Monday, January 26, 2015
I had a few errands to run on the North side of Nashville, so I made the most of things and added some barbecue to my to-do list. After seeing Hendersonville's Center Point Pit Barbecue featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, I had high hopes for today's meat-filled adventure.
To my surprise, there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot when I rolled up at 11:30am. Oh well, more barbecue for me. Center Point has been in operation since the mid-60s. They have a rather interesting setup inside, which probably made more sense back in 1965. There is a combination of soda shop counter seating and a raised bistro-style section up front, with a small traditional dining room in the back. The front section has a good view of the kitchen, so I sat there to observe these guys in action.
One of Center Point's specialties is the Fried Green Tomatoes appetizer, which comes topped with yum yum sauce, sour cream, and chives. This seemed like a great way to warm up my palate. I had no idea what yum yum sauce was, but I was sure it would be amazing.
As expected, the fried green tomatoes looked spectacular. They were piping hot and fresh from the fryer, complete with crisp seasoned cornmeal batter. Center Point's yum yum sauce was as delicious as its name suggested, but I'm pretty sure it's just a close cousin of remoulade. The sour cream tempered the heat of the yum yum sauce nicely and also paired well with the acidic tomatoes. This was definitely a good way to get things started.
The only combo plate on Center Point's menu was a Pit Master Special, which comes with three meats of your choosing. For mine, I picked brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. There was a note on the menu which said that smoked hot sausage could be added for only $2.00 more. As tempting as this was, an appetizer and a three-meat plate was already sure to push my appetite past its tipping point. Maybe next time. Center Point's plates also come with a cornbread patty and two sides. The Southern-style potato salad and the white beans both sounded like good additions.
I generally start with the side dishes before diving into the meat, so why break with tradition? The potato salad was very good. I could really taste the pickles and onion, both of which added a pleasant crunch. It was also mayo-based, which I greatly prefer to the mustard variety. This was only my second time trying white beans. Thankfully, these were far less soupy than my first encounter. The beans were cooked just right: past al dente, but not mushy. I also enjoyed the mild seasoning, which let the natural bean flavors stand out.
Sadly, my brisket came out chopped. Well, that's not entirely accurate. The brisket on the very bottom of my pile was still in slice form, so I guess the rest just crumbled during the plating process. I'm not sure which is worse. At least I could see plenty of chopped red smoke ring scattered throughout, but I would have liked some bark, too. There was only a slight smoky flavor to be found. Some pieces were decently tender, but most of my thin, lean pieces were a little dry. The meat fell apart at the slightest touch, which told me that it was likely overcooked. Clearly this wasn't a Texas brisket.
Unlike the brisket, the pulled pork was rather monotone. I couldn't find any bits of bark anywhere here either. It was also quite bland and a little stringy. I didn't taste any smoke, so I decided to try some of their barbecue sauces out of pure necessity. The Sweet Surprise sauce definitely jazzed things up a bit, with a good kick on the back end. The Mild Barbecue Sauce was ok, but not as good. I left the third barbecue sauce alone and just moved on to the ribs.
When I ordered, I had asked for barbecue sauce on the side. My waitress assured me that all of the sauces were just on the table to be added as I saw fit. You can imagine my confusion and disappointment at being served sauce-covered ribs. Thankfully they provided an actual knife so that I could cut them apart. It took more effort than expected to slice through the crust, but the meat below was surprisingly tender. The ribs were cooked well, with just a slight tug needed to remove meat from bone. The thick sauce was rather spicy, such that I couldn't taste any smoke there might have been, or really anything else other than capsaicin.
In my opinion, $31.00 is too expensive for an iced tea, an appetizer, and a three-meat combo, even if the portions were fairly large. My three-meat combo plate was almost $20.00 by itself, while most places I've been charge somewhere in neighborhood of $14.00-15.00. Interestingly, the menu link on Yelp.com has outdated pricing, and the menu on Center Point's own website has the prices redacted. Chalk this up to inflation or the ever-rising cost of meat if you like, but I managed to find a menu picture from 2011, and the price of their three-meat Pit Master Special was $16.99 even back then. I'll end my pricing rant with a suggestion. Perhaps if Center Point wouldn't remove all of the delicious bark and fat from their brisket, then it wouldn't take nearly as much beef to fill up a plate, and barbecue lovers like myself would be much happier, too.
The barbecue was almost passable, although I'd honestly say that the best parts of my meal were the meatless appetizer and sides. I really agonized over my rating for Center Point Pit Barbecue. When I find myself struggling to find enough positive attributes to justify even an average rating for a barbecue joint, that speaks for itself. The fried green tomatoes and the side dishes were all fantastic, but the carnivore in me just can't overlook subpar meat.
UPDATE (January 26, 2015): Just to satiate my own curiosity, I decided to investigate pricing at other Nashville-area barbecue joints which offer three-meat, two-side combo plates of brisket, pork, and ribs. Of those joints whose menus I was able to find online, only eight offered this sort of combo. One of those offered the combo as a full pound of meat and specifically stated that it was meant to be shared by two people ($24.00), so I took that joint off my count. The remaining seven barbecue joints had three-meat combos which ranged in price from $11.50 to $20.00, with $15.18 being the average price. I also found two other joints offering four-meat combo plates for $16.29 and $18.99 respectively, both of which would be cheaper than a meat trio at Center Point. Although Center Point didn't have the highest priced three-meat combo, it came in a very, very close second and outpaced the third-highest joint by about $3.50.
Center Point Pit Barbecue
1212 W Main St
Hendersonville, TN 37075
Saturday, January 10, 2015
Mrs. Barbecue Fiend and I were in much need of a short vacation. Gatlinburg is only a 3.5 hour drive from Nashville, and even though I pictured it being a city-wide Country Bear Jamboree, it does have beautiful scenery. There's also moonshine and barbecue, so she didn't have to twist my arm too much. My wife's one request in allowing a barbecue lunch was that I select a place with a few non-barbecue options for her. Bennett's was the best option to suit both of our appetites.
According to Bennett's website, it's "the best bar-b-que in the world." They've also apparently won a TripAdvisor "certificate of excellence" for the past four years, as well as some sort of People's Choice Award for having "the award winning taste of Texas." No doubt these are all embellished claims, but I still hoped for some tasty 'que. After all, they've been in operation for over two decades.
Strangely, Bennett's is housed in the same building as Big Daddy's Pizzeria. In fact, the only thing separating these two eateries is the entrance-way. Both establishments are owned by the same parent company, which also owns nearby Alamo Steakhouse, Mama's Farmhouse, and Mad Dog Creamery. They've got quite the monopoly on Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge restaurants, so I suppose sharing space makes sense.
Bennett's wood-covered walls matched the general Gatlinburg ambiance perfectly, as did the antique nicknacks scattered about. They have a large soup and salad bar if you're so inclined, but I came for meat not vegetables. Our waitress was very friendly and gave great service. She was a sweet lady and struck me as a local gal.
Since we were on vacation, we indulged ourselves with an appetizer. I had my eye on the brisket-stuffed mushrooms, but my wife wasn't in the mood for fungi. The potato skins sounded equally delicious though. They come loaded with cheddar, scallions, and bacon. We also added some pulled pork for good measure.
The potatoes themselves were crispy and warm, and the gooey cheese and salty bacon were a great combination. To my surprise, Bennett's pulled pork was extremely flavorful. It had a great smoke level and was quite tender. The few bits of bark I found were also really tasty. I enjoyed them better without the accompanying sour cream. This was a great start to the meal.
As much as I wanted to try Bennett's Texan Sampler (generous portions of pulled pork, brisket, sausage, chicken, and baby back ribs), that sounded like way more food than I needed, at least for lunch anyway. Plus, I had just eaten a big pancake breakfast a few hours earlier. I ordered the three-meat Bar-B-Que Combo lunch platter instead, picking brisket, ribs, and sausage for my three meats. The platter comes with two sides. Normally I get potato salad, but that seemed redundant considering our potato skins appetizer. I settled for macaroni and cheese and bar-b-que beans.
When my order came out, I immediately noticed pulled pork instead of my requested sausage. Our waitress was very apologetic and quickly struck off to remedy the mistake. Rather than taking away the pulled pork, she brought out a plate of sausage and left me the pork as an amends. What a sweetheart.
The beans had a good sweet flavor, but there was too much goop for my liking. They were also a little al dente. Conversely, the macaroni was a tad overcooked, but not quite mushy. At least there was more flavor here, including a touch of black pepper mixed in. It was also nice and creamy, and was great comfort food in 20 degree weather.
I generally like to ask for a fattier cut of brisket, but this didn't seem like the kind of place to make requests of the pitmaster. What I received was certainly a leaner cut, though still nice and tender. It also had a strip of fat down the edge which had soaked up a decent amount of smoke. It's a shame that the meat itself did not have quite the same smoke level, despite the pronounced smoke ring. The bark was seasoned well, but the seasoning pretty much stopped there.
My accidental pulled pork was even better than it was atop the potato skins. It was juicy, full of flavor, and by far the smokiest of the meats. The big pieces of red and black bark here were exceptionally tasty. Just for kicks, I tried it with their "Mustard's Last Stand" barbecue sauce. It had strong mustard and vinegar flavors, with a slight bite of pepper on the back end. The sauce was ok, but I preferred the pork on its own.
The sausage was disappointingly not homemade. It was very finely-ground, reminiscent of the grocery store. I didn't find much seasoning, but I did find plenty of grease. As my wife said, "It tastes like a hot dog." She nailed it perfectly.
Ribs are generally my last meat to sample, mostly so I can jot down blog notes without messy fingers. I'm more partial to St. Louis spare ribs myself, but baby backs will do in a pinch. This was the only one of my meats that came sauced, and it was a bright red sauce clearly full of ketchup. I also found hints of vinegar and honey. The crust was sweet, but not very crisp. They were pretty thick for baby back ribs. One bone had meat an inch or so thick. The meat was fairly tender, but had almost no smoke. Oddly enough, these ribs reminded me of the soft, tomatoey, Aussie-style barbecue I found in Scotland, not Texas-style ribs.
Our lunch at Bennett's satisfied my hunger, but it didn't impress me all that much. As a Texan, it pains me to say that the best part of my meal was the part I didn't even order: pulled pork.
Bennett's Pit Bar-B-Que
714 River Rd
Gatlinburg, TN 37738