Archive for the ‘BBQ Joints’ Category
One can learn only so much by reading. Experience is truly the best teacher. As appreciative as I am of my public library, PBS, and Food Network, these wonderful resources only touched the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And Central California turned out to be one tasty iceberg!
Newbies or casual BarBeQuethMinistry! followers might want to read the previous two posts in order to fully understand my most recent culinary adventure. I made a commitment to eat some form of BBQ every day during my vacation and I made good on that promise. My research was extensive. And enlightening.
Monday: We drove about ten miles from our hotel in San Luis Obispo to the quaint beach town of Shell Beach. On our way to Dinosaur Caves Park, we passed Alex Barbeque. Upon seeing a new BBQ joint, our modus operandi is to open the windows to get a whiff of the air. If there’s no hint of smoke, we take that as a good sign of bad BBQ. We couldn’t smell anything, so we kept driving. About a quarter mile down the road was our destination, a bluff top park with a cool playground and beautiful views, but no caves (or dinosaurs, in case you were wondering). But as the kids played, I was overwhelmed by the delicious smell of hardwood smoke. We quickly realized that we were downwind of the BBQ place. The crisp ocean breeze probably pushed the smoke away from us as we drove by, but carried it right to the park. Did you catch that, folks? A wind brought the smoke to us. Wind … as in mighty rushing wind? Anyway, we loaded up the van and headed back.
Alex Barbeque is a sit-down restaurant with a real easy-going feel. The host and waitress were both cheery and helpful. On the central coast, tri tip is king, so Alex was going to get the opportunity to acclimate my taste buds. Upon ordering burgers for the BBQ Kids, we were asked how we wanted the burgers done. I went with well-done for my offspring. I wasn’t given a choice for the tri tip, and that was a bummer. Pictured up top as the kicker, is my tri tip sandwich platter. You can see that it, too, was well-done. It was mighty tasty, with nice smokiness and balanced seasonings, but just a tad dry. Loved the crusty french roll that was toasted and buttery. The steak fries and cole slaw were both very good, but the BBQ sauce was way too sweet. We also ordered a plate of Linguica, an awesome spanish sausage that is seasoned mostly with paprika and garlic and finished over the oak coals. It was served with jalapeno mustard, which was so good, I put it on my tri tip. Overall, Alex BBQ was a very good start to my Central California research.
Tuesday: Just a bit of internet recon made it clear that Firestone Grill in downtown San Luis Obispo was the choice of locals and college students. We stepped into a slightly raucus restaurant that was clearly the happenin’ place to be. They had two grills going out in the open for all to admire (which I did). We ordered a tri tip sandwhich, pork ribs, a couple burgers, beans and two baskets of fries (which were gargantuan, one would’ve been pretty much enough for the six of us). The tri tip sandwhich was just about the best roast beef sandwhich I’ve ever had (right up there with Philippe’s in downtown L.A.). Pretty tender and very moist but not a hint of smokiness. The BBQ sauce was, like Alex BBQ, way too sweet. The roll was buttered and toasted right on the grill (you can see the grill marks in the pic below). The ribs tasted like they were baked in an oven then quickly seared on the grill. They tasted fine (maybe a bit salty), but weren’t smokey and a bit tough. The beans were not good at all. The taste was just weird. The decor was the very worst part. They had four San Francisco Giants jerseys framed and signed (including one of Barry Bonds) hanging on their walls. Yuck! Overall, not a terrible food experience, but definitely not BBQ.
Wednesday: We rushed out of our suite just after 5:00 pm to head down to Santa Maria to attend First Baptist Church. I had read some rave reviews about an off the beaten path BBQ joint in Nipomo (Cool name, eh? Just need to add a “ceno” to the end!). In our haste, we forgot the camera, which is a shame because the Rancho Nipomo Deli & BBQ serves up some great grub! Staying true to the old west/Mexican fusion of authentic Santa Maria BBQ, this little joint’s signature dish may be their tri tip enchiladas. It’s not as good as it sounds. It’s better! The tri tip sandwhich was, of course, served up on a buttery toasted roll and was very smokey, tender and moist. Excellent! The BBQ sauce was–you guessed it–way too sweet. The refried beans that came with the enchilada platter were fine, but the baked beans weren’t very good at all. I stole a bite of BBQ Boy I’s potato salad and it was very good. We also had nachos with carnitas that were moist and flavorful. If you’re ever heading up or down the 101, Rancho Nipomo, just north of Santa Maria, is a must stop!
Thursday: San Luis Obispo is famous for it’s Thursday night Farmer’s Market, which runs 52 weeks of the year. Everything opens up at 6:00 pm, but we decided to get there a little early to scope things out. We parked a couple blocks away at about 5:45 pm and could smell the delicious smoke as we made the quick jaunt toward what turned out to be organized chaos. It was almost like being at the L.A. County Fair on Dollar Day! We pressed through the hoards and our noses led us to F. McLintock’s BBQ stall, which had already amassed a line probably 50 people long. It was still ten minutes ’till opening time, but it was obvious, this was the place to be. Just before opening, the workers sang a hearty rendition of “God Bless America” then got the line moving. It was probably another fifteen minute wait in line, but it was well worth it. The tri tip sandwhich was different, but incredible. The meat was cubed and skewered as a kabob, and grilled over the coals and red oak. It was about as tender as a rib eye and full of flavor. The pork ribs could’ve been more tender, but the flavor made up for it. This time, the BBQ sauce wasn’t too sweet. What a relief! But the beans still fell short. We also got a Linguica sausage, a grilled artichoke, grilled corn on the cob and garlic bread, all of which were so very good!
Friday and Saturday were less than memorable. I had a mediocre tri tip sandwhich at an interesting hot dog place in Tulare (Aero Dogs–see picture below for an explanation). It was mesquite smoked, which is not the California way, but that wasn’t the problem. It was a bit smokey, but kinda bland and the roll wasn’t toasted. I had given up on Central California beans by this point of the trip. Then I had some Linguica sausage at Perko’s, a family sit-down restaurant in Delano. It was part of a breakfast skillet with fried potatoes. Not bad.
Then Sunday afternoon, headed back to SoCal, we lunched at Famous Dave’s in Bakersfield. What more can I say about Famous Dave’s? The best sauce anywhere, great beans, melt in your mouth brisket, and super ribs…. Dave always delivers!
So, the BBQthDirector wouldn’t go so far as to call California’s Central Coast the BBQ Capital of the World, but it certainly has to be part of the conversation. The Mexican influence is strong and it compliments the grilled fare very well. They sure like their sauce sweet up there, and they’ve got to work on their beans, but they know how to use that red oak.
Makes me proud to be a Californian!
BBQ Brother Bill from my church heard about the Mill Creek Cattle Company on the radio. They claim to be a smokehouse and have an intriguing website. The original restaurant is in Mentone and looks to be one gargantuan operation. The initial cyber-recon was promising. Actual research brought disappointing results.
The restaurant has a prevailing cowboy theme, fun and quite fitting for BBQ. They have two large plasma/LCD screens that had FOX news going (definitely the choice of BBQ enthusiasts … I think). You walk up to a counter to order and they bring the food to your table. That’s how I like it: no tipping! I asked the order taker what kind of wood they used and he didn’t know. The manager was “pretty sure” they used mesquite and cedar. C’mon, folks, you gotta have the inside scoop on your ‘que. None of the meat is smoked on premises. They bring it in from their Mentone restaurant. Prices were actually fairly reasonable. I ordered the “Triple Treat” (three meats, two sides and corn bread) for $9.95. I added a hot link for just $1.50.
As the plate was placed before me, I was immediately surprised by the beans. I was expecting baked or BBQ beans, but there were refried beans sitting there right next to the cole slaw. It was a really weird sight. I like refried beans, but this was not your standard BBQ fare. They were topped with cheese and pico de gallo and, once I got over the weirdness, I thoroughly enjoyed them. The cole slaw was pretty good, nice and creamy and pleasantly sweet. The corn bread, with whipped honey butter, was fine. BBQ Brother Bill was kind enough to share his sweet potato fries with me, and they were excellent! Their homemade sauce was decent, but a bit sweet for my taste. I liked it at first, but almost felt like I was going to get a sugar headache. It got tiresome pretty quick. They didn’t have any other varieties, which I think is pretty lame. There should at least be a spicy version.
Most of my meat offerings were sufficiently tender and moist, but they lacked smokiness. The pulled pork went overboard in the moisture department as it was just swimming in fat. I’m good with fat, but there’s a line somewhere. They crossed it when they made pulled pork “soup” and used the rendered pork fat as the broth. Not pleasant. Texturally, the brisket was right on. But it was bland and didn’t have a hint of smoke. The tri tip had a tiny smoke ring around it and a little bit of smokiness, but no real depth of flavor (garlic, oregano, cumin are nice on tri tip). The hot link had a bit of a kick, but was a bit on the salty side and, again, not smokey. Charred, but not smokey. There’s a difference. You can char anything in a broiler. You need wood for smoke. If you’re okay with yuppy, propane-fired BBQ, you’ll be fine with Mill Creek’s meat.
So, using my new rib scale for rating BBQ joints (1 bone being awful, 5 bones being legendary), here’s the final breakdown:
Ambience/Service: 4 bones
Sides: 4 bones
Sauce: 2 bones
Meat: 2.5 bones
Overall: 3 bones
We’ve been to Robin’s BBQ a few times before but it has been a couple years. I remember having mixed emotions about the place, and wanted to put a final verdict on it. So we loaded up the big white van and headed to Pasadena for some research (we needed to make a Whole Foods stop, as well!).
You walk into Robin’s and you immediately experience a visual beat-down brought on by their over-the-top decorations. The walls are covered by a mix of retro, Americana, and small town memorabilia. Less is more, I say. But the delicious smell more than makes up for the tackiness of the decor. It really smells like you’ve walked into a backyard BBQ. The host grabs a basket of peanuts and takes you to your table. I really appreciated being able to munch on some peanuts while we ordered and waited.
Anyone else out there like artichokes? Okay, both of you, take a look at this bad boy….
Wow! I need to say that again: WOW! Now backwards: WOW! Upside down: MOM! Man, truly one of the most wonderful veggies I’ve ever put in my mouth. Steamed (maybe boiled) then finished over a wood fire, the charred smokey parts are absolutely the best. Luckily, we didn’t have to share with the BBQ Kids since, understandably, it didn’t look too appetizing to them. I wonder about the first dude to ever eat an artichoke. He must’ve been pretty hungry.
Also pictured above are a few pieces of Robin’s signature blueberry cornbread (served with blueberry butter). Oh, what a treat! Not a whole lot of corny-ness going on but they sure delivered some pre-dinner dessert-like goodness. A pleasantly crunchy topping and moist interior marry well with the oh-so-good blueberry butter. Pure genius!
With such an amazing start to our meal, expectations were high. The main event came in a garbage can lid, which could easily feed four adults. The garbage can lid combo only comes with two sides, which aren’t enough for four adults. We had the real french fried potatoes (which were very good) and cole slaw (which was nice and creamy but a bit bland). Piled into the lid was a veritable protein party that included beef ribs, pork spare ribs, pork baby back ribs, a hot link, half a chicken and tri tip. My eyes bugged out in gluttonous delight!
Then I dove in! I started with a beef rib and it was some work getting my teeth through it. Tough. Not only that, but there was an unpleasant after taste. Something “chemically”, maybe gaseous, but definitely not good. The pork ribs and hot link gave me the same sensation (the BBQthDirector’s wife reported the baby backs to be tender, but they still had the chewy membrane on them; the spares were decenly tender but overly charred). The hot link was not spicy at all and weirdly sweet. Didn’t like it. For whatever reason, the chicken and tri tip didn’t have any unpleasant, unnatural after taste. Both were mildly smokey, tender, and juicy. My guess is that the ribs and links are charred over a propane grill. Hickory good. Propane bad.
Their sauces were pretty bad. The house sauce that comes slathered all over the meat had a tinge of cinnamon, clove or allspice, which I only like in pumpkin or sweet potato pie. I asked the waitress to bring me samples of their other sauces. Their varieties included watered down ketchup, watered down mustard and watered down apple cider vinegar. Seriously, the worst BBQ sauces I’ve ever had the misfortune of trying. Pretty good service, though. Efficient and friendly.
I wouldn’t go out of my way for Robin’s BBQ. But the artichoke and blueberry cornbread are good enough to bring me back for chicken or tri tip if I’m in the area. Maybe even a burger. Wait a minute, I like burgers. More research must be done….
The rib rating (1 bone being awful, 5 bones being legendary):
Ambience/Service: 2.5 bones
Sides: 4 bones
Sauce: 1 bone
Meat: 2.5 bones
Overall: 3 bones
Republican, Democrat, Libertarian… I don’t really care. Green Party. Communist. Palestinian Liberation Organization. Hey, if Dave Anderson runs for president, I’ll volunteer to fire up the smoker at a rally! Famous Dave’s is one of the fastest growing BBQ chains in the country for a reason. Dave knows BBQ and he knows how to run a corporation. That’s what I call executive experience, something Sarah Palin was attacked for and something President Barack Obama has had just over a week of… for the first time since being a community organizer! Okay, okay, enough politics…
Yesterday, a bunch of young couples (mostly from my church) went to visit Dave in Long Beach. There were 25 of us, five couples, the rest wild animals children. With those kinds of numbers, I’ve decided to officially name this meeting, “C.A.R.E.: Couples Attuned to Replenishing the Earth.” One couple (John and Miriam) have yet to venture into this part of life. This crazy day, that included three kindergartners, may have discouraged them from ever having children. Nonetheless, we’re glad they joined us.
“So, Jay, whadaya recommend?”
I’ve been to 10 different Famous Dave’s in four different states. I’ve worked Famous Dave’s into the church announcements on one occassion and mentioned Dave in more than one sermon. I’m definitely the one to ask.
“Everything’s excellent except for the pulled pork.”
And it’s the truth. When a chain gets as big as Dave has, it’s just naturally gonna lose something. You just can’t beat the mom and pop’s stops that are still making everything right in their kitchens. But Dave is a model of consistency. Honest-to-goodness wood smoked BBQ, learned on Dave’s BBQ journey through America’s backroads. The BBQthDirector’s wife and I both had loaded baked potatoes with brisket. The potato isn’t smoked like Rudy’s, but the brisket is heavenly. Oh so tender and juicy, you don’t need teeth for that meat! Of all the BBQ joints we’ve hit, Dave’s brisket is our favorite. It wasn’t quite as smokey as it usually is, but still very tasty. Raves all around the table from everyone who had the brisket.
The Manhandler Sandwich is the BBQthDirector’s favorite Famous Dave’s offering. It is the melt-in-your-mouth brisket coupled with a “snappy” and tasty hot link! All you need is a squeeze of your favorite Dave’s sauce and the sun shines just a bit brighter!
A big part of the Famous Dave’s experience is the BBQ sauce tour. Dave offers five different varieties, three of which happen to be in my fridge right now. Your server will explain the differences, including the regional origins and even help you pair the sauce with the right meat. They’ll make some type of design on a blue plate with the sauces and invite everyone to try ‘em out with the tip of your finger or a utensil. The BBQthDirector’s good friend, Pastor Jesse Johnson, tried all five, one for each finger tip! I watched to make sure he didn’t double dip. That would be sick!
Pastor Johnson said the ribs were awesome, and they sure looked the part! Craig and Brenda Wilson reported the chicken to be very good. No one had the pulled pork, because they trust the BBQthDirector. Good move, C.A.R.E. members!
**IMPORTANT BBQ TIP** Timing is important. As much as possible, we try our best to miss the lunch rush. We got there about 11:00 am. You don’t want to go too far after peak meal times (say 11:00 am-1:30 pm for lunch; 6:00 pm-8:00 pm for dinner). If meat stays too long in the pit (or warmer), it will dry out. I would say 2:00 pm-4:00 pm is definite no-man’s land for BBQ. It will be either dry from smoking too long, or tough from not cooking quite long enough. I had a friend who tried Famous Dave’s and said everything was a bit dry. He went after 9:00 pm.
The BarBeQuethMinistry! Rib Rating (1 bone being awful, 5 bones being legendary):
Ambience/Service: 4 bones
Sides: 4.5 bones
Sauce: 5 bones
Meat: 4.5 bones
Overall: 4.5 bones
For readers of BarBeQuethMinistry who also happen to be friends, I give you some miscellaneous pictures of our day trip which included a stop at the Queen Mary. Admission is free in January for California residents, and that’s how we roll!
Story/Legend goes… Pete Powdrell grew up in East Texas where he honed his BBQ skills using hickory wood. He moved to Albuquerque, NM in the late 70′s and opened up a BBQ restaurant that has stayed true to its Texas roots. The Mr. Powdrell has passed on and the business has stayed in the family, now run by Pete’s son, Mike. I had the pleasure of meeting Mike at a wedding in Lubbock, TX. Needless to say, I was shocked to be able to shake hands with a direct descendent of such BBQ royalty. Really nice, cheerful guy, faithful member of the Fellowship Baptist Church of Albuquerque with a really cool license plate to boot:
Bro. Mike told me that he had gotten convicted over a message his Pastor preached about working on Sundays. He decided God could do in six days what man could do in seven. Mr. Powdrell’s BBQ is now closed on the Lord’s day.
All pleasantries aside, we had to get to the “shrine”. The original restaurant is not in the nicest part of town, but we are quickly put at ease by the imposing, yet glorious, sight of their catering rig:
Sweet! We are greeted with a warm friendliness that is remiscent of … Texas! Only without the twang. But unlike the BBQ Joints in the Lone Star State, this is a sit down restaurant, which wouldn’t be so bad if weren’t for that strangest of all American traditions, tipping. Certainly not up to par with the smokey ambiance in Texas, but, oooooohhhhh, the food!
The pork ribs were wonderfully tender and moist with just the right amount of smoke. The brisket was great, sliced nice and thin across the grain. We’re usually not that into chicken, especially white meat. Served up on our combo platter was a chicken quarter that had the breast and wing. Chicken breasts are usually dry, but Mr. Powdrell found a way to keep it juicy. Not real smokey, but their house sauce made it mighty tasty. More tangy than sweet with a little bit of chile in the background. Very nice, just wish there was a hot version. New Mexicans are fanatical about their chile peppers and Mr. Powdrell combines the local flavor well with his Texas best. There was also the wonderful flavor of New Mexican red chile in their beans. Very, very good! The cole slaw was solid, creamy and slightly sweet. The sausage was the weakest link (pun absolutely intended–insert growns) of the meal. Not bad, just not great.
The big surprise of our meal was the ham and cheese sandwich we ordered for our two youngest to split. The BBQ Princess (daughter Jenna, eight years old) can be a bit picky with meat, but she really enjoyed the sandwich. I had to give it a try and realized the ham was wonderfully smoked. Next time I visit Mr. Powdrell, the ham and cheese sandwich will definitely be invited to the party!
Excellent food and friendly, efficient service make Mr. Powdrell’s BBQ in Albuquerque, NM a “must try” for the BBQ enthusiast. A taste of Texas with a New Mexican twist. I would drive out of my way to get there.
The BarBeQuethMinstry! Rib Rating (1 bone being awful, 5 bones being legendary):
Ambience/Service: 3.5 bones (good service; very plain decor for a sit-down restaurant)
Sides: 4 bones
Sauce: 4 bones
Meat: 4.5 bones
Overall: 4 bones
For more restaurant reviews, check out my food blog, The FUNdamental Foodie.