Saturday, September 20, 2014
This weekend my wife and I found ourselves heading south to Birmingham so that she could play fairy godmother at the baptism of our friends' cute new baby. As if that wasn't exciting enough on its own, I also managed to talk my way into a lunchtime pit stop (pun very much intended) at Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Alabama.
Here's a little bit of history for context. Bob Gibson started selling barbecue nearly 90 years ago from a makeshift table of wooden planks nailed to a tree in his backyard. Bob's signature white barbecue sauce was a huge part of his continually-rising success. Now-renowned pitmaster Chris Lilly married into the Gibson family, and in 1992 he joined their barbecue operations as well. With Chris's help, Big Bob Gibson developed a new red barbecue sauce that rivaled their famous white sauce. Since then, these guys have won too many competition awards to list, including Memphis in May, the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational, numerous state championships, etc, etc.
I've seen Chris Lilly compete on television countless times, and I even have one of his cookbooks (Fire & Smoke) on my shelf at home. I'm also pretty stoked to watch him and his team compete at the upcoming Jack Daniel's competition in Lynchburg next month. I was certain that it wouldn't be Chris at the helm today, and I realize that competition barbecue is vastly different from its restaurant-quality cousin. With that in mind, I made sure to temper my expectations appropriately.
Given Big Bob Gibson's fame and popularity, I was expecting a hefty Saturday lunch crowd, but we walked in and got a booth at 12:30 with no wait at all. This place has kind of a diner vibe going on. Their awards are prominently displayed right as you walk in the door, and most of the wood-paneled walls are covered with framed articles from Southern Living and the like. There's no need to be humble when you have their credentials.
Naturally, I went for the Big Bob Gibson combo: St. Louis-style spare ribs and a quarter chicken. This way I'd get to try both their red and white barbecue sauces. I'm not normally a big sauce guy, but I made an exception today. For my sides, I picked their red skin potato salad and kettle baked beans.
The beans were nice and sweet. I found a few bits of pepper mixed in, but I couldn't find any spiciness. The mayo-based potato salad was also fairly tasty. It had a hefty amount of onion, which gave it a good bite. These were both decent sides, but nothing all that special.
I was expecting to have my chicken pre-dunked in white sauce, like it is in every television show about Big Bob Gibson's I've ever seen. When I asked the waitress about it, she instead pointed me to the bottle of white sauce on the table. Really? Who knows how long that's been sitting there? The room-temperature bottled sauce didn't come out as thinly as I had hoped. At least it had a nice vinegary tang to it. The chicken had a crispy skin, though it could have been seasoned a little more. I got dark meat so it didn't dry out very much. There was only a mild smoky taste here. I think I liked the sauce more than I liked the chicken, which is an unusual thing for me to say.
For my money, St. Louis-cut ribs are the only way to go. These had a sweet glaze and a good crust, though not much bark. I liked the seasoning blend on the crust too, but there wasn't enough of it. Just like with the chicken, I only found a minimal amount of smoke in the ribs. I was also disappointed that the meat fell right off the bone with almost no effort on my part. Properly cooked rib meat should stay put until each subsequent bite, not come off all at once. I added their "championship" red sauce just for kicks. It came from a bottle on the table too, so my expectations were low. It was good, but there wasn't anything that jumped out at me as overwhelmingly delicious. I've had grocery store barbecue sauces that tasted about the same.
When we left, we stepped outside into a veritable fog of pit smoke. I wish more of it had found its way into our food. Sadly, I may have once again fallen victim to hype. Perhaps Chris Lilly has shifted too much of his focus onto the competition circuit to the detriment of the restaurant that started it all.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
1715 6th Ave SE
Decatur, AL 35601
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
I've been dying to try out Edley's since we moved back to Nashville a few months ago. I had some errands to run in town this morning, so I took the opportunity to add barbecue to my to-do list.
You'll find Edley's in the up-and-coming 12 South neighborhood of Nashville, which I think was mostly just residential when we lived here eight years ago. The atmosphere is a good combination of modern and rustic. It's a lively place with a full bar, so I might be back for happy hour sometime soon. The line to order had nearly doubled within a few minutes of my 11:30 arrival. Clearly this joint is a local favorite. I'm told that brisket runs out fast, so get there early if you want beef.
I don't normally do barbecue sandwiches, but Edley's Tuck Special sounded too good to resist: a brisket sandwich with house made spicy pimento cheese, an over-easy egg, red and white barbecue sauces, and pickles. It doesn't get much more Southern than that. Well, I suppose they could have added a fried something-or-other, but I digress. The Texan in me requires that my brisket be sliced instead of chopped (even in sammich form), so I made sure to double-check when ordering. Rather than pressing my luck by adding on another entree, I decided to make my Tuck a combo with potato salad and mac-n-cheese on the side.
The mayonnaise-based potato salad was very tasty. Skin-on potatoes were a good choice. There was much more potato than veggie in the mix, which worked well here. The macaroni was far from basic Easy Mac. I really enjoyed the crumbly topping and spices. It was gooey and creamy from the various cheeses they use, and was much better than the mac and cheese I usually find in my barbecue travels. Most of the time I end up leaving a portion of my side dishes behind, but today I finished every last bite.
It was hard to decide exactly how to tackle the towering Tuck Special, so I assembled a pile of napkins and dove right in. The runny egg yolk burst the instant I gripped the sandwich. After thoroughly making a mess of myself and the table, I gave in and opted for a knife and fork instead. Wow, this sandwich was deliciously complex! I managed to find a few bits of plain brisket, which had a great smoky flavor as well as a slight spiciness. The meat was very tender, due in part to the fattier slices I received. Edley's pimento cheese comes out almost like a patty and definitely has some heat to it as well. The addition of the mayo-based white barbecue sauce was really interesting, while the pickles added acidity, sweetness, and a much-needed crunch. I wasn't sure how the egg would play out, but it actually tied everything together beautifully. This sandwich was incredible all the way around!
I'll always be a sucker for the classics, but Edley's proves that barbecue doesn't necessarily have to be simple to be amazing. I will definitely be back to sample their more traditional barbecue items.
2706 12th Ave S
Nashville, TN 37204
Friday, September 5, 2014
Let me preface this by saying that I'm pretty particular about my hair. Lately I've started driving almost 30 minutes from my house to Brentwood to get my hair cut. What can I say, I'm a diva. As much as I like my new barber, I'm not a big fan of the drive. Luckily for me, there are several barbecue joints in the Brentwood area to make the trip more worthwhile. Today I decided to scope out Judge Bean's Bar-B-Que.
This place is owned by Aubrey "Judge" Bean, who has been a fixture of Nashville barbecue for over a decade. As a native Texan, Judge Bean unsurprisingly and thankfully gravitates toward brisket rather than pulled pork. A man after my own heart. He is also apparently a descendent of the infamous Texas lawman Judge Roy Bean, which is just awesome.
I liked the warm wood that covered the floor and walls, and the tin roof added a nice rustic touch. The stuffed deer heads, bobcats, and armadillos made me feel right at home. There was plenty of Texas Longhorns memorabilia thrown around too, but not a single piece of Aggie decor. Sorry, Aggs. And at the risk alienating any of my Volunteer friends, it was nice to see the correct usage of the abbreviation "UT", as well as the proper shade of orange, being used in Tennessee.
Part of me was anticipating a counter-service barbecue joint, but Judge Bean's uses waitresses. As I frequently do when dining alone, I saddled up to the bar. It's much less awkward and it allows me to watch TV whilst chowing down. The very friendly bartender took great care of me. In fact, everyone I encountered here was exceptionally welcoming. Clearly the staff has been instructed on the finer points of Texas charm as well as Texas 'que.
Since Judge Bean's specializes in Texas-style barbecue, and since I was feeling a little homesick, a Texas Trinity was in order. I got their 3-Meat Smokehouse Combo with brisket, ribs, and sausage, as well as potato salad and cowboy beans for my two sides. I also couldn't help tacking on a piece of their so-called Texas Sushi for good measure.
My Texas Sushi appetizer came out first. What you have here is a jalapeno stuffed with sausage and cream cheese, wrapped in brisket. It's kind of like a California roll, except for men. I de-toothpicked my "sushi" and dug right in. The brisket had a nice smoke ring and was quite tender despite being a leaner cut of meat. I also liked the addition of the sausage, which had a good amount of seasoning. I found a great hit of smoke and heat in each bite, tempered nicely by the cream cheese. Good thing I had a big glass of sweet tea to cool things down. The entire thing was absolutely fantastic, and it made me really excited to try these meats again in the main course.
I enjoyed their mayonnaise-based potato salad, which was a nice change of pace from the mustard-based potato salads I usually find in my travels. Without the overpowering mustard flavors, I could really taste the pickles and pimento. It was also interesting to see the potatoes sliced (like au gratin potatoes) rather than diced or chopped. According to the menu, the cowboy beans are "not a sleeping partners favorite," so I'll apologize in advance to Mrs. Barbecue Fiend. The beans had a ton of flavor, and there was definitely some spiciness to them. They reminded me of the beans you'll find out at the deer lease.
The brisket had a deep red smoke ring which perfectly matched the equally smoky flavor. The dark black bark was also extremely tasty. Though lean, the brisket was magnificently tender. What little fat there was had been rendered beautifully. In addition to signifying the proper cooking time/temperature, this also tells me that Judge Bean's truly cares about their product. I wish I had requested a fatty cut, but this was still really good.
Barbecued sausage seems to be a rare find in Middle Tennessee, so the Czech in me was happy to see it at Judge Bean's. The casings were very crisp, with each bite "popping" in my mouth. I could really taste the smoke, which isn't always the case with sausage. This was most assuredly not made in-house, but it was still really tasty. I was also hoping for a coarse grind, though that's just a personal preference.
I customarily leave my ribs for last, mostly to limit how greasy and meat-covered my cell phone gets while I'm typing out blog notes. These ribs didn't have as much of a crust as I was expecting. I did, however, appreciate that they weren't served drowning in sauce. The meat was very tender, but sadly had no bone retention. Perhaps this was an attempt to appease local demands for "falling-off-the-bone" ribs, or perhaps Judge Bean is merely employing one of the many Texas barbecue traditions besides my beloved Central Texas-style. That being said, they had a nice smoke level and an all-around great flavor.
The brisket was definitely my favorite meat here. Next time I eat at Judge Bean's, I may just order up a dozen pieces of Texas Sushi and call it good.
Judge Bean's Bar-B-Que
7022 Church St East
Brentwood, TN 37027