Monday, May 30, 2011

Craig's Bar-B-Q

ARKANSAS: Craig's Bar-B-Q
15 W Walnut
De Valls
Bluff, AR 72041


Open Daily 9-5

Some of the best BBQ joints are know and even revered for having less than ideally maintained facilities. A little dirt here and there is probably more easily accepted in a BBQ joint than any other food establishment, but this joint takes it to another level. A puddle of water had settled in the middle of the dining room floor where concrete was exposed beneath several layers of well worn linoleum. I pondered the duck hunting themed paneling that was more than a few years old (it's been open since 1947) while I waited for my order of ribs and a pork sandwich.

I didn't have the stomach for the hot sauce this day, so I wussed out and got mild. A sandwich of sliced pork would have been a bit dry if not for the addition of the runny but crisp mayo-based slaw and the thick grainy sauce. The sauce was in no way sweet, but had aromatic flavors from cinnamon, allspice and possibly cloves (although this site claims it's more simple). While unique, it wasn't a sauce that I particularly enjoyed, mainly for its texture, but there are many who love it.

Although there were fewer ingredients to compensate for the sauce, the ribs were more enjoyable. Certainly not butchered to be lookers, these ribs were well cooked, had a good smoky flavor and were plenty tender. What I needed after this meal was a good sweet dessert, so I am now kicking myself after learning that one of the best pies can be found just across the street from this joint. I didn't have a chance to sample Mary Thomas' pies this time, but I'll be sure to stop if I''m that way again.

Rating ***
Craig Brothers Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous

MEMPHIS: Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous
52 S 2nd St

Memphis, TN 38103


Open Tues-Thur 4:30-10:30, F 11-11, Sat 11:30-11

After a long day of BBQ'ing in Memphis, we needed a break, so we made our way back to the hotel to let things digest and watch some Grizzlies playoff basketball. As halftime neared I was catching my second wind and knew it was time to place an order at the famous Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (I never could figure out the placement of that apostrophe since it's different on the menu and the sign. The sign seems incorrect since the name is 'Vergos'). The back alley that it fronts was just down the street from my hotel, so I grabbed a big to-go order to enjoy while watching the second half.

The rub of Greek spices certainly woke up the taste buds. This was the most liberally applied seasoning of the day. They don't call it a dry rub because it's applied during the cooking and not afterwards. They also prefer that you eat the ribs sans sauce. These baby back pork ribs are cooked over a direct heat charcoal fire so the fact that they were a bit tough was no surprise. For lack of a better word, they were very porky in flavor. Even with all that rub the flavor of pork pushed through. In all of those flavor profiles, one thing lacking was a good smokiness. Lamb ribs had a flavor profile all their own, and luckily is was not of mutton. These were definitely the milder tasting young lamb. This cut is normally very fatty, which is fine, but the fat on these ribs came in unfortunately chewy layers.

The pork sandwich in my order was constructed from a dinner roll, a fork full or two of the pulled pork, some coleslaw and a drizzle of the sauce. While not a true Rendezvous pork sandwich, it was satisfying thanks to very moist and tender pork. Sides of that mustard based slaw and salty beans were also good. Rendezvous is certainly a Memphis institution. Much of that reputation is based on the back alley location, the great service from an experienced staff, and a great atmosphere, but the food is not an afterthought. It may be overrun with tourists, but a trap, this is not.

Rating ***
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leonard's Pit Barbecue

MEMPHIS: Leonard's Pit Barbecue
5465 Fox Plaza Dr
Memphis, TN 38115


Open Sun-Thur 11-8, F-Sat 11-9

It was late in the day, so there is no denying that we had lost that BBQ craving by the time we made it to Leonard's. There's also no denying that when ribs are good, it doesn't matter how full you are.

First up was the Mr. Leonard sandwich. This concoction of pork, sauce and slaw was named after the founder of this joint. Opened by Leonard Heuberger in 1922, Leonard's found it's current home in this location in 1987. That's probably when they installed the Southern Pride pit since gas cookers probably weren't around back in the 20's. In addition to the gas fired pit stoked with hickory is the finishing pit which uses pure charcoal for fuel. Unseasoned pork shoulders are cooked in the Southern Pride rotisserie pit, then finished and crisped in the charcoal fired pit. This creates some incredibly tender, moist meat while also providing a unique smokiness. The addition of the mustard slaw heavy on celery seed and the sweet and vinegary sauce make a great pork sandwich. If the Mr. Leonard isn't enough, then for just $1 more you can opt for the Big Leonard.

The rib plate came with two sides. Beans and BBQ spaghetti were hard to pass up, and those smokey, sweet and thick beans made a great complement to the dinner. I should have read the menu more carefully, and I would have expected the flavors I got when I took a bite of the spaghetti. It was spaghetti with a basic meat sauce. You see, Leonard's serves up ravioli, spaghetti and other Italian favorites, just not BBQ spaghetti. The ribs made me forget all about those sides anyway. The meat gets the double smoker treatment as well creating a crispy crust which envelops the perfectly smoked meat beneath. The rub doesn't overpower but allows the flavor of the meat shine through, and the flavor was excellent. It's no wonder they've been going for nine decades.

Rating ****
Leonard's Pit Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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Monday, May 23, 2011

A&R Bar-B-Q

3721 Hickory Hill Rd

Memphis, TN 38115


Open M-Thur 10-10, F-Sat 10-11

After just a few visits to the charcoal fueled joints in Memphis, the smell of burning charcoal is unmistakable. The odor outside of A&R was richer than that of a simple wood fire, and I already knew the answer before asking about their fuel at the counter, or so I thought. They also burn down hickory to coals and mix them with the charcoal in their direct heat cooker.

That direct heat put plenty of charcoal flavor into the thick, meaty St. Louis ribs, but they cook up a little tougher as well. While the flavor was good, and nicely complemented by the pleasantly spicy sauce, it just took too much work to get these bones clean.

This pork sandwich may have been more satisfying if we hadn't sampled so many great ones on this day, but it just seemed unremarkable. While the meat was moist, it just lacked a bold flavor. Opting for the mild sauce was also a mistake as it was a simple sweet sauce that lacked the complexity of the hot sauce. The fired pies are famous here, and I bought on to-go with every intention of eating it, but after a full day of stuffing my face with meat, slaw and sauce, I just couldn't take any more and left it my buddy's house for his enjoyment.

Rating **
A & R Barbeque on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

More BBQ Chips

After writing about BBQ flavored potato chips a couple of months ago, I've been noticing new flavors more often on the shelf. While driving west of Texarkana, I stopped in a gas station just north of the Red River Army Depot. Inside I found not only a bag of Honey Barbecue Lays (which I hadn't been able to find), but also a bag of Sweet Southern Heat Barbecue chips, which I had never heard of.

The Honey Barbecue flavor tasted like little more than your standard BBQ chip with some added sugar, but the Sweet Southern Heat flavor balanced the sweetness with a nice kick of red pepper spice similar to that of the Flamin' Hot variety. These were some of the better barbecue chips I've had, and I'll be sure to keep my eye out for them. Does anyone else out there have a favorite variety of BBQ chips?

- BBQ Snob

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Germantown Commissary BBQ & Ribs

MEMPHIS: Germantown Commissary
2290 S Germantown Rd
Germantown, TN 38138
Open M-Sat 9-9, Sun 11-8

Germantown Commissary was the name of an old general store outside of Memphis. In 1981, Walker Taylor bought the historic building to open a BBQ joint. A big Southern Pride smoker is enclosed by a wood fence on the side of this small joint, which explains the mild smoke flavor on the meats. It was getting pretty late in the day as we squeezed past those waiting for to-go orders at the counter and made our way to a small table. Even after five prior stops on the day, we still were able to justify adding a quarter chicken to our standard order of ribs and a pulled pork sandwich.

This wasn't so much "pulled" pork as it was a huge chunk of pig muscle on a bun. The meat had some good crust and plenty of flavor, but the meat was a bit dry. A good crispy slaw and a thick sweet sauce, heavy on the worchestershire, topped off the sandwich. I actually had to remove some meat to make this behemoth comfortable to handle, so portions are not an issue here.

A side of beans was sweet with a kick from some chili powder, but had a tinny flavor from the can. A perfect deviled egg made up for it, and I was wishing you could just get a half dozen of them as your side choice.

Ribs were also a bit dry, but these large St. Louis ribs held together well enough to be sliced, and the overall flavor was great. While they are seasoned on the pit, the choice for dry rub or sauce is up to you as they are both available on the table. We opted for dry rub which added a sweet and salty tone to the smoky ribs. Chicken was moist with a smoky flavor, but paled in comparison to the ribs and pulled pork. I'd suggest a Monday night visit where you can get all the ribs you want for $23.

Rating ***
Germantown Commissary on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Payne's Bar-B-Q

MEMPHIS: Payne's Bar-B-Q
1762 Lamar Ave

Memphis, TN 38114


Open Sun-Thur 11-6:30, F 11-8

Pleasantly unrefined is the best way to describe this truly unique BBQ joint along Lamar Avenue. A homemade pit fueled with hardwood charcoal sits deep inside the dark kitchen, but when the doors open the sunlight pours in from above creating a glorious image. That tiny kitchen opens up into the high ceiling of the eerily quiet dining room, while a small flame shoots up from the residential style stove top just behind the counter.

Ordering is done at the counter here, and drinks are by the can only. This was the only joint on this Memphis tour without sweet tea. It's also one of the few that mix the sauce with their pork. They are proud of this thin spicy sauce heavy on the vinegar, and it's liberally applied to all the meats. Smoky flavors from the charcoal were evident on the moist and tender pork, and a mustardy kick was provided by the thin slaw. Sure the sandwich may have been a mess, but who cares when the table cloths are plastic.

Vinegar fumes could knock you over when opening the styrofoam container, so be sure to stay seated. These ribs weren't anything to look at, but the flavors and textures were incredibly diverse. Again, the charcoal flavor shines through even with a hefty helping of that vinegar sauce. A chewy and sweet outer crust covered luscious and tender rib meat beneath. They were almost like rib candy.

A side of slaw had too much mustard when not atop the pork sandwich, but the thick sweet beans had a great smoky flavor and plenty of meaty bits. I have a feeling there's not much on this menu that I wouldn't like. I'll have to see how the bologna and sausage stack up next time.

Rating ****
Payne's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

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Monday, May 16, 2011

BBQ in the News

You may have heard that Leslie Brenner of the Dallas Morning News is not a fan of Lockhart Smokehouse. She gave it a single star in a recent review, and the folks at LS responded with a few choice specials on the day the review came out in the paper. I went for lunch the day before to enjoy some great brisket and the best rib I've had there since it opened.

I also picked up some of their Rib Jam, which was also enjoyed by CraveDFW. This concoction of rib ends, brown sugar, blackberries and spices was great spread on a cracker, and even better on a breakfast taco the next morning.

Outside of town, Buzzie's BBQ in Kerrville is expanding. After winning best brisket in the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival people's choice award, they'll open a location in Houston soon.

Gustavo Arellano laughs at us Texans for our excitement over In-N-Out burger since California was so quick to run Dickey's out of the state. I'll save any negative Dickey's comments a rest on this day given the sad news from the weekend.

Travis (TD) Dickey Jr., son of Dickey's founder, passed away . TD has run Dickey's with his brother Roland since the 60's, and he'll be missed by the BBQ community.

- BBQ Snob

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Central BBQ

2249 Central Ave

Memphis, TN 38104


Open Daily 11-9

A line out the door greeted us as we pulled into the small parking lot at Central BBQ. This place was popular, and it's no wonder given the good BBQ and the great atmosphere. While standing in line, it was easy to spot the Ole Hickory smoker on display. Yet another of the many gas-fired smokers in the city. While so many places in town require an order of at least a half slab just to get a taste of ribs, Central BBQ has a 3 bone add-on to any sandwich. JJ, a friend of mine along for the day's tour suggested the dry spiced wings, so we added them to the order.

In a rookie mistake, I opted for the wet ribs when given the option. I quickly learned from JJ that generally if an option is presented when ordering, then the joint probably regards the dry rubbed ribs as their specialty. If they think sauced is their top option, then they won't ask and your ribs will arrive sauced. Saucy or not, these were some very good ribs. Tender and moist baby backs needed the slightest tug to release from the bone, and the flavor was a bit smoky from the hickory wood, and the flavor profile was more than just the sauce. A mound of pulled pork was topped with a thick and sweet sauce and plenty of crunchy mayo-based slaw. The flavors in the sandwich were an excellent combination, but it the meat could have been more moist. With plenty of crusty and fatty bits, this was some of best tasting pork on the tour.

Smoked chicken wings always sound great until you realize how limp the skin is when a fryer is not in the house. None of those issues afflict Central BBQ as their wings were nicely crisp and bursting with flavor from a generous dusting of the sugar-heavy dry rub. Adding the rub to the piping hot wings created a layer of caramelized crispiness that was addictive. I can see why JJ rarely leaves here without an order. With the great BBQ, nice patio, cold beer and great BBQ, I'll be sure to be back next time I'm in town.

Rating ****
Central BBQ (Midtown) on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Bar-B-Q Shop

MEMPHIS: The Bar-B-Q Shop
1782 Madison Ave
Memphis, TN 38104
Open M-Sat 11-9

Slaw and sauce on a pork sandwich are not mentioned as options on menus in Memphis. It's just assumed that these items will be included. The pork may vary from chopped, pulled or sliced, but the sauce and slaw are omnipresent. Without those two important moistening agents, the pork sandwich at the Bar-B-Q Shop may have been too dry to swallow. A pinch of meat out of the middle of the sandwich was devoid of moisture and was utterly flavorless. Fresh Texas toast, crispy slaw and a generous layer of sauce provided the crutch needed by the pork to make this a decent sandwich, but it's a bad sign when the meat is the low man on the ingredient totem pole.

The Bar-B-Q shop also typified a few things about Memphis barbecue joints that cater to a white audience (while it's black owned, most all the clientele on my visit was white). Service is from a server at a table rather than at the counter, meats are smoked in a gas assisted commercial rotisserie smoker instead of over charcoal, and the smallest portion of ribs is expensive. Just to get a bite of ribs you'll have to order at least the $14 'regular rib order'. I requested mine with the house specialty glaze rather than simple wet or dry. The glaze was super sweet, and needed the counterpoint of the significant dusting of salty dry rub seasoning. With the flavor overload on the meat, it was hard to detect any flavor from the pork or any smoke at all. In Memphis smoke is certainly secondary to the sauce, but some joints (like this one) seem to purposefully omit smoke from the flavor profile altogether.

One major positive that I took note of in Memphis was the absence of 'fall off the bone' ribs. This cliche term is thrown around so often to describe ribs in this city that I expected the meat to simply slide off the bones and on to my plate. Here the ribs were certainly tender, but they clung to the bone just enough to let me take advantage of nature's pork handles.

For a $3 up charge, BBQ spaghetti was a side option with the ribs. The amount of pork layered into the dish was admirable, but the soupy pool of grease at the bottom of the plate was excessive. Excessive too was the salt content of the sauce. I am no health nut railing against fatty, greasy, salty foods, it's just that this plate of spaghetti took things to a whole new level. It's no wonder the sweet tea is so sweet here. The sugar is barely detectable when trying to wash down so much sodium.

Maybe it was early in the day, so I was super critical, or I might have just had high expectations given the almost religious following of this joint's fans, but I wasn't overly impressed. I was told by a friend in Memphis that he really prefers the dry rub ribs here, and maybe the dry pork on this pre-noon visit was just leftovers form the day before. I'd certainly give this joint another try to find out, but I wouldn't repeat this order.

Rating **
Bar-B-Q Shop on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Two weeks ago, I was asked by a friend from out of town for a tour of the best BBQ DFW has to offer. I carefully planned an itinerary around some of my favorites, and looked forward to a great day of BBQ. The first stop was Off the Bone in Forest Hill. I had professed the moistness of their pork loin, but it was disappointingly dry. Brisket could have used some smoker time to tenderize and gain more smoke flavor. The best item was the smoky and tender baby backs which were impressive once again.

Off the Bone

Up the road at Uncle Willie's I was hoping for more smoke on the brisket. While the slices arrived with a nice crust and smokering, the flavorful meat was very dry and devoid of any fat. St. Louis ribs were above average while the chicken was thoroughly unremarkable. The special recipe sausage had all the zing I had expected, but it seemed barely warmed by the smoker.

Uncle Willie's

Cooper's was a disappointing on my first visit shortly after opening, but my guest insisted on a visit. They were much more impressive on this day. Brisket was moist with good seasoning and overall flavor. A beef rib needed much more cooking time to render out the tough intramuscular fat. The small slice of sirloin was admirably cooked to just medium, but was beyond chewy and sausage was altogether forgettable. The big chop deserved some praise, and provided a different flavor depending on which end each bite was trimmed from. The fatty edges were luscious and moist, while the center was dense and flavorful.

Cooper's Fort Worth

Angelo's was not a planned stop, but was so close to Cooper's that we couldn't resist. The theme here was salt. The moist and smoky chicken was the best option, although it skin was limp and greasy. Both ribs and brisket were overseasoned. Ribs were moist and tender while the brisket was a bit dense and dry.


Anticipation built for a truly great meal while we took the long drive from Fort Worth to Garland to visit Meshack's. Much like my last visit, the ribs and sausage were stupendous while the beef suffered the same issues as the same cut at Off the Bone. The meat simply needed more time on the smoker to get more smoke and add tenderness. The only remarkable bite was the end with black smoky crust on every inch of the edge.


After many miles and quite a few disappointments, I was hoping the final stop at Lockhart Smokehouse would redeem by BBQ tasting skills to my guest. Both brisket and clod were a necessity and burnt ends were the special of the day. Our order was rounded out with a link of jalapeno sausage. While the sausage needed more smoke, the brisket and clod were both superbly smoky. Fat was very nicely rendered, and the texture was perfect. The only issue was the generous amount of salt in the rub. It seemed to permeate every inch of the meat, and overpowered most every bite. After double smoking the fatty blackened brisket ends, each of these flavors are concentrated into the burnt ends. A chunk or two is about all I could take without needing an entire glass of water to temper the saltiness.

Lockhart Smokehouse

A full day of critical comparisons brought some definite praise from me and my guest for Cooper's and Lockhart Smokehouse, but most of the other stops only offered disappointment. It was made obvious to me that even the best offerings in DFW suffer from definite inconsistencies, and consistency is really what great BBQ is judged on.

- BBQ Snob

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Cozy Corner Restaurant

MEMPHIS: Cozy Corner Restaurant
745 N Pkwy

Memphis, TN 38105


Open Tues-Sat 11-9

Not until I walked through the glass door did I realize that I had visited this joint back in the nineties in my pre-barbecue quest days. It was Liberty Bowl weekend, and Corky's had not satisfied my craving for decent ribs, so a friend and I made our way here for a great down home experience. The hospitality was just as memorable on this trip with owner Desiree Robinson taking the orders. We chatted about the unique Chicago style aquarium pit they use, and I learned that charcoal is the only fuel they use here. I would learn later in the day that this is not an oddity in Memphis, especially among black owned BBQ joints.

Ordering a pork sandwich, I just assumed it would be pulled, but a pile of thinly sliced pork came topped with a soupy and mustardy slaw with an incredibly sweet sauce. The pork had a heavy smoke flavor from the pit, and that thick sauce added another punch of smoke, of the liquid variety. The sandwich was certainly enjoyable, but more restraint on the sauce would have allowed that pork to shine through a bit more.

The option for small orders is always appreciated when I know I'll be eating at eight or so joints in a day. So many Memphis BBQ joints have a minimum rib order of a half rack that can easily run in the $12 range, so the 2 bone rib plate for $6.75 was a refreshing way to start the day. The direct heat charcoal cooking provided both a uniquely memorable flavor and a tougher texture than indirect heat. The meaty St. Louis cut ribs certainly had great flavor, but it was a chore to get that meat off the bones. After reading some additional reviews after my visit, I wish I had gotten the cornish hen, but I'll have to save it for next time.

A side of barbecue spaghetti was available with the rib plate, so I jumped at the chance to try this Memphis specialty. I couldn't detect a speck of meat in this conglomeration, but chili powder had been mixed with the sauce to give it an extra kick. Thick, sweet, and smoky BBQ beans were a better option, and make a great combo with that pork sandwich. I won't wait another decade for my next visit.

Rating ***
Cozy Corner on Urbanspoon

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stubby's Hik'ry Pit Bar-B-Q

ARKANSAS: Stubby's Hik'ry Pit Bar-B-Q
3024 Central Ave

Hot Springs, AR 71913


Open Daily 11-8

On the way to Memphis, we made a stop in Hot Springs. This stop was planned for the sole purpose of eating at McClard's. While McClar'ds was decent, any return trips to Hot Springs will be made to eat at Stubby's. If not for Roadfood, I would have never heard of this joint. Luckily it was just blocks away from our hotel.

The menu includes all of the Texas BBQ standards including brisket. Going into this trip I had vowed a pork only diet, and watching them trim the brown crusted brisket of all fat validated my vow. Instead I was focused on the pot 'o beans. Thick, smoky, sweet beans were topped by ham trimmings and a ladle of the sauce. Oh that sauce - but more on that later. The ham is displayed on a board, cut side up with the bone pointing down. The cutter slices off a portion for each order as the ham's height dwindles. With each slice some of the crusty bits of the ham fall to the board where they are scooped up and placed atop the beans. This results in a concentrated flavor of salty smoky meat that is crispy and delicious. It may be too salty without the counterpoint of the generous portion of sauce. The tomato based sauce has a concentrated robust flavor from hours of slow simmering which reduces the sauce's volume by more than half. It's certainly sweet, but not overpoweringly so, and it's one of the best sauces I've ever tasted. I can't think of much that this sauce wouldn't help.

Roadfood raved about the chicken with crispy skin. The portion I got had some chewy and limp stuff attached, but the meat beneath was good and moist. While a bit more smoke would have been nice, a quick dunk in the sauce was all I needed to keep eating. Ribs had much more smoke and good dark crust. Moist and tender meat came easily from the bone, and was made even better slathered with that great sauce. I even bought a bottle to take home. After my meal I wanted to talk more with owner Chris Dunkel about this joint, but he had made a hardware store run to replace the women's bathroom door. Truly a man of many talents.

Rating ****
Stubby's BBQ on Urbanspoon

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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.