So, we were up in Alexandria last weekend at the Women in Secularism III conference. (See yesterday's rant.) Just two blocks from the hotel was a tiny BBQ place called Sweet Fire Donna's. We ate there twice and liked the food both times. Here's a quick review:
Normally, I'm a bigger fan of pork over beef when it comes to BBQ. That said, Sweet Fire Donna's really does beef well. Here's all the meats we tried, in order of decreasing deliciousness:
Burnt Ends: Holy crap, these were nuggets of goodness! Nicely charred, juicy inside.
I'll note that Sweet Fire Donna's provides four BBQ sauces. There's a traditional sweet one, which was fine. There's a chipotle one that wasn't very hot at all, but did pack in a nice flavor profile. The mustard-based one was weird. It was more of a flavored mustard than a Carolina Gold sort of sauce. Tasty, but not what I was expecting. Worked great with the sausage, but was simply too much for the pulled pork. Then there was a very nice North Carolina vinegar sauce, puckery but not too puckery. This worked wonderfully on the pulled pork. Its only flaw was that the pepper flakes sometimes jammed the hole in the squeeze bottle.
Pretty much anything you order comes with two sides, in addition to specials that add on even more. So we were able to try most of the sides. Again, in order of decreasing deliciousness:
sweet,these are not the all too typical gloppy sweet mess that you often get other places. There's a good spicy edge and the sweetness doesn't overwhelm. They're very good.
Despite some disappointments, this was very good BBQ, especially when it came to beef. If I lived nearby, this would be a place I would visit far too often.
Oh, here's a photo. Trust me, this photo doesn't do the food justice. Also note that the
Burnt Ends were nearly gone by the time I remembered to take a photo.
Okay, so I've had a bit too much BBQ lately. A few weeks back I was up in Arlington and partook of the sacred pig. That's wasn't too out of hand.
But last week I was in Norman, Oklahoma, which is teeming with a variety of local and regional joints. I was there four nights and had BBQ thrice. (The off night? Rib-eye!)
So, anyway, here are some reviews, if you're ever near one of these places. They're listed in chronological order.
Rocklands Barbeque & Grilling Company
3471 Washington Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22201
Rocklands' take on BBQ is a little weird. It's a bit like my mother-in-law's pork chops. When she makes pork chops, she braises them in a tomato-based sauce. They're quite nummy, but not what I think of when I think of pork chops. The ribs here are similar. They're tasty, but almost seem braised, which makes them quite juicy and tender. The sauce is more tomatoey than BBQey. They're also huge. I was almost thinking they were beef ribs for a second. So, overall, I liked them, although they didn't really seem like BBQ ribs.
There's a sausage sandwich off to the left. It was fine, but just a grilled Italian sausage.
The sides were raved about in online reviews. I'm not sure why. The mac-and-cheese was thick and a little gloppy, not creamy at all. The cole slaw was more like midwest macaroni salad, only with cabbage instead of macaroni. Tasty stuff, but not exactly cole slaw.
The bottom line? Good tasting food but not at all like the BBQ you might be expecting. I'd probably enjoy it again, with my expectations scaled appropriately.
Oh, they also had a wall full of various sauces, mostly hot sauces based on a quick glance. But the ribs themselves were so saucy that additions would have likely been lost anyway.
And then I was off to Oklahoma!
Rib Crib BBQ & Grill
1131 Rambling Oaks Dr
The Rib Crib is one of those mid-level BBQ chains. It has its share of faux ambiance, more Smokey Bones than Famous Dave's. Nothing offensive, but nothing authentic.
The BBQ was a toss-up. The ribs were fine. Nothing spectacular, but not bad, either. Just fine.
Under the piece of toast is a pile of decent smoked sausage. The beans were tasty and the cole slaw was fine, although marred by overly large hunks of cabbage.
I don't usually get brisket. Too often, brisket comes out thinkly sliced like lunchmeat, tasting no better. The Crib looked like it cut it a little thicker, so I gave it a shot. Big mistake. It was very dry. I didn't finish it.
Like many chains, they had a variety of sauces, including an interesting Carolina-style mustard sauce.
Van's Pig Stand
320 N Porter Ave
The Pig Stand is awesome in many ways, although the food doesn't quite rise to the same level. The building is dripping with authentic ambiance. The neon sign up top is peeling and partially burned out:
Inside, the beautiful smell of hickory smoke is intoxicating. The decor is plain, as it should be. The folks are nice, as they should be. They also have a good selection of sweet T-shirts, already permeated with smoke. It's a shame to wash them, really.
The food ain't bad, although it's, well, real white-bread. I don't know how else to put it. Let's start with the ribs, which were mighty good. Meaty, tender but not too tender. There was only one sauce available, a typical sweetish tomato-based one.
The sausage was, well, hot-doggy. It was way too mild and lacked smoke flavor. It did pair well with the sauce, but, still... hot-doggy.
The chopped pork was also weird. Porky, without being at all smokey. Not as hot-doggy as the sausage, but nothing like I've come to associate with BBQ.
Cole slaw was great, crisp and clean tasting. The beans were creamier than most BBQ beans. You can see in the photo how lighter they are. Tasty, but, again, kinda white-bread.
Ray's Smokehouse BBQ
1514 West Lindsey Street
And, finally, we get to Ray's, which was, by far, the best BBQ I've had in quite a while. The decor ain't nuthin' to write home about as the building appears to be an old Pizza Hut. (Or maybe an Embers? I thought those were local to Minnesota, way back when.) But, the food? Oh the food!
The ribs were great, a good solid rendition. I was a little put out at first that I only received 2 ribs versus 3 everywhere else, but these were nice big meaty ribs, so I ain't really complaining.
The sausage was also good, with more smoke flavor than the other sausages I had in the area. The sausage could stand alone while also paring well with the one sauce available.
Now, I arrived not that long before closing and they were out of pork. The cashier suggested brisket. Note that I had already been burned once on the brisket front this trip. I took the chance; I was glad I did! The brisket was chopped-up, juicy and flavorful, with charred bits from the exterior providing both textural and flavor contrast to the tender meat. Honestly, this was a pile of goodness.
The sides were fine. The cole slaw was crisp and clean. The beans were a little weird. They were in a cumin-heavy sauce, tasting more like a thin beans-only chili than any sort of BBQed beans.
As you may, or may not, know, I grew up in Minnesota, where I married a full-blooded Norwegian. (I, myself, am more of a generic white person.) So, of course, I've had my share of lefse. Now that I live out on the east coast, lefse is hard to find.
Recently, a dear friend sent me some for Xmas. Hooray!
So here's a quick list of things you can wrap up in lefse and enjoy:
Feel free to posit other possibilities in the comments.
So, we were at the butcher counter today. They were serving guest 70 when I grabbed my ticket, number 82. We had planned on pork chops but upon seeing their sorry state, we changed our mind to ribeyes.
(Truth be told, it doesn't take much to convince me to get ribeyes.)
So I stood there, waiting, looking at the priciest ones, specifically two beautifully marbled specimens.
The minutes ticked by as I waited, deathly afraid that someone would snatch them. One guy, guest 79, when called walked towards them! Relief, he was after filet mignon.
They called guest 80. She wanted a roast. Almost my turn! The ribeyes were almost secure!
Then they called 81. Sweet little old lady next to me called out
Five ribeye steaks, please!
My heart sank! My brain cursed
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!
There were only five on display. Bitch was gonna take my ribeyes! (Sorry for the language, but we're talkin' ribeyes. I wasn't quite in control of myself.)
And then she pointed past my precious ribeyes, towards the slightly cheaper ones. Whew! They called my number and I triumphantly asked for those two luscious slabs of meat.
The lady looked over my way. I looked back and said
Ma'am, I nearly had a heart attack when I thought you were going to take my ribeyes.
She laughed and remarked that when you were buying five of them, the slightly smaller price matters.
Indeed it does, sweet little old lady. Indeed it does.
Plus, now I didn't have to shank her in the parking lot.
With my mind on Anthony Bourdain, I thought I'd list some of the things that bother me about the Food Network.
1) Most of the people can't cook. Sometimes this isn't a problem. I'm perfectly willing to watch Sunny Anderson for hours on end simply because I like to daydream about her wrestling Mrs. Neely in a big vat of pudding.
2) Too many competitions, with the main feature of them being that the judges are assholes.
3) Guy Fieri needs to shut the fuck up. Every time he asks someone on DDD to describe how they make something, he inevitably then interrupts them, trying to anticipate each step himself. You fucking asshole! It's some poor schmucks one shot at TV publicity and you won't let him/her explain their own damn food. Shut up you fucking narcissist!
4) Rachael Ray is an idiot. We're watching that show where she toddles around a foreign location, trying to eat on less than $40. It's Belgium! Hey, I like waffles and chocolate! Let's watch!
And I notice something. She eats food, then is unable to say anything even remotely intelligent about it. She basically just smiles and says
Yum! Shit, even Guy can somewhat describe what he likes about the food he's eating. Rachael can, literally, only manage to tell us that it's nummy. Contrast that to a Bourdain description and it makes you want to cry.
5) The Next Food Network Star is an idiotic show. You would think that, if it weren't, the winners would be, I dunno, actual stars now? (Okay, Guy Fieri is a
star. But, get this, not for his cooking show. No, he's famous for his show where he interrupts people and shoves food into his face. The show where he actually cooks is just Emeril-lite with a bad bleach job.) But the shows featuring the winners actually cooking always bomb. Maybe they should rethink the concept.
The show would be much better if they had contestants like this fucking idiot.
Also, if you want to know how rotten these shows are inside, here are two things from the contract that everyone signs, at least for the first season: 1) The winner isn't actually guaranteed a show. They're guaranteed an appearance on a show, any show. That's it. 2) They explicitly reserve the right to edit footage to show you in a misleadingly negative light. Yes, they do come right out and say it.
No, actually, that's not enough said. In the same episode, she presented her Hanukkah cake that used marshmallows. A non-kosher Hanukkah cake! And she hid the fucking things inside the cake! Surprise!
So, I'm taking my daily walk this morning and I started thinking about American culture, or, more accurately, the lack of a truly national culture.
We have a wealth of regional cultures, but we don't have a national one. I don't view that as a problem. I think it's a strength.
But there's a problem. When we export culture to other countries, we try to export a national culture. In other words, we export things like bad TV, Starbucks, and McDonald's. It's bad for the world, because those things are all crap. And it's bad for the US because it makes the world think we're cultural idiots.
Why can't we export regional culture successfully? So I started thinking about something to export and a bulb lit up above my head! Let's export BBQ!
Seriously, this is a great idea! Norway doesn't have BBQs. The shack would play up the different regional BBQ styles, not just on the menu, but in the layout and decor.
You could have an area themed after Kansas City. (In what way? I dunno. My only experience with KC is that all the downtown businesses close at 5pm.) Another with a Memphis theme. One for the Carolinas. And, of course, a Texas section.
The menu would reflect this as well. Candy-coated KC dreck, of course. Luscious Memphis dry ribs. Pulled pork with all the Carolina sauces (vinegar, red, and mustard). And Texas brisket.
(By the way, the one true BBQ sauce is mustard-based and called
Carolina Gold. I will not entertain arguments to the contrary. If you don't agree, you're just wrong. Wrong wrong wrong! It's easy to make and I'll send you a recipe if you email me.)
You could play thematic music in each section as well.
And you could also incorporate a sort of Norwegian BBQ fusion cuisine. Instead of baking lutefisk, why not smoke it over some hickory. Hell, slather it with enough KC-style candy sauce and you might not even taste the lye!
Figure out some local wood to replace or supplement hickory.
What about using lefse instead of white bread?
Holy crap, what about rolling pulled pork up in lefse? Damn, that would be good!
You could also be tossing elk and reindeer into the smoker.
One final selling point is that BBQ is cheap food. In a nation where everything is hideously expensive, a BBQ shack could really compete on value. (The only things I've found in Norway that are reasonably priced are art prints of Edvard Munch's work, from the Munch Museum gift shop. Trust me on this one.)
I'm packing my bags!
Just got back from a short business trip to Atlanta. Atlanta is a good place for business meetings. It's a short direct flight for me. And the MARTA can get you from the airport to most places you want to go. (Although, this trip, I had to take a shuttle.)
But, most importantly, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a BBQ place in Atlanta. Even out in the suburbs, where I was, they're easy to find.
I was only in town for a couple days, so only managed two places, both small-scale chains.
One was Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q. Good brisket. Decent pulled pork. Overly fatty ribs. Wonderful little things they call
cheese biscuits. They're more like really light muffins. Sort of an unsweetened angel food cake studded with tiny pieces of cheese. Yum!
Tried a few of their sides as well. The fried green tomatoes tasted like breading. The baked beans were good, but it's hard to ruin baked beans.
Finally, they had T-shirts that said
You can smell our butts for miles.
Later, I was looking for another place to eat, and saw Shane's Rib Shack. You tend to find them in strip malls. They look like a Subway or a Tropical Smoothie Cafe. So I looked a little harder and found an actual non-chain called, I kid you not,
Bubba's Biscuits and BBQ. And the few reviews I could find online were glowing. Plus, I love biscuits nearly as much as I love BBQ.
So we drove to Bubba's for dinner, only to find that they close at 2pm most weekdays. Dammit, dammit, dammit!
So we settled on Shane's. While the ambiance was certainly lacking, the food was actually quite good. The pulled pork was a little dry, but they had a good mustard-based BBQ sauce that moistened it up just fine.
I love mustard-based BBQ sauces. They're less sweet than tomato-based. But they're not as lip-puckering as vinegar-based. If you want to try one, email me and I'll send you a recipe from Cook's Country or Cook's Illustrated. (I don't remember which. Doesn't matter. Made by the same folks.) It's a snap to make. It's basically yellow mustard, white vinegar, brown sugar, and a few spices. You don't even need to cook it.
Shane's ribs were darn good. Very meaty, with a nice kicky sauce. Very tender, but not too tender.
My sides were beans, which were just fine, and a really nice cole slaw. The slaw was crunchy with just enough dressing to hold it together. Really fresh and bright, just how I likes it.
So, for a chain in a strip mall, this is pretty good stuff!
Tragically, I had to leave town and wasn't able to try Bubba's. I tried to console myself with some Popeye's biscuits at the airport.
Horrible! Why would anyone eat there? The hamburgers are greasy and are on soft white buns that make each bite wad up in your mouth like a soiled diaper. (Not that I've ever had a wad of soiled diaper in my mouth. Ewww!)
The fries are horrible, a fetid combination of burned exteriors and underdone interiors. They're all smashed into a cup to ensure that they get soggy from the trapped steam.
The only tasty thing in the building are the peanuts. Yes, they have big boxes of peanuts-in-the-shell. You can eat as many as you want. You'll want a lot because nothing else is edible.
Unfortunately, someone decided that the optimum location for this box of edibles was on top of the garbage can. Health code FAIL!
As Spring approaches, we need to decide what, if anything, we're going to grow out on the back deck.
In years past, we've grown basil and beans. One summer, we made a raised bed in the backyard and grew cucumbers. That was great. Unfortunately, the following year, the deer discovered the plot.
Last year, we were bums and didn't grow a damn thing.
I'd like to plant a whole bunch of stuff. We recently switched the cat litter boxes to scoopable litter. The scoopable form comes in these really sturdy plastic buckets. However, since we have 5 cats, we buy at least a couple buckets every week. We're starting to get quite a collection. I think they would make great planters.
We had initially thought that we would purchase some picnic table benches and put planters on top of those. It would raise up the plants for easier tending. It would also get them up out of the shadow of the deck railing. And it would get them off the deck surface, preventing chronic damp underneath.
But now I'm thinking that I could stack two containers. I could drill drainage holes in the bottom of the top container. And I could leave the lid on the bottom container and drill holes in it. The top container would act as the planter. The bottom would catch excess water for reuse, as well as just keep it off the deck. And, it would raise up the planters without the need for a bench.
The only problem is in draining off the water in the bottom container. Maybe a small hole in the side? Haven't figured that out yet.
So, what should we grow? Basil is a given. I love basil. String beans are nice. We screwed some hooks into the roof overhang, letting us run strings from planters to the roof. (Got the idea from a friend who grows hops for beer brewing on the front of his suburban palace.)
With the raised planters, bush beans would also work well.
Cukes are a problem because they'll want to spread out and the deck gets too hot for them to actually touch the wood. Plus, who knows what's in the wood stain.
We might try some radishes and carrots. But you really need square footage to grow anything more than just a handful of either of those.
I've been thinking of actually growing some real live tea. Certainly, you couldn't grow enough to yield a significant amount of tea. But it would be cool to drink at least one cup of real tea you grew yourself.
And then, of course, there's marijuana. With the recession, I expect pot sales to take off. Always good to have a cash crop handy. (Let's see how long it takes for my wife to chastise me.)
If you ever have any sort of stomach problem and barf up your groceries, you'll be hesitant to eat again right away. Yet you'll need to eat something to get the nourishment you need.
For me, the perfect food turned out to be fruit smoothies. They hit the spot, gave me needed energy, and didn't bug my stomach one bit. Plus, they're dead easy to make. (Ignore fancy smoothie recipes.)
Here's what you do:
A quart of yogurt makes two big-ass smoothies. We like to use a mixture of frozen strawberries, frozen peaches, and frozen mango.