February 15, 2013

NBDL Tour Side Quest: Texas Barbeque

Sausage and brisket plate at Franklin Barbecue. Live Oak's Big Bark Amber in the glass.
One of my hopes in traveling to Texas to watch basketball was that I would find some good barbeque while I was there. This was not my first quest to find good barbeque but I swore it would be my last if I didn't find something really really good. I've eaten barbeque (or barbecue or BBQ, if you prefer) in what I would consider to be some fairly significant destinations, including North Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville and even once before in Texas, and I have never EVER found it to be worth searching out, with the possible exception of the totally delicious Original Barbeque Sauce at Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City. I could have eaten that stuff on cardboard and it would have tasted good.

But I can admit I've made mistakes in my searches before. I asked the hotel concierge for a recommendation in Memphis and I've randomly picked places in Fort Worth and just pulled into the first place I saw about 200 yards over the North Carolina border. Not very scientific or selective. For all I knew I could have been pulling into the Arby's of barbeque (if you know me, you know I justifiably have a very low regard for Arby's food). So this time I actually did some homework. I'd done that before a cross country trek that took me to Arthur Bryant's and it worked out OK so why not give being prepared another shot. Here's where I went and what I found.

North Main Barbecue's sign and pig.
North Main Barbecue, Euless
I picked this place because it was featured on Food Network's show The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Ted Allen raved about the brisket. I'm not a big Ted Allen fan but I figured there had to be some merit to this claim so I thought I'd check it out. It was also right near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and I landed just before lunch so it was technically almost on my way.

North Main Barbecue is located in a strip mall type setting on the main drag in Euless. It's a cafeteria style atmosphere with rolls of paper towels on the table and dark window tinting film on all the windows (it faces west and I imagine the Texas sun is pretty brutal in the late afternoon). There's a center carving station where the all you can eat meat is placed buffet style with a couple of guys standing behind doling out the meat.

I have a few fundamental objections to barbeque I've eaten in the past and my experience at North Main Barbeque is a shining example of my biggest objection. My impression of barbeque is that most places present well cooked but fairly flavorless meat, slather it with sauce which may or may not be that good, and serve it on bread which is absolutely the cheapest white prepackaged hamburger roll you can find at any grocery store. The whole flavor profile is based on sauce and sauce alone. This is exactly what I got at North Main Barbecue.

Having said that, their sauce is pretty darn good with a strong vinegar base that I love. They also had some hotter sauce on the tables called Cowboy Ketchup which added flavor and heat. I left being impressed by the sauce but not by the rest of the experience. It's not the worst barbeque I've had but I don't think I'd go back.

Pecan Lodge's Pitmaster sandwich.
Pecan Lodge, Dallas
Pecan Lodge is located in Shed No. 2 of the Dallas Farmer's Market (not misspelled; that's the way they spell it) and has been voted by D Magazine as the Best Barbecue in Dallas for the last two years. The Best rating was the magazine's pick, not the readers' pick; important distinction to make there. In addition to the rating, the place is open from 11 a.m. to whenever they sell out. Any place having their closing time as "sold out" has to be good, right? To me, this sounded like a can't miss stop.

I got t0 the market early, figuring there would be something else there to check out so I strolled around looking at stall after stall of the same fruits, vegetables and Virginia peanuts (irony!) on every stall. While I was wandering around, a line had formed at Pecan Lodge. It was about 20 deep by the time I joined it at about 10:20 a.m., forty minutes before opening time, so I got in it. The party ahead of me was on a barbeque tour the last week. It sounded like Pecan Lodge was stop number 10 of 10.

The menu at Pecan Lodge.
By the time the dinner bell rang (yes, they ring a dinner bell), the line had grown. According to the woman in front of me (who counted) there were 64 people in line behind me. Good thing I got there early. The menu is written on a chalkboard at Pecan Lodge and features meat by the pound (a Texas thing apparently), sandwiches and daily specials. Because I'm a sandwich guy, I elected to go with the Pitmaster sandwich, which is brisket, pork and sausage with cole slaw and jalapenos on a roll. I also sprung for the pinto beans because I love beans and will get them pretty much any time I can.

The sandwich is huge, but not too big that you can't bite into it. It's also gorgeous to look at: it's colorful, plated well and just looks delicious. And it didn't disappoint. This is the best barbeque sandwich I have ever had in my life. It was sweet and moist and you could taste the smoke coming through. The meat was cooked well, with a nice crust, without being dry. The sauce added the right amount of tang and the chiles added just a little heat. And it was a real sandwich, well conceived and well balanced from top to bottom. I'd return here for this sandwich in a second. I'd pass on the beans though: a little tasteless for me.

Salt Lick's off the menu sandwich.
Salt Lick, Driftwood
Salt Lick cropped up on so many "best of" lists that I thought I should take a journey off the beaten path to see what all the fuss was about. I also thought it would get me into Texas Hill Country, which my trip otherwise wouldn't take me. Normally I would avoid a place like Salt Lick strictly due to the fact that they sell bottled barbeque sauce and other products on line but I figured why not make an exception. Some folks clearly like this place. I had to see if I agreed.

I drove a ways off the beaten path to get to Salt Lick but after passing through multiple construction zones, I finally arrived. First of all, the signage at this place is confusing and it took me a few minutes to understand just exactly where I was supposed to go. When I finally figured that all out, I found a table based on the hostess' direction ("sit anywhere"). Knowing that I wanted more than one type of meat but also preferred a sandwich, I asked my server for some guidance. He suggested I go off menu and get the brisket and sausage sandwich, which sounded perfect to me because that's exactly what I wanted. I also kicked in an extra buck for three sides: beans, cole slaw and potato salad.

What arrived was a sandwich and some sides packed onto a single plate. The sandwich looked good. I was happy to see they didn't present it to me on the cheapest roll in the grocery store. The brisket looked good, with an obvious smoke ring. But ultimately the sandwich disappointed. I didn't get a whole lot of flavor or smoke out of the sandwich, even when I piled on the habanero sauce on the table. I pulled some of the brisket off the sandwich to see how it tasted which was a good idea. There was more flavor without the other components of the dish but it was dry to me.

The biggest objection I had though was that the sandwich didn't succeed at exactly what it was supposed to be: a sandwich. The bread couldn't stand up to absorbing the moisture from the sausage, brisket and sauce so it sort of fell apart rather quickly. They also sliced their sausage lengthwise, rather than crosswise like at Pecan Lodge, which meant that my teeth had to cut through the sausage to get mouthfuls of sandwich. I found this difficult to do so every time I bit into or onto a piece of sausage, I ended up dragging the whole thing out of the sandwich, leaving me with bread and sauce for my next bite.

I don't think I'd end up going back to Salt Lick if I had the chance. But if I had, I'd skip the sides. I know they were only $1 but they too disappointed.

Franklin Barbecue and part of the omnipresent line.
Franklin Barbecue, Austin
I picked Franklin Barbecue as my in-Austin lunch spot based on the Austin Food Blogger Alliance voting it as the top Barbeque spot in 2012 and I like to think that I can trust an alliance of food bloggers. It has also been featured on Anthony Bourdain's show, No Reservations, which I didn't realize until I googled it Thursday morning to make sure I knew where it was before setting out for a spot in line. I heard about the line from the barbeque tour guys ahead of me at Pecan Lodge so I figured earlier was better here.

The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. and, like Pecan Lodge, is open until they run out of meat. I arrived at 9:45 a.m., a full hour and 15 minutes before opening time and there was already a 29 person line (I counted - there's only so much Twitter I can read in 75 minutes). By the time the place opened, the line was much longer, easily three times as long, so I was glad I showed up early. As soon as they opened the door, this incredible smell wafted out of the place which was a good early sign.

Franklin Barbecue's dining room.
Rather than go with a sandwich at Franklin Barbecue, I elected to get a meat plate. I'd heard too many good rumblings about the brisket and knew I also wanted to taste the sausage. The meat plate was the only way I was going to get those two things based on my read of the menu. The brisket slicing process here is one you have to see. First of all, you can get fattier or leaner brisket based on questions asked of you and they know which is which without cutting into the meat. When the meat is cut, the knife slices through the brisket so easily that the knife has to be super super super sharp or the meat is that tender. It's the latter by the way; you can cut this stuff with a plastic fork it is falling apart that much.

I grabbed my plate complete with sides (beans again, of course, and potato salad) and headed to my table. The brisket may be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I have ever eaten. It's juicy and full of flavor using only salt, pepper and smoke. The bark on this meat is salty and worth savoring. As a reminder, lack of inherent flavor in the meat is one of my fundamental objections to barbeque (until now). There was barbeque sauce on the tables but I didn't use any it was that tasty.

The sausage was juicy and greasy but without being disgusting. The casing snapped and there was something tangy and lipsmacking in there which I'd go back for again. The beans were also creamy and loaded with pork, which is not a bad thing. If there's a complaint here (and there is one), the portion size was just way too big. Three slabs of brisket was more than I needed. There were also some parts of the bark which were way too salty. I've waited in longer lines for food (Pink's Hot Dogs in Los Angeles) but this was worth the wait. I'd do it again.

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue: 401 West Second Street if you are interested.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin
Two barbeque meals in one day was not something I thought I'd ever have. This place finished as a runner up on the Austin Food Blogger Alliance list. I was sort of doubling down on my bet above here but what the hell. The first place winner was awesome. If this came anywhere close to Franklin Barbecue, I'd be a happy diner.

Lamberts was a different experience from the other barbeque places I went to this week. It was more of a restaurant rather than a counter service (admittedly, I got served at Salt Lick) and I went at dinner rather than lunch. The menu looked amazing. I had to restrain myself from ordering the jalapeno hot links with hot pink pickled cabbage and the achiote lime rubbed half chicken and stick to the task at hand which was eating some barbeque  food comparable to what I'd had in Euless, Dallas and Driftwood.

Ultimately, I picked the hot links plate with two sides, in this case beans (what else?) and collard greens and with my food I was presented with three sauces: housemade barbeque, mustard and hot sauces. Despite my attempt to keep this food on an even playing field with the rest of the barbeque I've had this past week, this meal was clearly superior to all the others.

I know the photo's grainy. It was dark. What else can I do?
The sausage is smoked on the premises so Lamberts is doing what every other barbeque place I've eaten at is doing but the flavor was just incredible. The grind on the meat was perfect and the sausage had some great heat which went with both the barbeque and hot sauces really well. The beans were also the best of the trip; the addition of cilantro made these tastier, cutting the creaminess of the beans. I can eat my food fast and I have to tell you I ate slowly here, savoring every bite. If I lived in Austin, I'd come here a lot. And the 512 Pecan Porter went really well with the food by the way.

So after a week of trying, I am clearly not ready to give up on barbeque, although I've convinced myself not to shoot from the hip when it comes to food. I know I'm a food snob and it really helps me to be prepared with my restaurant choices as much as everything else in life. I still have my reservations about this style of food but as I think about it, I am no less disappointed in other types of food that I love (particularly Mexican) than I am in barbeque. There are some places I'd love to go back to that I've dined at this week.

In picking the places above, I read a lot of reviews and opinions and visited each restaurant's website, but I also checked my math, so to speak, with Daniel Vaughn's Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog. It's good to have an opinion from someone who claims to know what he's doing, I guess. I didn't always follow his advice and I'm sure he'd think I'm a novice at this stuff, but I definitely crossed some places off my list based on his blog.

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