Saturday, August 23, 2014
When I heard it was time for the annual Music City BBQ Festival, I couldn't resist checking it out. My wife graciously agreed to be my wingman for the festivities. We haven't had much time for outdoor activities lately, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity for some fun.
First, I'd like to note that this event was severely lacking in terms of communication and organization. Since I anticipated a large turnout, I wanted to get tickets a few weeks in advance. The official festival website provided a link where interested folks could procure tickets ahead of time. Problem is, the link took you to some info about the 2013 festival, with no place to buy tickets. I emailed the information address - no response. I sent a Facebook message to the official page - no response. I made two Facebook comments to their own posts - no response. Finally, I discovered a third-party website that had tickets available. Sheesh.
Tickets were only $10 per person for a two-day admission pass, which seemed reasonable enough. Since the majority of the festivities were slated for Saturday and I had no desire to fight end-of-week rush hour traffic, at the last minute I decided to forgo my Friday passes. Mrs. Barbecue Fiend was also pretty tired from working all day, so I thought I'd let her get some rest so we could go full force on Saturday. Besides, the two-day pass was only a dollar extra anyway.
This summer in Nashville has been amazingly mild, though the BBQ festival landed on what was probably the hottest day thus far. Apparently this weekend at the fairgrounds was also some sort of giant flea market and/or swap meet. We had to wade through a swamp of $2 socks, homemade honey, and used mannequins to find the right part of the grounds. Finally we found an oasis of tents and smokers.
From some initial research, it seems like there are only 3-4 commercial barbecue vendors from which to procure meat. Weird. Apparently there aren't many joints willing to pay for the health inspection necessary to be a festival vendor. I hoped maybe this year's festival would be different, but sadly not. This event is mostly just a barbecue cook-off and not really much of a festival. In fact, all of the regular brick-and-mortar Nashville barbecue joints I saw there were competing rather than selling. What a shame. At least some of the teams had hilarious names. Here are some of my favorites: Porkasaurus, The Ashholes, Master Basters, Smokin' Hot Butts, and Rub Down South. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Savage Catering was the first barbecue vendor we came across upon entering the festival. I scoured the Internet for almost an hour, but couldn't find any reference to this operation whatsoever. Perhaps they're new to the food game. The guys running this booth were incredibly friendly, so I was happy to give them a shot. Although it's not my normal barbecue order, I decided to try their BBQ Nachos, which are made with Boston Butt rather than basic pulled pork. My wife got an ear of grilled corn, as if that's what a normal person eats at a barbecue festival.
What I received was a massive pile of shredded pork butt atop normal nacho fixins. The meat was tender, though bordering on mushy. It likely had been steaming itself to death in a warming pan for quite some time. Needless to say, there was no smoky taste whatsoever. The sweet, vinegary sauce was decent enough, but tasted a little odd when coupled with the canned nacho cheese sauce. Looks like I should have opted for grilled corn, too.
Paradise Ridge BBQ
Next up was Paradise Ridge, which is another Nashville-area catering operation. Apparently they also serve up 'que at the Green Door Gourmet CSA farm (community-supported agriculture) from time to time via a run-down food truck. Their signage referenced a reserve grand champion win from some barbecue cookoff in Shreveport, Louisiana, though I'm not sure how long ago that particular competition was. Just to be safe, I went with a small order of three pork ribs, no sides.
I understand that large-scale, off-site barbecue is much more difficult to perfect, but the mangled ribs I received looked completely unappetizing. They were drowning in sauce, though I've come to expect as much in this region. There was some evidence of a smoke ring, but absolutely no smoke that I could taste. The meat fell apart at the slightest touch, meaning they were completely overcooked. I was also pretty unimpressed with the sauce, which was more like sweet ketchup. These definitely were not award-winning ribs.
There was one other barbecue vendor that I didn't try, but after an hour and a half of sweltering heat, bad barbecue, and sheer boredom, my wife and I were both ready to leave. This was a really disappointing "festival". Honestly, the best-tasting thing I had came in the form of a 12-ounce can:
Music City BBQ Festival 2014
Tennessee State Fairgrounds
500 Wedgewood Ave
Nashville, TN 37203
Monday, August 11, 2014
About two months ago I left my native Texas behind and moved to Tennessee. I've been having brisket withdrawals ever since. Even the brisket I do find is often trimmed of its delicious bark and fat, although I can't figure out why. When I had the opportunity to come home for a visit, the first item on my list was some old fashioned Czech-style 'que. Today was my grandmother's 90th birthday, which is an amazing accomplishment. She's still quite the spring chicken at her age and seemed rather pleased at the prospect of celebratory barbecue from Zimmerhanzel's in Smithville. Done and done.
Zimmerhanzel's has been serving up delicious meat since 1980 (with only a brief hiatus), but finally made the Texas Monthly Top 50 list in 2013. They also got honorable mention nods in 2003 and 2008. Personally, I think their spot on the actual list was way overdue.
I had called in my order three days early just to be safe. Since there were eighteen mouths to feed, we grabbed quite a bit of everything: five pounds of brisket, four pounds of sausage, three slabs of ribs, and, against my better judgment, three barbecue chickens (quartered). Hopefully twenty or so pounds of meat would be enough, but you can't be too careful. We also added on some potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad, and pinto beans for good measure.
Their parking lot was packed at 11:45 when I arrived, and there was a line 15 deep between me and the counter. Zimmerhanzel's is a pretty no-frills establishment, unless you count all the deer mounts that is. The older gentleman six spots ahead of me asked for ribs, but sadly was denied because of a "large order" they had to fill. I felt bad for him, though not bad enough to give up any of my ribs. Good thing I planned ahead. The folks here were nice enough to help carry everything out to my vehicle, which was much appreciated.
Even though we weren't officially eating barbecue until dinner, it all looked and smelled too good to resist an advance lunch-size "sample" for myself. Ok, so maybe it was a large sample. Don't judge.
The potato salad was creamy, though not whipped or mashed. It had a great crunch and a great taste. I'm not usually a fan of coleslaw, but this was pretty tasty. I liked the finely-shredded veggies, as well as the pleasant sweetness. The macaroni salad came in the form of unpretentious elbow mac and was also interestingly sweet. My two-year-old niece absolutely inhaled it (seriously, she almost choked), so clearly it was good. The pinto beans had a nice flavor, with just the right amount of salt. All in all, this fearsome foursome of side dishes was terrific.
Sides thoroughly sampled, it was time for the meat. I started with the brisket, which looked fantastic. Naturally I helped myself to the fattier slices. Each one had a quarter-inch smoke ring, as well as a great smoky taste. The fat was rendered beautifully and melted in my mouth. Each bite was very tender. I could have easily eaten another ten or twelve slices, but decided against it.
The individual links of sausage weighed in at about 1/6 of a pound each, give or take. Zimmerhanzel's homemade all-beef links had big chunks of black pepper scattered throughout, which I could definitely taste in each bite. I loved the coarse grind on the meat. It reminds me of home. The casings also had a great snap, further evidencing the perfect cooking time.
Barbecue chicken isn't generally my favorite. I thoroughly enjoy the skin (who doesn't?), but I find that the meat is often way too dry. This chicken, however, was really juicy. The dark meat was especially tender. The skin was delicious, as expected, and had soaked up plenty of smoke. I might have to rethink my aversion to barbecue chicken after this.
The thick, meaty spare ribs were coated with a nice salt and pepper rub, which made them look extra delicious. Sometimes the simplest seasoning blends turn out the best. The red smoky hue went almost all the way to the core. Each bite of tender rib meat came away cleanly and was packed with smoke. It was hard to stop eating once I had built up some inertia.
Everything we had from Zimmerhanzel's was absolutely amazing. As happy as I was with our meal, the birthday girl was even happier. I'm glad that I (and Zimmerhanzel's) could help give her the special day she deserved.
UPDATE (March 10, 2016): It is with a heavy heart that I must report the closing of Zimmerhanzel's. After 36 years of serving some absolutely stellar barbecue with a side of small town charm, family health issues and the arrival of new grandchildren understandably took priority over the business. In its place now stands Smithville Pit BBQ, run by Zimmerhanzel's longtime neighbor and sausage supplier Cliff Burns, of Smithville Food Lockers. I wish them all the best of luck.
UPDATE (February 13, 2017): They're back! I have just seen confirmation that Zimmerhanzel's has re-opened, and from all accounts their barbecue is as good as ever. Whew, crisis averted.
307 Royston St - Loop 230
Smithville, TX 78957
Saturday, August 2, 2014
Lately I've been searching for a good butcher shop. Nothing fancy, just something better than the Kroger meat department. When I discovered that a small barbecue venture known as The Gambling Stick operates out of east Nashville's Porter Road Butcher on Saturdays, I had no choice but to check things out.
What exactly is a "gambling stick"? Well, according to their Facebook page: "The gambling stick is an old Appalachian name for a stick used to hang a pig from the limb of a tree or staked down sapling. The stick is threaded through the heels of the pig and supports its weight while being harvested. The gamble is whether or not the stick can support the weight of the pig, if not the whole contrivance could come crashing down on the butcher's head." While this certainly makes for a fun anecdote, I was more interested in their Dueling Brisket: beef brisket vs. pork brisket (pigsket). Pigsket generally isn't a commercially-available cut of meat, but one of the guys (possibly both of them) works at the shop, so he saves himself the pigsket out of each pig they butcher. I'm sure that means all of their other meats are prime cuts as well. Well played.
The Gambling Stick is a pretty simple operation: smoker, table, coolers. What more do you need? I'd love to see these guys get their own brick-and-mortar shop, but for now their beach canopy setup at Porter Road Butcher works just fine. It's a pretty symbiotic relationship anyway, so maybe that's better. The butcher shop has some picnic tables on their patio, which works great for lunch. The smell of delicious smoke was almost too much to handle. I had to get my hands (and lips) on some barbecue ASAP!
Each week The Gambling Stick has a slightly different menu. Today's special Barbecue Plate came with two meats, a summer vegetable salad, baked beans, cornbread, and sauce. Considering my third option was pulled pork, the choice of two meats was a no-brainer: brisket and pigsket.
Their summer salad had quite the assortment of julienned veggies: zucchini, squash, green beans, red onion, bell pepper, and probably some other stuff. I'm not a big vegetable person, but it was actually really nice. The light, crisp vegetables were a good pairing with the heavy meat. I also really enjoyed the baked beans, which had only a slight sweetness to them and were more savory than typical baked beans. There were big chunks of meat mixed right in, coupled with just a touch of heat. The cornbread came straight from a cast iron skillet. Mmmmmmm. Sweet, buttery, fantastic.
For a native Texan, brisket was a welcome sight in a land of pulled pork. I asked for mine extra fatty, just to be sure. The crust was black as night, with a deep red smoke ring beneath. It was extremely tender, and each bite was packed with smoke and their tasty rub. I can easily say that this was some of the best brisket I've had in Nashville so far.
Even though I knew this pigsket was likely coming from the lower portion of the pig's shoulder, I still wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Overall, it tasted similar to a pork loin, except way better and much more tender. No surprise, the pigsket had a great smoke level. The combination of crisp bark and well-rendered fat was awesome. This might be my new favorite cut of pork.
The meat was so good on its own that I completely forgot to try the sauce, which is exactly the way it should be. Despite the 25-minute drive, I will definitely be back. Since I was planning on firing up my charcoal pit this weekend anyway, I also snagged a few links of beef kielbasa and some massive quarter-pound shortrib hotdogs from the butcher shop. Score.
UPDATE (August 3, 2014): As happy as I was with The Gambling Stick's barbecue, I thought I'd also share the fruits of my own labor. The shortrib hotdogs and beef kielbasa I got from Porter Road Butcher were spectacular, as were the bone-in pork steaks I had acquired elsewhere.
The Gambling Stick
Porter Road Butcher - East
501 Gallatin Ave
Nashville, TN 37206