I don't really remember "hot chicken" being that big of a deal when we last lived in Nashville 8 years ago. Apparently now it's the bee's knees. We had some new friends competing in the amateur cook-off at the Music City Hot Chicken Festival, so I gathered up my trusty Tums and we headed to East Park to scope things out. After all, it was Independence Day, and fried chicken is about as close to apple pie as you can get.
Today was 80 degrees and sunny, which made for a beautiful Fourth of July. While there is live music throughout the afternoon, the main focus at this festival is clearly food. All of the lines for the various food and drink stands were unbelievably long. The beer line was the longest of all, so I decided to abstain under the circumstances. Interestingly, the shortest line was the one for free watermelon. Weird.
With lines of eager chicken-loving patrons stretching from one end of the park to the other, I knew I'd only have enough patience for one round of hot chicken. But which one to choose? Hattie B's is new on the Nashville hot chicken scene, and has apparently exploded out of the gate. Bolton's is supposed to be awesome too, but isn't quite as spicy as some of the others. 400 Degrees sounded like too much heat for me to handle. In the end, we decided to go with the originator of the entire hot chicken genre: Prince's Hot Chicken.
Prince's Hot Chicken
123 Ewing Dr
Nashville, TN 37207
The line for Prince's Hot Chicken was clearly the longest, but if you're going to wait, you might as well wait for the original. Prince's has been featured on Man v. Food and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and has also apparently won a James Beard Award somewhere along the way. We stood in line for 50 minutes until it was time to place our order, after which we got an order number and waited another 40 minutes. Sigh.
According to the small menu sign, the only option was for an order of Chicken Tenders and Fries. Upon inquiry, I was told that the heat level was "medium," unless you wanted to wuss out and beg for plain chicken. After paying for a standard order, I saw a few people with onion rings, which I wasn't aware was an option. Oh well. The staff all wore t-shirts imprinted with the slogan, "And you thought it was hot going in!" I hoped they were joking, but I was also prepared for the worst.
You know when something's so spicy that you can't even taste it? Yeah, that's what this was. It could have been seasoned tree bark for all I could tell. There was an overpowering amount of cayenne and probably a dozen other kinds of pepper...and it was only their medium heat level! Hot chicken is traditionally served with pickle slices, which are meant to temper the heat a little. They did help, though I'm not sure why exactly. The batter was nice and crisp, and the chicken was pretty juicy. By the end I had developed a little bit of a tolerance, so I could actually taste what I was eating. The flavors were decent, but still an asinine amount of heat. Part of the problem was that the chicken itself was so hot from the fryer that my mouth had trouble differentiating between temperature heat and spice heat. Scorched taste buds aside, I did enjoy the seasoned fries. They were fairly standard crinkle fries, but the seasoning blend was pretty awesome. I'm sure the seasoned onion rings would have been even better. All in all, I'm glad I tried the hot chicken, although I'm still in disbelief that I intentionally waited an hour and a half just to torture myself with two chicken tenders and some fries.
Once I had regained some feeling in my mouth, we were on the hunt for a non-spicy food option. We hoped there would be a few four-legged animals represented here, too. It's the South, so of course barbecue can be found almost anywhere. The once-gigantic line for B&C had slowed to a trickle by the time we were done with the chicken nonsense. I also noticed a sign for peach sweet tea, which sounded like a perfect way to cool down.
2617 Franklin Pike
Nashville, TN 37204
B&C (Bacon & Caviar) has operations in Nashville's Berry Hill neighborhood (B&C Melrose) and in the farmer's market (B&C Market). I've been dying to try out their barbecue since we moved back, and this was the perfect opportunity. It's a little unfair to judge a barbecue joint by mass-produced meat that has been sitting in warming pans for hours, so I also want to sample their brick-and-mortar 'que sometime for a true assessment. Our only option for barbecue today seemed to be Pulled Pork Sliders. Good enough for me.
I have to say, pulled pork and peach tea was an awesome change of pace after the torturous hot chicken. These sliders consisted of pulled pork (obviously), coleslaw, pickles, and just a touch of barbecue sauce. The pickles really stood out as the most dominant flavor, followed by the semi-sweet sauce. I liked the tender pork, but I was hoping for more smoke. There also weren't any smoky bits or bark. The crunch of the slaw was nice. I generally don't eat coleslaw, although barbecue sandwiches are the main exception. The sliders were definitely tasty, but could have been better in my opinion. That being said, I'm sure the vast majority of barbecue joints would have trouble maintaining their usual quality in such massive quantities. Now I have an excuse to try B&C's bbq again.
Nashville can keep their hot chicken. I'll take a nice brisket any day of the week. Regardless, the Music City Hot Chicken Festival was a fun way to celebrate Independence Day. Go 'merica!
Music City Hot Chicken Festival 2014
700 Woodland St
Nashville, TN 37206
Friday, July 4, 2014
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Today I was in need of both lunch and a study break, which was a perfect excuse for barbecue. My initial trek to Ron's BBQ & Fish was a disappointing bust, so I decided to try Hatfield's instead.
As their name implies, Hatfield's also offers deli-sliced meats and cheeses. I had no need for deli food at present, so I stuck to the barbecue portion of their business. The decor here is really cool. It's basically an artsy history of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Despite the atmosphere, this place was completely empty at 12:30pm. That was a bad sign, but I was feeling adventurous.
I ordered Hatfield's Meat Combo Meal, which comes with three meats and two sides. Brisket and ribs were easy picks, and I decided to go with the pork butt for my third meat. As for the sides, I settled on potato salad and cheesy tater tots. They were sadly out of the tots, so mac and cheese would have to do.
The sole front-of-house employee went in the back to work on my order. It was at this point that I could hear the telltale "dings" of a microwave hard at work. I noticed the same process when the customers who came in just after me placed their orders. Shameful. I can microwave all kinds of stuff at home, but I came to a restaurant expecting fresh food.
The potato salad had tons of visible black pepper, which unsurprisingly translated into a nice peppery kick. I liked the crunch of the veggies, but the overall texture was odd and grainy. There was also an unusual aftertaste that I couldn't quite pinpoint. As for the mac and cheese, it looked suspiciously Kraft-like. It tasted that way too, and wasn't worth more than a couple of bites. The accompanying cornbread muffin crumbled at the slightest touch. I felt no compulsion to eat what was obviously dried out cornbread.
My slices of brisket were buried under the giant ribs. There was only a slight crust on the slices. I couldn't find a defined smoke ring, but I did catch a big hit of smoke in each bite. The brisket also had a pleasant spiciness to it. Despite the flavors, it had more of a roast beef texture: pretty chewy, with severely under-rendered fat. It definitely needed more time in the smoker, which is odd considering the hefty smoke flavor. I hate to accuse Hatfield's of using liquid smoke without actual proof. That being said, something didn't quite add up.
Since the menu made no mention of pulled pork, I was expecting sliced pork butt. I suppose I should have known better. The pork butt was the only one of the three meats actually plated in front of me, so I had higher hopes for it. I saw a few smoky red pieces, but didn't taste much smoke. Actually, I didn't taste much more than pork and salt. The meat was tender and juicy at least. I tried out their house barbecue sauce out of pure necessity. My options were "Mild", "Hot", and "Hatfield's BBQ & Country Deli". The vaguely-named third sauce looked more like a vinegar-based one, so I opted for that. I was wrong, but it was still good - slightly sweet, but somewhat spicy at the same time.
The huge spare ribs honestly didn't look very good. There was a moderate crust on the top, but the underside was pretty mushy. I'm pretty sure the membrane hadn't been removed. Normally it gets really crispy in the smoking/grilling process and can just be peeled off, but the fact that it somehow softened was exceptionally concerning. The ribs also weren't cut, which is poor form considering all I was given was a plastic fork and knife set. Doubts aside, I tried them anyway. I found a little smoke in the crust, but few other flavors.
It's no wonder this place had almost zero lunch rush. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I wandered around back to check for a smoker.
I was honestly surprised to find a decent-sized smoker in operation. I was glad, but also even more confused. I'm not quite sure how to reconcile the quality of the meat with the smoke level. It's possible that they're smoking their barbecue for the correct length of time, but at too low a temperature. I don't know. Whatever they're doing at Hatfield's, they're doing it wrong. I probably would have given them two stars had it not been for the microwave. That was the real nail in their coffin.
Hatfield's BBQ & Country Deli
559 Stewarts Ferry Pike
Nashville, TN 37214
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Moving to a new city is always tough. You have to find a new dentist, a new barber, and, of course, a new favorite barbecue joint. I'd prefer my teeth and my hair to come out perfect the first time around, but I don't mind a little trial and error when it comes to tracking down good 'que. I noticed Fat Boy's BBQ just a few short miles from our new home, and I thought I'd give them a try.
The combination of a giant pink pig and a smoker right out front was a good omen. It also told me that pork would likely be the focal point here. This isn't Texas, so I suppose I shouldn't be shocked to find beef playing second fiddle.
Fat Boy's has a rather divey atmosphere to it. The first thing you notice upon arrival is a presumably load-bearing web of duct tape over a crack in the front door glass. Inside, you'll find a hodgepodge of assorted booths, tables, and chairs. It's a fairly small dining area, with enough seats for 31 dine-in customers by my count. Decor was minimal, at best. I hoped this meant their attention was fixed squarely on the meat.
To get a good feel for their food, I ordered the FB's Sampler: three meats and two small sides. For my meats, I picked brisket, ribs, and pulled pork. Ordinarily I might have selected sausage as the third member of my meaty trio (had it been available, that is), but pulled pork is a much more popular barbecue option in Tennessee. Oh well, when in Rome. Despite the regional preference to the contrary, I did, however, ask for my meat without sauce. Picking side dishes was a bit more difficult. My usual order is potato salad and pinto beans, but I like to venture out of my comfort zone from time to time. I had seen numerous reviews online which raved about Fat Boy's mac and cheese, so I thought I'd give it a shot. For my second side, I decided to try the white beans, which isn't a side dish I've encountered thus far in my barbecue travels, but appears to be a provincial favorite.
The mac and cheese came out piping hot. It was pleasantly creamy and tasted like actual cheese rather than Velveeta. I liked the addition of black pepper, although I would have preferred more of it. This wasn't the best mac I've had, but it was still very good. The beans looked rather intriguing. They had a creamy, soup-like texture: slightly mushy, with plenty of in-tact beans remaining too. I'm not overly familiar with legumes, but they tasted like either cannellini beans or navy. The beans had a nice seasoning and big chunks of meat (ham, I think) mixed in. I'm glad I tried them.
Once I had thoroughly sampled the side dishes, it was time for the main course. The brisket came in thick, Texas-style slices. It had decent bark and a slight smoke ring. Sadly, the fatty layer near the edge looked a little under-rendered. The meat itself had good seasoning and a great smoke level. It was also very tender. Upon closer examination, the fat was more rendered than I had initially thought, but it was still too rubbery. Properly cooked fat should melt in your mouth. All in all, the brisket was pretty good, but it could have used an extra hour or so in the smoker, or perhaps just a touch more heat during the cooking process.
In my admittedly non-expert opinion, a perfect serving of pulled pork should include fairly even amounts of bark, plain pork pieces, and pink-to-red smoky pork pieces. This pulled pork had only plain pieces, which resulted in a fairly bland portion. It had minimal seasoning and almost no smoke. The meat was also a little dry. I guess that's what the tabletop array of sauces is for. Their regular mild sauce was a pretty run-of-the-mill sweet, tomato sauce. The vinegar-based sauce was much tastier, but I feel like I shouldn't have needed it. The pork was actually quite good with the accompanying cornbread-esque pancake though, which is an interesting substitute for rolls and bread.
The big, meaty ribs had a good crust and a nice smoky hue, but here again the fat looked under-rendered. It was better than the brisket fat, though still not translucent enough. The ribs were tender and juicy, with the meat coming off the bone perfectly. I also enjoyed the hefty smoke level as well as the seasoning. These were probably my favorite of the three meats.
Fat Boy's homemade banana pudding seems to be fairly popular as well, so I thought I'd try it despite my exceptionally-full stomach. What can I say, I'm a sucker for good 'nana pudding.
The pudding had a great flavor. It wasn't too runny, nor was it too thick. They also don't skimp on the Nilla wafers or the bananas. My one complaint is that the wafers were a bit soggy, which is probably because they make the pudding a little too far in advance.
Fat Boy's has the potential for really phenomenal barbecue, but they're not quite there yet. Maybe their meat is just specifically designed to be covered in sauce. After all, this region's barbecue style definitely seems to favor sauce much more than Texas does. That being said, ice cream should taste good regardless of whether you pour chocolate syrup on top, and I feel like barbecue should work the same way.
Fat Boy's BBQ
2729 Murfreesboro Pike
Antioch, TN 37013
Sunday, June 22, 2014
My wife and I had only been back in Tennessee about a week, the majority of which had been spent unpacking and organizing our belongings (as well as our lives). As a treat, we decided to roll through Memphis to do a little home shopping. Even though it's a far cry from Central Texas-style, I couldn't resist trying out some top shelf Memphis barbecue.
Corky's was the closest to our other pre-determined destinations, so that made for an easy decision. It's also consistently rated as one of the top barbecue joints in Memphis. This place has a lively blues atmosphere which was very inviting. Judging by the photos on the wall, it seems like Corky's has been visited by hundreds of celebrities over the years. I hoped that translated into delicious food rather than just hype.
While the majority of barbecue joints I've encountered are simple counter-service operations, Corky's is full table-service. My wife and I were both exhausted after 2.5 hours of solid shopping (well, I was at least), so we appreciated a more relaxing meal. This is a busy place with lots of tables, and they clearly get plenty of business. After a brief ten minute wait and much anticipation, we were seated and started perusing the menu.
Choosing Corky's as our lunch spot was a no-brainer, but figuring out my order was much more difficult. I definitely wanted some Memphis-style ribs, and I thought I'd also see how they did with a Texas favorite: brisket. My best option for this meaty duo was the Ribs & Beef Killer Combo. I opted for dry ribs rather than wet. When I asked to have my brisket fatty with extra bark, I was informed that "they cut all that off," so I hoped it would be tasty enough as-is. Their combos automatically come with bar-b-q baked beans and coleslaw, but I subbed in hush puppies instead of the slaw.
The beans, as expected, were very sweet. I also found a hint of black pepper, but they weren't really spicy per se. The hush puppies had an amazing crispy batter on the outside, and were somehow both dense and fluffy on the inside. These were spicier than the beans, especially the ones with larger chunks of jalapenos (I think) in them. I also appreciated that these pups were homemade rather than frozen, and I can safely say that they were the best hush puppies I've had to date.
I almost always eat my brisket sliced, but unfortunately this was chopped. It was also loaded up with Corky's thick homemade barbecue sauce. Given these serving choices, coupled with the decision to cut off all of the bark, there was no hope for finding a smoke ring. Undaunted, I dug in anyway. The meat was very tender and juicy, and the sauce had a nice bite of vinegar to it. Since the main flavors here came from the sauce, I could only pinpoint a mild smokiness. Overall I'd say the brisket was rather tasty, but I would have preferred actual slices with bark.
As usual, I saved my ribs for last. These were beautifully pink from the smoke, though I couldn't taste much more of it than with the brisket. Fortunately, there was a great crust and the rub packed a ton of flavor. It might have had just a tad too much salt, but otherwise the rub was awesome. The meat itself was also really tender and came clean off the bone with each bite. All things considered, with only a moderate amount of smoke present I could really taste the natural flavors of the pork quite nicely.
My wife let me try a bite of smoked turkey from her brioche club sandwich. The thin, deli-style slices of turkey were very tender. They also had a decent smoke level and were fairly tasty for poultry.
Even though we were both thoroughly stuffed, dessert sounded too good to pass up. We got a slice of Miss Emma's Chocolate Fudge Pie to share, a la mode of course.
The pie looked absolutely amazing! It was fudgey and delicious, complete with fluffy whipped cream. And just in case the pie itself wasn't sweet enough, there was an extra drizzle of chocolate sauce atop the whole thing. Every bite was exceptionally rich. This was a great palate cleanser.
Corky's is likely top notch 'que by Memphis standards, but I guess I just have a different opinion of what constitutes stellar barbecue. To paraphrase Dorothy, "We're not in Texas anymore." Regardless, the food was all really good.
Corky's Ribs & BBQ
5259 Poplar Ave
Memphis, TN 38119
Friday, June 6, 2014
Getting ready to move is always hard, especially when there are so many people to say goodbye to. I was down in Oak Cliff visiting my friend and his new baby, which also happened to be just a few miles from the Bishop Arts district of Dallas. It was a no-brainer to pick Lockhart Smokehouse for dinner.
There are some folks out in the blogosphere who claim that Lockhart Smokehouse is hit-or-miss. I've had the pleasure of eating barbecue from Lockhart on several occasions now, and it's always phenomenal. The care and attention that goes into their food is readily apparent, from both the meat itself and from watching pitmaster Will Fleischman hard at work behind the counter.
I thought I had learned my lesson about over-ordering at Lockhart, but apparently not. It's hard not to try a little bit of everything here. We ended up with a half-pound of brisket, a half-pound of beef shoulder clod, a half-slab of pork ribs, and a few of their original Kreuz sausages. The side dishes here are also really tasty, so we added on potato salad, macaroni, and deviled eggs.
Lockhart's potato salad isn't mustard or mayo-based, but instead comes in their house dressing. It's like German-style potato salad, but with more flavor and spices. The heat level is also really nice. Their mac and cheese seemed exceptionally creamy today. It's very tasty and clearly homemade. This was my first run-in with their deviled eggs, and I'm really glad they found their way into our order. Lockhart fills their eggs with meats based on a rotating schedule, though I neglected to inquire as to today's meat. There was quite a bit of paprika covering it, but I think it was brisket. Regardless, the flavors are fantastic. There is also a nice spiciness to the eggs that pleasantly lingers.
As expected, the sliced brisket was terrific. Typically I have a specific request for my brisket, but today it came out perfect on its own. Each slice had tons of seasoning, especially on the bark (which there was plenty of). There was also a nice amount of smoke. The meat looked solid enough, but was so tender that it crumbled with the slightest touch. I was forced to share the half-pound with my friend, although I seriously considered taking it all and running out the door.
The beef shoulder clod is one of Lockhart's specialties, but this was my first time trying it. This was clearly a leaner cut of meat than the brisket, although what fat there was had been nicely rendered. The crust tasted great, and there was a good smoke level beneath. I wish more barbecue joints would include clod so I could eat it regularly.
It's often difficult to estimate how many ribs to order, but the spare ribs here are so big that a half-rack is plenty for 2-3 people to share. The meaty ribs had a smoke ring that went almost all the way through. Actually, they had the most smoke of all the meats today. The crust on Lockhart's ribs is always very tasty, and the tender, juicy meat is just as delicious.
Their sausages are definitely some of the best in DFW. I know they aren't made in-house, but they're still fantastic. The coarse meat is packed loosely into very crisp casings. I really enjoy the simple seasoning blend, which is predominantly salt and black pepper. A lot of barbecue joints have trouble inserting smoke into their sausage, but Lockhart seems to have conquered that problem quite nicely.
My goal is to visit as many barbecue joints as I can before leaving Texas, although part of me wants to end on a high note. Lockhart Smokehouse is definitely a benchmark that's hard to beat, so maybe I should quit while I'm ahead.
400 West Davis
Dallas, TX 75208
Saturday, May 31, 2014
On this particular weekend, Mrs. Barbecue Fiend and I were down in Schulenburg, Texas for one last hometown visit before our fast-approaching move to Nashville. The Central Texas barbecue style is unquestionably better than any other variety out there, so I suggested that we snag lunch from Novosad's in neighboring Hallettsville.
Novosad's made the first ever Texas Monthly list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints back in 1997, but fell short of the next 3 half-decade lists. To describe this place as "no frills" would be a complete understatement. It's the kind of small town meat market I was raised on: just a handful of old tables and chairs, with decoration being an obvious afterthought. The one exception to this is their repeated exploitation of the Texas Monthly nod, which they justifiably display with pride and vigor. The food cases and corresponding work area comprise the vast majority of the space here. Meat is clearly the focal point. Perfect.
I called and ambitiously placed a large order for the following day: a pound of brisket, a pound of pork steak, a pound of sausage, a full slab of pork ribs, a half-slab of lamb ribs, a pint of spicy pinto beans, a pint of confetti coleslaw, and a quart of potato salad. Considering there'd only be three of us eating nearly $80.00 worth of food, I had clearly over-ordered. Oh well, now I'd have a five-meat smorgasbord to try out, and I never mind having leftovers of good 'que.
My order wasn't scheduled for pick-up until 11:00am, but I arrived a little early as usual. This was rather fortuitous, since a line had formed from the counter to the door within 10 minutes of my arrival. Novosad's may have fallen off of Texas Monthly's radar, but it's obviously still a local favorite.
Given the number of meats as I had ordered, I needed a separate plate just for my side dishes. The mustard-based potato salad had a nice amount of veggies mixed in. It wasn't overpoweringly mustardy, which allowed the pickle content to shine nicely. The pinto beans came with big chunks of brisket scattered throughout. I found only a slight spiciness, which appealed more to my cohorts than it did to me. Overall, the beans made for a pleasant side. I decided to pass on the coleslaw.
When you see brisket like this, you just know it's going to be amazing. There was a gorgeous, deep red smoke ring and great-looking bark with an equally great flavor. Despite the thick slices, this brisket was tender and very juicy. It was also packed with smoke, though not overly so. The fat was well-rendered, and I was happy to eat my wife's discarded fatty pieces. Her loss.
The pork shoulder steak (pork butt) was beautifully tender and perfectly smoky. Although nobody else seemed to have any specific interest in it, I called dibs on the meat from the "Y" of the bone (the money spot). Absolutely delicious! I also especially enjoyed the thin strip of fat running along the steak's edge, which was salty very flavorful. Of all the less-traditional barbecue pork cuts, pork butt is probably my favorite.
Novosad's sausage is (surprise, surprise) a coarse-ground Czech/German style sausage. The thing that makes this kind of sausage so spectacular is its simplicity: salt, pepper, garlic (and probably one or two other secret mix-ins). You can actually see tons of coarse pepper showing through the casings, which emitted a great snap with each slice. The sausage was also slightly and pleasantly spicy. I came across a quotation from Nathan Novosad, the current owner, which is brilliantly apt. According to Mr. Novosad, "People around here like to see what they're eating. You grind the meat in the sausage too fine and they can't tell what it is they're putting in their mouths." Well said, sir.
My pork spare ribs were up next. I try not to be too picky, but I would have preferred them with more seasoning (i.e. black pepper) on the crust. Despite this, they were still very good. The ribs had a deep red color that just screamed smoke, and the smoky taste did not disappoint. They were tender and decently juicy. Each bite also came away cleanly from the bone without "falling off," which is just right.
Lamb ribs aren't something I'm accustomed to by any means, but I certainly wanted to try them out. From what I'm told, there is an increasingly-pervasive subculture of mutton lovers popping up in this region of Texas. I'm not sure why, but I applaud them nonetheless. These ribs were oilier than the pork ribs, and had also soaked up more smoke. Actually, the lamb ribs were probably the smokiest of my five meats. Considering the slight gaminess, I'd say these ribs likely came from an older animal and should more properly be classified as mutton rather than lamb, but I'm glad I gave them a shot either way.
Novosad's shows why Central Texas barbecue is the best around, and they should be proud of the delicious meats they've been churning out for the past 55 years.
Novosad's BBQ & Sausage Market
105 S. La Grange St
Hallettsville, TX 77964
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
After a week of solid packing, I felt like I deserved a little smoked meat treat. Some protein would probably be helpful as well. For no reason in particular, Mr. Blackwell's Smoke Ring BBQ was my pick of the day.
You'll find Mr. Blackwell's inside an imaginatively-named "C Store" brand convenience store. The bbq signage isn't readable from the road, so you pretty much have to know where you're going in advance. I arrived around 11:15am, hoping to get the freshest cuts. A trailer-mounted smoker churning in the parking lot was a good omen. I wandered inside, only to find Mr. Blackwell's counter closed. The store clerk assured me that 11:00am was the usual start time, so I guess Mr. Blackwell was just running late today. I figured he wouldn't leave his smoker unattended for too long, so I waited out in my truck and returned a few emails.
By 11:30am, I was pretty tired of waiting, but I didn't want my 20-minute drive out here to have been for naught. I figured I would give him 15 more minutes before giving up. 45 minutes past the scheduled opening time, Mr. Blackwell finally pulled up. Huzzah! When I got back inside, there were three other guys waiting for 'que. Mr. Blackwell seemed nice enough. He was very apologetic about the wait and said time just got away from him since he doesn't own a watch.
Famished, I ordered a Three Meat Combo Plate of sliced brisket, pork ribs, and pulled pork. For my sides, I snagged his signature potato salad and southwestern corn. While Mr. Blackwell was preparing an order (I don't know if it was mine or another customer's), I heard the distinct chime of a microwave that had just finished ruining some meat. This was not a good sign. After continued observation, I determined that it's just the pulled pork which gets nuked in the microwave. The other meats stay nestled in a warming box, which honestly isn't a whole lot better. Heating up pre-cooked meat in the microwave defeats the purpose of dining out. If I wanted to eat microwaved food, I could have stayed at home.
I found a Yelp review that describes this joint perfectly: "The ambiance is probably about the best you could expect for a place inside a convenience store across from a high school." Despite the lack of ambiance and the lack of confidence I now had in the food, I decided to stay and eat my lunch on site. It took about 20 minutes to receive my food. I know Mr. Blackwell is doing the best he can for a one-man show, but that's still a long time to wait. When I finally got my order, I was disappointed to find all three meats covered in a generous helping of sauce.
The potato salad had a good flavor and a decent crunch. However, he used mashed potatoes for the base, which I don't particularly care for. Maybe I'm just used to German-style potato salad. The corn was ok, though kind of bland. I'm not sure what makes it "southwestern," but it sure wasn't spicy by any means.
My razor-thin slices of brisket had a good black crust at least. I couldn't pinpoint a smoke ring under the abundant sauce. Despite the lack of visual cues, there was actually a really decent smoke level. Nine times out of ten, a heavy layer of sauce precludes any possibility of tasting smoke, but it actually managed to shine through nicely here. Unfortunately, all that time in the smoker resulted in overcooked meat which fell apart at the slightest touch. My slices turned into chopped beef by the time I was done digging around in it. There is a fine line to walk with brisket, but I suppose I'd rather have flavorful, smoky meat that was a little overcooked than bland meat cooked just right.
Unlike the brisket, their pulled pork seems to derive most of its flavor from the sauce. At least the sauce itself is pretty tasty, with a nice vinegary bite to it. The meat was tender, but a little dried out (likely from the zap in the microwave). I didn't catch any smoke here at all, and found myself sorely disappointed.
I could tell the ribs were overcooked without even taking a bite. The meat was mushy and dry, with the texture of boiled stew meat. It was so overcooked that I could literally eat it with a spoon. Silverware was actually needed here, since the first rib I picked up lost all of its meat with nothing more than the force of gravity tugging on it. Underneath my three ribs were several peculiar strips of rib meat. I'm guessing their bones fell out somewhere in the plating process. These overcooked ribs somehow didn't soak up as much smoke as the overcooked brisket, leaving the sauce as the only source of flavor.
There is a photograph of Mr. Blackwell's barbecue on TripAdvisor.com that I felt compelled to share here. The photo is labeled as a "Management Photo" from November 2013, which I guess means Mr. Blackwell provided the photo himself or had someone do it for him.
The barbecue in this TripAdvisor picture is night-and-day different from the barbecue I received. The ribs actually look like a completely different cut, and I would have loved to have received some bark on mine. I also didn't get my sides in little containers, and I certainly didn't have sauce on the side (I would have requested it had I known). Unless Mr. Blackwell has completely changed up his meat cuts and his serving style, I'm assuming this photo was staged with advertisement in mind.
In retrospect, nearly $16.00 (including an extra $2.00 for ribs) is a bit pricey for a three-meat combo. The portions were certainly generous, but I'd rather have a smaller quantity of higher quality food. Mr. Blackwell was such a warm and kind man that I feel bad giving him such a negative review. That being said, I pride myself on honest criticism when it comes to barbecue.
Mr. Blackwell's Smoke Ring BBQ
2929 N. Galloway Ave.
Mesquite, TX 75150