Monday, January 30, 2012

Blue Ribbon Barbecue

AUSTIN: Blue Ribbon Barbecue
120 E. 4th St.
Austin, TX 78701
Open Daily 7-9

A non-descript glass storefront on a faceless downtown Austin high rise does not scream "Barbecue Joint", but Blue Ribbon Barbecue deals with it location related hurdles well enough. One of those hurdles is how to serve great barbecue without a smoker. The solution thus far has been to ship in already smoked meats from a satellite smokehouse in Taylor, Texas, and reheat it in this downtown kitchen. I first ran into these purveyors at a Super Bowl party in Dallas where they were dishing up some impressive banana pudding for several hundred attendees. I was hoping on this visit that their meats could match the pudding in quality.

Ribs weren't ready, so a plate of brisket, pork and sausage would have to do. Also, much to my dismay the banana pudding wasn't ready. While disappointing, this is a good sign since it is made fresh every day, and doesn't start as a box of powdered banana flavored swill. The meats didn't seem to match my memory of the pudding from several months earlier. Brisket had well rendered fat, but was lacking good smokiness. The meat itself was overcooked and a bit dry, like it may have been held over from the night before. Sides of potato salad and cole slaw were above average, as was the smoked sausage, but none of them were particularly memorable. Pulled pork had better flavor, but it was also on the dry side. Nice bits of the crust were mixed in to give it a nice smoky flavor, but it would have been better in a taco.

Breakfast tacos are also a house specialty and it was still early in the day so we decided to grab one stuffed with eggs and sausage. It was adequate if not incredible. The prepackaged tortilla could have been warmer, but the homemade salsa was a great addition.

We finished off the food pretty quickly, but before we could head out the door the lone employee informed us that the banana pudding was done. It was still warm and hadn't had a chance to set up in the cooler, but he let us try a cupful anyway. It was perfect. My friends, the pudding alone is worth coming back for.

Rating **
Blue Ribbon Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

BBQ Poetry

A follower of the site sent in some barbecue poetry. Noting figurative, but actual poetry. Take it away David:

BBQ Is My Religion
by David W. Roberts

BBQ is my religion
And the pit is my church.

Standing around the fire
Of charcoal and wood,
But never gas,
Talking with a friend
About this or that,
Surrounded by smoky incense
While the almighty himself
Enjoys the aroma
Reminiscent of an Old Testament-style sacrifice.

Beer is the sacramental beverage
Consumed in copious or moderate quantities,
As those who partake commune
In a spiritual bond
With pit masters
Past, present, and future,
From every corner of the world.

Sauce is an afterthought
If it is present at all
As a freshly sharpened knife
Is wielded by a skilled hand,
Slicing into a mound of smoky deliciousness.

Soon after,
Incomprehensible utterances abound
From all who share
In this moment of transcendence
Between heaven and earth.

With a slice of pie
Or a scoop of ice cream,
The service comes to a close
And the meeting adjourns,
With some going their separate ways
As others unite once again
To imbibe the sacred drink.

The dew gathers upon the ground
And the smoke dissipates,
As heaven and earth disengage,
Promising to reunite once again
Around the hallowed flame.

David describes himself as a "BBQ fanatic and self-proclaimed connoisseur". I think this poem proves it. Thanks for sharing.

- BBQ Snob

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Fargo's Pit BBQ

BRYAN: Fargo's Pit BBQ
1220 N Texas Ave Ste A

Bryan, TX 77803


Open Tues-Sat 11-7

Update: This location has CLOSED, and Fargo's has moved up the street to 720 N. Texas Ave.

2012: Most professional food critics will make at least three visits to a restaurant before completing a review or issuing a star rating. Given the miles that I travel (without a traveling budget) in search of smoked meats around Texas, I don't get this luxury. I routinely provide a rating based on a single visit, which can be a bit nerve racking knowing I may have gotten the best or worst version of what any can offer on the day and time that I visited. After a quick stop at Fargo's a couple of years back, I enjoyed some of the best brisket and ribs I've had anywhere. My euphoria came while driving down the road back to Dallas with the steering wheel in one hand and a rib in the other. On this return trip, I was nervous to try the meats in hopes that they would live up to the earlier rating. I needn't have worried a bit, for Fargo's is one of the finest smoked meat purveyors in the state.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

Owner and pitmaster Alan Caldwell has secrets. Ask him to see the smoker(s)? Nope. What's in that rub? Not a chance. What wood are you using? Nada. What he lacks in a forthcoming attitude, he and his wife make up for in warmth and hospitality from the minute the screen door clanks closed behind you. My heart fluttered when I saw the meat display case. It sits on the counter, and is impossible to miss while standing in the small front room waiting to order. Beautiful black crusted briskets were piled atop one another, rust hued racks of spare ribs beckoned, links of brick red sausages and perfectly bronzed half chickens begged to be chopped and bagged. I had to have them all even though I rarely order chicken.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

Without a dining area, we opted for a picnic spread on the trunk of my car. Large spare ribs had the perfect balance of smoke and saltiness with a bit sweetness and black pepper that kept me coming back bite after bite. Each bite through the yielding crust and layers of nicely rendered fat came easily off the bone. Pork ribs of this size can have issues with consistent texture throughout since the tips can dry out easily. These ribs had a perfect level of moisture and tenderness from end to end. The texture of the chicken was also commendable. Neither chewy skin or dry meat afflicted this bird. The skin was crisp, salty and luscious. The meat beneath was smoky and ridiculously moist. This was a good bird.

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

After a few bites of the snappy and peppery sausage link, I went right for the brisket, most of it cut from the lean end. Pencil thick slices were piled high in the styrofoam container resting on my car's trunk. The long slices broke in half under their own weight as they were lifted from the box. This can be a sign of dry brisket, but not in this case. Smoked just beyond tender, each slice had a thick line of rich velvety fat that was bursting with smoky flavor. A thick red smokering sat beneath a thick black crust which brought even more smokiness to the table. I had eaten several meals on this day already, but I simply could not keep my hands off the next slice of brisket. Near the bottom of the pile sat some fatty slices. I didn't think this experience could get any more satisfying until I sank my teeth into the buttery meat. An intense rush of flavors followed. This was barbecue nirvana unequaled by just about every place I've been to previously. There was an immediate revelation that my earlier visit was no fluke, and the validation of my previous review was delicious, but it was nothing compared to that brisket.

Rating ******

2010: While on the way out of Bryan after a good meal at Martin's Place, I spotted a small blue building with "BBQ" painted on the side. Hardly noticeable along the busy street, this small storefront bucks the black, yellow and red trend of most BBQ joint color palettes. Not expecting much I went inside to get my order to-go, quickly finding out that it's the only way to get your food here since there is no dining room. Meats are stored unwrapped in a warmer behind some smoked stained glass, and my hopes for good 'cue increased based on the fine meats on display. I ordered up some ribs and brisket, and the surly pitmaster served it up quickly.

It took only a few bites from all involved to realize we had found something special. The fat remaining on the slices was so well rendered that we witnessed the rare sugar cookie. The slices from the lean end were so perfectly moist with a thick black bark that held incredible flavor. The smokiness was intense in every mouthwatering bite. Surely the ribs could not be at that level. Wrong. The bark was well formed with a slight sweetness to it. The meat just needed a tug to release from the bone, and the texture and mouthfeel were excellent. I've rarely had such a perfect combination of seasoning and smokiness.

When I went back in to ask the proprietor a few questions, he was willing to answer few of them. He insisted that part of secret was the mixture of woods he smokes with, so he refused to divulge that fact. I was surprised since no other pitmaster seems to keep that information secret. For now I'll just have to guess that it's a mixture of mesquite and either pecan or post oak. Maybe I'll get it out of him on my next trip.

Fargo's Pit BBQ on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Taste-Off: Smoked Beers

A few weeks ago some friends and I got together for a sausage tasting. The only thing I could think of that was appropriate to wash down two dozen sausages was a large amount of smoked beer. Smoked beer comes in many flavors from the traditional German rauchbier to smoked porters from the States. In order to widen the sampling, I also included a few that gained their smokiness from aging in bourbon or scotch barrels. I'm no beer expert, but what makes a smoked beer is how the malt is dried. The malt must be dried, and that can be done by direct sunlight or more commonly in a kiln, but one way not used very often is to dry it over an open flame. This imparts a smoky flavor and creates a rauchbier, or smoked beer.

A Sampling of the Sampling

I could only get my hands on two traditional rauchbiers. One was a new limited release brew from Samuel Adams called Bonfire, and the other was Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier made in Bamberg Germany. The Schlenkerla had a more pronounced smokiness, and was one of the most enjoyable of the tasting. Bonfire was similar, but was missing the smoky punch.

The smoked porters came from San Antonio's Ranger Creek Brewery, San Diego's Stone Brewing Company, and O'Fallon Brewery in Missouri. The Stone is a popular one that easy to find, and it was very enjoyable. Ranger Creek's was also quite good with smokier notes and a deeper flavor. The O'Fallon was just not good in comparison.

Other wild card brews were a smoked and oaked Belgian Ale from Salt Lake's Epic Brewing Company and a smoked wheat beer called Boucanee from Bayou Teche Brewery in Louisiana. If you like your beer to taste like toffee, then the Epic brew is for you. The Boucanee was pretty weak, and the smoke was hardly discernible.

The 'alternative' smoked beers were those aged in bourbon or scotch barrels. Brew Dog has collaborated with a few scotch distillers to create Bitch Please (barley wine), Devine Rebel (a barley wine collaboration with Mikkeller), Paradox Smokehead and Paradox Isle of Arran which are all aged in scotch barrels. Brooklyn Black Ops is aged in bourbon barrels. The Black Ops was the best of this group. None of the bottles in this group were cheap. A bomber of Black Ops was $20 while the Brew Dog beers were all about $12 for a 12 ounce bottle.

There was just one beer that all tasters agreed was horrific. The Brew Dog Paradox Smokehead tasted as if ash was simply mixed into a strong stout. There was nothing pleasing about the flavor, and the group couldn't even finish one bottle. Stay away from this one if you want to enjoy your beer. On the brighter side, it did lead me to find the scotch is was named after. The Ian MacLeod produced Smokehead is an intensely peaty single malt scotch that smoke fanatics like myself will probably enjoy.

While the tasting made for some interesting comparisons, I didn't feel compelled to drink any of these brews over any of my usual favorites. The Schlenkerla was the hardest to find, but was also the one I'd like to try again most. I also wouldn't turn down a Stone Smoked Porter, Brooklyn Black Ops or the Ranger Creek Smoke Porter if it was put in front of me, but paying $12 for a small bottle of ashy flavored swill probably won't be in my future.

- BBQ Snob

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse

DALLAS: Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse
2202 Inwood Rd
Dallas, TX 75235
Open M-Fri 10-4, Sat 10-3

Update: It's been a while since my last visit to this oft-suggested barbecue stop in Dallas. They recovered from a small fire a few months back and were still glowing from their recent Man vs. Food publicity, so I wanted to stop by and see if anything had changed in the past couple of years. One noticeable change are the new doors after the old ones had been hammered open by the fire department. The sign still says they close when the meat runs out, but the fact is that they're open from 10:00 to 8:00 every day.

"Rogge's Dunn Deal" on the menu gets you two ribs, a sandwich, a side and a drink for $9.49. As I waited for my order I enjoyed reading over the cruelly ironic article framed on the wall from December 22, 1974 where Sonny tells the Dallas Morning News "If I ever did anything smart is was not going into the franchise business." This, he felt, would cause the quality of his product to suffer.

With the fire damaging just the kitchen area, the small dining room hasn't changed a bit. I sat with my tray balanced on the tiny desk trying not to spill it every time I reached for a bite.

Pulled pork had little going for it. No crust, no fat, no smoke and little flavor existed between the cold white buns. Sauce is on the side here making it technically optional, but the lack of flavor in the meat made the sauce mandatory. The atrocity of the rib preparation made it obvious that sauce was not an option. For this lunch service, cold and pre-smoked ribs were sliced and resting in a tub where they had been presauced. When an order was received, the appropriate number of ribs were fished from the tub and placed on a charbroiler. Once heated through, there's little hope that these poor bones would have any moisture left, and they didn't. Not only was the meat dry, but the grilling method replaced any smoky flavor with a charred flavor similar to that from burnt sugary sauce on an amateur's home gas grill. I was sad for those ribs. The famous onion rings were famously huge and crispy, but needed some salt (and why not some sauce?) to bring them to life.

At the end of the meal I ordered a sliced beef sandwich, sans sauce, to go. Unwrapping it in the car, it quickly became obvious that this meat would also lack that smokiness I was so hoping for. This unappetizing mass of monochromatic gray meat sat on an unwarmed bun. Every shred of bark, fat and flavor had been scraped away before I ever saw it. With ten franchise locations as far away as Utah, Sonny's words from that article seem more prophetic, even for the "Original".

Rating *

2009: Let's face it Dallas...we continue to bow to this shell of a formerly renowned BBQ joint because it's really all we've got to point to in Big D that can be considered a historic 'cue icon. I know every time I enter through that screen door, I hope that this trip is sure to provide more gastronomical rewards than the last, but this joint has long since slid past protein mediocrity, and it now lies in a smokeless grave shrouded by those quaint school desks. No matter how many rave reviews are written by critics who allow their tastebuds to be deceived by the history oozing from these walls, the fact that this 'cue is not worthy to be considered amongst Dallas's best remains unchanged.

When I lament to laymen about the lack of stellar BBQ in our fair city, the general retort is something along the lines of "Well, I've heard that the original Sonny Bryan's is great". My usual response is "As long as you order a chopped beef sandwich and some onion rings, you're set." It had been a while since my last trip, so I decided to put my long held assumption to the test. A coworker and I traveled to SB's, and each ordered chopped beef sandwiches. Alongside, came a beautiful mountain of thick golden onion rings. These things would be more fitting as jewelry on the hands of the mighty Thor.

The sandwich was less impressive. Instead of smoky chunks of meat on a hot buttered bun, I received gray morsels of meat barely passable as roast beef sitting between an unbuttered luke warm bun. A layer of their excellent barbecue sauce provided some much needed flavor, and yet another layer made it taste almost like barbecue. The onion rings were better, but the floury taste of the thick crust also needed to be tamed a bit by more of the sauce. I'm positive that I consumed more tomatoes during my meal than meat. Yes folks, it used to be great, but these days it seems they don't even think they need to try anymore. Let's demand better.

2008: Sonny Bryan's is a Dallas institution...that has gone downhill fast. The original location has always been hailed as the Dallas mecca of BBQ, but on a visit a few months ago, the brisket was decent, and the ribs were edible. While the ribs remained edible on a trip last weekend, the brisket was not worth my gastronomic real estate. It was, in short, terrible. I gave my food to a homeless man instead of finishing the dry, gray brisket.
Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Chief's BBQ & Grill

AUSTIN: Chief's BBQ & Grill
7811 S 1st St #104

Austin, Texas 78745


Open M-Sat 10:30-9, Sun 11-9

When I'm out on a multi-venue barbecue search, I record tasting notes into my phone to save for writing later. After a trip to Chief's it took about an hour to get the grease off my fingers and find a quiet place to record. Even then, I could still taste the heavy oak smoke and creosote from the mesquite that they mix in during smoking. This was some smoky meat for sure.

Just a few tables are inside the joint, so I took a loaded to-go container to my front seat to enjoy. That smokiness filled the car quickly. Thick and meaty St. Louis ribs had a deep black crust, but the flavor was seriously marred by a thick paste of powdered spices liberally applied before smoking. Salt and sugar melt into the meat under the heat of the smoker but spices like paprika and garlic powder don't dissolve and just sit on top of the meat. If used too liberally then an unappetizing paste forms. While the ribs were tender and smoky (too smoky?), the flavor of this rub just overpowered everything else, and not in a positive way. Slices of brisket were a bit dry with no fat, but the meat was tender with good smokiness. Ironically, they could have used more spice in the form of salt to bring out the brisket's flavor. Beautiful battered onion rings also need some salt or a dunk in the mustard/tomato/vinegar sauce. For the sausage they started with a good product in V&V sausage out of Flatonia, and they didn't do anything to screw it up. Minus the overpowering ribs at Chief's, they do some good stuff at this small storefront in South Austin.

Rating ***
Chief's BBQ on Urbanspoon

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Sam's Bar-B-Que

AUSTIN: Sam’s Bar-B-Que
2000 E. Twelfth
Austin, TX 78702
Open M-Sat 10-3am, Sun 10-10

Update: Barbecue in Texas is usually a lunch time meal. Some joints might even sell out before noon, but East Austin has a famous exception. Sam's on Twelfth is open late - really late. I was riding in the back seat of a recent acquaintance's car, but I knew I was with the right group. Dinner was long ago, so we embarked on a late night Austin BBQ tour. Ten years earlier and we all would have been bar hopping, but Lambert's banana pudding followed by mutton ribs were on this night's menu.

Sam's has been famous in this neighborhood for decades, but has spent time in the spotlight more recently for some serious seediness. A scandal of questionable meat acquisition was the subject of much media attention this past summer. When our group inquired of the couple working the counter how 'things' were going, there was an immediate recognition about what was meant. Business was slowly picking back up they said, but at a few minutes before eleven, we were the only customers. I hoisted a large tray of meat as we made our way out to the screened in patio to watch football highlights on a small muted television.

The meat cutter was most generous with the sliced brisket. Cooked too fast but not long enough, it was both tough and dry. A faint smokiness came from the crust, but it lacked great flavor. It was simply poor brisket. Pork ribs had a bit more smokiness, and didn't suffer from the same dryness issues. These were above average, and the end cut made for a pleasing chewy cut. A respectable sausage had some good black pepper and smoke with a chewy casing. It was plenty juicy without being too fatty. The big surprise were the mutton ribs. Mutton is an acquired taste that I keep trying to acquire, but this meat was downright tasty. The gaminess was tamed, I think by trimming the thick layer of fat that sometimes remains on the top layer of mutton ribs. They were smoked beyond tender, but I dare say I'd order them again. The brisket - not so much.

Rating **

Update: This venerable joint in East Austin isn't much to look at, but it has character, and so do the folks that work there. With all the football posters, the last thing I would expect was tennis fans in this joint, but one guy was hollering about getting Wimbledon up on the small TV. The lady behind the counter joked with me about the oppressive heat as she sliced my order of brisket and ribs. The ribs here were positively huge. The meat was flavorful and smoky as long as the bite contained some crust, but there was little flavor in the center. The brisket had a decent smoky crust, but had not cooked long enough to render the fat well or permeate the meat with smoke. This joint might be just as famous for its service and atmosphere as for its meat, but on this day, the meat took a back seat.

Sam's BBQ on Urbanspoon

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Double Trouble BBQ

AUSTIN: Double Trouble BBQ
5300 S Congress Ave

Austin, TX 78745


Open M-Sat 11:30-2:30 & 4:30-8:30

This joint made some news this summer for being the first aquatic BBQ joint that anyone could recall. These days the boat is off Lake Austin and trailered in a gravel lot on far South Congress. I bellied up to the bow and placed my order. Ribs aren't an option so sliced brisket and pork were my preferred options. Meats were fetched from warmers inside the house boat while the idle smoker sat on solid ground next to the trailer.

Oak and apple wood are used in the smoking process, but I couldn't detect much of either. The moist pork still had good flavor, but was overly tender and salty, possibly from sitting in the warmer. Small bits of brisket were sliced with the grain making for some chewy meat with little going for it in the smoke or seasoning department. The side of potato salad was passable and the creamy beans were well spiced with a nice bit of cilantro. Overall, this place would work great for a captive audience on the lake, but it's not much of BBQ destination on land.

Rating **

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Taste-Off: Local Sausages

This is a public service announcement to local pitmasters. I understand that it's easy and cheap to order those mass produced commercial sausages loaded with fillers and overloaded with fat, but if you care at all, there are other good options made right here in DFW. It's not hard to see that making your own sausage could be time consuming, but an easier step would be to seek out some good options not on the Sysco menu. I assembled twenty-four unique sausages for a recent tasting. Most of these were local, but I threw in a few ringers on my personal high end and low end just to see how they stacked up with unbiased tasters.

All of the local sausages collected are available for wholesale purchase. They range from the newish Matador Meat & Wine in Plano (soon to expand to Oak Cliff) to the worn storefront of the hallowed Rudolph's in Deep Ellum. Other local options included Hirsch's Specialty Meats in Plano, Renko's in South Dallas, Syracuse's in Roanoke, Old Town Meat Market in Lewisville and Kuby's Sausage House in Dallas.

The out-of-town sausages were three mesquite smoked links from Nors Sausage House in West, Texas and a couple cheap ones purchased from Restaurant Depot. Both of these are made by J Bar B in Waelder, Texas. They make several brands including Singletree and their namesake (which were both in the tasting) and the familiar Earl Campbell hot links that were not in the tasting. The J Bar B brand was available for the paltry sum of $2.26/lb if purchased by the case and Singletree could be had for just $1.64/lb. That's a scary low price that indicates the use of cheap meats like mechanically separated [insert animal here] along with fillers like modified food starch.

It was a blind taste test where I orchestrated, organized and sliced all twenty-four sausages, so I didn't get an official ballot. Scores were done on a tight scale of 1 to 3 where 1 was the best (you'd suggest it to friends), 2 meant you thought it was just pretty good and 3 meant you wouldn't eat it again.

Mostly complete ballots were collected from ten of my closest meat-loving friends (the vegetarian didn't vote), and here are the results from best to worst:

1.5 Matador Meat Hot Link
1.6 Syracuse Hickory Smoked
1.6 Syracuse Black Pepper Sausage
1.6 Nors Jalapeno Cheese*
1.7 Kuby's Hickory Smoked
1.8 Renko's Black Pepper
1.8 Kuby's Hatch Green Chile Sausage
1.9 Nors Original*
1.9 Renko's Kielbasa
1.9 Renko's Hot Link
1.9 Kuby's Jalapeno Cheese
2.0 Old Town Market German Sausage
2.1 Rudolph's Polish Sausage
2.1 Kuby's Venison Chipotle Sausage
2.3 Hirsch's Smoked Sausage
2.4 Syracuse Jalapeno Cheese
2.5 Hirsch's Andouille
2.5 Syracuse Andouille
2.5 Nors Liver Sausage
2.6 J Bar B Sausage*
2.7 Singletree Sausage*
2.7 Hirsch's Jalapeno Cheese
2.8 Hirsch's Hot Link
2.8 Hirsch's Linguisa

* Not locally produced

Luckily, these kind sausage tasters can remain my friends since they all agreed that the J Bar B and Singletree sausages were less than stellar and that Nors puts out a good product. Seeing Kuby's near the top of the list was encouraging, but it was surprising to see the full menu from Hirsch's near the bottom of the tasting. Both Renko's kielbasa (used by Baby Back Shak and Peggy Sue BBQ) and Rudolph's (used by Mike Anderson's, Big Al's and Hawk's among others) were both right around the middle of the pack. When shopping at Renko's small storefront, I was stunned to learn that their original sausage can be had for $2.22/lb wholesale. I can't attest to its wholesomeness because it's not sold with an ingredient label, but it tasted much better to this small group than the more commonly used value sausages. My personal favorites from the tasting were the Syracuse's black pepper sausage which I'd never tried, and the Nors jalapeno cheese which I knew I liked.

My hope is that these results will bring some awareness to you consumers and BBQ joints alike that there are plenty of locally made meats in tube form for you to enjoy. Now go have yourself a sausage fest.

- BBQ Snob

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Monday, January 9, 2012


AUSTIN: Pok-E-Jo's
4109 S. Capitol Of Texas Hwy
Austin, TX 78704
Open Daily 11-9

Smoking with green mesquite wood is an ill advised practice. Ask any wood supplier about it and they'll shake their head. Mesquite should age for no less than a year for the creosote forming oils to dissipate, but there are some odd joints out there that insist on using it. Begrudgingly, wood suppliers will sell it so they don't lose a customer. It doesn't take long to determine if your favorite pit uses it. Takes a few bites of crusty brisket or ribs. If your tongue starts to tingle and starts to feel numb, you've been struck. I walked out of Pok-e-Jo's I scraped my tongue hopelessly against my front teeth to try and defeat the creosote monster. On my way out I inquired about their smoking apparatus with slurred speech. No surprise - I was told they use green mesquite in a gas-fired Southern Pride smoker.

A standard combo plate of brisket and ribs came with potato salad. Large chunks of tender red potatoes, eggs, mayo and green onions made for a hearty side. Ribs had a thick sweet rub applied that had plenty of black pepper. A finishing glaze of sauce was applied which provided a pleasing flavor. The meat could have been more tender, but they weren't bad.

Brisket, on the other hand, was bad. I had some optimism when I saw what looked like serviceable crusty brisket being sliced en masse for a catering order, but what I got were sorry looking gray slices of smoke-free meat. Not even a dip in the sauce could revive these chewy sad looking slices from the point.

The banana pudding rounded out the meal. It's admirably available as one of your sides, and was a promising grayish color. When you peel a banana, it is not yellow, so yellow pudding is an automatic indication of artificially banana flavored pudding. While the gray color meant that plenty of bananas were used, the pudding was still artificially flavored (probably vanilla pudding) and not remarkable. I should have gotten double potato salad.

Rating **
Pok-E-Jo's Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Gatlin's BBQ

1221 1/2 W. 19th St.

Houston, TX 77008


Open Tues-Sat 11-7

It was the end of a long day. My friends Nick and Clark had stayed with me bite for bite through six other barbecue joints and we were on our way to Houston to eat at this mightily heralded joint in northwest Houston that's just over a year old. Greg Gatlin had his heyday on the gridiron as a defensive back for the Rice Owls, but barbecue is his game now. He was manning the counter inside the small dining room as I tried to order a small plate for my already satiated friends and I. I met some Houston friends there who had other ideas and we soon made our way to the covered picnic tables with a large foil tray brimming with all flavors of smoked meat.

I started with the grayish hot links. These are house made without red dyes or nitrates, so the they may not look like your idea of hot links, but they pack some heat. The casings are a bit chewy, but the meat and spices beneath are smoky and delicious. The regular sausage (made elsewhere) has a great snap and good black pepper flavor, but those hot links have superior flavor. Rosy pulled pork is flecked with black bits of highly seasoned crust. The texture is a good balance between toothsome and silky from the remaining fat.

All of the meats on the menu that I tried are excellent versions, but it's the brisket that has me considering a road trip from Dallas to Houston fortnightly. The true connoisseur will always go for the fatty brisket, and it was well represented here. Thick slices were just on the edge of disintegration. They were barely held together with strands of well cooked fat that had good smoke and great flavor from the subtle seasoning, but it was the lean brisket form the flat cut that stole the show for me. When it is done properly, a lean cut of brisket with a 1/4" thick layer of fat remaining can be a thing of smoked wonder. I find that the fat locks in the smokiness greater than the meat, so a bit of each makes for a perfect bite of brisket. This fat was the epitome of what I like. It's nearly clear and barely clinging to the meat. A pinch of the fingers goes clean through without a hint of resistance. The pencil thick slices of meat were a just hovering over the optimal tenderness as a few broke in half under their own weight, but it was far from mushy. A thick black crust enveloped the whole smoky slice and provided a slight crispness to the very edge. My brain overruled my bulging stomach as I continued to another slice.

Already well on our way to demolishing the meat pile, out came the large bowls of family style side items. I have a dim recollection of any save the dirty rice which was the best I've had anywhere. Almost as much meat as rice, this side could easily make a meal in itself. Prompted by my dining companions I mixed in a bit of sauce and took a great side to an even higher level. I'll take this Gulf Coast flavor with my Texas style BBQ any day.

Being late in the day, I wasn't surprised that the popular ribs were already gone. After a bit of begging from the table, a few of these beauties being held back (probably for the owner's dinner) were released by the generous kitchen. The ribs were sweet, smoky and magnificent with a sugary rub that didn't overwhelm the well formed crust. These perfectly tender ribs would have been a great way to cap off this excellent meal, but before I could ask, the peach cobbler arrived. Prior to this meal I could hardly imagine ingesting more than a few bites of anything, but the bottom of the peach cobbler bowl was clean before I left the table.

With the emergence of Virgie's and the hopeful comeback of Pierson's, Houston is quickly becoming a barbecue destination of its own. Let's hope 2012 brings more quality urban BBQ to our fine state.

Rating *****
Gatlin's Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fancy Smoked Brisket Around Dallas

Brisket is making its way onto menus across Dallas. It's had a place in Tex-Mex joints for a long time now as brisket tacos, but more and more I see the words "smoked brisket" together. I went around to a few of those places around town just to see what exactly they meant by smoked brisket.

Texas Spice in the new Omni offers "Smoked Brisket Sliders" on the lunch menu. In a word, they were soft. A soft bun, soggy slaw, grilled onions and chopped brisket. The brisket layer was so thin it was hard to perceive. The sweet sauce was heavy on the chile powder, and was too heavily mixed into the meat. The bison burger was a much better option, but the fries were great.

Texas Spice Brisket Sliders

Texas Spice Cheese & Sausage Plate

Outside Gilley's you'll find a smoking gun. There's no meat in it, but it's good for show. How else would you notice the Jack Daniel's Saloon?

Jack Daniel's Saloon 'Smoker'

The meat on this sandwich was actually smoked, but it was so dry by the time it arrived that I had to add that sickeningly sweet Jack Daniel's sauce to choke it down. At least the fries were good. What was not good was the service. I sat at the bar near the POS system. Every server had to literally stand next to me to punch in their orders, but after 10 minutes and three clueless servers, I finally just shouted my order to one of them and got a shitty look and some food. One of them even said to herself (except it was to me since I was sitting right next to her) that she was "ready to get the fuck out of here." So was I.

While picking up some sausage at Matador Meat next door, I thought I'd stop in at this Plano pub for a drink.

They had a smoked brisket melt on the menu with caramelized onions, white cheddar and a spicy sauce on grilled sourdough. The sandwich was good, but I didn't detect any smoke. The server confirmed that the briskets are seared on the flat top then braised in beer. They have since updated their menu to say "beer braised" rather than smoked. Smoked or not, it was still a great sandwich. The fries covered in gravy and cheese were even better.

Holy Grail Brisket Melt

I only mention the Torchy's Crossroads Taco for comedy. Their Dallas menu says it has smoked brisket, but what really tops it is grilled ribeye. Not bad, but miles (okay, just a few feet) from brisket.

Torchy's Crossroads Taco

Asador opened recently in the Renaissance Hotel (you know, the lipstick building). They have a smoked brisket sandwich and smoked duck sliders on the lunch menu.

The brisket was thinly sliced. A peppery cheese and some onions topped the slightly smoky beef. This was certainly the best of the bunch that actually ended up being smoked, but the fries were even better.

Asador Smoked Brisket Sandwich

Along with the smoked duck sliders, an appetizer option at Asador are beef fat fries. That's right. Potatoes fried in liquid cow fat. They were some excellent fries. Those duck sliders are pretty good too, but with all the stuff dressing the sandwich, it's hard to tell that they have duck on them, let alone trying to distinguish a smoky flavor from it.

Asador Beef Fat Fries & Smoked Duck Sliders

What I learned here was that I should just go to a BBQ joint for reliably smoked brisket, but any of these places are great for a good french fry fix.

- BBQ Snob

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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.