When asked about food I easily fall into an oft repeated diatribe against chain restaurants. Occasionally I wonder if I am being unfair. But then I remember that I have not once, not ever, seen a pickup unloading stacks and stacks of mesquite logs at a Chili’s, or T.G.I. Friday’s, or any other of those other places that list “smokehouse” items on their menus.
So when I recently visited Texas I did not eat at Texas Roadhouse, but rather my brother took me to an actual Texas roadhouse.
Ribs and brisket, side of slaw, potato salad. The food was great, the company was even better (because it was my brother), and while we comfortably ate outside in November, two guys were adding mesquite logs to the stacks that surrounded the building. At the Pit Room in Houston, the wood decor isn’t decor, it is fuel for the fire. No shtick, just barbecue.
So moving forward, should you want to know how I feel about eating out, just know that I no longer have any reservations about my explicit, overt, stated-up-front, bias against those share-holder liable staples of mall parking lots nation wide with their dispassionate standardized menus and liquid smoke injected ribs.
The Northerner who finds himself below the Mason-Dixon Line would be remiss to pass up the opportunity to indulge in real Barbeque. Real Barbeque takes all day to cook and the sauce can’t be found in a national chain grocery store.
If you are travelling on business, the kind that requires a tie and possibly entertaining clients, it is natural to try to wine and dine, ya know, go upscale. Get this out of your head now. Barbeque is at its core, finger food.
Here are some sure-fire ways to find great B-B-Q:
Look for racially and otherwise diverse clientel. Nothing unites the races like great food. Barbeque is the common denominator that makes people from all social or economic groups unite. If the place seems to be all of one kind of folks or the other, this place is about something other than food.
Be wary of anywhere that has placed too much emphasis on decor or presentation, ie. cloth tablecloths, china, abundance of themed decor, servers in ties… or anyone in a tie. Again, remember that barbeque is finger food and the extent of “looking nice” a person or a place should indulge in under such circumstances is an abundance of napkins. If you want to be fancy, “wet naps” should be the extent of it. Now many, or even most good joints will have some element of kitsch. I have seen a fine collection of hot sauce bottles, possibly the world’s largest collection of trucker hats, and my favorite place does have a model train travelling around the ceiling, these things are acceptable in that they are the expression of an individual who owns the spot, and thanks to customer repeat business and high school aged cooks, now has time for another hobby. But again, if the place is too much into decor, it’s about something other than the food.
Pig in some or all of its forms will be on the menu. Pulled pork, pork ribs, pickled pigs feet, B-B-Q is about the pig. Beef and chicken may sneak onto the menu but will never take center stage.
Skip the french fries, unless they are sweet potato fires. Fries are a fast food staple, but any form of cooking that usually requires hours of smoking till meat can be cut with a plastic fork, should never be considered fast food. French and Southern are like hot and cold, up and down, blue and grey, so one should expect to see hush puppies as the go-to space filler. Ochra, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, or a sweet potato in any form (my favorite is mashed with brown sugar and pecans at Mutt’s) are all acceptable. Grits are nice, but be wary of them being sweetened in any way, and be warned that if everyone in line before you has fries on the side, you have been duped.
Finally, and most importantly, look for the sauce. It isn’t unusual to find a good restaurant selling large containers of their signature sauce somewhere near the door or counter. Labels with a cantankerous looking older person, a pig, or any sort of cartoon are usually a good sign. Containers larger than a gallon are a great sign. Unless you are in Texas, St. Louis, or Kansas City, none of which are southern, the only red sauce you should pay attention too will have the words, “hot” or “fire” attached to it.
In North Carolina look for a vinegar based sauce. It may look like Italian dressing but this tangy sauce will sink into a pulled pork sandwich and coat every last shred of meat with flavor.
Everywhere else look for yellow, or mustard based sauce. It may be hot, or sweet, or both, but it will surely be taste bud heaven. If mustard makes you think of French’s on a hot dog (remember what I said about French and Southern?), or even Gray Poupon on a commercial, you have a culinary deficiency that must be fixed.
The third choice is the aforementioned red sauce with the accompanying words “hot” or “fire”. Any true Southern sauce that is red will be more pepper based than tomato. Be warned that when something says hot in an independent eatery, it may actually be hot. If it says fire it should actually make you sweat just by smelling it. If you are not used to spicy foods skip the fire and possibly sample the hot. High temperature food is great if one works their way up to it but it will ruin both your meal and your evening if not. Look at the sauce marked hot and if you see lots of little flecks and chunks of spices, or other ingredients known as “stuff”, you are most likely in for a treat. A good spicy sauce will not just be hot but flavorful, with peppers, molasses or brown sugar, and any number of other secret ingredients.
At the end of it all you should be a little messy, stuffed to the point of being uncomfortable, and just plain happy.