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
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
With only 5 weeks left in DFW, I'm trying to hit up most of the few remaining barbecue joints I haven't yet sampled. Today I took a short drive east in search of The Bar-B-Q Crib.
This place is really hard to find unless you know exactly where to go. It's away from the main street, kind of on an access road down below an overpass. Inside, I found all of the delightful ambiance of a storage shed. These weren't the friendliest barbecue purveyors I've encountered. In fact, they seemed slightly annoyed at the 2 or 3 questions I dared to ask about the menu. All things considered, I decided a to-go order was most appropriate.
Regardless of how hungry I am, I usually like to grab a three-meat combo so that I can sample as many different items as possible. Here, my best option was a Mixed Plate (two meats and two sides), so that would have to do. Ribs were an easy first pick, but I had a little more trouble deciding on a second. This was the first time I've encountered bbq summer sausage, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I wanted to add on a 1/4 pound of sliced brisket as well, but I was told that the minimum order was 3/4 pound. Without knowing the quality of their brisket, I wasn't willing to drop that kind of cash today. For my two sides, I picked sweet potatoes and green beans.
I'm not sure if the green beans were fresh or canned, but they had a nice flavor nonetheless. There were also big chunks of brisket mixed in, which is always appreciated. As for the sweet potatoes, they had a deliciously sweet aroma and an equally sugary glaze. The slight hint of cinnamon gave them a great taste.
The summer sausage looked exactly as I expected. Although, it probably would have been better without the outer wrapper still attached.
Considering that the remnants of a nutrition label were staring me in the face, it was clear that the summer sausage was not made in-house. I found only minimal smoke here. Maybe cooking the summer sausage wrapped in plastic prevents the smoke from penetrating fully, just saying. A few of my unwrapped slices had a good char on them, so that's something at least. I enjoyed the flavor of garlic and black pepper, though someone other than The Bar-B-Q Crib (perhaps Hillshire Farm?) deserves credit for that.
The gnarly, mangled ribs were absolutely terrible. It was as if they had given me the discarded pieces from several other slabs. Some weren't even whole ribs, just rib tips. When I worked up enough courage to eat them, I found the ribs dry, bland, and completely overcooked. The smoke level was decent enough. I caught a slight sweetness which suggested an attempt at a glaze, but there wasn't nearly enough of it.
With the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service only a quarter-mile down the street, maybe it's time for The Bar-B-Q Crib to lay their lifeless meats to rest.
The Bar-B-Q Crib
4315 S Buckner Blvd
Dallas, TX 75227
Saturday, May 3, 2014
It had been a few weeks since I'd last devoured some smoked meat, and my inner carnivore was having serious withdrawals. Soulman's has billboards all around the Dallas suburbs which tout their "Since '74" slogan. In honor of their 40th year, I thought I'd give Soulman's a try. There are a dozen different branches of this joint, but I wanted to scope out the original location.
Soulman's website says they opened doors at their Pleasant Grove location on October 19, 1974. Of their different locations, the Mesquite spot is the closest to being in Pleasant Grove (close, but still 5 miles away). Perhaps the township borders have just shifted over the past four decades. Regardless, I thought it was worth a try.
I caught the scent of delicious smoke as soon as I pulled up, even before I stepped out of my truck. Inside, a great smoky aroma filled every inch of this place. There was a pleasant country atmosphere which matched the music they were pumping out. I felt right at home.
Their other slogan is "We're not stingy with our meats," so I hoped for a true belt-busting feast. Soulman's has eight different meats available, but the true measure of any bbq joint worth its salt is the ability to dish out the Texas Trinity: brisket, ribs, sausage. I snagged their 3 Meat Plate without hesitation. Everything is sliced to order right in front of you, which is always appreciated. I took this opportunity to request fatty brisket rather than lean. They also seem to favor thinner slices of meat, so I asked for thicker slices as well. Side dishes are self-serve, and I helped myself to pinto beans and potato salad.
Soulman's has two versions of pinto beans to pick from: regular and loaded with pico de gallo. Naturally, I opted for pico. The beans had great flavor and a definite kick from the diced jalapeno. I also liked the crunch from the onions. I'm going to have to steal this recipe and make it at home. As for the potato salad, it was unsurprisingly mustard-based. There was a big punch of dill and pickle which masked the mustard nicely. I generally like my potato salad with larger diced potatoes, but the flavors here were great nonetheless.
Despite my earlier request, the brisket was still sliced a little on the thin side. The bland bark was seasoned with little more than a light dusting of salt and pepper, and the bites without bark had almost no flavor at all. I found only a modicum of smoke, which makes sense because there was barely any smoke ring on these slices. The brisket was tender and juicy, but definitely not what I would consider "fatty" brisket by any means.
The sausage contained some pretty finely-ground meat, suggesting that it was store bought, and the taste echoed the same fear. It tasted like Hormel, and there was hardly a hint of smoke. It was also a little greasy for my liking. There was a decent snap to the casings at least. It could definitely use some coarse black pepper and more garlic, though it's hard to tweak sausage that you don't make in-house.
As usual, I saved the ribs for last. The crust looked about average. I couldn't see any pepper, so I feared these ribs would be about as bland as the other two meats had been. To my surprise, they were cooked well and were quite moist. There wasn't much smoke here either, though still more than the brisket and sausage combined. The majority of the flavor came from the grill char rather than from the smoking process or a rub. My ribs were the only one of the three meats I actually finished eating, and that's partially because there were only two of them.
As disappointing as my meal had been, I couldn't help grabbing a peach fried pie for dessert, especially since they're only 49 cents each.
The flaky crust and gooey peach filling were amazing. It wasn't overly sweet and tasted fresh, not like the canned pie filling I often find. I don't know if they make or purchase their pies, but it was the best part of this whole meal. Well, that and the pico beans.
Soulman's certainly doesn't skimp on the portion size of their meats, though they do seem to skimp on the amount of wood used to smoke them. Commenting on the fact that this joint is located on Gross Road is like shooting fish in a barrel, so I'll leave that one alone. However, I will say that for a place called Soulman's, their meats seem to lack spirit and passion.
1125 Gross Rd.
Mesquite, TX 75149