Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What A Ride!

Well, it's all over except for the FC Dallas soccer game tonight. This has been an extraordinary trip in so many ways. 8 days, 6 states, over 2,300 miles in the car, 7 hotels, and 11 BBQ joints later I think I can say that for both of us this has been an experience that we will never forget.

PD1 and I have always had a pretty good relationship, but all bets are off, I think, when you put a dad and teenage daughter in the car and hotels for an extended time. Despite the potential for disaster, we managed to have a terrific time, and learn a little bit more about each other. There is so much going through her head right now, so many things that she'll have to deal with over the next few years, that I am grateful for having this time together.

No matter what we did on this trip, it was a partnership. I got to watch "What Not To Wear" and she witnessed the subtle genius that is "Best in Show". She had to listen in on my conference calls with work, and I got to hear her gab about her friend's most recent encounter with some boy. We learned about ex-presidents, saw the OK City bombing memorial, visited 3 college campuses (remind me to blog about that sometime), played name that tune with our IPod, and watched (I listened) 3 "Monk" episodes over and over as we drove ("Bleach! The White God! Dias Blanco!)

And we ate some great BBQ.

Today, on the last stop of our journey we dined at Baker's Ribs in Dallas. Scott recommended this joint in the comments, and again he steered us right. Baker's has about four locations in Dallas, so I was a bit skeptical going in. A chain, I thought would not deliver. Wrong.

Baker's is a bit different than the other places we went to in that they use hickory logs to smoke their meat, while most of the other Texas joints we went to use oak or mesquite. While I thing that no other smoke does pork as well as hickory smoke, Baker's use of hickory on beef is a violation of my cardinal rule that these two simply do not go together. In my experience, something happens that causes the beef to pick up a slightly acrid taste when hickory is used and again today I found this to be the case.

Baker's brisket as a result was good, but not as good as other Texas stops along the way. Besides the acrid undertone, the meat was also a bit dry and just didn't work for me. The pork however, was quite a different story. Unbelievably moist, full of flavor, and perfectly smoked Baker's pork ribs were the best of the trip and some of the best ribs I have ever had.

One interesting aspect of Baker's ribs was the tenderness of the meat. While so many places mistakenly go for the "fall off the bone" quality of tender and end up producing mushy que, Baker's achieved almost the perfect texture. As you bite into a Baker rib, there is at first a small explosion of juice into your mouth that releases a meaty smokiness onto your tongue. As you pull the bone away from your mouth, there is a slight tug, and then the bone gives up its bounty, cleanly and without a huge piece of meat completely falling off the bone creating a slopping mess. As you chew, a distinct taste of salt, pepper, smoke and meat floods your mouth and leaves you looking for more in your next bite. I'm getting hungry just thinking about those delicious ribs.

Complimenting a Baker's meal are the hot links and potato salad. We thought the hot links were good, but Leo's in Oklahoma were far better in terms of both texture and taste. Baker's potato salad was excellent. The potatoes were chopped very fine and enveloped in a creamy dressing that tasted of dill and other spices. The peach cobbler that finished the meal was ok, but probably not worthy of the extra calories.

So our trip is nearly over and now I think we can extend the following Pursuit BBQ World Tour Awards of Excellence:

Best Brisket: Smitty's
Best Pork Ribs: Baker's
Best Pulled Pork: Leatha's
Best Hot Links: Leo's
Best Potato Salad: Bakers
Best Baked Beans: Leo's
Best Dessert: Leo's
Best Hospitality: Leatha's

And finally, the best state BBQ overall:


A final thought. Despite the awards above, I would recommend any of the places that we went except for Corky's in Memphis. It is hard to list the best because each had its on special appeal. Perhaps the place that deserves the most mention that did not "win" an award is Green Mesquite in Austin. The taste of that BBQ is like a recurring dream in mind, I can taste that meal as I sit here just as well as I did in our booth on the first night. Actually, I'm reminded of one more award that Green Mesquite can win: Best Sauce. We didn't really use much sauce on this trip, preferring to focus on the efforts of the pit men, but when we did, Green Mesquite's stood out.

One final thing that I learned on this trip: I'm a darn good smoker! Admittedly I am biased, but when I due my shoulder, although my meat is not quite as tender as some of the pulled pork on this trip, I think that the texture is better, and I know I'm getting better flavor due to my rub and copious use of hickory and cherry. My ribs are very similar to Baker's in that I get good bone release, without having the entire rib of meat fall off the minute I take a bite. So, I guess I better get smoking when I get home! Gotta work on my brisket, which is decidedly sub par.

That is all for now. Thanks to Scott for his recommendations on Texas joints and to my loyal three readers for their comments. I hope to return to blogging on a more regular basis, as this trip has taught me that I due miss it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Back In Texas

Whew, it has been a busy couple of days! Today we passed the 2,000 mile mark and returned to Texas where our journey began. Instead of Austin though, we are in Dallas tonight. To celebrate the end our our journey we had...

Sushi! Nice change of pace, huh? I'm a little worried that our bodies may go into shock so stand ready to alert the authorities if you don't here from us! Our dinner tonight was at Oishii a little place around the Highland Park area on Wycliff blvd. PD1 ordered a Spider roll and a Volcano roll, and I had sushi which PD1 shared a couple pieces of . All was quite good. The spider roll came with eel sauce, which I generally consider a foul substance, but was forced to admit that this version was lite and tasty. The volcano roll was a concoction of scallops, some sauce, rice and roe. The sauce was spicy and the scallops fresh. Quite tasty. The sushi itself was very good; Sweet shrimp, salmon, sea bass, tuna, flounder and yellow tail.

So what have we been up to the past 48 hours? Well on Monday we bid a happy fair well to Memphis, a tiding they are in desperate need of, and headed for Little Rock and the Clinton Library. I was quite surprised by Little Rock; a great, busy and (note to Memphis) reasonably clean town. The Clinton library, unlike the LBJ library, was an exercise in self written hagiography. No talk of impeachment, Monica, White Water, the convictions of friends and advisers or of the other negatives we remember of the Clinton years. LBJ by contrast was a much more balanced presentation of the administration where there was at least passing mention of the LBJ failures. The end result, I think, was that the LBJ library seemed like a more authentic experience, with a greater sense of historical heft. Clinton's effort just seemed to try a little hard. I mean really, did we need to spend several minutes of a 16 minute film showing various leaders of foreign countries talking about how much they respected Bill?

After Little Rock we drove to Tulsa and dined at Oklahoma Style Bar Be Que. Wonderful place, situated in a dilapidated strip mall on the outskirts of Tulsa. The smell of smoke pervaded the smallish restaurant, and the people seemed very happy to have us drop in. We dined on brisket and smoked bologna, a Oklahoma specialty, and found both to be good. The brisket, was to a bit dry, but still had a nice smoked flavor. No rub seemed to be used which was fine with us. The smoked bologna was a fun treat, and quite tasty, but when you're after fine BBQ, it seems like a bit of a distraction.

Next we drove to Oklahoma City and had our second dinner at Leo's BBQ. This is a great place. At Leo's we enjoyed Pork Ribs (country ribs), chopped brisket, hot links, and of course, smoked bologna. Again the brisket was a bit dry. As I enjoyed Leo's brisket, I found myself wondering if they use a slightly different cut in Oklahoma than in Texas since even the grain of the meat seemed a bit different. The pork ribs at Leo's were excellent. Unlike our Memphis experience, Leo's ribs maintained a certain toothsomeness that provided a superior taste, texture and overall experience than ribs that "fall off the bone". I also found Leo's hot links to be the best sausage of the trip, with great meat flavor, and a little spice to remind you that you're alive and well! Finally, Leo's meal came with a complimentary slice of strawberry cake. Wow! Light, sweet and oh so tasty it was the perfect finish to our meal.

I also would like to add a word about hospitality. Leo's, Leathas, and Oklahoma Style BBQ, establishments all run by black families were, by far, the friendliest places we went to. At Leatha's, Bonnie took great care of PD1 when she entered the restaurant by herself. At Oklahoma Style, we spent our time eating BBQ and watching "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" with another customer. At Leo's our waiter and I had a wonderful time discussing our deep admiration for the art of the Reverend Al Green ("It's a gift from God I tell you"). Hands down it was this hospitality that made leaving each place a little bittersweet. We will return if we every get back to their respective cities.

Also a word about Oklahoma City. Very Impressive. I have never seen a cleaner, more scenic little downtown than I did here. After our dinner at Leo's we went over to the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial at the site of the former Murra building. A beautiful, understated place that captures the dignity of those lost lives. To this day, people that visit leave little mementos outside the park to commemorate their visit. I think this is a tribute to the power the memorial has on visitors. Outside there is a sign expressing hope that people will understand the devastation of violence and find ways to live in peace. I guess I failed that test, because I just felt happy that McVeigh is dead.

Tomorrow, we will visit SMU and go to the FC Dallas soccer game. More later!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Dirty Little Town

I've decided to be nice.

Not out of any sense of decorum, and certainly not because Memphis deserves it, but simply because I don't have the energy to waste on this squalid little town.

Oh, I had the post in my head as I drove through the desolate streets of downtown Memphis. I was going to write about garbage thay rolls through the streets like tumble weeds. Then maybe I'd go into the deer in headlights look of young professionals who have invested in downtown condos - certainly a pathetic attempt to capture the authentic urban chic experience they might have achieved in all the other cities that they really wanted to live in. Instead they wander alone, in a semi-lucid state wondering what in God's name went wrong.

Well, if I had the energy, I'd tell them. What went wrong is that their city is broken. Areas populated by the city's poor, black population appear to lack even basic services. Of course I did see a billboard warning that those convicted of felonies do the full time. Nice, that.

Then there is the downtown. Looks like it could be a decent place except the whole place is shut down on Sunday afternoon! My goodness, when else are people expected to visit if not on one of their two days off! Even the folks who run Memphis' one tourist attraction, Graceland understand that folks might want to stop by and visit on a Sunday.

Then, of course, there is Graceland. The bloom, she is off the rose folks.

I really didn't know what to expect at Graceland. Not being an Elvis fan, I was basically in it for the laughs, and surely there were many to be had. Elvis' fan's as usual are overly sincere in their love for this man, and Graceland, in its role as Elvis' legacy, is a temple of mid '70's bad decorating kitsch; mirrors and carpet on the ceilings, badly carved furniture in the jungle room, and a torn pool table are just a few of the things that might evoke a snicker in us sophisticates.

But here's the thing. The folks at Graceland have - unwittingly, to be sure - built a museum of all that went wrong in Elvis' life. The man at the end was trapped by the myth, and this is at the core of the Graceland experience, which makes for a very sad day. We see the mansion that the star built. We see the room that the boy gave his parents as the fulfillment of his promise to "give them a better life". We see the three TV's that the man watched because he heard LBJ did the same thing. And we see the high living that the victim fell prey to when all that he had was not enough to satisfy the soul.

And when I left, I just didn't want to know anymore, because you see, there is one redeeming part of the Graceland tour. It is the "Trophy Room". This is the room where we see the gold records, the charity work, the military years, the romance and marriage. It is the room where we see the TV appearance where Ed Sullivan eased the Elvis the Pelvis controversy when he told America that here was a "good and decent young man". The trophy room is the one place where Elvis the man is exhibited with his extraordinary talent. He was free when he created his music, and nowhere else is the beauty and the tragedy of Elvis more apparent.

After Graceland we needed fortification. Once again Memphis let us down.

Bozos? Closed
Leonard's? Closed
BBQ Shop? Closed

So we ended up at Corky's. Not a very impressive place. Oh the ribs are good I suppose. Unlike Texas, the rub and the sauce are much more in play here, and Corky's ribs come with a nice rub. The thing is, there is an undertone of burned flavor that is off putting as you bite into the ribs. I don't know, but my guess is that Cork's is running the ribs over an open flame at some point charring the outside of the ribs, instead of building up a nice black crust over time in the smoker. Of course I could be wrong about that, but either way it did detract from the flavor. As for the pulled pork, we were under whelmed. No burn't bits and frankly a very bland flavor that got lost in the sandwich. As most know the big deal in Memphis is to serve the sandwich with slaw piled on top of the pork. This, I think, is a capital idea as long as you have tasty pork. Sadly, Corky's doesn't.

Tomorrow it's the Bill Clinton Library, Tulsa and Oklahoma City! Promise springs eternal!

Saturday, July 7, 2007

600 Miles to Heaven

Let's see it's Saturday so that means that it is Hattiesburg Mississippi tonight. Last night we ended up watching "What Not To Wear" until midnight. You know this show, cute girl and tall slightly effeminate man help misguided girl friends from across the U.S. find their true fashion self. I don't know why but I'm strangely attracted to this show. Maybe it's the transformation angle; last night's theme was helping a woman lose her "skankyness" and find her true beautiful self. Or maybe, God forbid, I actually am interested. Whatever the case I learned several things last night:
  1. Skankyness is a real term
  2. "Boobs" are referred to as "Girlfriends" in sophisticated company
  3. Slightly Effeminate Man is 6'4' according to PD1..
  4. ....and he just loves to break up suits! Yay!

Anyway, all this is to say that we were up until midnight and then rose at 5:30 to begin our 600 mile sojourn to the Mecca of Mississippi BBQ (blasphemous, I know). Amazingly, we made the trip in just about 9 hours which included a stop at our new, favorite breakfast place; "Waffle House".

Not "The Waffle House" or "House of Waffles" or "Bob's Waffle House", just plain old Waffle House spelled out in yellow block letters. Amazing places, these Waffle Houses. Each one has a MacDonald's like consistency to them right down to the glass windows with the curiously steamed windows in them. I say curiously, but I probably should say invitingly steamed windows because, and I know this is bizarre, but those windows speak to me. True fact, they're saying "come in , yes come in, our waffles are so moist and wonderful that our window just done steamed up".

And so we did, just outside of Lake Charles Louisiana. Oh boy these babies were good. Great buttermilk flavor; PD1's were augmented by the choice requisite for all 15 year olds, chocolate chips. Another critic might say they were too heavy and cakey, an that critic might be right, but sitting there in that wonderful little shop, with the steamed windows and the pony tailed manager with the gauged ears, they were as good as any in America my friends. And did I mention the hash browns? Fried to perfection, they were with cheese (American of course) onions and ham mixed in. After we finished, we sent our waitress off for another order.

Our destination, Hattiesburg, appeared in the distance around 3:30 this afternoon. We exited, stopped for a Starbucks and then checked into our hotel, the local Holiday Inn. A quick half hour in the gym, and we were ready for some que. Tonight we set our sites on two of Hattiesburg's finest, Leatha's and Strick's.

Leatha's was our first stop, and to be honest the only one we should have made tonight. Initially we had a little trouble finding it. You see, we could see the Leatha's sign, but all that we could see was new RV's! "Maybe it's out of business" PD1 suggested. I gave her a stern look and muttered, "enough with the negative waves, man" and we pressed on. You see, behind those RV's is a ramshackle sort of building, and yes, the scent of smoke. Whatever that primitive sense is that BBQ touches in man, lit up like flare on the fourth of July I tell you, Leatha's appeared to be everything we hoped for.

As we entered, I realized I had forgotten may camera and told PD1 to wait inside while I returned to the car. "What should I do?" she asked. "Just stand there, I'll be right back" I said. When I returned PD1 had a big smile on her face and led me to our table. It turns out, Bonnie, one of the family had come right over welcomed her to Leathas and made her feel right at home.

This was to be the subtext for our entire stay. You see, Leathas is run by a family and each and everyone of them works to make sure you're having an enjoyable stay. During our dinner, we must have been approached by no less than 6 of the family and either welcomed our asked if we were enjoying ourselves.

And enjoy ourselves we did. Was it the best BBQ I've ever had? No. The ribs were too tender for my taste, and I prefer a heavier smoke on my meat. But don't get me wrong folks, this is some mighty fine stuff. PD1 was in heaven over the pulled pork, and I really thought that Leathas has a way with beef ribs; tender meat, smokey crust and a latent texture that pleases the mouth in a way that few meats ever do. One note for Leatha: Make some real Baked beans, we were certain that what we got was Bush's from a can. None-the-less, we left Leathas content, happy and committed to returning again someday. Our friend Syd, is lucky to be so close to this wonderful, welcoming place.

As for Stricks (I'm always tempted to call it Snickett's; a sign?), not much to report except that if Leatha's is closed you might want to think about other cousines. 8pm on Saturday night and the place was empty, our pulled pork was over cooked (and here's a trick - oddly fuzzy!) and the fried okra both over cooked and tasteless.

So that's all from Mississippi. Hard to believe our sojourn is nearing the halfway point already. Tomorrow it's Memphis, Elvis, Bozo's, Corky's and Leonards.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Of Smoked Meat, Dead Presidents and Famous Gangsters

What a day! Last night we crashed watching American Chopper. Lots of yelling, cool bikes, but ultimately not enough to keep us awake to see the new bikes they were building.

We woke this morning, and I wisely headed down to the gym and spent some quality time with the Stairmaster. A couple cups of coffee later our metabolisms were in high rev and it was off to Jim Bob's for breakfast tacos. What to say about Jim Bobs, hmm.......

Well, first the tacos were pretty good. The place, nothing more than a hole in the wall is a little hard to spot from the road due to construction, but once in we were ready to go. Interesting fact about this tour so far; everywhere we go, we're charged by the amount of stuff we get. For example all the que places charge by weight, number of meats number of sides, etc. and Jim Bob's was no different. You want a taco with one filling you pay X. Two fillings is X + Y and so on.

I went with Chorizo, Brisket Cheese and Onions. PD1 went with Eggs, Cheese, Ham and Peppers. A few moments later are tacos were ready. This is when we encountered the "sighers". As we moved over to the benches there was a couple behind who were quite...well lets just say they were rustics. Most folks in place were enjoying breakfast on their own, but not the rustics. Oh no. These two were quite the active eaters!

"Chomp, slurp sigh."

"Ugh God"

"Chomp. slurp sigh"

"Ugh God"

Needless to say, this was kind of distracting not to mention completely unappetising.

"Ugh God"

And it wasn't even like an ugh god that one might utter during pleasurable activities. Nope, more like "Ugh God, I'm in pain"!

I tell you, it took all I had not to turn around and and yell, "PUT DOWN THE TACO AND JUST WALK AWAY"! Eventually, the rustics finished their workout, and left and we were able to enjoy the remainder of our breakfast while watching Fox broadcast a low speed car chase from California.


Anyway lets get to the que. Today we began with lunch in Taylor TX. As you drive into Taylor, you get the impression that this town has seen better days. It's a little tired, there are a lot of empty store fronts, and its not much of an exaggeration to say that Taylor has three operating businesses; a grain supply company and two que joints.

We ate at both!

The first was at Rudy Mikeskas. As you walk in to Rudy's the first thing that hits you is the 14 deer heads that are mounted on the walls around the room. The second is the smell of smoke, and the third is Rudy, a big man, in at the start of the cafeteria line in the back of the restaurant. We ordered brisket and sausage and sat down to enjoy them with two Dr. Peppers. Rudy's brisket is good stuff. The guys at Smoque in Chicago recommended the joint and they didn't steer us wrong. Lightly smoked, and accompanied by a little sauce ("Just a taste" Rudy said) the brisket was tender and tasty. Rudy didn't ask us if we wanted fat or lean, we just got the fat side, and that was fine with me.

As we were exiting Rudy's we saw the other joint, Louie Millers. I looked at PD1 and we silently agreed that this was our next stop. Louie's que is totally different. The smell of smoke hits you long before you enter the restaurant, and the interior is dark and smokey. Like Rudy's you order at the back of the restaurant and then carry your stuff to the table. Louie's brisket is black as night on the outside and strongly smoked. The interior of the brisket is tender and juicy and has a nice meaty flavor. I preferred Louies over Mikeskas.

After we left Taylor we took a brief respite at the LBJ museum and then took a tour of the University of Texas. Great places, both.

We finished our Austin stop in Lockhart TX at Smitty's. Folks this is the best place we were at. When you enter the building you walk right into the smoking room. It's hotter than hell in there, and since the oak fire is burning out in the open, it is also very smoky. Smitty may have some long term black lung issues with employees!

We ordered brisket and sausage. Our meat was served on red butcher paper with two knives. Notice anything missing there? Correct! No forks! You eat the cue with your hands at Smittys. Another difference was that there was no sauce. Just you, your fingers and the best darn smoked meat in Texas. Oh the meat, what a treat this was! Very smoky and extremely tender, Smitty asks whether you want it wet (fat side) or dry (lean side). We ordered wet and got to work. The sausage received a split vote from us. Too weird was PD1's opinion, but I liked the difference that a clearly homemade sausage made and thought this was our best sausage of the stay.

We wanted to hit Kruetz tonight as well but something else cam up; Bonnie & Clyde. The Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin (which by the way is an absolute treasure) was showing the 1967 classic starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and I absolutely wanted the chance to see it on the big screen. What an experience! Anyone who has seen this movie remembers two things. The first is the way the movie mixes extreme violence (for the time) with comedic relief. The other is the superbly edited final scene where the doomed couple meet their end. Seeing it bigger than life was an extraordinary treat.

Thats all for now. We're driving 600 miles to Hattiesburg Mississippi tomorrow where we'll enjoy dinner at Leatha's BBQ.

More later.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

We're Smokin!!!!!!!

Pursuit BBQ World Tour Day One Report

Folks we hit the ground running today, and what a way to go. I began the day with a conference call at 730am, with compadres in London and Hong Kong; I remain amazed at how small our world has become. "I have a hard stop at 8:30 folks" I announced when we kicked off. What I didn't mention was that the reason for my hard stop was that I was hopping on my Harley with a pal and riding to Kenosha for breakfast at Franks Diner! Great biscuts and gravey.

Then it was off to O'hare and a 1:55 flight to Austin. Landing on time at 415, PD1 and I picked up our car and drove to the hotel. "Oh you're here for bbq?" our checkin' guy said. "Well, I send everybody to County Line"

"Dad, lets go there" a surprisingly suggestible PD1 said.

I, of course, had other plans. Unfortunately they were a bit stalled since Smitty's was closed. So we changed course and headed to Green Mesquite BBQ suggested by Scott.


This place is awfully good. PD1 and I each ordered a two meat combo; she had the sausage and pulled pork, I had the brisket and pork ribs. The ribs were fine, but nothing to write home about. But the brisket was something else. Lightly smoked, tender as all get out I splashed on a dab of the house sauce (vinegar and molasses as far as I could tell) and was in heaven.

"Dad, you've got to try the sausage". She was right, a light smoke, with that typical mesquite sweetness, we rated it the second best of the night. As for the pulled pork, it came in three, as it had a nice combo of meat and charred bits adding flavor. All in all we gave the Green Mesquite a 7 out of ten, subject to revision as our experience grows.

Next we went over to County Line. Nice place for a graduation party, retirement or for lunch with the gang from the office, but it has no place on the world tour. When you walk in you don't smell smoke, you don't smell meat. Nope, what assaults your olfactory senses is the smell of a liberally applied tomatoey sauce that accompanies all plates put in front of diners.

When we left Green Mesquite we could smell our the smoke on our shirts.

Still can.

'Nouff said.

Over and out until tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

We're Off!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Pursuit World Tour of BBQ

Begins in Austin Texas July 5, 2007. We arrive in Austin at 4:15 pm and will stay there through Friday. We plan to visit Smitty's, Kruetz (sorry but it's like mandatory), Green Mesquite BBQ, JimBob's BBQ and Mikesca BBQ. Then its off to Hattiesburg Mississippi for some of that fine stuff Leatha has been smokin. Next is Memphis where we'll hit Carl's Perfect Pig, and Bozo's Hot Pit BBQ followed (or preceded, one never can tell) by a 1:30 tour of Graceland. Monday we're in Tulsa to dine at Leo's BBQ and Oklahoma Style BBQ and Tuesday will be Oklahoma city for . Wednesday we're in Dallas or there abouts and Thursday we fly home.

The only open question is that we really have a spare day in here, so we may divert north on Monday and hit Kansas City, followed by Tulsa Tuesday and Oklahoma City on Wednesday with a flight out of Dallas on Thursday. The only problem is that everyone seems to think KC BBQ has gotten too commercialized. Is this true? Do tell.

Schedule subject to change as they say. Updates will be daily from the road.

Queery: Does anyone know the exact location of the Cross Roads?

UPDATE: Nevermind, found it. Looks like PD1 and I will be having a beer in Rosedale Miss near the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 1.