Saturday, May 17, 2014

Smoke AND Pig

Julie has been blogging on our food journey to St. Louis (and back) and asked me to give "my perspective" on BBQ. My perspective on dining is that I don't really care to talk about the food. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE food and I love good food. However, my vocabulary for describing food ranges from "good" to "mmmmphphphgrglgrgl" with an occasional belch. Since Julie already did a great job describing the experience of eating at the "Smok'n Pig", in Valdosta, I'm going to talk about the other stuff.

First, let's talk about spelling and grammar. "Smoking" is a gerund usually indicating (<- another gerund) that something (<- NOT a gerund) is currently in the state of producing (gerund) smoke. This has morphed into the slightly abbreviated colloquialism "smokin'" which usually is applied to American-made sports cars and women's backsides. I can only guess that, "smok'n" is a contraction to overcome the tedious "i" in "smokin'" which requires the type of effort that can only be recovered by sitting for hours slow cooking a pig - which is of course good news for the rest of us. Another alternative, which I am starting to lean towards, is that the original intent was to remove some extra letters from "Smoke AND Pig" and, like the now quoted "R" in Toys "R" Us established some strange grammatical ambiguity and confusion which in the case of said toy store are exacerbated by placing the "R" backwards.

From the outside, Smok'n Pig could be mistaken for a Cracker Barrel if it wasn't for the flames symbolically shooting out of the sign out front. I guess this is in homage to "where there's smoke there's fire" since flames are pretty much the enemy of smoked meat. Once inside, the "Pig" looks like a Sonny's on steroids. The building is made of and full of wood. If we ever exhausted the world's forests, they could probably keep smoking meat for a few years...just with the the little private room in the back. Most of the tables are picnic tables and all have a roll of paper towels on them as if to say, "you will not have any trouble deciding which fork to use here," and follow that with, "you got a little somethin' right there...on your face...on the other other side...Got it!" We sat in the back by the fire place which had a mantel adorned with statues of anthropomorphic pigs and what appeared to be an unpainted paint-it-yourself ceramic bust of Elvis Presley.

If Hooters is "delightfully tacky", the Smoke'n Pig is "delightfully overstated". The waitresses (I didn't see any male waitstaff - maybe like the diner on "Seinfeld" the waitresses are all the owner's daughters) all wore jeans and Smoke'n Pig t-shirts ranging from camouflage to tie-dye and are available on-line with great fresh and current pig puns like "gettin' piggy with it" and - my personal favorite - "The Pigs of Hazzard".

There were also several signs on the walls referencing nearby Moody Air Force Base and the room in the back was mostly occupied with a group of airmen (airpeople?) who, while I question its effectiveness in the Air Force, had a legitimate reason to wear camouflage. Which leads me to the summation of my review - Smoke'n Pig is an "All-American" restaurant. If one ceramic pig is good, a few dozen must be tail-curling awesomeness and it surely makes Christmas shopping much easier for the onwer's family. If, like Julie said, Sonny's is a good example of southern barbecue for beginners, Smoke'n Pig represents a higher-echelon of pig-consuming experience. As an overall dining experience, I give it 3.5 "want more tea hon"s out of 5. It's the kind of place where you get the feeling there are a lot of "regulars" and that their lives are at least a little bit better for it.

Starnes Bar-B-Q - Paducah, KY

As I have indicated before, I am no food snob.  In particular, I am not snobby about BBQ.  I feel that way because food is personal.  What we like and don’t like is the result of where we grew up, how our mothers cooked, our sense of smell, our constitution.  We are emotionally connected to the food we eat, some more than others.  This is the reason I chose Starnes in Paducah, KY.  I didn’t get to try any of the mutton or burgoo that KY is so famous for, but I got to experience a little slice of life in Paducah, KY and found a connection to the people there.  In my “que roots” post I mentioned that my hometown BBQ has been slammed by outsiders on diner review sites.  My best guess is that it wasn’t the barbeque with which the diner was most familiar. Their lack of creative vocabulary and underdeveloped palate left them unable to accurately describe the food and they were only able to use words like, “disgusting” and “gross”.  Even my vegetarian fried agrees that Ken’s food is good.  Well, when I looked up Starnes on Urban Spoon, it received an 82% rating.  I read the ratings and paid closest attention to the comments of the locals.  They loved it, defended it, and commented that it was a good representation of the western KY BBQ style.  And that sold me on it.

When we pulled into the parking lot I was immediately charmed by the humble bright green cinderblock building – a true local hole-in-the-wall.  I was in love.  The parking lot was full and it was after 1:00pm.  We walked in and discovered that 90% of the seating was counter seating, which for us can be tricky.  We needed three seats with enough room for a wheelchair. Everyone was kind and a diner called our attention to three open seats.  I looked at the menu and like our friends at Fat Matt’s, Starnes has chosen to keep it simple.  There were 4 options: Pork, Beef, Turkey, and Bologna, served a la carte or between two slices of toasted sourdough bread.  They shake a little of their house made sauce on the sandwich before they serve it.  They had just 3 sides: chips, slaw, or potato salad.
The sandwiches are served right on the counter wrapped in parchment paper.  No plates, no muss, no fuss.  The team was very nice and helpful.  On its own, the pork was moist and had a lovely smoke flavor (hickory, I believe).  Without sauce it seemed a little under seasoned, but the sauce added a perfect compliment.  It was a spicy vinegar based sauce with black pepper, paprika, and cayenne.  “The more you add the spicier it gets” is the mantra of the women working the counter and friends, they speak the truth. The potato salad was quite nice, very typical southern style – eggs, mustard, sweet pickles, pimentos, and lots of black pepper – it reminded of my mom’s sans the pimentos.  The portions were normal sized (a novel concept!), but it was cheap, cheap, cheap.  Our entire bill for our family of 4 was $16.09!!  Shut the front door!   
Was it THE BEST barbecue I have ever had?  No, it wasn’t.  Was it tasty? You bet.  And do I understand why the locals love it?  Without a doubt.  If you are ever in Paducah, give it a try.  It’s real people, serving real food with heart.           


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fat Matt's Rib Shack- Atlanta, GA

We arrived in Atlanta around 5:00pm.  Not yet hungry for dinner, but knowing that this was our chance for the famous Fat Matt’s.  So, we decided to get ours to go so we could go for a run and work up an appetite.  This concerned me a bit because BBQ is always best when it is fresh.  One of the things that struck me right away was the hole-in-the-wall quality if this place.  It already felt special when we walked up.  The sad thing about special hole-in-the-wall places is that they can become commercialized after they are “discovered”.  And trust me, Fat Matt’s has been.  Four Rivers in Orlando is a prime example.  It started as a hole, and then people started raving about it, now its fallen prey to chain-dom.  The first step in that process was moving out of the hole that occupied the tattered wall. Then you lose consistency in the food.   Well, Fat Matt’s gets props from me for just having the guts to stay put.  The other great thing: menu simplicity.  When it comes to BBQ, options are overrated.  If you do something well, stick to that thing.  And that is why I call what Fat Matt’s has to offer simplicity, and not lack of choice.  The menu options were highlighted by a member of the Fat Matt team.  Speaking of the team, they were super friendly and helpful.  I felt welcomed when I walked in and appreciated when I left – that is a HUGE thing for me. 
There is a saying where I come from, “So good, it made me want to slap my Mama.”  Friends, this was Mama slappin’ good BBQ.  Doug and I almost always share our food, so I always get to taste a little bit of everything.  Tonight we ordered the chopped pork, ribs, rum spiked beans, and a small side of Brunswick stew (have I actually died and gone to heaven?  2 BBQ joints with Brunswick stew?).  My favorite part of the meal was the nice little, steady blanket of heat that covered my tongue.  It was the perfect level of spice for BBQ. 
Meats. The chopped pork was perfection.  I would love to know what they put on that pork shoulder because that was exactly how I like mine – vinegary, warm spice level, tender mouthfeel, and savory with a hint of sweet.  Many times pulled pork can be over-sauced and sticky sweet, but this was well balanced and had a little black pepper bite to it.  The ribs were outstanding.  They had a lovely char on them, but were tender and falling off the bone.  The smoke flavor permeated through the meat and they had a little bit of the sauce brushed on them during cooking, which gave them a nice caramelized crust.  If I am ever in Atlanta again I will definitely be back. 
Sides.  As I said in an earlier post, I have never been a fan of BBQ baked beans.  Fat Matt, you have changed my mind.  These beans were very good.  The rum added a sweet caramel-ly flavor, but they were tangy and left a little tingle on my tongue.  Plenty of onion and black pepper.  A very nice twist on a classic.  The Brunswick stew was really good.  It was meaty and smoky and had that perfect blend of BBQ and vegetable soup flavors.  The meat and vegetables were very finely chopped, making the bits and pieces almost indistinguishable from one another.  It was not as pretty as the stew at the Smokn' Pig, but it was quite tasty. 
Sauce. No sauces to choose from, Fat Matt’s keeps it simple once again.  One sauce, THE sauce.  This is most definitely a house made sauce.  It still had chunks of onion and tomato in it.  A nice zesty tomato base with paprika, black pepper, maybe a little red pepper, hints of brown sugar. Perfect.  I wanted to lick the little plastic cup it came in.     

My final parting words about this BBQ: Keep on keeping it real Fat Matt. 

Smokn' Pig- Valdosta, GA

I chose this place because it is the place Madisonians go to get BBQ when they are in Valdosta.  Many of my friends and family who still live there “tag” themselves on FB when they eat there.   I have had a desire to go there when I go home to visit my folks, but I usually miss Ken’s so much, and it’s just so much closer. But, I get it now.  This place is pretty good, better than Sonny’s, but not quite among the best BBQ I’ve ever had.  My parents met us for lunch and were more than happy to offer me bites so that I could taste the goodies they had, too.  Because I am on a mission and I do NOT intend on carrying this experiment on my hips for the rest of my life, I tried to keep it light.  I ordered the ¼ chicken dark, Brunswick stew (small serving), and unsweetened tea – this works as a pretty good palate cleanser between bites.  The meal comes with a trip to the salad bar – I got about a tablespoon of the carrot raisin salad.    My mom got a serving of fried okra that I sampled; Dad got ribs, I had a bite; and I sampled a little of the sliced pork and sliced brisket. 
Best they had to offer: The Brunswick stew.  Off the chain!  It has a lovely tomato base with some of the Smokin Pig brand Carolina BBQ sauce (my best guess), nice chunks of tomato, corn, peas. The base was thin; a little soupier than I am used to, but it worked. The BBQ sauce was very balanced in the stew and I believe there was smoked chicken and some type of smoked pork (maybe ham?).  Both gave the stew a mild smoky flavor. 
The meats: All of the meat is pecan smoked.  I sampled a bite of each meat sans sauce.  The only meat I ate with sauce was my chicken, which consequently was also the only meat of which I had more than one bite.  My favorite was the rib meat, it retained a lot of smoky flavor and prior to smoking it had been lightly dusted with paprika and maybe a little brown sugar, salt, and pepper.  The meat was super tender and very moist. My second favorite was the brisket, which they billed as “Texas” style. While it was tasty, I’ve been to Texas, and Texas it was not.  I thought it was more consistent with SoGa/NoFlo BBQ.  It was a little drier on the non-fatty side of the meat than I would have preferred, but it retained a lot of the smoke flavor and was perfectly seasoned. The sliced pork was not good to me.  My husband ordered it and enjoyed it, but it was definitely my least favorite – under seasoned, pale, dry, rather bland and retained little of that great pecan smoke flavor the other meats had.  In fact, I thought they had mistakenly given him turkey. Being form St Louis, my husband sees BBQ-ed meat as a vessel for good sauce…  I enjoyed the chicken. I chose the thigh quarter because thighs stay moist, duh.  The chicken retained less smoke flavor than the brisket and ribs, but the skin was taut and slightly crisp with the same seasoning as the ribs.  The seasoning gave it a nice mild sweet, smoky flavor.  I ate most of it with the mustard sauce, which I personally thought complimented it best. 
The sides:
Brunswick stew.  Like I said, really good.  If I went back I would probably just get a big bowl of the stew.  Carrot raisin salad.  It was good; carrots were not too soggy, nice creamy sweet and sour sauce.  The brown sugar in the sauce was very obvious.  Nice touch with the apples.  The only thing that disappointed me was the use of pre-cut carrots out of a bag.  Would have been better if the carrots had been freshly grated, otherwise a solid attempt at a Southern classic.  Fried okra.  I confess, I had a few bites of okra.  The think about okra is that you either love it, or you hate it.  And I LOVE okra, in all of its forms.  This was nice and crispy and perfectly seasoned.  BBQ beans. Just okay.  But then again, I am not a huge fan of BBQ baked beans.  I like my baked beans sweet with brown sugar and bacon.  These were exactly what I expected from a SoGa/NoFlo BBQ joint, lots of BBQ sauce and tendrils of smoked meat.  Corn bread.

The Sauces: Too many sauces and not made in house.  I guess I have gotten spoiled.  Lately, I have been eating at BBQ places that make their sauces in house.  These tasted bottled.  My favorite was the Southern Mustard.  I thought it complimented the meat the best.  

Overall, Smokn' Pig was pretty good.  It would definitely be worth the trip up to Valdosta the next time I am visiting my mom and dad.  I'll make sure to give it a positive review on Yelp and Urban Spoon.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My Que Roots by Julie

I was raised in Madison, FL, a rural North Florida (NoFlo) town about 20-30 minutes south of the Georgia line, so our culinary traditions are really South Georgian (SoGa).  And if you don’t think Florida is “Southern”, then stop visiting Orlando, Tampa, and Miami and go see the rest of the state.  Our barbecue style (and yes we do have one) is drier, pit smoked meat.  We use beef brisket, pork butt, pork ribs, and chicken.  The meat is always sliced and never “pulled”.  If there is “pulled pork” at a SoGa/NoFlo joint, then it is there to appease pulled pork lovers.  The pre-smoke dressing is minimal, so that you can enjoy the taste of the smoke.  The wood used to smoke the meat is often oak or pecan, which are plentiful in the SoGa/NoFlo area.  I LOVE oak smoked meat and believe that oak is highly underutilized as a smoking wood.  Oak gives the meat an earthy, organic flavor.   Pecan is also very tasty, giving the meat a nutty, slightly sweet, smoky flavor.  We are not famous for our sauces or rubs; in fact our barbecue is completely understated. And speaking of the sauce it is a non-controversial tomato and mustard based sauce with plenty of paprika and black pepper.  It lies somewhere between a Carolina mustard, a Tangy Texas, and a Smoky Tennessee.  Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q epitomizes the SoGa/NoFlo barbecue style and while it is a very pedestrian example, it is a pretty good place to introduce you to the style.  Our barbecue is typically served with garlic bread, barbecue baked beans (slightly sweet and with a bit of the smoked meat and house sauce), shredded mayonnaise based sweet coleslaw, and/or French fries. One item you will find seasonally in SoGa/NoFlo barbeque joints is Brunswick stew.  If you are ever in the area and at a ‘que joint offering it, try some.   

A Barbecue Tour of the South

When my husband and I decided to drive up to St Louis for a family wedding, I realized we had a unique opportunity to taste our way across the southeast. Since barbecue is the quintessential and universal Southern food, I decided we would use the opportunity to eat some of the South’s finest.  I started planning for our barbecue tour of the south by doing a little internet research.  Some of the same names kept popping up: Fat Matt’s in Atlanta, Pappy’s Smokehouse in St Louis, etc.  So, these were added to our “must do” list, but I am also a big fan of little known hole-in-the-wall type places and local favorites.  This love of a good hole-in-the-wall was born in me because I grew up in a rural area and everything there is a hole-in-the-wall.  My desire to choose small, local places on this particular journey stems from the fact that the barbecue joint in my home town, Ken’s, has been repeatedly slammed on Urban Spoon and Yelp.  This offends me greatly.  Calling someone’s hometown barbecue joint “disgusting” is like calling their baby ugly.  In the South, barbecue is as sacred as football and grandmas.  They may not be special to an outsider, but to small town denizens, the local barbecue joint is where life happens – gossip, impromptu reunions, politics, business deals, the carrying on of traditions – a small town restaurant is a microcosm of the world outside its walls.  That is one of the reasons I love to eat local when I travel, it gives you a sense of that community.    So, in choosing restaurants, I wanted a little of the “famous” and little of the “hometown”.  Join us on our culinary journey through the South!