Saturday, December 24, 2016
In what has quickly become an annual tradition with my in-laws, we picked up an order of delicious barbecue from Whole Hog Cafe in Little Rock to celebrate Christmas Eve. Clearly I married well.
Truth be told, I much prefer this Cantrell Road location to the other branch I've sampled over on Markham Street. In fact, the barbecue I had from the Cantrell joint is what inspired me to start this blog some four years ago, making today's meal a homecoming of sorts. My first go-round here was before I began adding photos to my blog posts, so I made sure to take a few snapshots this time.
My mother-in-law placed a hefty order of pulled pork, brisket, and sausage, as well as potato salad, baked beans, and coleslaw on the side. Since my wife doesn't particularly enjoy any of those side dishes, we also picked up a small portion of cheesy corn for her. I hoped that she would be kind enough to share.
Large slices of skin-on potatoes in a mayo/sour cream base made for the perfect potato salad. The sour cream added enough flavor that excess spices weren't really required, and the diced chives gave it a pleasant texture as well. Their baked beans are a good combination of sweet and spicy, and they were obviously homemade. Although slaw isn't exactly my favorite food, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed theirs. It was nicely peppered, crunchy, and only slightly sweet from the dressing. The corn was creamy and cooked just al dente enough to hold its shape. It wasn't exactly what I envisioned when I heard "cheesy corn," but it was tasty nonetheless.
Rather than being shredded into oblivion, the pulled pork came in nice big hunks of meaty goodness, complete with much more bark than I expected to find. It was tender and well-seasoned, especially the salty bark. I noticed only a moderate smoke level, typical of most pulled pork. Their pork doesn't need sauce, but it does tend to enhance things nicely here. My favorite of the Whole Hog sauces is the #6 "rich mustard and vinegar," so much so that I didn't even bother with the others today. It was nice and tangy with good hits of acidity.
The brisket slices were a little on the thin side, and a lean cut to be sure. My initial 2012 visit to the Cantrell Road location yielded nice fatty beef, but the large catering order we picked up from Markham Street in 2013 was more similar to what I found today. It's possible that Whole Hog utilizes thinner, lean slices for large orders to try and keep the meat more tender, or perhaps they've just changed up their modus operandi altogether. Regardless, the brisket was certainly tender and exceptionally smoky.
My definite favorite of the meats was the sausage. It wasn't quite the coarse-ground variety that I'm accustomed to from Central Texas, but it was much better than the over-processed mush that most places serve. The meat was sprinkled with a good helping of black pepper, and it was quite juicy. The casings also had a great snap to them, which any Texan can tell you is key to a good sausage.
Whole Hog didn't quite live up to my expectations, but it was most certainly great barbecue. Perhaps I was simply remembering that first meal with rose-colored glasses, or perhaps I was simply too inexperienced and impressionable back then. Either way, I was grateful for my dinner, and I hope that Whole Hog Cafe is on the menu next Christmas.
Whole Hog Cafe
2516 Cantrell Rd
Little Rock, AR 72202
Friday, December 2, 2016
I saw The Love Bus food truck (well, food bus) while I was out running a quick errand this morning, and I made a last minute decision to stop by. Because why not?
I had my doubts about this refurbished school bus barbecue, but everything that I observed coming out of their "kitchen" both looked and smelled delicious. Oh well, at least the TriStar Centennial hospital was right next door if I happened to need medical attention. I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich, plus a couple of their signature Soul Roll eggrolls: the Mac Daddy and the Chicken Philly. Orders trickled out of the window at a snail's pace, and I hoped that my increasingly long detour would be worth it.
Their Mac Daddy roll is a glorious combination of smoked bacon and cheesy macaroni. I bit in, and my immediate reaction was, "Wow!!!" The flaky eggroll wrapper was the perfect vehicle for the gooey mac and cheese, and the salty bacon gave things some much needed savoriness. When I read "the cheesiest" in this roll's description, I naturally assumed that they were referring to the classic Kraft product slogan. Well, if they're using blue-box macaroni in this dish, they sure fooled me.
As its name might imply, the Chicken Philly eggroll consists of smoked chicken, sauteed onions and peppers, a three-cheese blend, and barbecue sauce. I didn't catch any smoke in this eggroll, but I didn't really expect to either. Despite its lack of smoke, the chicken was at least juicy and salty. The crisp bell peppers and pungent onions were a nice touch too, invoking a little Philly cheese steak nostalgia.
To my surprise and my delight, The Love Bus serves up seasoned hand-cut fries instead of the all-too-typical frozen crinkles. Their heavy dusting of spices jazzed things up nicely. Fries wouldn't have been my first choice to accompany a barbecue sandwich, but I did enjoy them immensely.
The pulled pork sandwich was spot-on. It had a pleasant smokiness throughout, as well as plenty of jet-black bark mixed in. I found hints of barbecue sauce here and there, but thankfully only enough to add a slight sweetness and a little acidity. Although I remain doubtful that the pork was smoked on-bus, it certainly was tender, juicy, and very flavorful. The crunchy purple slaw was also a welcome addition. It was visually appealing and enhanced both the taste and texture of this sandwich.
I must admit, The Love Bus isn't a place that you'd expect to find awesome barbecue, at least not with a cursory book-by-its-cover examination. Those preconceptions aside, their 'que is definitely worth a try.
The Love Bus
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
I had originally brought some Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch today, but after staring at a computer screen for nearly four solid hours, I was in desperate need of a change of scenery. Given the exceptionally pleasant fall weather, I moseyed on over to The Row to see what sort of meaty deliciousness I could scare up.
The Row has a fantastic atmosphere that's a blend of rustic and modern. Everything has sort of a reclaimed barnwood feel to it, but without going full-on farmhouse sheik. It's essentially the restaurant version of a house on HGTV's "Fixer Upper," except instead of shiplap or an open-concept kitchen they've got a bar, a sound stage, and an immense patio. There is also a large indoor dining space if the elements are being uncooperative.
I have a weakness for deviled eggs, so there was no way I could resist their Deviled Eggs 5-Way appetizer! These eggs each come with their own homage to Southern cooking: pimento cheese, chow chow, bacon, dill pickle, and spoonfish caviar. Not having the slightest idea what a spoonfish was, this one took some research. Apparently the caviar is harvested from paddlefish, the term "spoonfish" being merely a nickname of sorts. They're native to the Mississippi River basin, making them about as Southern as chicken fried steak, if not just a tad bit unconventional.
The pimento cheese was creamy and decadent, with a distinct cheddarness to it. I'm not entirely sure that I've actually eaten chow chow before, but I am sure that I enjoyed the sweet acidity of theirs. The crisp, salty bacon was everything that you'd want it to be, and the dill pickle had a nice crunch coupled with pleasantly pungent hits of vinegar. As for the infamous spoonfish caviar, it was much saltier than I would have imagined, and I liked it a lot.
For the main course, I couldn't decide between a pulled pork plate or a brisket plate, so I did the only logical thing and asked for an off-menu combo. Thankfully, they were happy to oblige. Their plates automatically come with a spicy corncake and slaw, as well as one additional side. I picked the bacon mac and cheese for fairly obvious reasons.
Wow, this was definitely not basic box macaroni. The small cast iron dish allowed the sides to crisp up a little, and the layer of melty cheese right on top was a great bridge between the gooey spiral pasta and the crispy crumbled bacon. This dish was savory, comforting, and absolutely scrumptious. The corncake was surprisingly fluffy and moist, with a good balance between sweet and heat. It was an excellent pairing for barbecue.
My rough-chopped brisket was tender, juicy, and perfectly smoky. I found nice pieces of fat, bark, and rosy smoke ring mixed throughout, which enhanced the flavors and the smokiness at every turn. The well-rendered fatty pieces absolutely melted in my mouth, as God intended. There was just enough seasoning to be interesting without overpowering or masking the natural meat flavors.
The pulled pork was even more juicy than the brisket had been, at least compared to the non-fatty pieces of beef. It had a more tempered smoke level, which is about par for the course with pork. The chunks of bark that I found did pack more of a smoky punch, and they seem to have carried more of the seasonings as well. Although the pork certainly didn't need any sauce, I gave the Alabama White a twirl anyway. It was creamy and zesty, which complemented the pork nicely.
Admittedly, I went into The Row expecting to find a three-star barbecue lunch, four stars tops. But when I looked back through my notes, I realized that I couldn't find any criticisms to justify anything less than top marks. Color me impressed.
The Row Kitchen & Pub
110 Lyle Ave
Nashville, TN 37203
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Today's lunch adventure was to a place whose official name is South Street Original Smokehouse, Crab Shack & Authentic Dive Bar. For the sake of simplicity, let's just stick with South Street.
South Street is, at most, a ten-minute stroll from my office building and an equally short hop from the Vanderbilt University main campus. They've apparently been in operation since 1991, but even as a Vanderbilt undergrad in the early 2000s, this place somehow stayed off my radar. Better late than never, I suppose.
Judging by the scene outside, part of me was expecting sort of a Joe's Crab Shack vibe, but there was surprisingly little vibe of any kind to speak of. It's basically just a combination of unpainted shiplap and red brick, with not much else in terms of decor. Although, there are a couple of random trees and a treehouse running right through the main entrance, which I guess counts for something.
They have a Smokehouse Trio combo plate available, but not being in the mood for sausage, I went all-in with the BBQ Half Feast: a half-pound of pulled pork, a half-rack of ribs, and a half-chicken with two sides, for which I picked Cuban corn and homemade tater tots. Clearly there would be some leftovers coming out of this lunch, or at least there should. The phrase "my eyes were bigger than my stomach" doesn't even begin to describe the enormity of this plate.
The automatic jalapeño cornbread was commendable. It was only slightly spicy, but not the least bit dry or crumbly. Their Cuban corn was charred beautifully. It came topped with a sprinkle of cilantro and cojita cheese, in true street corn fashion. Of my side dishes, the homemade tater tots were the clear front-runner. The crispy panko batter and creamy potato interior blended together nicely, almost like a potato croqueta.
South Street smokes their pork over hickory, after which point it's pulled by hand. My helping had plenty of bark mixed in, as well as a nice smoke level throughout. There were also hints of vinegar from the mop sauce. It was decently tender, with only a few moments of dryness. The pork was admirable, but with room for improvement.
The Chicken is pumped with South Street's secret blend of seasonings, then smoked. I found a tasty blend of spices on the skin (my favorite part!), and the meat beneath was definitely juicy. A mild smokiness was about what you'd expect for barbecue chicken. It comes with a side of Alabama white sauce for dipping, and although it wasn't really necessary, this spicy sauce certainly jazzed things up a bit.
Their ribs come dry rubbed, which I generally prefer to sauce. They could have used much more seasoning though, such that I wouldn't really call it a true dry rub. These bones also weren't quite as juicy as I would have liked, but they were undeniably smoky. The crust was a little overly crisp, like bacon that's been cooked too long, perhaps from finishing on the grill or in the broiler. Overall, the ribs were ok, but fell short in a few key areas.
I'm glad that I finally discovered South Street. Things were a little hit or miss, but I enjoyed my meal enough warrant a return trip. A word to the wise though: If you are dining alone and order the massively excessive Half Feast like I did, be prepared to get a lot of judgmental stares from the other customers. Don't worry though, they're just jealous.
907 20th Ave South
Nashville, TN 37212
Friday, October 28, 2016
My wife and I spent a day at St. Thomas Midtown Hospital in Nashville bringing our precious baby boy into this world, plus a few more days recovering while we oohed and awed over how amazingly cute he is. The hospital provided my wife's meals, but as I was more or less on my own in that regard, I wandered down to their Balance Kitchen cafeteria to check things out. I never would have thought that hospital barbecue would be worth a flip, but the exceptionally smoky smell emanating from the cafeteria's Coast 2 Coast BBQ counter was enough to make me reconsider.
The barbecue at Coast 2 Coast is supposedly smoked on-site, although I'm not entirely sure how or where, and I can't imagine that pit smoke is exceptionally healthy in a hospital. Perhaps a pressure smoker or an indoor electric smoker? With my expectations low, I assumed that they would simply be spooning pre-cut meat out of containers and into sloppy joe-style sandwiches. I was pleasantly surprised to find an actual knife man slicing, chopping, and plating everything to order.
I thought I had ordered their two-meat Combo, but what I was handed was simply a giant plate of pulled pork and Texas-style brisket. Side dishes seemed to be an extra charge, and although I briefly considered adding something on, to be honest nothing that I saw struck me as overly appealing. Oh well, I'm really a carnivore at heart anyway.
The fatty, moist brisket was chock-full of deliciously rendered fat. Thick slices are much more difficult to keep juicy and tender, but Coast 2 Coast pulled it off nicely. There was a great smoke level in each bite, particularly in the salty black bark. I also noticed a slight sweetness to the bark from their marinade, but I couldn't quite discern the dominant flavors (other than sugar, that is). This was certainly a commendable brisket.
You really can't serve barbecue in Tennessee without having pulled pork on the menu, and often you'll find that those two terms are synonymous. Coast 2 Coast's pork was just a tad dry but still had a great flavor, especially in the bark that was scattered throughout my heap of meat. There was a nice smokiness here, as well as the same sweet marinade that I had tasted in the brisket. They did have sauce available on the side, although the marinade is probably about all the sauce you need with this dish.
Coast 2 Coast offers some fairly successful barbecue in a fairly unexpected setting. After the first of what I can only assume will be many, many sleepless nights sitting up with our little boy, it was nice to find a little smoky sustenance at St. Thomas Midtown.
Coast 2 Coast BBQ
St. Thomas Midtown Hospital
2000 Church St
Nashville, TN 37236
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Neighbors of Sylvan Park isn't a place that I've necessarily heard much about, but lately I've had a desire to expand my lunch options beyond the usual walking distance radius around my office. Located in (surprise, surprise) Nashville's Sylvan Park neighborhood, Neighbors would certainly provide a change in scenery, and I'm always anxious to expand my barbecue horizons.
This place is fairly dark and dingy, with a dive bar look that's matched by its dive bar smell. I guess Neighbors is technically a non-smoking establishment, but with all of the employees taking cigarette breaks out on the back patio, I sure couldn't tell the difference. The patio itself is actually pretty nice, all things considered. The decor here is probably what you'd expect: old cracked bar stools and about as much random crap as they could possibly fit on the painted cinderblock walls. I also noticed more flies circling around than I typically care to see while dining. Their music choices were pretty rocking, so I suppose that's something to be grateful for.
The menu at Neighbors is mostly an assortment of barbecue and Tex-Mex, with a few salad options tossed in for the lady-folk. I ordered a six-pack of mild smoked wings for a quick appetizer, followed by their pulled pork sandwich lunch special. All of the specials automatically come with chips, and since a substitution apparently wasn't possible, I added on a side of potato salad as well. Because the only thing better than meat and potatoes is meat and double potatoes.
My wings came out piping hot, which generally a good sign. These little fellas are dry-rubbed and smoked on a combination of hickory and apple wood for about five hours, and although that sounds great in theory, I couldn't really pinpoint any smoke here. The flavors I did find, however, were very savory, with almost an extra-peppery Old Bay seasoning thing going on. The chicken was rather tender, but the skin, while flavorful, could have been a little more crispy for my liking. I suspect that the excessive powdered spices in their dry rub prevented it from crisping up properly.
I had my option of barbecue, salt and vinegar, or jalapeño chips, but I stuck with regular. Super adventurous, I know. Not being overly excited about run-of-the-mill bagged chips, I simply took them home to include with another day's lunch. The potato salad was exceptionally thick and viscous. There wasn't much in the flavor department, but at least they tried to spruce things up with a dusting of paprika. Spicy Hungarian paprika may have been a better choice though.
The massive pile-o-pork was quite literally spilling out of its toasty brioche bun. There was plenty of bark to go around, and it was spectacular. The meat itself was juicy and seasoned well. A moderate smoke level was just enough to make things interesting. Their barbecue sauce comes on the side by default, and there's no reason to add it to the already delicious pork. I appreciated the use of brioche, which was infinitely better than the unfortunately-standard grocery store hamburger bun that I normally find on my barbecue excursions. In my opinion, a little bit of crunchy slaw would have really completed this sandwich, but it was still impressive even without it.
If you can get past the visual and olfactory shortcomings, the barbecue at Neighbors of Sylvan Park is actually pretty good, and certainly better than expected. But it's definitely not the kind of place you'd take a girl on date night, at least not if you intended on having a second date. Food-wise, Neighbors is probably more like a solid three and a half stars, but the awesome pulled pork was enough to spur my generosity today.
Neighbors of Sylvan Park
4425 Murphy Rd
Nashville, TN 37209
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
I had actually packed my lunch today, but when I found out that the Smoke Et Al food truck was at nearby Centennial Park, suddenly my leftover hotdogs lost their charm.
Smoke Et Al labels themselves as a "boutique smokin' food truck that goes beyond just BBQ." I'd say that's highly accurate. The gourmet barbecue food truck game is one that I hope to get into myself someday, so I was very interested to see what these guys could do with their mobile eatery. Judging by all of the enthusiasm that encircled them at Centennial Park, Smoke Et All seems to be doing quite well.
Their proteins and other ingredients are mostly all locally sourced, which means that what you're getting here is super fresh. My biggest dilemma was trying to narrow my lunch order down from the entire menu to just one or two items. In the end, I went with a BBQ Plate of brisket, fried pickled okra, and Yazoo mac n' cheese. I also added on an order of their illustrious Hot Ribs, because meats can be dessert too, right?
The okra was fried beautifully - crisp and lightly battered. Using pickled okra added a whole other dimension of flavor and acidity. It didn't have any of the usual dreaded okra sliminess either. Smoke Et Al serves this side dish with a traditional northern Alabama white barbecue sauce for dipping. The sauce was a perfect accompaniment, adding the right amount of creaminess to both counteract and compliment the acid. Their macaroni is made with Yazoo brewery's Gerst amber ale, a three-cheese blend, smoked Cheetos, and scallions. This concoction is one that you really need to try in order to fully understand and appreciate. The play between the gooey cheese and the crunchy Cheetos is amazing, and I loved the added bite of the green onion as well.
Smoke Et Al sprinkles their marinated, thin-sliced brisket with a little extra dry rub for good measure. The prominent smokiness was readily apparent upon first bite, and the flavors built with each bite thereafter. I also found a fantastic blend of spices on each sampling. The spices didn't detract from the natural beef flavors one bit, instead amplifying things nicely. Their brisket was tender as could be, and the fattier slices were very well rendered. It comes served with a side of barbecue sauce, but trust me, you don't need it.
Hot Ribs are Smoke Et Al's answer to the over-hyped Nashville hot chicken craze. These baby backs definitely pack a punch, but it's worth getting the hot sauce over mild. I saved them for last, both because of the impending heat level and the inevitable mess that I'd make of myself. The ribs are smoked, flash fried, tossed in hot sauce, and sprinkled with an array of spices. That I could still taste the smoke through the sweet/spicy sauce really says a lot. The meat was cooked just right, too: tender enough to come off cleanly with each bite, yet not overcooked such that things were "falling off the bone". In short, they were spectacular.
There are a lot of brick-and-mortar joints who can't hold a candle to Smoke Et Al's barbecue prowess. As the British say, "Well done you!"
Smoke Et Al
Thursday, September 29, 2016
To call Helen's Bar-B-Q an institution would be quite the understatement. Helen Turner, one of the few female pitmasters in the South, has manned (womanned?) the country-style open pits at her namesake barbecue joint for the past thirty years. With that in mind, I figured that a slight detour off the interstate and over to Brownsville, Tennessee was well worth the added travel time. If nothing else, the massive cotton fields that lay betwixt would be rather scenic, and perhaps the impending Memphis traffic would die down a bit by the time I finished my pit stop.
Helen's exterior signage is so worn and faded that I had to pull a u-turn just to find the place, missing it on the first pass. The term "hole in the wall" comes to mind, although "dilapidated house" might be a touch more accurate. They do have a couple of tables inside, but at non-peak hours these mostly seem to function as an employee lounge area. No skin off my back, it was nice enough outside that their picnic tables were a welcome dining choice.
You won't find any multi-meat combos advertised on Helen's menu, but don't be afraid to ask. Helen is a sweetheart, and she's more than willing to accommodate custom orders. I went all-in with a plate of pulled pork, ribs, and Polish sausage with their obligatory accompaniment of beans, potato salad and coleslaw. Even though I typically take my barbecue sauce on the side, I decided to take a chance with Helen. I did, however, stick with the mild sauce, so as not to tempt fate any more than necessary today.
Theirs was more of a mashed potato salad than the diced-spud variety that I'm accustomed to. Still, it was rather tasty, especially with all of the pickles mixed in. Frequent readers know that I'm not a big slaw fan in general, but Helen's was pleasant enough. I did like the finely shredded cabbage, since me and big hunks o' vegetables aren't always on friendly terms. The beans had sort of a mild sweetness to them. They were fine, but I think a little jalapeño would have really sealed the deal.
I'm not entirely sure that the sausage qualified as Polish, seeming closer to the standard bright red hotlinks of East Texas fame. It had a great flavor with just enough spiciness to make things interesting. I do prefer my links to come with more of a snap to the casing though, the kind that you'll only find with sausage that's actually been cooked on a heated surface, whereas this link struck me as more boiled than smoked or grilled. Nonetheless, I still ate the whole thing with a smile on my face, so that should tell you something.
The pulled pork was tender and commendably juicy. I longed for some bark, but the well-rendered fat made up for things in that department (mostly, at least). Smoke shined through the barbecue sauce beautifully, meaning that the sauce is there as a flavor addition rather than the sole source. Just as God intended. Helen's sauce has a base that's not quite tomato, not quite vinegar. But one thing's for sure, it's delicious.
By the look of their ribs, I was expecting overcooked, fall-off-the-bone mush. I couldn't have been more wrong. The rosy meat was perfectly cooked and perfectly smoky, with just the right amount of seasoning to compliment without being overpowering. Much like the pulled pork, the ribs showcased a great marriage of natural flavors and sauce, each standing its own nicely.
I'm still a believer in predominantly sauceless meat, but Helen's Bar-B-Q almost brought me over to the dark side. Well done.
1016 N. Washington Ave
Brownsville, TN 38012
Friday, September 9, 2016
With just over two and a half hours to burn before my connecting flight to Montrose, Colorado, I thought I'd take a gander at what sort of barbecue could be had at Denver International. Almost three years ago to the day, I found myself sorely disappointed with what passed for pulled pork at Lefty's Colorado Trail Grille over in Terminal A. I was cautiously optimistic that Aviator's Sports Bar & Bar-B-Que would yield better results. If nothing else, I figured that I could always wash things down with a few local brews.
Unsurprisingly, nearly everything here is aviation-themed, including the somewhat perplexing handwashing sink right behind the hostess stand. I guess they expect people to get a little messy with the ribs. Far from a hole-in-the-wall joint, Aviator's is more of a sit-down bar and grill, complete with the standard wall o' televisions. What Aviator's lacks in non-airplane ambiance it certainly makes up for in people watching, and I had a prime spot beside the pedestrian throughway.
According to the Aviator's menu, their smoking is done with a combination of apple and hickory. This fruity/salty combo surely works great for pork and poultry, though I had my doubts about pairing it with beef. I was also unsure how far away this smoking was being done, but figured that I'd find out soon enough. Exorbitant airport prices aside, I ordered the Smoky Combo of smokehouse chicken, baby back ribs, and kielbasa sausage, plus a little brisket for a $3.00 upcharge. After all, when you're already paying $24.00 for a meal, what's another three bucks? This combo also came with mandatory potato salad, which was just fine by me.
Their delicious mayo-based potato salad was laden with black pepper and pickles. The red onion was a nice touch, too. Each bite was both savory and slightly acidic, with just enough natural potato flavor present to still be noticeable.
While the lean slices of brisket looked tasty enough, the meat was fairly dry. It also lacked much meaningful smoke, though it could be found here and there if you really concentrated. There was decent seasoning on the bark, little as there was to be had. Overall the brisket was ok, but certainly not intensely satisfying.
A nice spiral scoring on the kielbasa added a flair of sophistication to my lunch. The sausage had a great char on it, obvious to both the eyes and the taste buds alike. There was also an ever-rising heat level that really crept up on me. I sincerely doubt that the kielbasa was made in house, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless. Particularly the spices!
Much like the rest of my plate, the chicken looked pretty dry, but thankfully it couldn't have turned out more juicy and tender. The blackened skin packed most of the flavors, and they were perfect. I couldn't pinpoint more than a modicum of smoke here either, though that's fairly common with barbecue chicken.
When I ordered, I was told that nothing came pre-sauced, but apparently that didn't extend to the ribs. There wasn't much to these bones at all; they were exceptionally tiny, even for baby backs. The meat came right off the bone, as expected but definitely not desired. The thick slathering of "barbecue sauce" tasted like 95% ketchup, so much so that I couldn't make it past my first rib.
The two best meats of my lunch turned out to be the ones that I was initially the least excited about. I finished my chicken and kielbasa, polished off my pilsner, and headed to my gate. Aviator's Sports Bar & Bar-B-Que will do just fine on an extended layover, but it wouldn't fare quite so well out in the wild.
Aviator's Sports Bar & Bar-B-Que
Denver International Airport
Terminal B, Mezzanine
8500 Pena Blvd.
Denver, CO 80249
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
I've had TJ's Bar-B-Q & Fish on my lunchtime to-do list for a while now, although I can't seem to remember why. It isn't exactly in the ritziest of Nashville's neighborhoods, but it is relatively close to my office. Best I can tell, they operate out of the attached garage to a converted house, while a crummy tattoo parlor and a "doctor" occupy the main living quarters. What can I say, I guess I'm just a sucker for hole-in-the-wall barbecue shacks.
My initial plan was to dine-in, but on closer observation I'm not really sure that TJ's is a dine-in type of establishment. Their cash-only drive-thru line appears to be the only option, although they do allow walk-ups before dark. Just as well, all of the barred windows didn't really lend much to the ambiance, and I'd have felt a lot more comfortable with my Kimber locked and loaded on my hip anyway.
When a place has its two signature dishes right in the name, you'd be a fool not to try them both. I ordered up some pulled pork on cornbread and a whiting fish sandwich, with a side order of potato salad to round things out. The food took a little longer than expected, but I hoped that just meant they were busy frying my fish fresh.
The potato salad was mostly ok, but there wasn't a ton of flavor to be had aside from its mustard base. My hunch is that it came from the grocery store.
I made sure to ask for the pulled pork without sauce in order to get a true sense of their smoking prowess. The cornbread was nice and buttery, though dense and pretty dry. My bottom piece was hard as a rock. The pork itself looked lifeless and gray, but I suppose looks can be deceiving, at least somewhat. Although it, like the cornbread, was fairly dry, the pork did pack a ton of smoke and seasoning. It was sort of lukewarm, and while I hate to cast unsubstantiated aspersions on a place, I think that their pork had simply been reheated from another day.
According to the menu, TJ's has been rated "#1 Fish" by The Tennessean newspaper. As far as when that rating was made or in what context, I really have no idea. Their whiting fish sandwich comes standard with mustard, pickles, onions and hot sauce, and I saw no reason to mix things up. TJ's fresh, flaky white fish was fried perfectly golden. The batter and the spice level on my gigantic fillets was excellent! Their hot sauce was just enough to add intermittent pops of flavor, and the pickles provided a pleasant crunchy texture. I'm not sure the mustard added a lot to the equation, but I suppose it did contribute to the overall combined taste if nothing else.
Were I to rate TJ's Bar-B-Q & Fish on the whiting sandwich alone, this would have been a glowing review. Sadly, there's more to the story than just seafood. TJ's would really have something special if they served their pulled pork as fresh as they do the fish. Until then, it will exist as a great fish house and a mediocre barbecue joint.
TJ's Bar-B-Q & Fish
1104 Ed Temple Blvd
Nashville, TN 37209
Monday, August 15, 2016
I've long been intrigued by the Lil' Choo Choo BBQ food truck and their locomotive-themed smoker. A few months back, a fire broke out in a small retail strip in south Nashville, snuffing out several businesses in its wake. From these ashes, Lil' Choo Choo's first brick and mortar operation took root.
According to their seldom-updated Facebook page, Lil' Choo Choo's grand opening was originally scheduled for August 1, 2016. Due to unforeseen delays in obtaining their Use and Occupancy certification, things got pushed back a couple of weeks to August 15. I had eagerly watched this joint take shape, and my heart was set on attending the grand opening, no matter the date. After all, what kind of barbecue fanatic would I be if I didn't show up on Day One to scope things out?
The interior at Lil' Choo Choo BBQ is a lot more bright and modern than you'd expect for this part of town, no offense intended. Railroad crossing signs, train-line logos, and neons tie their whole aesthetic together nicely. It's cohesive and amusing without being over-the-top or kitschy.
First-day jitters and hiccups are common for restaurant openings, but from what I could tell things here got off without a hitch. All of the employees were super friendly and checked on me often. They also knew the menu well, and I heard them giving good suggestions to indecisive customers studying the menu. Clearly the owners had spent plenty of time making sure that their staff were trained properly. Kudos.
Lil' Choo Choo's train theme unsurprisingly spills over into their menu as well. Menu items with names like The Conductor, The Penn Station, and The Brakeman made things interesting as well as fun. But with three meats and two sides, the L&N dinner plate is definitely the way to go. I loaded mine up with pulled pork, pulled chicken, brisket, Porter Potato Salad and Highrail Jalapeño Mac and Cheese. All aboard! Next stop: obesity.
The mac and cheese had a ton of delicious, melty cheddar coupled with a distinct bite from the jalapeño peppers. It was just spicy enough to make things exciting without destroying my palate. I could really taste the dill in this potato salad. I'm not generally a dill fan, but for some reason potato salad is my one exception. The mayo base wasn't overly thick, which I liked. I also enjoyed the crunch from the assorted veggie mix-ins.
Unlike a lot of smoked poultry out there, their chicken was tender as could be and not the least bit dry. My serving came with big hunks of spectacular skin scattered throughout. The crispy, blackened skin obviously had the most flavor, but the rest of the juicy meat also carried a great smokiness. This was a stellar effort for barbecue chicken.
The thin-sliced brisket had plenty of nicely-seasoned bark to go around. It had a prominent smoke ring and an equally smoky taste. I received a nice combination of lean and fatty slices, with both kinds being tender and hard to stop eating. What fat I did get was well rendered, enhancing the already smoky meat even more.
Not to be outdone, the pulled pork had a great smoke level as well. Each bite was tender, juicy, and full of savory bark. I'm sure it works well for sandwiches, but I loved it all by its lonesome. Lil' Choo Choo has half-a-dozen different sauces available, though I doubt that any of them could have improved upon the natural pork.
I'm really glad that I was able to make it for the grand opening. If Lil' Choo Choo BBQ keeps slinging out food of the caliber I tasted today, they'll definitely be among Nashville's top players.
Lil' Choo Choo BBQ
1609F Murfreesboro Pike
Nashville, TN 37217