Saturday, June 30, 2012

House Park Bar-B-Que

AUSTIN: House Park Bar-B-Que
900 W. 12th
Austin, TX 78703
Open M-F 11-2:30

If you followed Mike Sutter's Austin City Limits BBQ search over at Fed Man Walking, then you've seen the gist of this review. Mike put this jint into a context of Austin barbecue as far from the city's best, and it was also disappointing on a statewide level. Owe it to the very limited hours, but I had this place at the top of my to-do list for some time. This Dallasite had little chance of ever eating here during a weekday lunch until I happened to be in town on a Tuesday on other business. Nick and I met Mike out front at one of a few picnic tables that provide most of the joint's seating. Inside we ordered at a counter in the small interior that was bathed in oak smoke. Just by the smell, my anticipation heightened.

We soon had two plates. One with sausage and fatty brisket and the other with a the trio of smoked chicken, lean brisket and pork loin. The trinity of Texas BBQ sides - slaw, beans and potato salad  - graced the first plate. These were the best items on the menu.

Of the meats, we found the sausage to be the only one worth a second bite. The generous fat kept it from drying out completely like the rest of the meat, but you better believe that casing was crisp. These links come from the same Texas Sausage company where Franklin Barbecue has their links made, and the similarities (strong beefy flavor and loads of black pepper) are obvious. Ribs are the hardest of the usual Texas BBQ menu to screw up, but they aren't offered here. The rest of the menu highlights how easily the other classic barbecue items can go off the rails when they aren't tended to properly. Lean brisket was hopelessly dry. My mouth couldn't produce enough saliva to get it down without the aid of some iced tea. Some of the oakiness could be detected in the portions of the crust that weren't trimmed away, but the overall flavor was muddled. Fatty brisket to the rescue, right? Wrong. It too was dried beyond the point where the poorly rendered fat could do any good. The explanation is most likely that it was less than fresh.

Skin-on chicken is a challenging item to smoke well in order to crisp the skin and keep the meat moist. These mahogany skinned pieces provided neither of these positive qualities. The meat from the legs tore away like string cheese while my molars squeaked a bit while trying to down a few bites of white meat. The pork loin's surface was that of shag carpet. All of the moisture was gone which would otherwise bind the errant strands of protein like a squirt of hair mousse on a frizzled dome. These were meats beyond their prime and beyond repair. You may get by without 'teef' to eat this beef as their sign advertises, but you'll definitely need plenty to wash it down with.

Rating *

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Hardeman's BBQ (Garland)

GARLAND: Hardeman's Bar-B-Que 
4122 Broadway 
Garland, TX 75043 
Open M-Thur 11-10, F-Sat 11-midnight, Sun 11-5

The Hardeman's chain once consisted of four locations in Dallas. Until late last year the only one operating was in Oak Cliff on Westmoreland. In this newer location in Garland an old Sonic was hastily renovated. An Oyler smoker (a good sign) was plunked down beside the building and a few banners were hung. The old Sonic awning is still there, but don't sit out there waiting for the car hop. They ain't coming.

Inside is a small counter with a steam table holding the veggies. I ordered a combo plate to go and it was prepared in the back. The sauced and foiled meat was accompanied by cabbage and greens (I was running low on roughage) and after having such good luck with banana pudding at the Westmoreland location, I grabbed an order here.

There's no seating inside, so I dined on the car trunk once again. Brisket was so overdone that I couldn't grasp a solid slice. The beef was dry even with the sauce bath as were the ribs. Odom's in West Dallas, which used to be a Hardeman's and is still run by the family, has some of my favorite saucy ribs in town, but I doubt these bones in Garland were what Chester Hardeman envisioned when he started the business in 1930. Besides being dry they lacked smoke and were most likely smoked the day prior. On a good note the sides were both excellent in their simplicity and the pudding was as good as I remembered from the other location. I still can't nail down where the unique tanginess comes from, but there's got to be some buttermilk or cream cheese in the recipe. There may be many reasons to visit a particular barbecue joint, but banana pudding alone is not reason enough here.

Rating *

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Smitty’s Pit Bar-B-Q

EL PASO: Smitty's Pit Bar-B-Q
6219 Airport Rd
El Paso, TX 79925
Open M-Sat 10:30-9

Barbecue joints in El Paso can be commended for a couple of things - staying open late and serving beef ribs. We rolled into town late, but still made it to Smitty's and hour before closing time. I know that barbecue is at its best around lunchtime, but if you're going to be open late then you should make some provisions to be able to put out good food all day. I placed an order for three meats a la carte at the bar then went outside to dine on the trunk.

The blazing exterior lighting didn't do much to make the food look appetizing, but their wasn't much to enjoy. The brisket had the texture of a soaked sponge after hours under the heat lamp. Not a lick of the mesquite smoke was evident on the meat. I couldn't stomach more than one bite. The pork ribs were a workout. A heavily salty rub covered the super tough meat. These bones didn't want to be exposed. Beef back ribs are rarely cooked long enough to get the measly bit of meat between the bones to a pleasingly tender point, and Smitty's hasn't mastered these behemoths. Ripping a bite form the stringy beef was a chore without a payoff. I had literally taken a half dozen bites from this box and I was done. We left with the hope that some of El Paso's other late night options would prove more skilled with the mesquite smoke.

Rating *

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

J B Smokehouse

LOS FRESNOS: J B Smoke House
327 W.Ocean Blvd.
Los Fresnos, TX 78566
Open Daily?

Instead of an appetizing carving board, the first thing that greets you inside J B Smokehouse is a steam table full of meats and vegetables with a fogged up sneeze guard dripping with condensation. The sauce covering a few remaining ribs bubbled in a hot pan, and the bottom of the brisket had crisped under the incessant heat.

It had been a long day of eating and we had just stuffed ourselves at Wild Blue BBQ on the outskirts of town. I knew before we opened the box on the trunk of the car that this was going to be tough to enjoy. The brisket was thoroughly dried out from its prolonged stay on the warming tray. The meat just crumbled apart as I tried to pick it up. Ribs stayed together better as I took a hefty bite from the center. The edges were chewy and the interior stewed beyond tender. The fat had an off flavor from the extended holding period. I contemplated all of this as I continued chewing. Mastication fatigue was setting in and the trigger that controls my swallowing just wouldn't kick in. I realized that I wasn't going to be able to swallow it. Friends joke that I must have something like a wine spitoon in order to eat at so many places. It wasn't quite a spitoon, but I had to spit out that big bite of rib into the gravel parking lot. There was no need to swallow and less reason to return.

Rating *

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Curly’s BBQ

405 E. El Paso St.
Sierra Blanca, TX 79851
Open M-Thu 11-9, F-Sat 11-10

Three of us walked in and one had a large camera. Teresa, the owner, looked up from her table, cigarette smoke encircling her face and a yapping dog sitting in the chair next to her. "What's that thing for?" she asked in an accusatory tone. I said it was used for taking photos. "Well, no shit." was the response. I continued and explained that we were just here for some barbecue, if that was alright.

A three meat combo plate featured some dry pork shoulder, decent sliced brisket and sad slices of limp commercial sausage all drowning in sauce. The owner stood over the table with her arms folded awaiting our assessment. She asked specifically about the sausage which was her favorite. I let her know that it was just cheap mediocre sausage in my opinion, and was my least favorite item on the plate. There wasn't much to like besides the onions rings and hand battered okra.

We moved on to the Curly Special which was a pile of chopped beef and melted mozzarella on a bed of  poblanos. The peppers were nicely roasted with good flavor and they brought this mess of a plate together. The amount of cheese made it hard to enjoy more than a few bites, but the brisket beneath was a bit better than the sauced version on the combo plate.

The biggest mess came out at the end of the meal. We mentioned out next stop would be Cattlemen's outside of El Paso because we'd heard good things about the beef ribs. Teresa retreated to the kitchen and haughtily returned with two bones worth of beef ribs. The meat was so overcooked that it was sloughing off the bones before we even got it. She said this was her best item so we dug in. After one bite the back of my throat filled with the bitter flavor of oxidized beef fat. These had been cooked the previous day and held far too long in the warmer. As a general rule, fat starts to turn bad before the meat and it's more evident in fatty cuts like a beef rib. This fat had actually started to decay, and the result was truly awful. Luckily we had already paid and Teresa had taken her surly self to the kitchen to fill another order. After spitting the beef rib out back on to the plate, we couldn't dash out the door fast enough.

Rating *

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Charlie's BBQ

242 Ford St.
Eagle Pass, TX 78852
Open Sun-M 11-4, Tue-Sat 11-7

Smoke from a large barrel smoker out front was wafting across the narrow street. Just a few booths were inside the tiny dining room with direct views into the small kitchen. A soda delivery guy promised this was the best barbecue in town, but I had my doubts when I saw brisket slices going into a saute pan to be heated for my order.

A few links of sausage were warmed on a flat top, and I'm not sure they saw the inside of the smoker. After eating a bite of the absolutely flavorless brisket, I was beginning to suspect the smoker out front was all for show. The beef tasted boiled, but not long enough to render out the considerable amount of white fat still clinging to the meat. I was almost afraid to open the next box.

Mutton ribs require a deft and experienced hand to temper the gaminess from the thick layers of fat. Opening the box I smelled a rush of what I can only explain as the intense odor of the sheep barns in the county fair days of my youth. Meat and fat shared the same persistent shade of gray. I had to take a bite for posterity, though I dreaded it. The meat was awful and also had the consistency of boiled meat with clean bones separating easily form the meat. At the end of the meal I could only feel bad for the soda man. This is the best he can get in Eagle Pass.

Rating *

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Rear of the Steer

OMAHA: Rear of the Steer
800 East Main Street 
Omaha, TX 75571
Open Tues-Sat 10-9, Sun 10-2

The curious name of this joint isn't for an obscure menu item. The menu is certainly huge (think Dairy Queen with a side of BBQ) but they just have the basics of smoked meat. The interior is much like a Dairy Queen as well with formica booths and a long counter for ordering. Plates are assembled back in the kitchen, so I had no way of knowing what to expect from the three meat plate I ordered.

I'd heard about this out of the way joint through their Twitter account where they had boasted some of the state's finest brisket. When the plate arrived I was wondering why they had hidden the product they were so proud of with a thick coating of sweet commercial barbecue sauce. The first bite of dry pork revealed that the smokeless meat needed the boost of moisture from the sauce. The brisket was overcooked and probably cooked the previous day. Too-tender slices had well rendered fat, but there was no smokiness. I tried my best to get a bite of unadultered meat, but the sticky sweet coating was omnipresent. It may have even been decent brisket under there, but I'll never know. A few slices of cheap Eckrich style sausage, frozen onion rings burnt by the fryer and greens too sweet to eat did little to boost the experience. Plates of burgers and other more basic fare looked appetizing, so stick to items between a bun if you visit.

Rating *

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

East Texas Hot Links

The mantra of "I'll try anything once" isn't enough for me. You never know if the first try was the worst that the world can offer, so I'll try anything twice just to make sure. When I left for East Texas I was looking forward to ribs at Stanley's in Tyler, seeing Caddo Lake and trying East Texas Hot Links (ETL's). These ultra regional links can be found at a few joints in Dallas, but for the most part you need to be in the Piney Woods to really get your fill. The Lockhart of hot links is Pittsburg, Texas where Pittsburg brand hot links have been made for over a century. John Morthland provides a good history of the place in his 1997 article on ETL's, but I'll suffice to say that the place is an institution that has got to have a solid following to stay open this long. His description is also spot on. "They’re pale, stubby grease bombs about the size of a thumb."

Before a visit to the Mecca, we had a few other stops to make. As we were leaving Stanley's in Tyler, owner Nick Pencis asked if we'd heard of Rhea's in Tyler. 

They make their own recipe hot links, and in the East Texas tradition they are baked rather than smoked. These all beef links are stuffed into natural pork casings. The grease oozed out onto a styrofoam plate when I cut into them. I shook a large pool of the traditional hot sauce garnish onto the plate. Even a leisurely dip into the sauce didn't cover the strong taste of ground offal. At just a couple bucks for four links (the minimum order), you can't expect the finest cuts of beef, and you won't get them.

The casings aren't taut nor are they crisped. The texture is more gelatinous and the extremely fatty filling easily falls out of the casing. If you just have water to drink you can't hope to rinse the film that forms in the mouth. The thick fat from the links coats the tongue, gums and teeth. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Up the road in tiny Gilmer sits the gently aged building that houses Doc's Hot Links. After the city hall, this is the oldest building in town. The interior has only a large U-shaped bar clad in formica surrounded by long wooden benches. A simple menu hangs on the side of a drink cooler that lists the cost of links all the way up to twelve dozen ($77.95).

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

I had quickly learned that a heaping helping of hot sauce was needed to mask the strong gaminess and livery flavors. I've heard all the legends about barbecue sauce being used to cover up the taste of poor quality meats in the early part of last century, but this is not legend. For my taste, the sauce is the only thing that makes these links palatable. Saltines after each bite are just another way to cover the flavor.

At this point I was disappointed in myself that I couldn't find a way to appreciate this bit of Texas tradition. I'd tried two versions and neither were very pleasing. Maybe a trip Pittsburg would make me see the light.

Instead of seeing the light, all I could see was dog shit. This is not just an attempt at an easy joke. Look at the photo below and tell me you see something more appetizing than steaming feces.

Even after a hefty dose of hot sauce and a saltine chaser, I couldn't get more than a couple of these down. There were whole families in the dining room with a dozen links each on their plates which barely lasted five minutes, but I just wasn't getting it. I guess it's something you have to grow up eating to appreciate. I like fat and can appreciate some odd bits, but these links were on another level. It was also surprising how similar all of the versions I tried tasted. The masochist in me would try another version of these a couple of days later at a joint that smoked them instead of baking them, but the smoke was barely perceptible when competing with the pungency of the ETL.

I gave it all I could and tried three places in East Texas all making their own links. I went in with an open mind, but I left knowing I never needed to eat these links again. I know I'll catch hell from some East Texas diehards, but there are just too many other great sausages around this state to go back for more ETL's.

- BBQ Snob

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tyler's Barbeque

AMARILLO: Tyler's Barbeque
2014 Paramount
Amarillo, TX 79109
Open: Tues-Sat 11-8

I have a GUEST REVIEWER from the Lubbock area. I met Marshall Scott over a plate of brisket at Pecan Lodge. He's been searching all over the Panhandle and West Texas for decent smoked meats with little success until landing on Tyler's in Amarillo. I asked if he'd write a review for the blog since I missed it on my trip up that way, so here it is.

WestTX_BBQ: Located on I-40 down the road from the Cadillac Ranch and across the street from a Travelodge mentioned in Frommer’s guide to Texas, it isn’t uncommon to hear a unusual accent in Tyler’s BBQ. Within months of opening, Tyler’s was recognized for having the best ribs and best barbeque in Amarillo. After celebrating two years of being in business, Tyler is still looking for perfection and letting his customers know they have to return until he finds it.

The restaurant is an old Long John Silvers building, yet a deep fryer and refrigerator aren’t to be found. A welcome change from most BBQ joints in the panhandle is having the proprietor serve his customers, and not having all the meat pre-cut. In order to do a true “Full Custom Gospel BBQ Review” I ordered ½ pound of brisket, ½ half pound of peppercorn sausage, and four ribs. My girlfriend also insisted on ordering Tyler’s potato salad because it isn’t “slimy” like store bought potato salad.

The peppercorn sausage isn’t made in house, but is also different from any commercial sausage I have ever had. It is lightly infused with West Texas mesquite, and is a must order at Tyler’s. The pork ribs were the best part of this meal. They had a nice pink ring and a strong mesquite flavor. They weren’t your cliché fall-off-the-bone ribs; they were simply pulled off at the right time. The ribs were lightly covered with an assortment of different spices that included black pepper, red pepper, and sugar. The best aspect about Tyler’s ribs is that if he has leftovers he sends them to the children’s home of Amarillo.

The brisket, when it was out on the counter ready to be cut, looked as good as any in Central Texas. The brisket had a traditional rub with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. There was a small smoke ring, which is understandable due to the lack of humidity (only 20% on the day I ate there). The only improvements I would suggest are thicker slices, and the option of fatty or lean slices of beef. I am not a big fan of sides anywhere (pure carnivore), but the potato salad is worth a try. I enjoy the peach cobbler, and I have unfortunately never been able to eat the green chili mac and cheese because it is always sold out.

Rating: ****

I'm letting Marshall's rating stand for now until I get up there myself. If you want more of his opinions be sure to follow him @WestTX_BBQ.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Buzzie's Bar-B-Q

KERRVILLE: Buzzie's Bar-B-Q
213 Schreiner St.
Kerrville, TX 78028
Open Tues-Sat 11-8, Sun 11-3

The original Buzzie's burnt down, so a newer building clad in stone and sitting off the main drag houses it now. The classic ordering process at the counter went smoothly and I was able to point directly to the crusty slices of beef that I preferred. As I waited I spotted a notice that trimmed lean brisket would be $3 per pound extra. This was my kind of place.

The plate presented was heaped with thick spare ribs with bark the color of a well oiled saddle. Hidden beneath was a smaller stack of sliced beef which had a slight chew to it, but the flavor was impressively smoky and well seasoned. The end of a spare rib has two meaty sides separated by a line of thick fat that runs from the cartilage out to the edge. When I see like the rib that was in front of me I like to start by pulling off the top end which I call the knuckle. If it comes off easily, I know the rib is well cooked. If it’s a well smoked rib, then I know this will be the best bite. This was a damn fine knuckle of pork rib meat, and the rest of the bone wasn’t bad either. The slaw was pleasantly crisp and the pinto beans nicely seasoned.

An employee working the pits named Mark showed us back to the pit room. The heat even in January was nearly unbearable as the live oak and mesquite fire raged at the base of the giant steel smoker. Ribs were placed closer to the center of the grates above directly over the fire giving them a distinct flavor of the coals. After seeing the pit room we needed to get on our way, but Mark likes to chat. He was friendly and gave plenty of odd information about the crazy characters on this part of the state, but I finally got a word in and we were back on the road hoping to find more meat of similar quality.

Rating ****

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Fritze's BBQ

BOERNE: Fritze's BBQ
926 N Main Street
Boerne, TX 78006
Open M-F 7-8, Sat 11-8, Sun 11-2

The longhorn silhouette on the tall sign for Fritze's could be seen a ways up the road. We were headed south into town after a very good meal at Sisterdale Smokehouse. Seeing the gas smokers just behind the counter inside Fritze's had me expecting the worst.

A quarter pound of fatty brisket certainly belongs at the low end of my personal spectrum. Most of the fat had been cut away and the rest had melted out from overcooking. This was fatty brisket and it was dry, which is an accomplishment. The lack of any crust here also meant the flavor was pure roast beef. There wasn't even is whisper of smoke.

A crunchy slaw and some decent skillet potatoes were a nice diversion from the brisket. The ribs too ended up being pretty decent. A special was written on the wall which incorrectly identified them as baby back ribs done in the St. Louis style. These two types of ribs are a different cut, so that was darn near impossible. What we ended up with were some respectable St. Louis ribs. The bark was a nice mahogany color with flecks of black pepper and plenty of salt. The meat verged on dry, but was tender and came ever so easily away from the bone with a clean bite mark left behind. These were well cooked ribs, but could have used more smoke. Even with the awful brisket, I'd return just for the ribs if I was in the area again.

Rating **

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First Draft

It has been eighteen days since my last blog post. That's the longest drought since I started the blog and it's starting to feel uncomfortable. I've been working all year on a book called Prophets of Smoked Meat about a series of road trips through Texas in search of great barbecue. I busted my ass to finish the first draft and turned it in a week ago. I then spent the past week getting ready for and attending the Foodways Texas BBQ Summer Camp, so now I'm back home ready to crank out some blog posts. Thanks for your patience.

- 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.