Where do you get sushi in the middle of Texas? You want sushi? Boy, this is a meat kind of place, a smoked meat kind of place, a barbecue kind of place, not a raw fish place. You can't drive a mile or two without passing some Billy Joe Jim Bob's bbq or other. Some barbecue joints are big restaurants, even chains of restaurants, like the famous County Line palaces of carnivory in Houston and Austin (at least, probably other cities, too). But I like to try the smaller places, the shacks with the cartoon-crooked chimneys straight out of Lil Abner. One of the best smoked brisket dinners I have ever had, maybe even the best, was a little shack in Dallas, open for lunch only, that looked like a falling-down shanty on a bad road near some railroad tracks. Ask someone in Dallas and they will remember the name, but I don't. Drive by this place at night and you would swear you were in hobo-town. But at noon, the parking lot is full of BMWs and three-piece suits. Well, it was that era, if that tells you something about how long ago it was. And you can tell where it is from hundreds of yards away if you're lucky enough to approach from downwind. Yow, the smell. It goes to something primitive in the brain, the overpowering smoke of brontosaurus ribs over hot coals. You drive upstream to the source of the aroma, vie for a parking space in the dirt lot, get in line with the junior stockbrokers, wait for a table. Finally, you get to savor the tender meat, and the sauce. Yum. A slice of heaven for four bucks.
Another memorable small bbq shop was the West Texas Barbecue Grill in, of all the unlikely places, Castroville, California. Barbecue is not exactly what Castroville is famous for. It is the home, the veritable Mecca, of the artichoke industry in the US. Some enormous proportion of all the artichokes in the country are grown there. Through some magical confluence of soil, temperature, and fog conditions, this little valley can grow these things the size of softballs, these huge vegetables, whose leaves, when dipped in wondrous sauces, taste just like soggy newspaper dipped in wondrous sauces. At lunch at this little storefront in the middle of town, yes, lunch only again, a Willie Nelson clone in a leather vest will slice off some brisket for you. His knife just melts through the meat, it's so moist and tender. I never did find out why it was called the West Texas Grill.
And if you think that that connection with Texas was tenuous, just wait. The award for the best bbq restaurant *name* goes to the late, I'm sorry to say, Billy Bob's Barbecue Bistro, formerly of Las Vegas, Nevada. It had pretty good food, but it was reasonably authentic Western: I was the only person in the place without boots. Later I found out in Texas that boots are the first Western fashion item that a newcomer must adopt. Some newbies just buy a hat to look Western, and the locals hate that. One of the most derogatory descriptions of a newly minted urban cowboy is "Hat, no boots."
Now lest you get the wrong impression, I don't claim to be any kind of authority on the subject of barbecue. I am merely an enthusiastic amateur consumer. And one who has to watch his waistline, though not yet, thankfully, his arteries, so I don't even go after barbecue very often these days. And Texas may not be the best place to sample it, anyway, given their local proclivities and my tastes. (And, I'm pleased to say, Ms. T. agrees with me most of the time on this topic.) There are several kinds of things that one barbecues: brisket, ribs (pork), ribs (beef), pork loin, turkey breast, and sausage, at least. They are not all created equal. Brisket, pork loin, and pork ribs count on our scale; the rest don't. The peak of wonderfulness of bbq is a pulled pork sandwich with a spicy sauce. Yum, drool. Second is good brisket, tender and moist but not fatty. Then sliced pork loin, or, at a few restaurants, turkey. Then, if you can't get anything else, pork ribs. Even further, completely beyond the pale, there's chicken, too, and, a favorite at outdoor fairs, the smoked turkey leg. While you're waiting in line at the supermarket deli counter looking at the cheeses and hams and sliced turkey breasts, ever wonder where the rest of the turkey went? Many of them went to smokers at fairgrounds, outdoor concerts, and other places where a mutant giant turkey leg can be considered finger food.
Exception to the rule: if you happen to have been in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, note the "u" in Quebec there, you separatist turkeys, at least back in the late seventies, you could be forgiven for putting pork ribs at the top of the list whenever you went to the fabulous Bar-B-Barn restaurant. This place, in a city filled with great French restaurants, and a sampling of Chinese, Swiss, Hungarian, Russian, all the great melting pot cuisines, this place had them lined up into the street and halfway down the block every night for dinner. First come, first served, a nice sit-down restaurant. It's just that it had a one to two-hour wait to get in. And I'm talking the middle of the winter, too. Montreal winter, boy, not some wussy kind of Texas winter. New Hampshire and Boston residents have some idea what I mean by this. Try to imagine, people standing in the cold and the wind and the snow. For an hour. Waiting for a table in a restaurant that serves nothing but ribs. In the Paris of North America. Inconceivable but true. I hope the place still exists. It was certainly an institution back then. Those tender ribs with a spicy/sweet crust of sauce. Yum, drool.
Bzzzt. Exception two. In Naples, Florida, next time you're there for the beaches or the tennis camp or the swamps, head to Michel-Bob's rib place. First, it smells right from a distance. Second, you walk in and the ceiling is hung with banners of all the awards that they have won, the rib-offs all over the South and West where you'd think that some guys from a seaside resort had no chance. Then you read the menu where they proudly tell you that their ribs are all imported from Denmark (huh?) where clever Viking farmers raise the leanest porkers on the planet. Huh? Well, taste away, all y'all skeptics. End of digressions.
Back to Texas, the main problem with bbq there is that they just don't do pork. At least not very often or very well. Most places don't do pork at all, except maybe ribs, just brisket and sausage and maybe some chicken.
So eventually it occurs to one to ask, how is barbecue done, exactly? Turns out that it is a point of personal pride among the testosterone set in Texas to be able to do your own, and do it well, in the back yard. We brought a (propane) gas grill down with us. Wrong implement. One needs a smoker. I haven't investigated this at all, because I'm just not interested in being independent in this dimension. Why should I want to spend time making my own when I can patronize the service economy? Within ten miles of our house there must be a dozen large and small bbq places, a couple of which are quite wonderful. But what I have observed is this: a smoker is often kind of a long grill, with a firebox at one end, for the charcoal and the hickory, or whatever, a chimney at the other end, and racks in the middle where meat dies wonderfully from smoke inhalation.
A few weeks ago, we happened to drive through the town of Bartlett, Texas, some miles north on our way to somewhere else, and we passed all kinds of signs for the Nth Annual Bartlett Sirloin Stockade BBQ-Off, yee-ha. Soon after, our noses were hooked by the aroma. We parked and walked the pedestrian-only streets in the center of town. Unfortunately, only a few bbq vendors were available at that time. The ones who were entered in the contest had to wait until after the judging later that afternoon before they could sell anything or even give out samples. Rats. The entrants were all lined up on a couple of the side streets with their smokers. The smokers were mainly on trailers. Only a few of them were small enough even to fit in the back of a pickup. They had to be chained down and towed to the site. The really big ones looked like small railroad trains, four or five oil drum-sized sections welded together, on large wheels, with chimneys smoking like old steam locomotives. The contestants all talked about having started smoking their wares ten to fifteen hours ago. And from their hours of efforts, of course, a delectable barbecue smog lay over the whole town. Sniff, yum, drool. We couldn't stay for the judging and general gluttony later that evening, so we sampled a few of the street vendors. And paid for it later. Ah, Mylanta, my love. We do note that the name "Sirloin Stockade" is also used for a chain of restaurants in Texas, and maybe elsewhere, but who knows if they are both derived from a common term, or a trademark, or whatever.
In the private private sector, there is a cult of barbecue. People smoke their own meat quite frequently, men, usually, trading recipes and secrets in backyard cookouts. You can smell them just driving through the neighborhoods, as I've mentioned before. Wander through any suburb on Saturday evening, and you can easily find the expert smokers by nose. One weekend during the summer we took the "Austin Pond Tour," a circuit of twenty-ish landscape ponds in the Austin area. People in deserts really like having ponds with running water, fountains, waterfalls, even koi. They fill their back yards with swimming pools and ponds and gardens, all inappropriate to the local environment but fun. And in some of these back yards containing ponds, we saw some of the huge altars where the bbq rituals are practiced. Some are so large that probably entire sides of beef can be smoked at one time. Giant, permanent stone structures, and iron. No cheap gas grills for these kids, nope, permanent monuments to the gods of hickory. Smoked meat is a local religion, boy, you have to treat it with the proper respect.
Copyright (C) 2000, 2001, 2002, Richard Ball Landau. All rights reserved.