I am really excited about this week’s contributor to “My Favorite BBQ Joints”. I’ve been following Jim Shahin’s pieces on barbecue at the Washington Post for a long time now. He’s always insightful, honest, extremely passionate, and above all makes me hungry to visit the locations he writes about. I am honored that he took the time out of his busy schedule to write such a strong piece.
Jim Shahin writes the Smoke Signals barbecue column for the Washington Post. It appears every Tuesday morning on the Post’s website in the Food section’s “All You Can Eat” blog. A monthly article, published in the print version and usually with recipes, is also available online.
My Favorite BBQ Joints
By Jim Shahin
“Choosing a favorite barbecue joint is almost as mysterious as the process of making barbecue. Why does one place become a fave and not another? The food, of course. But often something else, as well.
A joint’s sense of history. Your personal relationship with the place. The joint’s meaning to the community. I have chosen only a few of my favorites, each for its own reason, sometimes having little to do with the food itself.
None of my recommendations are in the Washington, D.C., area. As the barbecue columnist for the Washington Post, I think it’s probably a bad idea to play favorites among locals.
The paradox about determining your favorites is that you start out searching for the best and find that there are many bests. Indeed, one of the greatest moments in a barbecue hound’s quest is when he stumbles upon a fabulous surprise. I happened upon a couple of those on family trips and go back every chance I get.
One is Eli’s Famous Bar-B-Que, a ramshackle take-out joint alongside a winding road on the outskirts of the small, beat-up Rust Belt town of Warren, Ohio (home, by the way, to Nirvana drummer and the Foo Fighters guitarist Dave Grohl, who merits an alleyway mural). Its meaty, flame-charred,charcoal-grilled pork ribs dripping in red sauce could give anyplace in America a run for its money.
The other is Q L Barbecue in Muncie, Indiana, where you call your order into a squawk box at a drive-up window in a decrepit house surrounded by fields across from a river. The weedy ruralness conjures up images of the Old South. So, commendably, do the serious sauce-slathered ribs and the smokey chicken.
Another type of surprise is how a barbecue joint can say something about the place where it resides, even though it is relatively new. Take, for example, Slows Bar B Q in Detroit. In 2005, the owners took a risk and opened Slows in a blighted stretch of road, which helped turn around a rundown neighborhood and, in turn, showed the resilience of a city that keeps finding ways to get back up after being repeatedly knocked down.
Photo of Slow’s BBQ courtesy of Sylvia Rector/DFP
For a different reason but a similar sense-of-placeness, I like Fette Sau in New York City because its impassioned pursuit of excellence honors tradition while at the same time recreates it in the image of that city’s tastes, turning out, for instance, a delicious house-cured pastrami.
Photo of Fette Sau courtesy of Yeah Manh
I also like the tried-and-true. Starting in the A’s, for Alabama, there’s Dreamland (only the original, though, in Tuscaloosa; I think the food is better than at the others, and, in any event, the vibe sure is), where the ribs, grilled more than smoked and swimming in a thinnish tangy house-made sauce, are so damn good they can make you talk to yourself .
There’s also Archibald’s in Northport, AL, the teeny joint whose brawny ribs, served in a zingy, orange-y, vinegar-y sauce, may actually make you sing out loud.
Photo of Archibald’s courtesy of Buffetbuster @ RoadFood.com
On second thought, I’m not going through the alphabet. You’ll get bored and I’ll get hungry. Instead, I want to pay honor to a couple barbecue places that hold a special place in my heart.
The Taylor Cafe, in the small central Texas town of Taylor, where there is a door on opposite sides of the weathered building. The custom, back in the bad old days, was to enter from one if you were black, the other if you were white. There are a few tables on either side of a long U-shaped counter where, you guessed it, blacks typically sat on one side, whites the other. Here’s the thing. When Vencil Mares, the owner and pitmaster, opened it in 1949, at a time of legally-enforced segregation, a time when blacks oftentimes picked up their food from the back of a restaurant, the Taylor Café’s doors were quite literally open to everyone. Blacks and whites may have once entered through separate doors but they all ate under one roof. Vencil Mares deserves some kind of award and the Taylor Café ought to be declared a national monument.
Photo of The Taylor Cafe courtesy of Texas BBQ Posse
Similarly, Atlanta’s Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven, a tumble-down hole in the wall, should not have passed without some recognition. One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite haunts, a large wreath memorializing him leaned on the seat of a back booth, a tattered poster of King looming above it, with the dates, “1929-1968.” The place breathed history. And the ribs, drenched in the eatery’s peppery tomato-based “come back” sauce, were nothing short of transporting. It went under years ago, which I discovered when I took my then-young son on a pilgrimage there, only to stare at its empty, closed shell.
A cultural icon of a different sort is the Skylight Inn in wide-spot-in-the-road Ayden, North Carolina. You gotta love a place that is so militant about protecting the Old Ways that it actually has a billboard above its property proclaiming their philosophy: “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not barbecue.” By wood, he means embers burned down then shoveled beneath the meat, not a gas oven with a log in it. Oh, and the chopped whole hog sprinkled with the peppery house-made vinegar sauce? Worth driving way out of your way for, which, incidentally, you’ll have to do, because Ayden is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Photo of Skylight Inn courtesy of James Boo – Serious Eats
A barbecue joint needn’t be small or rickety to be great, but somehow, more often than not, it just seems to work out that way. Payne’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis, situated in a former filling station, turns out one of the best pork sandwiches on the planet.
Photo of Payne’s Bar-B-Que courtesy of James Boo – Serious Eats
LC’s Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, which, housed in a rectangular box, is so modest it lacks even a dive’s character, serves up a burnt ends sandwich that is such a work of art you might think you are eating in the Louvre.
Photo of LC’s Bar-B-Q courtesy of Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle @ Roadfood.com
In Texas, where I have spent a quarter-century of my life, I will always have a soft spot for Sam’s Barbeque, the dumpy joint on the crest of a hill in Austin where, some 30 years ago, I had my barbecue epiphany. Despite the detractors who claim that a) it was always over-rated or b) it has gone downhill, Sam’s still dishes out some of the meanest, tenderist example of Southern black barbecue anywhere. Forget all the smoke-ring this and bark that. This is barbecue that just tastes good. Its brisket faints with tenderness and snarls with flavor. Its ribs are simultaneously chewy (in the best sense) and soft.
Photo of Sam’s courtesy of Yelp
Sam’s is inconsistent, always has been. But as I once wrote, consistency is the hobgoblin of inferior barbecue. You can get good barbecue at any number of places. But transcendent barbecue, that’s something truly rare, and it is something that Sam’s, and, for that matter, many of the places listed above, achieve. Sam’s, yes, can be greasy or chewy (in the worst sense), but it can also snap your head around like a cartoon character’s, make you stare in disbelief at the phenomenon you are eating, and (if your mouth wasn’t full of sublime meat) have you speaking in tongues.
Franklin Barbecue, as trendy as it is to say, is another one of my favorites, though I have to quality what I mean. To me, a favorite is place you know well enough that it is something other than a just a great one night stand. I have only eaten at Franklin twice. But its juicy, robust brisket lived up to the hype both times. And what really got me is that here, in beef country, pitmaster Aaron Franklin was turning out more than commendable pulled pork. So it is not a favorite in a traditional sense. But I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,
Photo of Franklin Barbecue courtesy of Ryan Schierling Photography
As far as an old favorite? Louie Mueller Barbeque in the lost-in-time 1950s set-piece of a town, Taylor, Texas. My wife was born in Taylor and we celebrated our son’s first birthday at Mueller’s. But even if I wasn’t tethered emotionally to the place, I know it would be one of my faves.
I love the way the screen door slams behind you when you enter and the way the walls, once presumably green, have been smoked over the years to a sepia-tone. And the food is flat-out amazing. The James Beard Foundation gave Mueller’s an America’s Classics Award. And hard-eyed Texas Monthly which has ranked Mueller’s in the top 5 every time the magazine has put out its statewide survey.
Sometimes, sentiment may help you see all the way through.
The 63-year-old, three-generation joint uses post-oak fueled pits to turn out thick slices of firm and luscious black-peppery, perfect-bark brisket. I order mine from the fatty end, and swoon a little with each bite. Mueller’s piquant, juicy coarse-ground sausage should be on every barbecue hound’s bucket list. Its ambrosial Flinstonian-sized beef rib is, quite simply, unbeatable by anyone anywhere. And the three mandatory Texas sides – potato salad, coleslaw, pinto beans, all house-made – are so good, and so perfectly Texas, they make eating them not a break in the meat-eating action but a glorious complement to the meal.
Photo of Louie Mueller Barbecue courtesy of Man Up: Tales of Texas BBQ
Fact is, when I think about Mueller’s, and about all the great barbecue joints out there, I consider all the places I haven’t been, and some of the places I haven’t mentioned. I think, too, of the places whose names I never knew, the roadside barrel smoker guys who sometimes stun with some of the best stuff you ever tasted.
The great thing about barbecue is that it is an ever-expanding universe of discovery. Me, I’m happy to be a wayward explorer among its stars.”
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