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Wednesday, March 25, 2015
After several hours of touring Graceland, my wife and I wanted to grab a quick lunch before driving back to Nashville. Germantown Commissary was more or less on our route out of Memphis, making it a perfect choice. Too bad it wasn't Monday though, since that's when they have all-you-can-eat ribs!
The interior layout of Germantown Commissary makes little sense for a restaurant, with dining areas scattered around the small, confusing floorplan. Their choice of decor is a motley assortment of metal signs, framed pictures, autographed photos, magazine articles, and so forth. Some of it is either barbecue or Memphis themed, but there are also random things like an SR-71 Blackbird poster and a map of Lake Tahoe. If I were a betting man, I'd guess this place hasn't changed since it opened in 1981.
I really considered trying to conquer Germantown Commissary's four-meat Boss Hog Special, but that seemed like quite a lofty goal for lunch. Instead, I settled on a 3 Meat Combo of ribs, pork shoulder, and links. Besides, the Boss Hog would have only added chicken to the mix, and I can certainly live without barbecued poultry. As with the rest of their combo plates, this one comes with two sides. Our waitress said that coleslaw and bbq beans were the automatic side dishes, but she was still in training, so I picked new sides for my combo despite her unconvincing menu knowledge. Potato salad and homemade onion rings sounded great, and I also added a single deviled egg for good measure.
The egg was just mustardy enough for my liking, with a nice flavor from the spices sprinkled on top. To my delight, the onion rings were spectacular. They had a light tempura-style batter and were definitely homemade. Most potato salads I've encountered are full of diced spuds, but this version had a consistency more akin to mashed potatoes. Thankfully the veggies added a good crunchy texture. Here again there was only a mild mustard flavor, which was all that it needed.
Sampling pulled pork has been a very hit-or-miss experience for me since moving to Nashville, but the pork shoulder at Germantown Commissary did not disappoint. The meat was very tender with plenty of bark and pink/red smoke-kissed bits to go around. There was only a mild smoke flavor, but it was definitely present. Even though I'm not a big sauce guy, I enjoyed theirs. It was dark and thick and molassessy with a great Worcestershire taste that didn't overpower the meat.
Their menu description for the links says, "Gotta Please those Texas folks also!" Damn right. The links had a nice char on them. This added to the overall flavor and gave each bite a good snap. I'm not entirely sure if these were supposed to be hotlinks or just plain sausage links. Either way, they weren't the least bit spicy. They also could have used more seasoning, but that's probably not possible since I don't think they were made in house.
When I'm in Memphis I generally like to do a half-wet, half-dry mix on my ribs, but the waitress didn't give me a choice in the matter so I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. The ribs had a nice dark crust on them, though no visible dry rub or sauce. There were some sauces set out table-side, but I passed on them. The meat had a nice flavor despite being only moderately smoky. They were juicy and tender and cooked well. Unlike most of the Memphis joints I've visited, Germantown Commissary hasn't fallen prey to the "falling-off-the-bone ribs" misconception. It wasn't until after I'd polished off my last rib that I noticed the container of dry rub available table-side as well. Hmm, maybe that's something the waitress should have mentioned? Adding your own toppings is for baked potatoes; ribs should come either pre-seasoned or pre-sauced. Oh well, it was too late to change anything and at least the meat was good on its own.
I'm really glad we stopped at Germantown Commissary, even if I was too full and sleepy to drive the rest of the way home. Next time I'll be sure to sample the dry rub.
2290 S Germantown Rd
Germantown, TN 38138
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Mrs. Barbecue Fiend and I were staying at The Peabody hotel for one night of Memphis-style R&R, and of course Beale Street was on our itinerary. If I had been flying solo I probably would have picked Rendezvous for dinner, but at least with Blues City Cafe there would be some tasty non-barbecue options for my wife to enjoy.
This place has a very laid back diner feel to it that's right on par with the general Beale Street motif: plastic cups and paper towels. There wasn't much ambiance at all, with the exception of a halved pink Cadillac in one of the dining areas. I hoped this meant they were simply focused on the food.
Our waiter was running on Memphis time (like glacial), so don't come here if you're in a rush. At least they have some good live blues playing every night. These guys were rocking pretty hard and made up for the service somewhat, but not completely.
We had a fairly early lunch, so an appetizer was definitely in order tonight. BBQ Pork Fries sounded like a great option. These are their normal cheese fries topped with pulled pork, as if you couldn't have guessed that without the additional description. I actually had my eye on the Gumbo Cheese Fries, but my wife has an intense aversion to mixing seafood and cheese. Pork was an acceptable compromise.
I can honestly say that this was by far one of the largest appetizers I've ever received. We could have shared this as our meal and still had leftovers. The fries were crisp, though certainly of the frozen store-bought variety. Some parts of the pork were a little dry, but the majority was decently tender. The sweet barbecue sauce gave this dish most of its flavors, and the diced jalapenos really kicked things up a notch. There wasn't any noticeable smoke, though that's likely due to the potent sauce and peppers, at least partially. I liked the gooey cheddar, but it didn't really add much.
For my entree, I couldn't resist their "The Best Meal on Beale Combination Platter," which comes with a half-rack of ribs, a catfish filet, baked beans, coleslaw, and your choice of new potatoes or steak fries. The waiter didn't ask for my preference of spuds before he turned and scampered off, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for steak fries. Our appetizer hadn't been on the table more than a few minutes before our entrees arrived: mine first, then my wife's about five minutes later. The server gave me the option of holding off for a little bit, but since my food would inevitably be sitting out whether it was in the kitchen or on our table, I told him to just go ahead and give me the entree.
The slaw wasn't that great. It had a good crunch, but it also had an odd aftertaste that I couldn't exactly pinpoint. The beans were pleasantly sweet and cooked well. I also liked the onion mixed in. My entree came with steak fries after all, but sadly they ended up being the exact same pre-frozen ones that came with our cheese fries. Oh well.
Catfish is usually either really spectacular or really awful. Interestingly, this filet was right in the middle. The crisp cornmeal batter was great, and the fish tasted fresh. It definitely could have used more seasoning though. The accompanying tartar sauce (I'm guessing) was at least 98% mayonnaise and had less flavor than the packets of tartar sauce you get with a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Blues City's ribs are supposedly rubbed with their secret seasoning and then slathered with a maple barbecue sauce. I like a combination of wet and dry ribs when I'm in Memphis, but here they only come wet. There was a good crust, or so it appeared. The only flavor I could really taste was the barbecue sauce, with the smallest hint of smoke. Sadly, the ribs were overcooked to the point that the meat was crumbling (not falling) off the bone. Somehow they were also extremely difficult to cut and some bites were tough to chew. After struggling to get through three ribs, I discarded the rest and pretended to be full.
My wife had their Southern Fried Chicken Chopped Salad, which was mostly junk lettuce with some tomatoes and croutons tossed in. The chicken came in tender form and there wasn't very much of it to go around. Much like my catfish, her chicken was in dire need of salt. She took a cue from me and left most of her food on the plate as well.
At the end of our meal we waited nearly twenty-five minutes to pay the bill. In a fit of delirious exhaustion, Mrs. Barbecue Fiend started singing her own blues songs about the flavorless food and how slow our waiter was, which was hilarious and quite apt. I gave up on the waiter ever coming back and fortunately had enough cash on me to throw down and just walk out. I should have given them one measly star considering the crappy service, but I won't. How this place has a four-star rating on Yelp is beyond me. As my wife succinctly put it, "The music is better than the food." I couldn't agree more. Blues City Cafe will continue to make good profits simply because of its Beale Street location, but it doesn't deserve the business.
Blues City Cafe
138 Beale Street
Memphis, TN 38103
Monday, March 9, 2015
Austin is home to 10% of the most recent Texas Monthly "Top 50 BBQ Joints" list, with several other spots that you're likely to see on their next unveiling. Of the five list-worthy places in Austin, Lambert's was the only one that had a few non-barbecue menu options for my wife. I didn't think she had any interest in a multi-hour wait for Franklin Barbecue or Micklethwait's, so Lambert's was probably the best pick anyway. Plus it would be a great jumping off spot for perusing some of Austin's quirky downtown shops.
Since Lambert's is an extremely popular restaurant in an extremely popular area of town, I made sure to get reservations for lunch. That's right, this is the kind of barbecue joint that takes reservations, and they're highly recommended. The smell of delicious pit smoke permeates every inch of Lambert's. If you aren't hungry when you walk in, the aroma will change that quickly.
Lambert's is a smaller restaurant with a very cool downtown Austin feel to it. The interior seems like a renovated house, even though the exterior suggests otherwise. Upstairs they have a fantastic bar and music stage (it's Austin, after all), but nothing was hopping this early. We had a very friendly waiter who, in addition to being knowledgeable about the meats, had great advice on beer pairings. The draught of the day was a dark stout Quadraceratops out of Brooklyn, NY. It looked like the La Brea tar pits, but tasted quite nice.
I wanted to save room for a meat-tastic entree, but I couldn't resist trying their Deep Fried Boudin Fritters for an appetizer.
Besides the obvious, the boudin fritters come with crispy fried shishito peppers and a grain mustard dijonaise. The fritters themselves were exceptionally tasty and had a lot of flavor packed into a tiny ball. The soft boudin was both prepared and cooked perfectly. As good as they were on their own, the dijonaise added a nice zest to the fritters. I also loved the crispy batter on the shishitos. These peppers have a sweetness reminiscent of a bell pepper, with a heat level somewhere around a pepperoncini. Supposedly only one out of every ten shishito peppers is spicy, but each of mine had some decent kick to it. The peppers also paired well with the dijonaise, and it also tempered a little bit of their spiciness. Every bite of this dish was outstanding.
My appetizer already had me salivating, so I was pretty anxious for the entree round. I picked Lambert's Three BBQ Meats lunch plate: brown sugar and coffee rubbed brisket, maple and coriander crusted pork ribs, and homemade jalapeno hotlinks. Wow. As if that wasn't enough already, I also got the baked mac and cheese and the classic new potato salad for my two sides. I could hardly wait.
Their mayonnaise-based potato salad had hints of pickle here and there, but wasn't as flavorful as I had hoped. It was also served a little too ice cold for my liking. The mac and cheese, on the other hand, was really wonderful. I enjoyed the tasty cheddar crust just as much as I enjoyed the creamy macaroni below. It was somewhat spicy, which was a pleasant surprise. Overall, this was great comfort food on a cold, rainy day.
Side dishes are a nice addition to any barbecue plate, but I came here for the meat. I started my trio with the brisket. Oh my God! This brisket was really incredible. There was a great smoke level, as well as some beautiful black bark with a ton of flavor. The coffee notes didn't jump out right away, but they crept up nicely on the back end and added an acidic sweetness to the meat. I had asked for a fattier cut of brisket, and this was melt-in-your-mouth tender. All of the fat was perfectly rendered, adding to the juiciness of the meat. I can't express enough how delicious the brisket was.
Rather than traditional East Texas hotlinks, what I found at Lambert's was coarse-ground Central Texas sausage with jalapenos laced throughout. Honestly, I found that much more appealing. The jalapenos added a good heat level, but weren't overpowering. The casings were also crisp with a nice char to them. These links were very enjoyable.
The single, huge pork rib looked fairly menacing on my plate. It had a beautiful crust with a heavy dusting of black pepper and some other tasty spices. The coriander added an unusual but pleasant sweetness to the meat, but the dominant flavors were rather savory. I also thought the moderate smokiness was just right, allowing the other spices to shine. The rib was tender and cooked perfectly, no "falling off the bone" nonsense here.
My tablemates seemed interested in dessert, but I couldn't have possibly eaten any more food. Don't let their reputation for "fancy barbecue" scare you off. Potato salad aside, Lambert's Downtown Barbecue was absolutely spectacular, and I can't wait to go back.
Lambert's Downtown Barbecue
401 W 2nd St
Austin, TX 78701
Sunday, March 1, 2015
I had already stopped for some Memphis barbecue on the drive to Little Rock a few days prior, but for my return trip to Nashville I decided to try out one or two random highway joints instead. I timed my drive so that I hit Forrest City, Arkansas right at 11:00am when Delta Q opened. That would give me enough downtime before a possible mid-afternoon barbecue snack later on.
When I pulled up and saw a drive-thru window on the side of Delta Q's building, I wasn't quite sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. Their dining room is small but comfortable, and it has a rather modern feel to it. They had some good music pumping out of the sound system which made things more lively. By no means is this a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint. I bet Delta Q is a fairly popular dining option in Forrest City.
Shortly after arriving, the incredibly friendly cashier brought me some complimentary pork rinds for no reason in particular. What a sweetheart.
The pork rinds were crisp, but thankfully they weren't rock hard like so many of the homemade pork rinds I've eaten elsewhere. These had a nice seasoning blend on them, which was a combination of sweet and spicy. It was a very enjoyable start to my meal.
Delta Q doesn't have any multi-meat combos on the menu, so I did my best to create one of my own. I started with an appetizer of Delta Q Loaded Fries, followed by a half-rack dry-rubbed Rib Plate. My plate came with two sides, for which I picked Potato Salad and Mac and Cheese.
The Loaded Fries have a somewhat vague name. You might be inclined to think that they're basic loaded potato wedges, but no. Instead, these spuds are smothered in gravy and topped with cheese curds and chopped pork shoulder. It's sort of like a barbecue poutine. Whatever they are, the Loaded Fries looked amazing. The pork was really juicy with a decent amount of smoke. I also found some good bark mixed in. The spices sprinkled on top added a nice level of heat and another degree of flavor. I also loved the gooey cheese curds, which helped to temper the spiciness well. In short, they were delicious.
I could see some black pepper scattered throughout the Mac and Cheese, but I couldn't really taste it. Even without the pepper, the mac was creamy and really tasty. It was also great comfort food to combat the cold, rainy weather outside. The mayo-based Potato Salad looked more like a German-style potato salad, which is the best kind really. There were a lot of pickles and other veggies that added a good crunch. It was slightly sweet, with a nice bite from the onions.
This was certainly a big serving of ribs for a half-rack. They had a beautifully dark crust, complete with a tasty char from the grill finishing process. I noticed some hints of sweetness on the crust as well. The meat beneath was tender and very juicy. It was only slightly smoky, despite the bright red smoky color on the meat. Thankfully the meat wasn't quite falling off the bone, but it did come off fairly easily. These ribs were much better than the over-seasoned dry-rub sort that I find in Memphis.
My experience level with Arkansas barbecue is somewhat limited, but Delta Q had some of the best I've eaten so far.
1112 N Washington
Forrest City, AR 72335