Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ole South Barbeque

KENTUCKY: Ole South Barbecue
3523 Highway 54 E
Owensboro, KY 42303
Open Sun-M 6-2, Tues-Thur 6-8, F-Sat 6-9

My regular gig is designing buildings. I'm an architect, and a few months ago my boss asked me about a few upcoming jobs. Of my options, the one in Kentucky was the closest to a barbecue mecca previously unvisited by me. There really wasn't a choice to be made. I flew into Louisville airport in the late afternoon for a work meeting that was scheduled for the following day. With Owensboro just two hours away, I had my dinner plans set.

If you're unfamiliar with Kentucky barbeque, it's all about the mutton. Yes, they smoke other more familiar cuts like pork shoulder, pork ribs and brisket, but mutton is what is craved by the locals. There are a number of barbecue restaurants dotting the city of Owensboro where mutton of many forms can be found. However, the city might be more well known for their summer barbecue season which is book-ended by the International Bar-B-Q Festival in May and the Kentucky State BBQ Festival in September. Most every catholic parish in the area hosts a public barbecue fundraiser on a different weekend throughout the summer. These are immensely popular with locals who'll tell you that these events are where you'll find the real deal Kentucky mutton. For my first stop, I had to settle for smoked mutton on a steam table.

I purposely chose to start at Ole South Barbeque because it got mediocre reviews from locals. Moonlite Bar-B-Q and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q are the undisputed kings of Owensboro barbecue, but I prefer a build-up, and it's just as important to taste the barbeque that locals think is passable just to lay a solid flavor foundation.

The eerily quiet dining room was nearly empty when I walked in, then I noticed I'd crossed a time zone into Wildcat country. Only the blue hairs were eating at this hour. I guess that meant the meat would be fresh at the buffet which is the only option for dining. In addition to barbecue, the buffet included a plethora of sides, chicken strips (straight from freezer to fryer), meat loaf and fried shrimp. In fact, the mutton was downright hard to locate and harder to tell apart from the pork. The mutton ribs were unmistakable, but the cut was unique. Instead of cutting through the meat between bones, several bones were kept together from a rack then sliced cross wise on a band saw in the kitchen. The rhythm of the saw whining under pressure again and again would become a theme at every joint, and so would the smell of hickory smoke.

What would not become a theme was the excellent sauce (they call it dip) served here. Easily the favorite of this outsider, this dip was viscous with a pleasant sheen and a velvety finish that must come from butter. The only other strong notes were a nose clearing amount of vinegar and worcestershire sauce. The mutton to be dipped wasn't deeply smoky and was a bit dry, but the dip fixed it all by adding a stunning punch of flavor. I braced my palate for the rush of expected gaminess, but it never came. It seems the gaminess of mutton lies mainly in the fat, so these lean chunks (probably from the shoulder or leg) were relatively tame. The ribs had most of the fat cut off as well which left little to chew on, but also just a hint of gaminess. Dried out slices of pork had little redeeming quality and didn't work so well with the dip. It was made for mutton...or bread...or a spoon.

Mutton might be king here, but burgoo gets just as much praise in Kentucky. Rumor is that it must contain mutton and two other meats by law. Mutton is the primary protein in this burgoo along with peppers, tomatoes, onion, hominy, potatoes and black pepper that rounded out this stew. This version was thick with strings of meat that had been simmering for hours, and was a favorite of the trip. While I'm no expert on Kentucky barbecue, this one had lesser meats than the next two, but the sauce and burgoo are worth a stop by themselves.

Rating ***
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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.