Monday, March 24, 2014
To commemorate my last week at work, the firm let me pick out a spot for a farewell lunch. I knew it would be barbecue, but I wanted to try something less run-of-the-mill. Woodshed Smokehouse was the perfect choice.
Woodshed is owned by chef, restaurateur, and urban cowboy Tim Love. My fondest memory of Chef Love was watching him compete on "Next Iron Chef," despite getting the boot on episode one. In a moment of complete awesomeness, Chef Love began the competition by pounding white wine and taking tequila shots from a soup ladle. He then proceeded to grill himself a steak, whilst serving the judges a delightful "screw you" kale salad. At least he went out in style, and to his credit, Chef Love did beat Iron Chef Morimoto in a chile competition a few years ago.
This place is situated right on the Trinity River, with a huge outdoor patio overlooking the riverbend. I noticed a small stage area, though no one was jamming mid-afternoon on a Monday. Woodshed has piles of categorized wood out front and throughout the dining area, including apple, mesquite, and hickory. In addition to being a really awesome decor choice, they also sell the wood if you're so inclined.
My tablemates were quite anxious to sample some of Woodshed's appetizers, although I wasn't fast enough to snap pictures of them all. First up were their Crispy Smoked Brussel Sprouts, which are prepared with lemon, chili, and pecorino.
Brussel sprouts typically aren't at the top of my list, but these looked pretty good. The crispy sprouts had a flavor similar to oven roasted potatoes and had a texture that reminded me of artichoke hearts. Basically, eating them made me forget that they were brussel sprouts, and that's a good thing. The pecorino cheese was a nice addition, and the acid from the lemon added a pleasant zing.
I also got to sample the Crispy Potatoes, along with a well-paired smoked garlic aioli. These were really tasty. The potatoes were similar to large Southern-style hashbrown potatoes, but smaller than home fries. I'm a fan of mayo-based sauces in general, and the creamy garlic aioli was excellent.
Just before the waitress started to clear away our appetizer plates, I snagged the one remaining bite of Smoked Hummus, complete with pit master fat (yum!). There was a surprisingly high degree of smoke here, which I'm assuming was of the liquid smoke variety rather than from the pit fat. I like a lot of garlic, and this stuff definitely had a garlicky bite to it. It was tasty enough, but maybe a little less smoke would have been better.
Once we had polished off the vegetarian appetizers, I couldn't help but add on an order of Brisket Stuffed Piquillo Peppers, which come with bone broth and cojita cheese. My boss scooped one up as soon as the plate hit the table, but the picture should still give you a pretty good idea of this dish.
The peppers came swimming in what I assume was the advertised bone broth. The piquillo pepper was a nice serving vehicle for the brisket, but added no heat whatsoever. As expected, the piquillos did add a nice sweetness to the meat. The chopped brisket was very tender, though a tad greasy and oily. The peppers themselves were softened to the point of falling apart, so a fork was definitely needed here.
I saw several sandwiches that sounded good, but I just wanted meat without the unnecessary addition of bread. Their traditional barbecue entrees are available a la carte, so I ordered a half-pound of Beef Ribs and a quarter-pound of Lamb Brisket.
At $2.50 an ounce (that's $40.00 per pound), the lamb brisket is a bit pricey. Fortunately, the firm was buying today. These meager slices didn't have near as much bark as I'd hoped for, though the crust did appear to have a rosemary rub on it. There was also a slight smoke ring, but despite visual suggestions I only caught a mild smoke flavor. The fatty cut of lamb added to the tenderness of the meat. I wish the fat had been rendered a little better though. My slices were also a little oily and had a touch too much salt. All in all, it was more like a pot roast than barbecue.
The beef ribs came complete with a massive amount of bark, some of which was too solid and hard to actually eat. The sprinkling of herbs in the crust also seemed unnecessary and a bit hoity-toity for barbecue. I found a good smoke level at least. The unfortunate decision to leave the rib membrane intact made things a little difficult to navigate. It seemed like most of the weight here came from the bone rather than from meat, which even then was a bit gristly. Though I'm not 100% certain, I think these were beef back ribs. Perhaps some meaty plate short ribs would have been a better choice.
One of my compatriots was kind enough to share a few pieces of "Today's Sausage" off of her sandwich. The sausage du jour happened to be boar. The finely-ground meat had a creamy pate quality to it, though I prefer more of a coarse grind in my sausage. It had an interesting sweet flavor to it, cinnamon I think. It was unusual to say the least, but pretty enjoyable overall.
Much as it pains me to say, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by this place. I think Woodshed tries too hard to think outside the box and has forgotten the basics of barbecue in the process.
3201 Riverfront Dr
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Friday, March 21, 2014
With its "Friday lunch only" business hours, getting to Cattleack Barbeque has been a tough row to hoe. Even then, they're only open from 10:30am until the food runs out. Today I was lucky enough to have my morning free, so I jumped at the opportunity to sample Cattleack's elusive 'que.
This part of town is home to dozens of furniture stores and also several warehouses. It's not the area where you'd expect to find a restaurant of any kind. Owners Todd and Misty David primarily run a catering operation, so their limited lunch offerings are take-out only. There is no dining area whatsoever, but there are a handful of folding chairs and picnic tables set up near the parking lot if you're so inclined.
I arrived at 10:20am, and there were already half a dozen people in line. The early bird gets the worm, and their customer base clearly isn't messing around. While I waited, my eyes zeroed in on the Igloo cooler of cold beer, which Cattleack offers to its customers free of charge. A few folks in line had no qualms about popping a top. If it hadn't been so early in the day, I probably would have taken them up on the offer too.
Their side dishes all sounded good, but today I was focusing on meat. I ordered myself a full array of smoked deliciousness: 1/2 pound of sliced brisket, 1/2 pound of homemade jalapeno and cheddar sausage, 1/2 pound of pork ribs, and one giant beef rib which weighed in at just under a pound. I had definitely over-ordered, but at least I'd have plenty of leftovers. At home, I plated a lunch-sized portion (well, lunch-sized for me at least) and saved the rest for dinner.
The brisket was up first. It had a great black crust and a decent smoke ring. I had asked for a mix of both fatty and lean slices, which they were happy to accommodate. The fatty slices were so tender and velvety that it was hard to keep a bite on my fork. The texture was very smooth and rich, almost like you were eating pate. A high fat content doesn't appeal to everyone, but it was nicely rendered and really enjoyable. Even the lean slices were very tender. I found a big hit of smoke across the board and a great seasoning on the crust too.
My meaty St. Louis-style pork ribs had a beautiful, solid black crust with plenty of visible pepper. The smoky hue went end to end, making it hard to call this a mere smoke ring. I bit in, and found quite a bit of smoke, which was no surprise really. The light glaze had a mild sweetness to it, but wasn't overly sugary. These ribs were tender, moist, and cooked perfectly.
I could see tons of cracked black pepper through the sausage casing. When sliced, I also found big chunks of jalapeno and cheddar. The casings were crisp and had a nice snap to them. I liked the medium grind on the meat, which leaned a little more toward the finely-ground side of the spectrum. The gooey cheese tempered the heat of the jalapenos quite well. The sausage had a good smoky flavor, but the spicy kick from the peppers stood out the most.
Three meats down, one to go. I saved the massive beef plate short rib for last, though it looked more like a Flintstonian-sized brontosaurus rib. At my request, I got an end cut for some extra bark, and there was certainly plenty of it to go around. I wasn't quite sure how to tackle this thing, so I just picked it up and chowed down. Wow, I was in heaven! Meaty, smoky, juicy. This rib had it all. There was a good fat marbling, almost like Kobe beef, which made the meat extremely tender. It also had a high smoke content and tons of flavor.
Cattleack puts a note in every to-go bag encouraging customers to review their food on any and all social media outlets. Todd and Misty really seem to love barbecue and are quite proud of their product. They should be. Even more impressive, they do it all with an Ole Hickory smoker. There seems to be some confusion about Cattleack out there in the blogosphere, with allegations that they use a gas smoker. On the contrary, theirs is in fact a wood-burning smoker, just as God intended. Gas is used to start the fire (understandably), but then it's au naturel from there. As a native Texan I've eaten my fair share of smoked meat, and I can honestly say that Cattleack's barbecue was some of the best I've had.
13678 Gamma Rd
Dallas, TX 75244
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
I'm slowly but surely making my way through the Texas Monthly list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints for 2013, with 11 under my belt thus far. Today I took a detour on my way back to the office in search of #12, Longoria's BBQ.
This place is pretty far off the beaten path. If you're not sure where Everman, Texas is, think South Fort Worth out amongst the cattle. With the open fields surrounding Longoria's, it's hard to believe you're still in the DFW metroplex.
Longoria's has no frills whatsoever, just delicious smoked meat. It's decorated with everything from old Coke machines and glass guitars to welding art and steer horns - basically whatever they could scrounge up from nearby yard sales. There are also a few signed photos of celebrities, including Angelina Jolie. I couldn't help but imagine her full, pouty lips polishing off a pork rib. Sorry, I got sidetracked there for a minute. Back to the meat.
Normally I gravitate toward the Texas Trinity (brisket, ribs, sausage), but I've sampled their brisket sausage once before at the Taste of Dallas food festival. Even though it was delicious, today I wanted to try something new. I settled on a Two-Meat Combo plate of sliced brisket and pork ribs. For my sides, I picked potato salad and pinto beans.
The beans had a great flavor, but were a tad mushy. I'm thinking they might have been slightly overcooked. Longoria's potato salad is mayo-based, so there's a slight sweetness to it. It also had large-diced potatoes and a nice crunch from all the veggies. Both were adequate sides, but the carnivore in me was aching to rip into the meats.
Disappointingly, all remnants of bark had been removed from the brisket. I could still see the smoke ring though, so that's something. These were rather lean cuts, but the meat was decently tender nonetheless. I caught a nice hit of smoke in each bite, and the other flavors were nice too. Their rub is a simple one, which worked well without an unnecessary barrage of random spices. The brisket was good, but I had hoped for a little better.
The ribs were big, meaty, and had a great looking crust with plenty of pepper. They were cooked perfectly: tender and very juicy. The ribs also weren't overcooked, so the meat stayed put until each subsequent bite. I liked the flavors in the crust, which had a nice seasoning and a moderately sweet glaze. The smokiness also went all the way through from bark to bone. These ribs were a real pleasure to eat.
If my brisket had come with some bark and a little fat, I'm sure it would have been outstanding. Minor criticisms aside, I'm really glad I got to try out Longoria's.
100 Christopher Dr
Everman, TX 76140
Sunday, March 16, 2014
I'm always a bit skeptical of airport barbecue, but I needed some food in me before the flight back to Dallas. Neely's is run by Tony Neely, brother of Food Network's Pat Neely, so I hoped this airport location would offer up something at least halfway decent. I also couldn't resist trying out one more round of smoked meat before I left.
The airport Neely's is a pretty small operation, with no tables whatsoever. It's pretty much grab-n-go. I saw some guys handling the foil-wrapped meats in the back, so I kept my fingers crossed. That being said, I wasn't very optimistic by this point.
Granted airport food is always more expensive, but $14.00 plus tax is a bit much for a one-meat plate. Even their sandwiches start at $9.00 each, and a full rack of ribs is $22.00. Hell, just a small thing of cobbler is $6.00. I took the plunge anyway and ordered a Platter of sliced beef brisket, which also comes with three sides. They were somehow out of potato salad, so I settled for mac and cheese, bbq beans, and french fries. Neely's wasn't very busy mid-afternoon, but food still crawled out of the kitchen at a turtle-like pace.
The mac and cheese was exceptionally orange and looked really artificial. It reminded me of the macaroni at KFC, and was altogether pretty bland. The beans had a very thick consistency. There was some meat (I'm not sure what kind) mixed in, but I couldn't taste anything other than canned beans. They were pretty gross, so I just cast them aside. As you might imagine, the fries were nothing special and likely frozen. They also could have used more salt.
Their brisket had no bark and definitely no smoke ring. Much to my dismay, the brisket was also drowning in a thick barbecue sauce. It's sadly very common for fast food style barbecue joints to mask bland meats with globs of potent sauce. My razor-thin slices were really lean and dry. I thought I caught a hint of smoke at one point, but there was way too much sauce to know for sure. I managed to find a few small pieces of un-sauced meat, and it was virtually devoid of all flavor.
I certainly wasn't expecting world-class barbecue at the airport by any means, but I expected better than this, especially considering the price. Their slogan is "The Finest the World Over." I don't know if the rest of the Neely family can cook good barbecue, but what I do know is that the airport Neely's is absolutely terrible.
UPDATE (August 9, 2014): I was mistakenly under the impression that the Nashville airport Neely's Bar-B-Que was owned and operated by Pat and Gina Neely, of Food Network fame. As it turns out, Pat's brother Tony is actually the one who runs the airport Neely's. I apologize for this error, and I have edited my review accordingly.
Nashville International Airport
Concourse B, Gate B4
1 Terminal Drive
Nashville, TN 37214
Saturday, March 15, 2014
My pre-trip research revealed a bbq hotdog near Vanderbilt University that sounded awesome. I was still fairly full from dinner, but sometimes it's hard for me to pass up the siren song of smoked meat.
You'll find this place in an old converted house just south of campus. Despite the meek, unassuming facade, it has lots of atmosphere and character inside. The decor is a bit haphazard, but I liked it. There is also a large outdoor patio that I'm sure plays well with the nearby coeds.
I ordered exactly what I came for: The Barnyard Dog. This bad boy comes with pulled pork, bbq sauce, and coleslaw. Fabulous!
Much to my delight, I received one of the best looking hotdogs I've seen in quite some time. Most places offering a "bbq hotdog" simply drizzle a little sauce and call it good, but not The Dog. I ended up with heaping portions of slaw and pulled pork. The big, plump hotdog was a great support structure for the hefty toppings. The crunchy slaw paired really well with the tender pork, and the sugary sweet sauce tied everything together nicely. On the down side, I couldn't find any smoke, but that's really my only complaint. About halfway through, I got tired of the ingredients spilling out and abandoned ship in favor of a fork-and-knife approach.
Obviously a hotdog pales in comparison to true barbecue (especially if you're a Texan), but this dog was delicious in its own right. I'll definitely be back.
The Dog of Nashville
2127 Belcourt Ave
Nashville, TN 37212
My nearly inedible lunch left me absolutely starving by 5:00pm. I did the only sensible thing and hit the road in search of more barbecue. Jack's was a bit of a drive from my hotel, but I hoped it'd be worth the journey.
I caught the scent of delicious hickory smoke wafting through the parking lot. This was a good sign. Apparently I came at just the right time. Within minutes of my arrival, the dinner rush was on and the line of customers was out the door. Luckily, I was at the front of the line and there were still plenty of seats available.
I "checked in" on Yelp and received an offer for "1 free Hand Rub." Despite the obvious and hilarious double entendre, I declined the offer. I prefer to make my own rubs.
After a quick perusal of the menu, I decided to make my 3 Meat Combo a true cross-section of America: Tennessee pork shoulder, Texas beef brisket, and St. Louis pork ribs. For my two sides, I picked potato salad and mac & cheese. Their combos also come with either cornbread or toast, which is a no-brainer of a decision. All meats came straight from the smoker and were sliced to order, the only way it should ever be.
The mac & cheese was a pretty basic elbow variety. It was creamy and cheesy, but nothing special. The potato salad had a great texture and great flavor. It was slightly sweet, with just enough mustard to help the taste without being overpowering. Their cornbread has a flaky consistency similar to pound cake, and was equally as sweet. This was a great palate cleanser in between the side dishes and the main event.
I had intended to ask for fatty brisket with extra bark (my favorite), but the knife man didn't give me the chance. I ended up with a leaner cut, which despite my fears was actually very tender. My slices had a dark black crust and a deep red smoke ring. The flavors were really nice, and there was plenty of smoke. It wasn't quite the Central Texas brisket I hoped for, but it was still very good.
The pork shoulder had a nice smoky hue and lots of bark mixed throughout. The meat was tender, but bordering on mushy. The bark packed the most flavor, though the rest also had a nice taste. There was a decent amount of smoke here too. I took this opportunity to sample a couple of Jack's various sauces. The mustard-style Carolina sauce was nice and tangy, with sweet overtones. The vinegar-based Tennessee sauce was slightly spicy and had a good acidity to it. I really wanted to try their horseradish and mayo Music City White sauce, but it was nowhere to be found.
Their St. Louis ribs had a good crust and a decent smoke ring. They weren't as meaty as I would have liked, but the flavors were great. Each bite had ample smoke, although some coarse black pepper would have made the crust even better. The meat was tender, succulent, and juicy, but not falling off the bone. And yes, that's a good thing.
Surprisingly, the pulled pork shoulder was my favorite part of this meaty trio. I usually find myself unimpressed by pulled pork, but Jack's proved that any meat can be fantastic if you know how to smoke it.
334 W. Trinity Ln
Nashville, TN 37207
I'd only been in Nash-vegas for a mere half hour, and I was already on the hunt for smoked meat. Whitt's wasn't on the top of my barbecue to-do list, but I needed lunch and it was near my hotel.
Whitt's is clearly more of a fast food style barbecue joint, much like the somehow popular Dickey's back in Dallas. The dining room had all the glitz and glamour of a McDonald's, complete with drive-thru window. Oh well, I've scarfed down food at trashier places.
The only options on the menu (outside of a sandwich or a baked potato) were pulled pork, turkey, or a slab of ribs. The ribs didn't look that appealing, so I settled for a #3 Combo: pulled pork and two sides. Their options for side dishes were equally limited, but I hoped that potato salad and baked beans would suffice.
Everything on my plate looked really bland and lifeless. The beans were pleasantly sweet, but were clearly canned. They weren't worth more than a few bites. The potato salad had a bright yellow color that screamed "mustard". It was ice cold and had almost no crunch. There was a slight pickle flavor, but I couldn't find any actual pickles.
The pulled pork came in equal shades of tan and gray, with no smoky hue anywhere to be found. It was kind of dry and had no taste of smoke whatsoever. In fact, the only flavors I found were pork and salt. I don't normally gravitate toward barbecue sauce, but I made an exception here out of pure necessity. Their regular "mild" sauce was mostly tomatoes, with just a hint of salt and pepper. It definitely didn't add much to the already flavorless pork. The "original vinegar mild" sauce came out clear, despite the dark-colored liquid inside the bottle. It was as runny as pure vinegar, and tasted like it too. Neither of the available sauces could save this sad glob of pork.
Whitt's should be ashamed to even call this barbecue. When no one was looking, I tossed the remaining 90% of my food into the trash and bolted out the door. It's astonishing that Whitt's is still in business. Maybe Tennesseans just have weird taste buds.
2629 Lebanon Pike
Nashville, TN 37214
Friday, March 7, 2014
Baby Back Shak has been on my radar for quite a while, but something always seems to come up at the last minute to prevent me from going. Today was an easier day at work, so I took some personal time and finally made it happen.
You'll find Baby Back Shak down in the Cedars neighborhood of South Dallas. Apparently both the Shak's interior and exterior recently got a complete overhaul (courtesy of the show "Hungry Investors"), which should play nicely in the Big D. It has a hoppin' jazzy atmosphere. The dining room is clean and open and slightly trendy, which is par for the course in Dallas, but not necessarily for barbecue joints in general. This all seems to fit with their stated slogan: "Taste the sound of Memphis BBQ."
I noticed a plaque on the wall referencing Baby Back Shak's inclusion in the June 2008 issue of Texas Monthly, in which they issued their half-decade list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints. I'm pretty familiar with the Texas Monthly lists, but didn't remember seeing Baby Back Shak on any of them. As it turns out, they're actually an honorable mention BBQ Joint from 2008 rather than a part of the list itself. The plaque didn't specifically claim that Baby Back Shak made the Top 50, so I suppose there's no reason to cry foul.
It's hard to resist their namesake Shak's Platter, which comes with sausage, ribs, brisket, chicken, and boudain. You also get two sides, for which I picked potato salad and Shak's beans. There was a long line of customers, but my to-go order came out in no time. When I unboxed my order at home, I found a massive pile of meat, which was quite the bargain considering the $15.00 price tag. This order was too unwieldy to leave in the severely undersized styrofoam container, so I transferred things to a dinner plate and dug in.
The potato salad had a nice creamy texture, coupled with a good crunch from the veggies. It was pleasantly sweet, and had a good mild mustard flavor that wasn't the least bit overpowering. The beans were packed with flavor. They were sweet and spicy at the same time. I enjoyed how the flavors lingered in my mouth.
I wasn't quite sure how to begin this meaty smorgasbord, so I picked the sausage links at random. They were nice and crisp, with a good snap to the casings. These links definitely had some kick to them, though not as much as traditional hot links. I found a good garlic flavor too. I really like barbecue sausage, but generally detest hot links. This was a nice middle-ground.
The chicken breast was decently tender and moist, which can be quite a challenge to accomplish on the pit. I liked the seasoning blend, but didn't find as much smoke as I'd hoped for. That being said, the overall flavor was very good.
Next came the brisket, which had a beautiful black crust and a pronounced smoke ring. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender, even the leaner slices. There was just the right amount of salt, though not enough to mask the other seasonings. There was also plenty of smoke to go around. I found it hard to stop eating the brisket once I got started.
The boudain (or, more commonly, boudin) came in the form of a giant link. Its filling was perfectly creamy and rich with flavor, with a good amount of heat in each bite. The rice wasn't the least bit al dente. It also didn't have that sticky texture that far too often plagues boudin sausage. I haven't had boudin in a long time, and this was really tasty, even if it's not made in-house.
Last but not least, the ribs. Despite this joint's name, spare ribs are the only kind you'll find here. These had some good bark and a nice smoky red hue. They were cooked perfectly, with each bite coming away clean. No "falling-off-the-bone" nonsense, even though their website makes such a claim. There was good smoke flavor in each bite. These weren't quite the Memphis-style ribs I was anticipating, which is a good thing. Actually, the ribs were more like a Memphis-Texas hybrid, with really delicious results.
I'm glad I finally got the opportunity to try out Baby Back Shak. They may have been snubbed by Texas Monthly, but rest assured, they've got some damn fine barbecue. I made sure to grab a t-shirt on my way out to commemorate the meal:
Baby Back Shak
1800 S. Akard St
Dallas, TX 75215