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- August 28, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 9
Searching for BBQ Bliss, the Pickings Are Easy
Pigging Out All Across America, An Ever-Hungry Writer Takes on a Mouth-Watering Mission: To Seek Out Barbecue's Juiciest Joints
Now and then, about the time the flies come out, they soak some briquettes in lighter fluid, tell the wife and kiddies to take cover and drop a match. Whoosh. When the flames get real high, they ignite some chopped meat and call it barbecue. That's not right. No wonder the South has stayed mad at the North all these years.
Not long ago Northerners caught on to the fact that what they'd been doing all those years was backyard grilling, and real barbecue—it's the same stuff whether spelled barbecue, barbeque, BBQ or bar-b-que—was meat slow-cooked over wood smoke. Having discovered this new "regional cuisine," the folks up North wanted to find out who did it best. I got the job. I went to 19 states and ate in more than 80 famous or highly recommended barbecue joints, stands, barns, pits and spots—hardly any rail themselves restaurants, maybe because restaurants aren't places where you go to eat recognizable body parts.
I concentrated on the big three of barbecue—pork ribs, sliced beef brisket and chopped pork sandwiches—but I had pork and beef so many ways the National Cholesterol Education Program might have named me a poster child. To simplify my investigation, I skipped what I call "rogue barbecue," which includes kalua pig from Hawaii, barbecued mutton from Kentucky, barbecued goat from Texas and barbecued bologna from lots of places that ought to know better. I learned that you should never try to find a barbecue place that somebody tells you is "just down the road," because barbecue places are the floating crap games of the culinary world, never to be found where people say they are.
Finally, I came up with the Top 10 barbecue places in America, ranking them with one rib (pig in clover), two ribs (high on the hog), three ribs (cloud swine) or four ribs (hog heaven). The only disappointment of my trip was never participating in a North Carolina pig pickin'. The way I heard it, and it could be that some Southern boys were pulling my leg, this is a cultural event where the head of the pig is removed and placed atop the barbecue cooker with a John Deere cap on its head and a cigarette in its mouth.
By reputation, there are two great barbecue cities in America—Kansas City and Memphis—and two great barbecue regions—North Carolina and Texas. Nearly half of the barbecue places I visited were in these four areas, and this is what I found out:
Kansas City is still very good, but I'd feel better about its barbecue future if there were a genuine challenger to Arthur Bryant's. The other famous places you might have heard about are okay only if you've spent your life eating Midwestern cuisine.
North Carolina, which has been embroiled forever in an argument over the superiority of the state's western-style chopped pork sandwich (tomato-based sauce) vs. its eastern-style sandwich (vinegar-based sauce), has more important things to worry about. Foremost among them is the fact that too many of the state's great barbecue places have become mediocre full-service restaurants. There is so much fried fish being served in the Tar Heel State these days, I wouldn't be surprised if Arthur Treacher wins the next Carolina Barbecue Championship Cook-Off.
Except for Jim Neely's Interstate and the Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis has mediocre barbecue. Now I know why Elvis preferred fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches.
Texas has more great barbecue places than anywhere else. I had always heard that the only barbecue you could get in Texas was beef, but the pork ribs served throughout Texas were never less than wonderful (far superior to the ribs I had in Memphis, which is famous for them). The best pork ribs I had anywhere were at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, the best beef ribs at Bob's Smoke House in San Antonio, the best brisket at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor (where it's so good it's served for breakfast).
No wonder Arthur Bryant's last wish was to be buried in Texas.
CLARK'S OUTPOST TIOGA, TEXAS
The population of Tioga, which is located partway between Dallas and the Oklahoma border, is 511, and the only person you've ever heard of from there hasn't been back in quite a while (but we'll return to him shortly). Tioga seems an unlikely place to open any sort of restaurant, especially since most of the other shops in town aren't exactly thriving. But 15 years ago a former dress salesman named Warren Clark took over a vacant store and started selling barbecue. "When I opened up, it cost me $32 a day to operate the business, and that included lights, gas and labor," says Clark. "If it had turned out to be a mistake, what the hell?"
Using his own system of low-temperature, very slow cooking, Clark produces the best barbecue in Texas, which is something to brag about. I ordered the house combination, which included everything you might imagine plus some things you might not. "What are calf fries?" I asked the pretty young slip of a waitress, a girl who didn't seem to be out of her teens. She looked at me real hard. "Bull testicles," she said. I like barbecue restaurants that don't mince their words (or, for that matter, their beef). The calf fries were tasty, almost as light and delicate as sweetbreads, and I'm inclined to credit the calf fries for the robust health of Clark, who's 65 but looks a good 10 years younger.
My dinner also included three slices of intensely smoked, absolutely gorgeous brisket of beef—the meat was blackrimmed on the outside and bright red inside. "Other people say they cook their briskets 18 or 20 hours," notes Clark. "When we get there, we're not even started yet. We cook ours for three days." This heavy smokiness extends to most of his food, including pork ribs so bright pink throughout they tasted like Canadian bacon. As a side dish, the Outpost offers deep-fried corn on the cob. When you butter up one of those babies, you've achieved a new standard of barbecue food that can't possibly be good for you.
The Outpost isn't much to look at. There's a mounted deer head with middling antlers, a collection of good-ol'-boy caps, a bunch of yellowed business cards tacked to the wall, some pretty fair paintings of folks in the horse business and a kitchen big enough to put out grub for a wagon train. The meat is smoked in a stainless steel cooker that Clark himself designed, and it even has a monitoring device that graphs the temperature inside. I recommend a visit to the place, and if you happen to be an acquaintance of Orvon Autry, Tioga high school class of '25, tell him the folks in his hometown miss him a lot. A meal at the Outpost is a good reason for Gene to come home again.
JIM NEELY'S INTERSTATE BAR-B-Q MEMPHIS
This is Jim Neely's recipe for barbecued spaghetti, which is so delicious that once you taste it you will understand that barbecued spaghetti is not such a bad idea: Boil the spaghetti. Drain. Add barbecue sauce and chopped pork shoulder. Refrigerate. Reheat when ready to serve. Al dente, it is not.
Neely's tomatoey sauce has plenty of herbs, which is probably why it works so well with spaghetti. For that matter, it works well with everything he cooks: chicken, pork shoulder, beef brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, two kinds of bologna and three kinds of sausage. This place is paradise for people who like combination plates. Neely's brisket is about as good as brisket gets, which means it's as good as the brisket I ate in Texas and better than what I found anyplace else.
Neely, 51, an insurance salesman by trade, moved back to Memphis in 1972 after spending some 15 years in Los Angeles. "I couldn't wait to get back here for Memphis barbecue," he said. "After I got here, I couldn't wait to get back to L.A." He was so disappointed in the quality of Memphis barbecue that he bought a little store and opened his own barbecue business in 1980. "It was slow," he says. "Sometimes my wife and I could watch a whole movie between customers. Nobody knew we were here." Location could have been the problem, because adjoining his struggling place was a bar, the wrong kind of a bar. Customers at the Interstate could never be sure if the smoke they were smelling was hickory or gunpowder.
"It was a joint. I mean a joint, the worst place in the world," says Neely. "Fighting! Oh, man. Every night. In L.A. I was away from that element of people and I forgot there were people like that." He bought the lease on the bar, closed it up and then spent the next six months convincing the people who used to hang out inside the bar not to bring bottles and hang out on the steps of the bar. "I cleaned it up," he says. "Brute force. I stomped them, knocked them down, kicked them in the tail. This is America. I believe that if you buy something, it's yours. I cleaned this corner up, and now people come here from church on Sunday. I tell people they're safer here than at home."
Neely really does worry about his customers. Of course, if you come to the Interstate, there's always the danger that you'll eat too much, but even that is taken care of. He sells Dick Gregory's Bahamian Slim/Safe Diet mix to go.
JAKE & EARL'S DIXIE B-B-Q CAMBRIDGE, MASS.
There is no Jake at Jake & Earl's. Never has been. There is no Earl either. Jake is the pet Labrador of one of the owners, and Earl is the father of the other owner. Just finding something known as Dixie barbecue in Harvard's hometown is bewildering enough without this.
The cook and co-owner, Chris Schlesinger, 33, seems to have received his Ph.D. in pork. His beef is okay, but his heavily smoked pork ribs and his eastern-style North Carolina barbecue sandwich are so authentically delicious that people who live in the Northeast can no longer complain they never get anything good to eat. The only flaw in the sandwich is the quality of the bun, which is too high to be an authentic barbecue bun. "I am ashamed of it," admits Schlesinger, who grew up in Virginia, right near the North Carolina border. "My bun is not cheap enough. It should have the texture of a sponge."
Jake & Earl's is a five-stool place that measures about two hogs wide by two hogs deep and does mostly takeout. It's decorated with a bust of Elvis and some other Memphis memorabilia, all because Schlesinger seems to have the idea that the best barbecue in America is made in Memphis. As long as he's so right about his cooking, he's allowed to be wrong about that. Next to Jake & Earl's is a restaurant called the East Coast Grill, which has the same co-owners and shares the same newfangled Wham Turbo Cooker barbecue machine. The ribs and shredded pork are perfectly fine at the East Coast Grill, good enough it's almost impossible to get a table most nights, but I got worried when I saw gewürztraminer by the glass on the menu. If word gets out that the Northeast has a barbecue place with a wine cellar, the South will have cause to rise again.
SONNY BRYAN'S SMOKEHOUSE DALLAS
There are two rooms at Sonny Bryan's. One is tiny, hot and crowded. The other is worse. Of course, you can always eat outside, standing in the parking lot in 97-degree heat with your food sitting on a tree stump. Sonny Bryan's is just about the most uncomfortable eatery in the world. It's also one of the most popular.
W.J. (Sonny) Bryan retired last February after 31 years behind the counter of his little shack, which is located in a section of Dallas so nondescript it's hard to tell whether it's on the wrong side of town or not. By all accounts Sonny is sorely missed, although the place was so tightly packed I couldn't tell he was missing. I was jammed in next to a fellow wearing gas station coveralls with a name patch on his chest, and I suppose that as a tourist I was just a little disappointed that the name turned out to be Lance and not Billy Bob. Bryan's is a lesson in peaceful coexistence, what with folks of all races, creeds and oil incomes trying real hard not to knock over their neighbor's food.
The plate I ordered came with brisket (great), french fries (forgettable), cole slaw (terrific) and a pristine white cloth napkin (astonishing). I made my way to the marginally less cramped front room, where I miraculously found a seat at a long bench fixed up with grade-school desk arms, the kind we all carved our initials into when we were kids. Sitting under the smoke-stained fluorescent lights, precariously balancing my plate and my big iced tea, I felt a little like a fifth grader again, although nobody had to order me to clean my plate.
THE PIT LOS ANGELES
From the moment I entered the Pit, I started eyeing the tiny, individual sweet potato pies. First I cleaned my plate of the most succulent barbecue on the West Coast, liberally slathered with a rich, thick, mysterious sauce that I thought contained molasses but later learned had none. My second perceptive thought about the barbecue was that it was cooked on wood—not always a certainty in big-city barbecues. How could I be so sure? The Pit is the smokiest eating establishment I've ever been in, and it was with tearing eyes that I groped my way across the room to point to one of the pies.
"You should try the homemade peach pie. It's even better," said the woman behind the counter.
"Okay, I'll have the peach pie," I said.
"We're out of it."
I didn't know whether to laugh or cough.
The Pit is located in a very contemporary neighborhood—most of the stores on the block have iron gratings over their door—but it serves barbecue the way it used to be. The potato salad, dished out with an ice cream scoop, tastes like cold mashed potatoes. The alluring beans are served in a light, thin, sweet sauce. A sign on the wall addresses the concerns of customers: "NEED A CAR? HAVE BAD CREDIT? NO PROBLEM!" The place looked like a converted billiard hall, but owner Vincent Sumler, 58, says it used to be the offices of a probation department. I got that wrong too.
GOODE COMPANY TEXAS BARBEQUE HOUSTON
About a dozen years ago, a tuckered-out commercial artist named Jim Goode decided he would semiretire and open a barbecue place. "I thought I'd sit around with a beer in my hand, and when somebody wanted a sandwich, I'd make them one," says Goode, now 45.
He found a failed restaurant filled with all kinds of equipment ("a giant pit, huge pots, big kitchen spoons"), and he remembers thinking to himself, "I've never used this big stuff before." Goode wasn't worried, though, because he knew that everybody who came to his new place would have been a customer of the old place, where the food was so bad there was no way they wouldn't notice an improvement.
Today, Goode Company is one of the best barbecue spots in America, and it's also one of the best-looking, with tubs of long-neck beer on ice, all sorts of stuffed critters on display and a lot of photos that will convince you that Texas really did look the way Hollywood wanted us to believe it did. The best things Goode makes are soft, smoky brisket, heavy, rich, jalapeno cheese bread and a sweet, pungent, onion-beef-and-bacon-flavored barbecue sauce that's like no other barbecue sauce I've tasted. For the most part, Texans only care about meat, not sauce, and I'd rather swallow a mouthful of trail dust than most of the sauce I tried in Texas. But Goode's sauce is so compelling I wondered how he was inspired to invent it.
"Shoot, I don't know," he said.
I suppose it took a lot more effort than he lets on, because Goode Company now has another branch, plus a Mexican and a seafood restaurant. In 1988 Goode was invited to Paris to cook barbecue at the American Ambassador's residence, and while he was there, he stopped in at some of the local eating places to try them out. "The people weren't too friendly," he recalls. "They never helped us read the menus. We'd order one thing, and they'd bring something else."
All this fame and travel have been a lot more than Goode wanted when he got into the business. He and his wife, Kate, who he says is 33 and she says is 32, just bought a 500-acre ranch about 40 miles south of Houston on Cow Creek Road. Goode plans to turn a 100-year-old log cabin on the land into a proper barbecue place for a retired fellow. He'll call it the Cow Creek Cattle Co. and open it only two days a week, which is no work at all. "Come on down," he says, "we'll drink cold beers and chase wild hogs."
SCONYERS BAR-B-QUE AUGUSTA, GA.
The worst fate that can befall a good barbecue place is that one morning the owner wakes up, scratches himself, looks down at the old dawg sleeping on the scatter rug and says, "We got to expand."
In barbecue, big is usually bad. The first thing you should do when somebody tells you that your favorite barbecue place is opening a branch or adding a dining room is to think about finding yourself a new favorite barbecue place. Few barbecues do a good job once the owner starts cooking for more people than he knows personally, but somehow the temptation is irresistible. Barbecues become megacues.
Even Larry Sconyers, 47, admits that "99 percent of the better barbecue comes out of holes-in-the-wall," and his place is anything but that. Sconyers started out as a cinder-block building attached to a corrugated shack. Today it is a log cabin-like mansion with six dining rooms, one of them glass-roofed, and a kitchen that feeds 2,500-3,000 people a day on the three days a week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) it opens for business. All the meats are cooked over charcoal, the way they were when his daddy opened in 1956, and even though you get to the kitchen via a stainless steel, state-of-the-art elevator, the cooks stand over the hams just the way they did in the old days. When I peeked in, Larry's brother Richard, 58, was stirring huge vats of hash, a house specialty that's made from pork, chicken, beef, tomato, potato and onion. It looks like something you scrape from a plate before putting it in the dishwasher, but it tastes wonderful over rice.
Sconyers is particularly attractive at night, when the kerosene lamps on each table flicker hauntingly through the curtained windows. Inside, the place is decorated mostly with porcine paraphernalia—photos of pigs, ceramics of pigs and genuine mounted heads of pigs. Larry wears a gold pig ring, a gold chain with a pig on it, and his license plate reads NO. l PIG. Only a swine would forget the porkers that made it possible for a tiny cinder-block shack to grow into the finest megacue in America. "Pigs," says Larry humbly, "have been good to me."
SNEAD'S BELTON, MO.
Route 71 is the barbecue belt-way of America. Known as Prospect Ave. within the city limits of Kansas City, it either has on it, or passes within a few blocks of, most of the best places in this most legendary of all barbecue cities. As you drive south from the city, the pork pipeline brings you to the still-rural suburb of Belton, where Snead's offers a superb alternative for people who love the food at Arthur Bryant's but feel as though a meal there is like firing a cholesterol bullet into their hearts.
Everything is leaner and less greasy at Snead's, but don't let that discourage you. The food is cooked over pure hickory wood in an authentic brick pit, and I didn't come across another place where the oven is watched over so carefully. The ribs are trim and chewy and smoked to redness; the beef is totally fat free, and the french fries are easily the best I found anywhere, fresher and hotter and less oily than the legendary fries at Bryant's.
Snead's can in no way be confused with an inner-city barbecue spot. There are hanging plants, mounted deer heads, picture windows that look out over rich Missouri farmland, barbecue sauce almost as tame as ketchup and complimentary soft-serve cones for all customers. I was probably fooling myself, but when I walked out of Snead's I had this uncommon feeling that I had done some healthy eating for a change.
ARTHUR BRYANT'S KANSAS CITY, MO.
Arthur Bryant's has long been to barbecue what the Statue of Liberty was to immigration—and I didn't come to that conclusion just because of all the wretched refuse littering its teeming floors. The place is a beacon to all barbecue lovers, especially America's foremost chronicler of the cuisine, Calvin Trillin, who anointed it "the single best restaurant in the world." When Bryant died in 1982, there was great concern that the unwashed charm of the establishment would be forever lost. Well, I can put those fears to rest.
On two recent visits, I found the plates none too clean, the floors so greasy the Olympic figure-skating tryouts could have been held there, the countermen still serving french fries by the grasping handful. Spiritually, this was very satisfying. The food didn't let me down either. The sandwiches, whether pork or beef, are the biggest, richest, tenderest, fattiest and most delicious in the world. The ribs are great, the baked beans stupendous, the chicken melting, and most of the customers are giants of the barbecue world. The behemoths who patronize Bryant's belly up to the square Formica tables, overflow the vinyl-backed chairs, gulp down four-inch-thick sandwiches as though they were watercress hors d'oeuvre. Body by barbecue is not a pretty sight.
Other than the people, there's not much to distract a diner from his food. The walls are covered with newspaper and magazine articles certifying that Arthur Bryant's is as good as it was before the master passed away, and as far as I can tell, that's pretty much the truth.
THE SKYLIGHT INN AYDEN, N.C.
"If a man has but one item to sell," says Walter B. (Pete) Jones, 61, "it has to be good."
Unlike bigger barbecue places, which figure the more things they cook the better the chances that something might turn out okay, the Skylight Inn specializes in only one thing: pork cooked over hickory and oak. No beans. No fries. Not even tea, which you can get everywhere else. You can't even have a decent conversation here because of the relentless thump-thump-thumping of the counterman chopping big pieces of pig into little pieces of pig. You can get the pork two ways, on a bun with cole slaw or on a tray with cole slaw and corn bread. If that isn't enough to tax your decision-making abilities, you must decide whether you want a small tray, a medium tray or a large tray. The pork, tossed with a little salt, pepper, vinegar and Texas Pete Hot Sauce, includes some bits of crispy skin and is the best I ever tasted.
When I walked in, I ordered a sandwich and a 10-ounce bottle of Pepsi. I had just eaten five barbecue sandwiches in five towns in less than five hours, and I wasn't much in the mood for another. After two bites, I changed my mind. I knew my quest for the perfect east North Carolina-style sandwich—my idea of barbecue bliss—was ended. Only one thing puzzled me.
"How much was the Pepsi?" I asked at the counter.
"Thirty cents," I was told.
"You could have Coke for a quarter."
When I asked what else was available, I was directed to the dessert rack. On hand were chewing tobacco, snuff and Moon Pies, which are the least appetizing and most cherished confectionary products sold in the South. I had one that tasted as though it had been around since 1830, the year Pete's great-great-granddaddy started selling barbecue from a covered wagon.
Pete started working in the family business in 1935, cutting chunks of meat from whole hogs. "About '36 we started chopping them up," he says. Not much else happened until 1947, when the Skylight Inn went up at its present location. A few months ago Jones stopped putting his sandwiches on white bread and started putting them on buns, figuring, "You have to make the customers happy." Jones's customers tend to be regulars, which you pretty much have to be to find the place. Most of the time there's no sign out front, not because Pete is trying to keep the place a secret but because the wind keeps blowing his signs away. "A place like this," said a customer, "don't need no doggone sign."
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