great snap to the casing, with a tasty grill char to boot. Mission's sausage uses finely ground meat, sprinkled with finely ground black pepper. The gooey cheese countered the powerful jalapeño heat nicely, and added another dimension of flavor as well. 

Big hunks of delicious bark were scattered all throughout my pile-o-pork. The meat was decently smoky and very tender. It looked dry, but it certainly didn't taste that way. In what I assume is an attempt at nationwide appeal, Mission BBQ offers 10 different sauces from all of the major barbecue traditions, including Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Personally, I would have rather seen them pick one region to model and run with it. Better yet, show me what Maryland barbecue looks like. In the end, this is purely academic and a rather moot point, since there was no need for sauce whatsoever.

Mission BBQ makes some truly exceptional food, and they should be proud. If they hadn't cheaped out and given me scrap ribs, I suspect that my rating would be a solid five stars.

**********

Mission BBQ
161 Opry Mills Dr
Nashville, TN 37217
(615) 933-5225
http://mission-bbq.com/

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Old Hickory Bar-B-Q (Owensboro, KY)




I blew into town for the International Bar-B-Q Festival, but no trip to Owensboro, Kentucky would be complete without a stop at one of their famous barbecue joints as well. Even though Moonlite Inn has all of the notoriety, I had it on good authority that those who know pick Old Hickory Bar-B-Q instead. With six generations worth of experience behind them, I figured that the folks at Old Hickory probably knew what they were doing by now.


Small-town country restaurants like Old Hickory are what I grew up on, so I felt right at home. Their quaint tables feature the advertising of other local businesses, because in a place like this people still believe in helping one another. The unassuming decor and simplistic atmosphere are also quite welcoming, complete with warm woods and rustic colors. It's not modern, but it is comforting. This is the kind of easy-going restaurant where you come to just kick back and enjoy a pleasant meal with family and friends. Of course, Old Hickory brings in its fair share of tourists as well.



The easy part was ordering Old Hickory's three-meat Combination Plate, the hard part was figuring out which of their nine meats to include. After much agonizing deliberation, I selected sliced mutton, a dark meat quarter-chicken, and pork ribs, with sides of potato salad and onion rings. Customers can opt to get their meats straight from the pit at a mere 50-cent upcharge, and I highly recommend that you do so.


Between the finely diced potatoes and the strong pickle tang, this potato salad was a touch different than what I'm used to. It was also loaded up with pimentos. All of this gave the potato salad a great, potent flavor. I can't say whether the onion rings here are handmade or frozen (although I do have my suspicions), but they hit the spot either way. The crisp batter and light salting was just right.

The mutton looked a little like church picnic stew, but thankfully tasted better. It was very tender and only slightly smoky. There was also a mild sweetness to it from the mop sauce. I found it to be a tad greasy for my liking, although most mutton generally is.

I had been staring longingly at barbecue chicken all morning and was anxious to finally eat some. The delicious, well-seasoned skin was just what I was hoping for. There wasn't much smoke to be found, but the other flavors more than made up for it. The meat itself was tender, though a little on the dry side. I didn't fault them too much for it though, since that's fairly easy to do with barbecue chicken.

The jet-black crust on my pork ribs was a dead giveaway for deliciousness. Each bite of pork was juicy, tender, and perfectly pink. The meat came away cleanly with only a slight tug, just the way it should be. There was also a great smokiness to the ribs, but then again I never expected anything less.

I completely underestimated how full I had gotten during my morning at the International Bar-B-Q Festival, although I suppose eating six barbecue sandwiches and a bunch of stew is bound to do that. I ended up taking over half of my lunch plate home with me. Oh well, I needed something for dinner anyway.

**********

Old Hickory Bar-B-Q
338 Washington Ave
Owensboro, KY 42301
(270) 926-9000
http://oldhickorybar-b-q.com/

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International Bar-B-Q Festival 2016 (Owensboro, KY)

With a mere 140 miles separating me from the legendary smoked mutton of Owensboro, Kentucky, I couldn't pass up a chance to attend the town's 38th Annual International Bar-B-Q Festival. After all, May is National Barbecue Month (apparently). The wife was heading out of town, so I dropped her off bright and early at the airport and set sail for the land of bourbon and bluegrass.


From the moment I stepped out of my truck, I found myself completely engulfed by a fog of pit smoke so thick that I could barely see or breathe. It was heavenly. Owensboro has played host to this festival since its inception in 1979, and it shows. Thousands of people descend on this town annually on the second Sunday in May hoping to get their fill of sweet, smoky 'que.


Barbecue is serious business in Owensboro, particularly amongst the Daviess County church picnics. In fact, the Governor's Cup main-event cooking teams are all local churches! These pious purveyors of smoked meat dish out pulled pork sandwiches, mutton, burgoo, and other bits of awesomeness prior to the 2:00pm judging, with chicken and other meats to follow once the judges have had enough. Don't worry, there's plenty to go around. Each cooking team prepares about 600 pounds of pork and mutton, 400 chickens, and 60 gallons of burgoo.



For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of visiting Kentucky, perhaps a brief explanation is in order. Burgoo is a spicy stew similar to an Irish stew, which makes sense given the prevalence of Scotch-Irish heritage in the region. It's generally more viscous than soupy, and traditionally includes such meats as venison, squirrel, possum, raccoon, and game fowl. While I've eaten 60% of that list at one point or another, my gastrointestinal tract was hoping for something closer to pork or mutton today. Either way, it would be a great way to warm up on this unusually chilly May morning.


9:30am might seem a little early to start wolfing down several pounds of meat, but barbecue is the breakfast of champions.

St. Pius X
3418 Hwy 144
Owensboro, KY 42303
(270) 684-4745
http://stpiustenthparish.org/


St. Piux X was the only crew actually serving barbecue when I arrived, despite the advertised 8:00am start time online. They took second place in burgoo and third in chicken and mutton in 2015, plus the award for Team Spirit. They were certainly lively when I walked up. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and a cup of burgoo to get my day started.


I definitely asked for a pulled pork sandwich, but I'm fairly certain that what I received was mutton. No biggie, I was planning on eating plenty of that today anyway. It was fairly spicy and wonderfully acidic, bordering on sweet. The meat was also really tender. I quickly inhaled the whole thing. If the mutton is this good at the St. Pius X church picnic on June 11, they'll be in good shape.

The burgoo was just the thing to warm my bones. I enjoyed all of the corn mixed in, and there was a nice hit of black pepper in each spoonful. I could also taste some definite chili powder, but it wasn't overpowering by any means.

Our Lady of Lourdes
4029 Frederica St
Owensboro, KY 42301
(270) 684-5369
http://www.lourdescatholicchurch.com/


Next up was Our Lady of Lourdes, who placed second for mutton last year. Their picnic is coming up on June 18, so this would no doubt be good practice for the cooking team. This time I ordered a mutton sandwich on purpose, along with another cup of burgoo stew.


The Lourdes burgoo had more meat than my first sampling and more diced potatoes, too. The spices did a great job of opening up my sinuses, but this cup of stew was definitely more about the meat than the seasoning. I liked that.

Mutton is a bit of an acquired taste, I suppose. The meat had a little gristle in it, which actually helped this sandwich in the texture department. The shredded mutton was tender as can be, and it was nice and salty. It was good, but I guess I just prefer pork and beef for the most part.

Precious Blood
3306 Fenmore St
Owensboro, KY 42301
(270) 684-6888
http://precious-blood.net/


Precious Blood's June 4 church picnic is fast approaching, but the festival is a major fundraiser for them as well. Their burgoo won third place in 2015, and I could tell they were pulling out all the stops this year. Burgoo was the first thing they had ready to sell, so I had to circle around like a hungry vulture until they started slinging sandwiches, too. Once everything was ready to serve, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and a cup of stew.


This was my first bite of pork for the day, and it was superb. I found nice pieces of bark throughout the heap of juicy, tender meat. I loved the tomatoey acidity, as well as the creeping spiciness that took me by surprise.

Precious Blood's burgoo was also really good. The large chunks of potato made it seem the most stew-like thus far. I also tasted what I believed to be hints of lemon, but I could also just be making things up. Either way, it was tasty.

St. Mary of the Woods
10534 Main Cross St
Whitesville, KY 42378
(270) 233-4196
http://www.stmaryofthewoodswhitesville.org/


The St. Mary of the Woods crew has only two weeks of downtime between the festival and their May 22 picnic. They were already sold out of burgoo by the time I made it over to their station, so I ordered a sandwich duo of pulled pork and smoked bologna instead.


Wow, this pulled pork sandwich was definitely my favorite of the event. It had beautifully pink smoky bits throughout and a smoky flavor that would be hard to beat anywhere. The meat was also very tender and deliciously juicy, with plenty of bark and well-rendered fat to go around.

The absolutely massive hunk of bologna, aka Oklahoma prime rib, completely dwarfed its bun. One bite and I was five years old again. There was a surprising smokiness, though no real seasoning. Bologna isn't most people's first pick for barbecue, but I found it rather satisfying.

Life Community Church
2767 Veach Rd
Owensboro, KY 42303
(270) 926-1200
http://lifeowensboro.com/


Life Community Church is the first Baptist church to ever the festival's Governor's Cup cookoff, which might put them at a bit of a disadvantage. They don't have a barbecue church picnic like their Catholic counterparts either. The profits they earn at the festival will support Sunrise Children's Services, a nonprofit organization that provides care and hope for Kentucky's hurting families and children through ministry (visit https://www.sunrise.org/ for more information or to donate). I ordered myself a pork sandwich and another cup of burgoo.


Their chopped pork sandwich had a nice mild vinegar flavor and just the right amount of salt. There wasn't much smoke to speak of, but it was decently tender. It was a commendable effort, though I doubt they'll take first prize in the Cup.

The burgoo was the thickest I'd eaten all day, and I actually liked that. I also enjoyed the addition of peas to the mixture, and it was pleasantly spicy. Nicely done.

It's admittedly not a fair head-to-head comparison, but of the five competitors I sampled, I would give top pork honors to St. Mary of the Woods, mutton to St. Pius X, and burgoo to Precious Blood. I wanted to try all seven of the Governor's Cup cookoff teams, but by 11:30am St. Mary Magdalene and Blessed Mother, two of the festival's heavy hitters, hadn't started serving yet.



The sustained 20mph winds brought the already frigid temperatures down to a brisk 42 degrees. I'm not normally a wimp in these situations, but I was underdressed for the wind chill and got to a point where I could no longer feel my fingers enough to type out blog notes on my phone or take pictures. After two hours in the elements, it was time to pack it in. It's probably just as well, since I'm not sure I could have eaten much more anyway. As Peter Hathaway Capstick once wrote, "I felt like an anaconda that had engulfed a pig just a little too large."

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International Bar-B-Q Festival 2016
Downtown Owensboro, KY
(270) 926-1100
http://bbqfest.com/