Tuesday, December 24, 2013
I've gotten a little bored with the traditional holiday turkey and ham, so I was hoping for something different this year. My wife's grandfather generously decided to order barbecue from Whole Hog Cafe for our Christmas Eve feast. Joy to the world!!!
I've been to one Whole Hog location a few times whilst visiting Little Rock, but this would be my first sampling of the Markham Street joint. Everything I'd eaten on previous trips was absolutely amazing, and I hoped the food would be just as delicious as from our normal spot. I tried to snag an army green t-shirt to round out my Whole Hog clothing collection, but sadly they were sold out.
We ended up with quite the spread: pulled pork, brisket, pulled chicken, sausage, baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. Too bad we didn't get any ribs, because Whole Hog smokes some awesome bones. The sausage almost didn't make it onto the order either, but as a Texan I was rather insistent that it be included. We also had an array of sauces to compliment the meat: Sauces 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Despite my overwhelming desire to dive face first into the meat, I started by taste-testing the side dishes. The beans had some tender bits of pulled pork mixed right in, but otherwise tasted like run-of-the-mill baked beans. I'm not usually a big fan of coleslaw. That being said, I wanted to give it a shot anyway. Visually it looked quite nice, with plenty of black pepper throughout. It had a rather potent smell to it and a good crunch, but I'm too biased against coleslaw to comment further. The potato salad, however, was excellent. The large-diced, skin-on red potatoes gave it the perfect consistency. It was a mayo-based potato salad, which allowed the individual ingredients to shine much more than with mustard-based salads.
I wasn't sure which meat to start with, so I eenie-meenie-miney-mo'd my way to the pulled chicken. This was my first go-round with chicken from Whole Hog. BBQ poultry can easily get too dried out, so I wasn't sure what I'd find here. As I feared, it looked pretty dry from the outset, with no smoky red hue to be found. I was also expecting large pieces of pulled chicken, but instead it seemed more like we got the scrapings from the bottom of the pan. The flavor was ok, but not as good as anticipated. There was definitely no smoke to it.
The pulled pork looked more visually appealing than the chicken, with at least a little bit of a smoke ring on some pieces. That's good, because the menu description specifies that their pork is dry rubbed and hickory smoked. The meat was incredibly tender, and I definitely found some smoke here. I only wish I had received a little bark so I could taste their dry rub. This was the clear front runner of the four meats.
Just like with the chicken, there didn't appear to be any smoke ring to the brisket either. Equally disappointing was the fact that all of the presumably delicious bark had been trimmed off. It looked like we'd been given mostly lean cuts from the flat, and all of the slices were cut razor thin. I didn't taste much smoke, and it was a tad salty for my liking. Whole Hog claims that their brisket is "fork tender." The meat was indeed tender and wasn't as dried out as expected, but overall wasn't very appealing.
As a Texan, sausage is a familiar part of my barbecue upbringing. This variety looked a little like store-bought sausage and definitely hadn't been made in-house. The casings had a decent snap at least, and a good amount of pepper too. I also noticed a touch of garlic in the blend. The sausage was tasty, but not outstanding.
I don't generally gravitate toward barbecue sauce, but I wanted to sample all of them anyway.
Sauce #1 is Whole Hog's classic barbecue sauce: sweet and mild. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and is probably the flavor profile that most people think of when they hear "bbq sauce". Sauce #2 is their tangy tomato, which is supposed to be smooth, sweet, and slightly spicy. I found a small kick to it, but there was more tomato flavor than anything else. Sauce #3 is the same as #2, but spicier. There was a little more heat, but not really enough to stand out. Sauce #4 is their traditional Southern vinegar sauce. It was the runniest of the four, probably from all the vinegar. I prefer their molasses-based #5 sauce and the #6 mustard and vinegar, but unfortunately neither variety made it onto this order.
Whole Hog Cafe has won many awards over the years (including several from Memphis in May), and is listed in Fodor's guidebooks as one of five "Don't Miss" restaurants in Arkansas. Their barbecue is pretty delicious, though I'd stick to the flagship branch on Cantrell Road.
Whole Hog Cafe
12111 W. Markham St
Little Rock, AR 72211
Sunday, December 15, 2013
I've been aching for an opportunity to try out Smoke, especially given their recent #23 ranking as part of D Magazine's list of the 100 Best Restaurants in Dallas. This weekend was full of festivities for my 30th birthday, and Smoke was my top pick. They didn't have any reservation times left for a Saturday night dinner, so I had to settle for Sunday brunch.
Smoke is located right next to The Belmont hotel, so it's fairly easy to find. I wasn't sure where to find the self-parking lot, and rather than driving around in circles I simply opted for the $5.00 valet. They don't take reservations for brunch, and we were slated for a 60-80 minute wait. Most of the other customers in line passed the time with mimosas and bellinis. We only ended up waiting about 50 minutes for a six-person table, which wasn't that terrible under the circumstances.
The atmosphere at Smoke is much more upscale than the vast majority of barbecue joints. Younger Dallasites gravitate toward the posh and the hip, so this probably adds to the busy brunch scene here. The tables are still lined with butcher paper, so there was at least some sticking to tradition, or so I thought until our waitress's blue and purple hair blew that notion out of the water. She and the rest of the waitstaff could have easily passed as coffeehouse baristas, or possibly roadies for Phish.
I love trying out unique barbecue offerings, so I eagerly ordered the Pulled Whole Hog BBQ Eggs Benedict, which comes with goat cheese potato cakes. Yum! Even though it was brunch, I couldn't resist adding on a half-pound of their Coffee Cured Beef Brisket for good measure.
The potato cakes ended up being much denser than I envisioned. Maybe adding some risotto or possibly hash-browning the potatoes would do the trick. They were mostly potatoes, with only a hint of goat cheese in the mix. I wish there had been more creamy cheese to lighten things up. The flavors were ok, but the texture wasn't quite right.
My eggs benny, on the other hand, were delicious. The runny eggs worked beautifully with the spicy pulled pork, and the creamy hollandaise helped things too. I found a slight sweetness from the barbecue sauce. There were too many powerful flavors to catch any smoke in the pulled pork, and I really couldn't find a smokey hue either. Regardless, it was all really tasty and very tender. I've been vigorously searching for a breakfasty take on barbecue, and these eggs benedict fit the bill quite nicely.
The brisket had a gorgeous black crust and a nice smoke ring. Some of the leaner cuts were a little too dry, but the fatty slices were perfectly tender. I found a pretty hefty amount of smoke in each bite. The seasoning was very nice, with a hint of sweetness from the coffee grounds sprinkled on top. I'm sure it was there, but I didn't notice too much coffee flavor in the crust. It wasn't quite what I was expecting as far as the coffee aspects go, but I liked the inventive flavor combination nonetheless.
Even though I'd definitely had my fill of barbecue, I'm certainly not going to pass up the opportunity for more. My mom ordered up a half-rack of Smoke's dry-rubbed Pork Spare Ribs, which I coaxed her into letting me sample.
My initial reaction was disappointment at the lack of bark on these ribs. I bit in, and was surprised to find a good sweetness to the crust from some caramelized honey (and possibly an extra pinch of sugar). There was also a good punch of smoke, even more than in the brisket. The meat itself was very tender and had been cooked just long enough. These certainly weren't Central Texas ribs, but they were still pretty tasty.
I later found out that Conan O'Brien was eating dinner at Smoke on Friday night. Too bad we missed him, because I would have loved an autograph or at least a picture of his giant red hair. I was really happy with my meat-tastic smorgasbord. Smoke has some really creative twists on traditional barbecue, and I'm anxious to see what the future holds for them.
901 Fort Worth Ave
Dallas, TX 75208
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Mid-week barbecue is always a bit of an elusive luxury for me, so today I took full advantage of my open schedule and headed to Garland in search of more top tier meat. Meshack's has been in operation since 2009, yet somehow this was my first visit. It's one of the only barbecue joints in the DFW metroplex that opens before 11:00am, which makes it the perfect pick for a carnivorous brunch.
This aptly-named joint is quite literally a shack. Some of the more humble and rustic barbecue spots lack plates and/or utensils, but here you won't even find tables or chairs, and the only menu is painted onto the outer wall. Despite its meager appearance, Meshack's has been churning out 'que delicious enough make Texas Monthly's list of "Top 50 BBQ Joints" for 2013, and it's consistently listed as one of D Magazine's "D Best" for barbecue. Needless to say, I was quite eager to try things out for myself.
A to-go order seemed to be the only option, but I was ok with that. I hungrily ordered a three-meat Mixed Dinner of ribs, sliced beef, and links. Their dinner plates automatically come with potato salad and baked beans, and there's no room to negotiation since those are the only side dishes available. When asked, I opted for Meshack's original barbecue sauce over the spicy variety. It's not that I mind a little heat, but I didn't want anything to overtake the meat's intended flavors. Fortunately, I also had my wits about me enough to ask for sauce on the side.
Barbecue in hand, I anxiously made my way home to unwrap what would undoubtedly be a delicious meal. The same amazing aroma that made the wait in line somewhat enjoyable also made the drive back to Uptown almost unbearable. I found myself glancing down at my smoky passenger every few minutes and licking my lips.
The potato salad looked a little like lumpy instant mashed potatoes, with no visible spices or veggies. That being said, it was interestingly sweet and had more of a crunch than I expected. It certainly wasn't the usual German-style potato salad I'm used to, but it was still pretty tasty. Much like the potato salad, the baked beans also had a nice sweetness. Nothing about them really stood out, but they were a decent barbecue accompaniment nonetheless.
I started my meat trio with the hot links, which were really well done. The casings were perfectly snappy, though not overly so. All of the black pepper and garlic gave the sausage a great flavor, and there was a decent amount of heat to it too. Even though they weren't homemade (Smokey Denmark's from Austin), these links were rather excellent.
My brisket had a pronounced smoke ring and a dark black crust. The meat was very tender, despite being a leaner cut of meat. The small amount of fat I did find was rendered quite well. There was a good seasoning and plenty of smoke to boot. Although it wasn't needed, I tried the sauce for good measure. Theirs is a nice vinegar-based sauce with a slight sweetness that paired well with the brisket.
Last but not least, the ribs. These were probably my favorite of the three. They had a deep red smoke ring and some beautiful bark. The meat was really juicy and took little effort to pull off the bone, but there was enough retention to avoid the oft-encountered "falling-off-the-bone" nonsense. There was also a great spice blend in the crust and a great smoky flavor throughout. Too bad my order only came with four of these bad boys.
Meshack's had some pretty amazing barbecue, but it's a little far out of the way to become a regular stop of mine. I'm glad that I at least got to try it once before leaving The Big D. Well done.
Meshack's Bar-Be-Que Shack
240 E. Ave B
Garland, TX 75040
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Sweetwater, Texas has more power-generating windmills than any other place I've seen, and it's also home to the world's largest rattlesnake roundup. Their real claim to fame, however, is Big Boy's Bar-B-Que, which was included in Texas Monthly's most recent list of the Top 50 Barbecue Joints. I was still full from my barbecue-filled lunch just three hours earlier, but I couldn't resist more top notch 'que. I took a quick stop to see if Big Boy's would live up to the hype.
I didn't take too much time to admire the ambiance inside Big Boy's, but it seemed decent enough. The decor was very Southwestern, and tied in nicely with the Native American history of the area. It was much nicer than the sheet metal exterior would lead you to believe. As would be expected, they had a framed copy of the Texas Monthly list mounted right next to the counter.
Despite Big Boy's inclusion on the Texas Monthly list, I was the only customer at 3:30pm so I decided to just get my food to-go. A full combo plate seemed like far too much food, and all I really wanted was a snack. They were nice enough to let me snag a 1/4 pound of sliced brisket and a couple of ribs. The carnivore in me rarely needs a side dish, so this would be a perfect sampling.
The brisket looked like a leaner cut, but I probably didn't need the extra fat anyway. It had some decent bark, though not much of a smoke ring. The meat itself was very tender, even for being rather lean. Each bite was packed with tons of flavor and a slight smokiness, despite being cooked directly over mesquite coals rather than being smoked. This direct-cooking method is more in line with the West Texas style of barbecue, so I certainly didn't mind the change of pace. Considering how delicious their lean brisket was, I'm sure the fatty variety is even better.
Brisket thoroughly sampled, I moved on to the meaty St. Louis ribs, which happen to be my favorite cut. Who needs rib tips anyway? They had a beautiful crust which looked perfectly caramelized. The sugary glaze was a great combination of the Texas and Memphis styles of barbecue. It was a slightly thicker glaze than most, suggesting honey as a base. The sweetness also did a nice job of balancing out all of the black pepper. Juice was plentiful in these ribs, so it's a good thing I keep a hand towel in my truck for just such an occasion.
I wish I could have spent more time here, but I still had another three hours or so left on my drive home. This is my 100th barbecue review, and I couldn't be happier to give that honor to Big Boy's Bar-B-Que. Their meat is definitely worthy of the Texas Monthly list.
Big Boy's Bar-B-Que
2117 Lamar St
Sweetwater, TX 79556
I've slowly but surely been eating my way through Texas Monthly's list of "Top 50 Barbecue Joints" for 2013, and Pody's BBQ would make 6 out of 50. I'd probably never find myself in Pecos, Texas again, so this was an opportunity that I just couldn't pass up.
Pecos claims to be the home of the world's first rodeo, though the folks in Deer Trail, Colorado may disagree. Historical accuracy aside, the only thing I wanted to wrangle in Pecos was some delicious barbecue.
Pody's BBQ seemed to embody everything that's great about West Texas. The interior definitely reminded me of the old west, with a few modern accents for good measure. I thought the wagon wheel chandeliers were a nice touch. They are very proud of their nod from Texas Monthly (as well they should be), with several signs and banners showcasing this tremendous accolade. With as much notoriety as Pody's has gotten since the Texas Monthly list came out, they still keep things simple and humble: sweet tea in red solo cups, plastic utensils, styrofoam plates, and paper towels. Even their menu is nothing more than a hand-written marker board.
I knew that a lot of food would probably make the remaining six hours of my drive home long and sleepy, but I couldn't resist sampling all that Pody's had to offer. I ordered a 3 Meat Plate: brisket, ribs, and sausage with potato salad and Southwest pozole on the side. The customer in line ahead of me got a pretty big takeout order with 10 pounds of ribs, thankfully leaving just enough meat for my combo plate. I really dodged a bullet there.
Their potato salad was about average. There wasn't just a ton of flavor, though the pickles did stand out nicely. A little black pepper would have gone a long way here. The pozole, on the other hand, was spectacular. There was a good seasoning to it, with a slight hint of spiciness on the back end of each bite, courtesy of the green chiles. The cheddar cheese also added a nice creaminess. This was my first go round with pozole, and I really enjoyed it. I wish pozole would become more mainstream because it was a great pairing for barbecue.
The brisket had a gorgeous black crust, with a pronounced smoke ring beneath. I could tell it would be melt-in-your-mouth tender just by looking at it. As I suspected, the brisket tasted phenomenal. I received a good combination of lean and fatty pieces, and both kinds were very juicy and tender. The crust had an amazing punch of flavors, and there was indeed a nice degree of smoke in each bite. My order came with one end piece that was about 75% crust, which was absolutely divine. I didn't dare add any sauce, though I'm told Pody's has a habanero-based barbecue sauce that will light you up.
I managed to put down the brisket long enough to try their sausage. The casings were beautiful and dark from the pit. I found a good snap there, though I would have preferred just a little more. The smoke seemed to have penetrated the casings nicely, and the pepper and other seasonings gave it a nice flavor. According to Daniel Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel BBQ/Texas Monthly, Pody's sausage is not made in house. That just goes to show that a true pitmaster can turn even store-bought sausage into something delicious.
The ribs looked so incredible that it was hard to save them for last. My big, meaty spare ribs had a deep black crust, and the smoky hue went almost all the way through to the bone. They were impossible to put down once I started eating. The meat had great staying power, but was still tender enough to come off the bone with only a slight tug. Each bite was very juicy and packed with smoky goodness. I'm glad that I arrived when I did, since otherwise I would have missed out on these tasty ribs.
I was absolutely stuffed by the time I left Pody's. On the way out the door, there's a sign asking you to "Ring Bell If Satisfied." Not a single customer left without ringing that bell, myself included. Kudos to pitmaster Israel Campos, because I could eat Pody's barbecue morning, noon, and night.
1330 S. Cedar
Pecos, TX 79772
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Sundays are always hard on the barbecue lover, particularly in smaller towns. I was heading west in search of mule deer and aoudad sheep, and Wagon Wheel Bar-B-Que in Odessa was one of the only joints open on a 500 mile stretch of road.
Wagon Wheel was a little farther off the interstate than I'd hoped for, but after six hours of driving I was in dire need of sustenance. I hoped the 'que would at least be halfway decent. The interior was surprisingly more inviting than the shoddy exterior would lead you to believe. It had the kind of western decor you might expect from a place called "Wagon Wheel." It also seemed to be a favorite for all of the local oil field workers.
I was hungry, but didn't want to overdo things too much. I ordered a 2 Meat Plate of brisket and pork ribs, with potato salad and pinto beans on the side.
The potato salad had a decent crunch from the veggies, although it could have used more pickles. It was overly mustardy, making all of the black pepper completely unnecessary since I couldn't taste it anyway. As for the pinto beans, they were absolutely disgusting. The broth or whatever the beans were swimming in had a really weird taste. It was like a runny bean dip of sorts. I couldn't stand more than two forkfuls.
Disappointed by the side dishes, I moved on to the meats. The brisket's crust looked decent enough, but there wasn't much of a smoke ring. The meat was pretty tender, though a leaner cut would likely have been too dry to eat. I couldn't taste much other than salt (not that it was overly salty, that was just the only flavor). There was only a slight hint of smoke to be had. This is one of those rare instances where I wish my meat had been pre-sauced.
My pork spare ribs were rather massive. The rib tips hadn't been trimmed off, adding to their enormous size. I saw a slightly better smoke ring here, and there was a good dark crust too. The flavor was better than with the brisket, but was still a pretty basic salt and pepper blend. The underbelly was a little mushy, like the ribs had been sitting in a pan of their own juices. I wish there had been more smoke, and there might have been if Wagon Wheel had bothered to remove the membrane from their ribs.
Considering their roadside marquee only advertises pancakes and catfish, I guess I should have known better. I hoped the stops I had planned for my drive back to Dallas would yield better results.
Wagon Wheel Bar-B-Que
10161 W University Blvd
Odessa, TX 79764