Thursday, December 13, 2012

City Market (Luling)

LULING: City Market
633 Davis St.
Luling, TX 78648
Open Mon-Sat 7-7

Update: There are many folks around the country that may have just been introduced to the existence of City Market in Luling, Texas earlier this year when Newsweek published their list of the "101 Best Places to Eat" around the world. I myself have joked at the dubious nature of most lists like this one, but as one of only fourteen restaurants in North America to make the list alongside such names as Husk, Daniel and Momofuku, City Market was in good company. I too had sang the praises of this temple of Central Texas style barbecue to anyone that would listen. 'No barbecue trip to Lockhart is complete without a stop in Luling' was my normal line to smoked meat novices on a virgin Central Texas BBQ tour. It's only a fifteen minute drive after all. My first visit was after an early morning drive from San Antonio where a religious experience was had with a breakfast of beef brisket smoked simply over post oak and a link of homemade sausage baptized in a golden sauce. I thought it would always be that good, but it is no longer. One of the mighty in Texas has fallen off a bit, and that sweet memory from years ago was strong enough to cloud my better judgment for a few years.

Over-trimmed and Under-cooked Brisket

A visit here earlier this year was when the sad realization manifested itself. The brisket was tough, dry and lacking in smoke and flavor. The ribs took too much effort to clean, and my jaw got quite a workout. The excellent beef link has never wavered, but the pleasure I took in eating the sausage occasionally dipped in sauce heightened the flaws of the other cuts (there are only three smoked meat menu items here). I was eating with my photographer Nick that day who also agreed that this place just wasn't living up to the best we'd been enjoying on the road. I scanned my meat memory bank to recall that two previous visits had also been lackluster, but this was still one of my favorite places (not just barbecue joints) to eat in all of Texas, so I needed to be sure.

Joe Capello and the Steel Pit

After that meal I strolled back to the alley behind the building and walked to the open door of the pit room. Pitmaster Joe Capello was there and greeted us warmly. He showed us the smallish steel pit and the wood pile that was just disorderly enough to know that somebody was actually using it. Joe didn't explain much about their smoking process, but did fill us in on some history of the Bar-E Ranch that was owned by the family that started City Market (the sign above City Market reads "Bar-E Barbeque & Sausage"). The ranch still exists north of town, but the briskets aren't from the cattle at the ranch any longer. As I turned to leave I noticed a stainless steel Southern Pride rotisserie smoker in the corner. I tried to hide my disdain when asking Joe why it was there hoping that it was just a joke, but Joe said they had to crank it up during busy weekends to keep up with demand. The smoker felt cold and hadn't been fired up recently enough to cook the meat I ate on this day, but the fact that a recognized pillar of Texas barbecue tradition uses it at all is alarming.

Southern Pride on the right just inside the door. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter.
Several months later we found ourselves back in Luling. It was early in the morning just like it had been on my first visit, that religious experience in 2007. I wanted to make sure I didn't fallen victim to the barbecue doldrums of mid-afternoon. I carefully guided the meat cutter to select a fresh brisket and cut liberally from both the fatty and the lean end to get a good sample. I selected pork ribs from both the short end and the center of the rack to keep from getting that one bad rib that might be lurking in the rack. Two links of sausage would also be needed because, well, I wasn't going to share one.

Texas Trinity from City Market

We sat at a table in the side room near the window to let the light in. I wanted it to be good, no, great. I wanted the brisket to sing, but instead it was George Strait on the speakers that cut through the silence of the empty dining room with 'He's got a fool hearted memory." George was right. It was great only in my memory. Tough slices of brisket and tougher ribs were several hours from being done. The brisket slices could not easily be pulled apart, and the visibly unrendered fat along the edges was tough to chew through. They both had the smoke and the ribs got a flavor boost from a restrained sweet glaze.  Mind you, this was still good tasting barbecue, but I've come to expect some of the best in the state from this joint. It wasn't.

Dry Meat and Unrendered Fat

Leaving a painful amount of meat on the butcher paper, we polished off the links of sausage and purchased a container of the best sauce in Texas. Maybe next time it will be perfect again and all will be right with the Central Texas barbecue world, but probably not.

Rating ****

2010: Showing this joint to a friend for the first time is always fun, but the huge line can be daunting. Luckily we were stuffed, so waiting for a half hour or so wasn't the worst that could have happened.

Once inside the smoking room we were mesmerized by the smell and the view of these huge smokers. One of them was completely full of the popular beef links which helped to create some room in our stomachs. We opted for the minimum order of a link, two slices of brisket and two ribs, then we headed for the hood of our truck.

Not much more can be said about how great the meats are here in Luling. The brisket was perfectly smoky, tender and moist with a great crust and impressive smokering. The ribs had a bit of chewiness, but the flavor was perfect. Seasoning and smoke worked together to bring the best out of these simple spare ribs. The links were juicy with great snap, and plenty of black pepper kick to go with that beefiness. There's a reason I go back to Luling whenever I'm within about an hour of it.

2009: No joint on this blog has been able to capture the coveted sixth star. This requires independent verification from both BBQ Snob and Smokemasterone on consecutive visits that each meat is flawless. Based on my previous visits, I was hoping this might be the first.

Our journey earlier in the day commenced at Snow's in Lexington where we noticed a large group of guys enjoying breakfast alongside our table. When we exited our car outside of City Market, we noticed the same group, so we stopped to talk. It turns out they write for a blog called BBQ Pilgrimage, and they were enjoying a Saturday 'cue tour as well. They were just leaving the joint, and mentioned their slight disappointment at the meat today. Could we be in for disappointment as well?

A huge line at 3:30 heightened the anticipation. I was excited to get back to my table with a pile of brisket, ribs and sausage. The brisket was as good as always. It could have been more tender, but the smoke, flavor, and moistness were excellent. The fatty beef sausage also gave a strong showing. The no-so-moist ribs were the six star downfall. They had been basted too soon before slicing hindering the basting sauce to meld with the meat. A layer of unrendered fat was also present, and the texture was a bit tough. As always, I look forward to finding that true six star joint, and I'd love to bestow it to a place like City Market, but they just didn't have it on this day.

2008: Not to be confused with "Luling City Market" in Houston, this place goes only by "City Market", and it's one-of-a-kind. I've been here twice, so I can verify that the heaps of praise piled on City Market is warranted. My first visit was the finest breakfast I've ever eaten...a ring of sausage, a couple slices of brisket and two ribs. The sausage had good smoky flavor and a nice snap, but it was loosely packed and was heavy on the fat, so the second time, while visiting for the annual Watermelon Thump, I ordered only brisket and ribs. The ribs here are large and meaty with a beautiful crust from the rub that had a touch of black pepper. The fat is well rendered and the flavor was smoky and delicious. I was unable to detect anything to be critical of in these ribs. On the other hand, the brisket was only nearly perfect. There was a great crust with salt and pepper, and the smoke line was generous. The smoke flavor went throughout the meat, and the flavor was excellent. The fat was well rendered, and the fat that was on the few slices I ate was nearly as good as the meat. The only negative, although slight, is that it could have been more tender. I can't wait to go back.

One note about visiting...plan to smell like that sweet smoke all day after you visit. You must traverse through a smoke stained swinging door that separates the dining room from the smokehouse. This is where your order is placed and paid for.

City Market on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rib Hut

EL PASO: Rib Hut
2612 North Mesa St.
El Paso, TX 79902
Open M-Sat 11-10, Sun 12-9

It was late night in El Paso, and none of the other barbecue we'd found in town was noteworthy. The retro A-frame design of the Rib Hut was intriguing, but the sign out front advertising a 12" cod hoagie was worrisome. I placed an order at the bar and quickly retreated to my car once my rib trio to-go order was passed across the bar. I'd had enough bad brisket, and this was the Rib Hut after all.

The beef back ribs had a pitiful amount of meat, but what I could bite into was at least decent. The smoke was evident and the seasoning was bold without being overpowering. Pork spare ribs were a bit tough and no doubt benefited from a sweet glaze, but again it wasn't bad considering what we had already eaten in El Paso. Baby backs were tender enough, but they were missing any of the smoke and had a bit of burnt on flavor from a liberally applied sauce. While being some of the better barbecue we had in El Paso, these were still some mediocre ribs overall. Maybe the cod hoagie was even better, but I'll never know.

Rating **

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Smokey’s Pit Stop

EL PASO: Smokey's Pit Stop
9100 Viscount Blvd.
El Paso, TX 79925
Open M-Thur 10:30-10, F-Sat 10:30-11

It was getting late in El Paso, but this city has barbecue joints that stay open later than I'm used to in Dallas. At about 8:30 the bar was hopping inside Smokey's, but things were pretty dead at the barbecue counter. I asked for my order to-go. I could almost feel the chewy unrendered fat getting stuck in my teeth as I watched them slice off a few pitiful morsels of brisket. I then returned to my car with little hope for the rest of it.

An over-salted beef rib and pork rib hovered just above edible. They didn't really taste smoked as much as they tasted...aged, and not gently. The brisket was as tough as I'd suspected when seeing it sliced. I didn't need more than three bites to know there was no reason to return to this joint. There seemed to be a reason that the bar side of this dual business was the more vibrant one.

Rating *

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Cattleman’s Steakhouse

FABENS: Cattleman's Steakhouse
3450 S Fabens Carlsbad Rd.
Fabens, TX 79838
Open M-F 5-10, Sat 12:30-10, Sun 12:30-9

The sun was just setting as we made our way along the secluded road that leads away from the interstate and into the desert. I knew that Cattleman's Steakhouse was out this way from the online maps and the billboards, but my uncertainty still grew the longer we drove. Finally, we saw a cluster of buildings up ahead. Just driving up and around the grounds to get to the parking lot seemed like an adventure. Once inside this palace of meat, you quickly realize just how enormous it is. Just to get to the host’s stand it seems like you must pass a hundred or so folks waiting patiently for a table. Even with the crowds, the three of us were quickly seated in a table oddly placed within a three-quarter circle in a far corner of the dining room. Given the shape of the area and our elementary knowledge of acoustics, we weren’t sure if our conversations could be heard on the other end of the room, but we did know that we had our own light switch.

While Cattleman’s functions mainly as a steakhouse, there are a few well known options for mesquite smoked meats on the menu with beef ribs being the most popular. A large combo plate of beef ribs and sliced brisket was available as were BBQ beef cubes. Large beef back ribs needed more time on the smoker for any hope at getting tender, and thick bland slices of brisket were dry as a board. Not even a dip into the ketchup-like sauce could save them. I was beginning to think this adventure would be fruitless.

Then I took a bite from the tiny metal pail that held the house beans. These ranch beans were bathed in a thick, rich broth that was both smoky and spicy. I know they were just beans, but man were they good.

When I questioned the waiter about the beef cubes and how they differed from the sliced brisket, he said there was no difference other than where the beef was cut from the brisket. The beef cubes were cut from the edges of the fatty end. They weren't sauced or smoked to make burnt ends, but were just simple chunks of smoked beef brisket. They didn't taste at all like the sad and dry brisket slices. The smoky and crusty bits of lusciously fatty beef went down with ease even after a full day of eating, and in true West Texas style, simple roasted chiles came alongside to round out the meal.

On our visit I was hard pressed to find a table with barbecue on it other than ours. This is a steakhouse that I visited based on the reputation of their beef ribs, but it was the beans and the brisket ends that left an impression.

Rating **

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Southern Foodways Summer

In 2012, the Southern Foodways Alliance celebrated the "Summer of Barbecue" leading up to the annual symposium. This year's symposium focused on barbecue and was held in late October in the town of Oxford, Mississippi. I was one of the happy attendees, but before I made my way over from Texas I wrote a few posts for the SFA blog. I had a great time coming up with the subject matter that wasn't always so strictly about meat. If you're interested in perusing what I did last summer, here's the full list:

Deanville Sons of Hermann Hall: Pork steaks in Central Texas. 

Linked In: All beef links in Southeast Texas. 

Barbacoa: Cooking in a hole in the ground.

Dallas Pig Stands: Where the drive-in started. 

Barbecue, in a Word: The many spellings of BBQ. 

Israel 'Pody' Campos: A West Texas pitmaster. 

Anthropomorphic Cannibalistic Swine: Hogs dressed like people. 

A Barbecue Journal: Roy Perez keeps track of his barbecue. 

Smoking is Hazardous to Your Health: How pitmasters protect themselves. 

Breaking Coal in Jeddo, Texas: Making B&B charcoal. 

Brisket, Glorious Brisket: Great beef made simple. 

East Texas Hot Links: Not that good. 

Questioning ‘Low & Slow’: More than a few joints in Texas like it hot and fast. 

More Barbecue, More Better: The beauty of beef short ribs. 

Thanks again to John T. Edge for giving me that chance to find a new audience and for Sara Camp Arnold who provided her editing talent.

- BBQ Snob

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Rusty Jeep Hickory Pit BBQ

PORT ARANSAS: Rusty Jeep Hickory Pit BBQ 
118 Cut-Off Road 
Port Aransas, TX 78373 
Open ?

It was a fog covered road that led us up to Port Aransas from Corpus Christi. The fog was clearing as we made our way into town in search of some barbecue. A rusty Jeep sat opposite a red metal building with a drive-thru window. We pulled up and placed our order and soon we had some road food. Just a block away was the entrance to the ferry across to Aransas Pass. We had just enough time to scarf down a few bites before the short boat ride was over.

The eponymous vehicle

A dill and cucumber salad could have doubled for the soup course. A cold loose corn salad with diced peppers and onions and a vinegar dressing was much better. Huge ribs with a good level of hickory smoke were dried out from being cooked the day previous. Drier and flavorless brisket wasn’t worth the stomach space.

Rating *

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The Prophets of Smoked Meat

My friend, coworker and photographer Nicholas McWhirter and I have been working on a little project. We traveled over 10,000 miles across Texas and ate over 200 barbecue joints along the way. Then we put together a book about it called The Prophets of Smoked Meat, and Anthony Bourdain decided to put it into his new line of books. In fact it will be the first book released in that line. We're a bit excited. It's not out yet, and won't be until 05/14/13, but you can now pre-order a copy or fifty on Amazon. I had grand plans of releasing the cover art on this blog, but Eater beat me to it. Either way, I'm proud to say that Nicholas designed the cover that makes me hungry every time I see it.

Here’s the full description from our publisher Ecco:

Spare ribs. Smoked brisket. Fatback bacon. Pulled pork. Burnt ends. From the science of heat to the alchemy of rubs, from the hill country to the badlands, The Prophets of Smoked Meat takes readers on a pilgrimage to discover the heart and soul of Texas barbeque.

Join Daniel “BBQ Snob” Vaughn—host of the popular blog Full Custom Gospel BBQ and acknowledged barbeque expert—as he treks across over 10,000 miles to sample the wood-smoking traditions of the Lone Star state’s four distinct barbeque styles:

East Texas style, essentially the hickory-smoked, sauce-coated barbecue with which most Americans are familiar; Central Texas “meat market” style, in which spice-rubbed meat is cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood, a method that originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants; West Texas “cowboy style,” which involves direct cooking over mesquite and uses goat and mutton as well as beef and pork; South Texas barbacoa, in which meat is smoked in an underground pit covered with maguey leaves.

Including recipes from longtime Pit-masters—many of whom reveal for the first time their secret family techniques—and new barbeque stars, The Prophets of Smoked Meat encompasses the entire panorama of Texas barbeque.

Illustrated throughout with lush, full-color photos of the food, the people, and the stunning landscapes of the Lone Star State, The Prophets of Smoked Meat is the new barbeque bible essential for neophytes and seasoned experts alike.

- BBQ Snob

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Weekend BBQ Events - Go to Them

This upcoming weekend in Texas there are two great barbecue events, and I can't go to either. Feel free to have a blast in my place whether you're in Dallas or Austin or really anywhere - they're worth traveling for.

DALLAS - Blues, Bandits & BBQ Competition on Saturday 10/27 at noon. The event will be held at 715 W. Davis Street. - Tickets

From their press release: "The party starts early, and we'll keep it lively until dusk. Settle into the Four Corners Brewing Company biergarten with a pint or two of their All Day Ales while listening to our great line up of live music! Enjoy some lawn games, let your kids bounce their heart out in the bounce houses, or perhaps do a little shopping at our market."

Admission is FREE! But if you want to taste the BBQ from the 23 teams competing in the 2012 competition, you'll need to purchase the tasting wristband here.

A demonstration of wood fire cooking by Tim Byres will he held the night before at 6 pm at the same location. You can preorder Tim's book and learn more about the event here.

AUSTIN - Man Up Texas BBQ's 3rd annual Gettin' Sauced on Saturday 10/27 AT 3:00. The event will be held at Hops & Grain Brewing, 507 Calles Street - Tickets

From their press release: "Barbecue enthusiasts of all ages are invited to get their fix of barbecue sauce, local craft beer, and live music at Man Up Texas BBQ’s 3rd Annual Gettin' Sauced! festival, presented by Taste of the South magazine and hosted by Hops & Grain Brewing. The event will feature a contest of 150 sauces from the U.S., Canada, and Australia, samples of barbecue and barbecue sauce from more than a dozen vendors, including Louie Mueller, Opies, and Black's, local craft beer from Hops & Grain Brewing, live music by Anson Carter and Austin-based Sour Bridges, door prizes, and more.

Event entry is free, though sampling the barbecue and barbecue sauce will require a barbecue wristband, with both general admission tickets ($8 online and $10 at the gate) and VIP packages ($25 online and at the gate) available. A portion of all proceeds will be donated to Meals on Wheels.

VIP packages include entry to the event 30 minutes before general admission, a Gettin’ Sauced! pint glass, a Gettin’ Sauced! koozie, The Q Card, and a one-year subscription to Taste of the South magazine. Visit the Gettin' Sauced! website for complete details."


- BBQ Snob

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mr. G's BBQ

4701 Ih 37 
Corpus Christi, TX 78408
Open Tues-Sat 11-9

Mr. G's is a newer place in town. On a Tuesday morning just after opening they already had a few full tables at a few minutes after eleven, but we were taking ours to go. Dressed in a shirt and tie, Jesse took our order in the front. He was waiter at the legendary Joe Cotten’s down the road in Robstown for forty years before it burnt to the ground in 2011. Jesse had planned to retire after the fire, but sitting at home he figured he would die sooner if he wasn’t working, so he gathered up some of the staff from Joe Cotten’s and they opened this joint. Carlos came along and brought the Joe Cotten's sausage recipe with him.

No word on where the pitmaster is now, but they’re using the same mesquite wood on an all-wood fired smoker. The brisket had taken up some of that smoke but was a good two hours or more shy of being done. Ribs were decent with a rub too heavy on the powdery ingredients. The meat was tender and well-cooked and the smoke level was pleasing. All of this paled in comparison to the excellent link of sausage. Juice shot out of the link as I took a big bite out of the tip. The casing was taut with a juicy filling that wasn’t too fatty. The meat mix was heavy on the pork (if not all pork) a great seasoning mix, heavy on the cracked black pepper. With sausage this good and the fact that they’re carrying on a bit of the Joe Cotten tradition makes this place worth a visit.

Rating **

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Sam's Bar-B-Q

15801 Northwest Boulevard
Robstown, TX 78380
Open Tues-Sat 11-7

This visit had to happen. I got a recommendation for this joint while dining in a tiny cafe between Del Rio and Eagle Pass and then again once we reached Corpus Christi. Just west of Corpus is the tiny town of Calallen which provides the perfect excuse for a short drive on I-69 (yes, they designated an interstate highway with that number) where you can find Sam's Bar-B-Q. The sign also says 'Lidia's Road Kill', but we stuck with beef and pork.

While waiting for our order we checked out the pit housed in a trailer out back. The pit man proudly showed us the cold briskets that had been smoked on Saturday night that he was warming for service. It was Tuesday. My expectations plummeted. Back at the ordering window I picked up my three-meat combo. The sides were great. A pasta salad had zing and wasn't too heavy while a broccoli salad with raisins, sunflower seeds and red onion reminded me of my childhood. The V&V sausage was fine but the smoker hadn't transformed it into anything special. The huge smoky spare rib was the best item on the plate. A bit of sweetness in the rub gave it a boost, but more time on the smoker would have got it a bit more tender and rendered out some of the chewy fat. That brisket from several days before was as dry and chewy as I'd predicted, and it was hard to tell how word of this joint's quality had traveled so far.

Rating **

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Baker's Ribs (Deep Ellum)

DALLAS: Baker's Ribs
3303 Main St.
Dallas, TX 75226
Open M-F 11-7, Sat 11-9, Sun 10-2

You may have been familiar with the Baker's Ribs location in Deep Ellum. It stood for decades in a brick building on Commerce Street with a large pig painted on the side. They leased that building, but were looking for a permanent home, so they bought a building just a few blocks away in the same Deep Ellum neighborhood. I made a couple of stops to see just how well they've dealt with the transition.

Some things have changed for the better like the addition of the Original Fried Pie Shop inside the restaurant (more on that later) and some things have thankfully remained like the all hickory-fired Bewley smoker that they brought over from the old location. It was so clean and shiny I thought it was new, but the lady doling out the food orders said they just gave it a good cleaning.

I've always liked the brisket here from a smoke standpoint. Baker's knows how to get the smokiness into the meat, but it's harder to also keep the meat moist and tender. The beef on this day was no different than I'd expected which is to say that it had a great looking black crust and ruby-red smokering along with a strong smoky flavor, but it also lacked good seasoning, good fat and it was just too dry. An unexpected meat option of fried turkey was outstanding. They smoke a seasoned turkey breast then dunk the whole thing into a fryer to finish it off. The result is juicy turkey whose slices have thick crispy edges. It was some of the better smoked turkey I've had. No word whether or not fried brisket will make it on the menu.

The ribs were also excellent. The meat was moist and came from the bone perfectly. A subtle sweet rub allowed a good dark crust to form and the meat was very smokey. I included the photo above to show how a well cooked rib will look after a bite is taken. The bone should be exposed easily, but the meat on either side of the bite should remain intact. It should not fall of the bone entirely, nor should there be meat left on the bone where the bite was taken.

On a subsequent visit I ordered a plate of both lean and fatty brisket. If they could just mix the supple texture and richness of the moist brisket with the smokiness of the lean slices, then they'd be onto something. Neither cut was great on its own, however. All of the sides here are good from a simple creamy mac & cheese to crispy cole slaw and a potato salad heavy with dill. Don't forget about dessert either.

If you want one of these famous fried pies you have to order them at a second counter at the back of the restaurant and pay for them separately there. A wide array of filling options are offered and all pies are made to order. This allows you to create flavor combinations, which is actually encouraged. The lady frying the pies on this day confirmed that I could combine any fillings together in one pie since it would be made fresh. Brisket and pulled pork are filling options and I really wanted to try the shredded beef in pie form. I thought pecan and blackberry might be complementary flavors so I asked for what was probably their first order of a brisket, blackberry and pecan fried pie. This masterful combination of ingredients landed on the table just as were polishing off the barbecue. It was hot, flaky, and rich from the overflowing filling. The sweet blackberry, nuttiness of the pecan and the smoky beef were a better match than I'd ever imagined. This was an excellent dessert but could easily double as a hearty main course. I'm thinking apricot and pulled pork for my next visit.

Rating ***

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

CBQ Eatery

17327 I-35 N #200
Schertz, TX 78154
Open Tues-Thur 11-9, F-Sat 11-10, Sun 12-8

I proposed to a couple friends in who live in Schertz that we visit this joint for some barbecue, and they wondered why. To them it was a burger and beer joint, and despite the words 'Texas BBQ' on the sign, they didn't even realize they had it on the menu. Once we were seated and perused the menu I could see their confusion. Bar food and burgers dominated. We found a few smoked meat items and the table soon filled with plates and beer mugs the size of pitchers.

It's hard to go wrong with heavily spiced waffle fries covered in chopped beef and blue cheese, and CBQ didn't screw it up. The combinations of textures with the crispy fries and the tender brisket along with the flavor combination of the bold sweet sauce and the rich cheese made it hard to stop eating.

Smoked hog wings came stacked on a pile of crisp fries. These meaty pork shanks were sauced and grilled after smoking, and the meat was moist and well cooked. It was the best meat in their repertoire.

A sandwich was packed full of thick brisket slices. The beef had good smoke, but the heavy spice rub created an off flavor of burnt sugar and spices. The fat that was left on provided some much needed moisture because these slices were bone dry.

Whatever was used to moisten the pulled pork was incredibly watery. The meat was soggy with a washed out flavor and the bun was visibly wet. Not good.

Combo plates aren't offered here, and neither are half racks of ribs. The only way to get a bite of ribs is to order the full rack for $16.99. The pork was fine beneath the layer of grilled-on sauce, but if they'd just served them fresh out of the smoker instead of rewarming them on a grill they would have been much more successful. These ribs had the moisture and tenderness I was looking for, but the burnt on layer of sauce was a major distraction from the flavor of the meat and smoke.

A few items on the barbecue menu are worth returning for, but they just aren't serving very good Texas barbecue across the board. When we left I wasn't surprised that my friends said they'd be back...for burgers.

Rating **

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King's BBQ

1322 Underwood Road
Deer Park, TX 77536
Open Daily 10-9

A trip up to the top of the towering San Jacinto Monument nearby that was marred by thick fog, and it was a rough day of barbecue. We were looking for any sort of high point to finish the day with, and smoke was pouring from the side of King's BBQ. After we parked I noticed the Southern Pride smoker. The smoke was coming straight for our car, so I turned off the AC and cranked up the vent to let the smoke in case my car didn't smell enough like it by then. I turned off the car, we walked in and quickly had a three meat plate in our possession.

We sat inside in the sparsely populated dining room to sample our options. It was nice to have some greenery with the side of zucchini and squash and the beans were very good. A thick spare rib was decent, but tasted more roasted than smoked. The seasoning was too heavy for a good crust to form. Brisket was also passable with a hint of smoke, but nothing special. Slices of juicy turkey were the best item on the plate. It had better smokiness than either the brisket or ribs, and it was sliced from a real breast of turkey instead of the usual deli loaf. I'd order it again, but turkey alone isn't really enough to get me back here.

Rating **

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Fermin's Smoked Bar-B-Que

ODEM: Fermin's Smoked Bar-B-Que
1016 Voss Ave
Odem, TX 78370
Open M-Sat 7-5

I should have known what to expect when I saw the business card on the front counter as I waited for my order. The trio of businesses on the same card were Fermin's BBQ, Mexican restaurant and trucking company, but the screened in smoker out back gave me hope.

In short, it was awful. Baby back ribs that even looked promising were so tough it took significant effort just to take a bite. The brisket was little more than steamed roast beef. A warmed link of V&V sausage was fine, but that had more to do with the sausage stuffer back in Cistern, Texas than the skill of the pit tender here in Odem. A side of rice and beans seemed like an interesting choice that might give the plate a multi-cultural flavor. I've had Dasani with more flavor than the watery beans that were so washed out it was puzzling. Don't bother stopping.

Rating *

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Woodshed Smokehouse

FORT WORTH: Woodshed Smokehouse
3201 Riverfront Dr.
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Open Daily 11-'til

Where's the beef, or more specifically brisket? Just a few days ago chef and owner Tim Love bragged via Twitter that a record number of animals were cooking at his popular Woodshed Smokehouse, but this might be the only smokehouse in Texas whose smoker hasn't seen a brisket (unless there was a daily special out there that I missed). Always a savvy businessman, Mr. Love has made a wise decision. Tim knows that if he offered brisket on the menu of his Texas Smokehouse that he would be ultimately judged by the success of this unforgiving cut. Instead we're all talking about ribs and cauliflower, which are all done well, but don't provide the challenge of a beef brisket.

Once I got over the brisket issue, we ordered some appetizers. Smoked artichokes were both crisp and juicy. Sprinkled with parmesan and drizzled with oil, they were hard to put down and we cleared the pate pretty quickly. Another hit at the table (at least for my daughter and I) was the camp bread with pitmaster fat. A ramekin for dipping was full of hot rendered fat whose flavor was heavy with lamb. It was better than any dipping sauce I can remember and the thick camp bread was soft but still offered some pleasant chew.

A whole head cauliflower was smoked over oak (all of the menu items have a symbol next to them which designates which of four woods are used in the smoker or grill). I like vegetables just fine and one of the better veggie items I've ever eaten was a whole head of cauliflower done in my oven from a Michael Ruhlman recipe. That version was buttery and tender, but the Woodshed's head was drier and even a bit crisp from being a bit undercooked. The smokiness was aggressive along with the spices, but it hadn't yet reached its potential on this visit.

A different whole animal is featured every day. On this visit it was a whole hog roasted on a spit in full view through a large window between the waiting area and the kitchen. My young daughter was captivated by the spinning porker while we waited for our table, and strongly suggested we order it when we got to the table. Chunks of moist and highly seasoned pork were pulled from the hog and served with all the fixin's for tacos. The pork was so good none of my portion made it onto a tortilla before I finished it off.

Like the animal of the day, the sausage also rotates. A full grain mustard with serious kick were served with a bison sausage and some house made pickles on the side. The meat had great smoke and spice, but bison can dry out easily due it's low fat content, and these links exhibited the issue.

Smoked tenderloin is listed under "Traditional Q" on the menu at $2.50 an ounce. Other items have a price listed per pound, but I guess $40/pound was harder on the eyes when the menu was being edited (although they do let you order as little as 2 ounces). It was the least successful meat we had. Served cold and rare, the underseasoned beef had picked up little smoke. I was wishing they'd just seared the meat.

Beef back ribs are rarely done well, but what they're putting out here can be held as an example of how well they can be smoked. A crust was crisp with the meat between the bones (there's very little over the bones, which is normal for beef back ribs) remaining moist. Even coverage of a flavorful rub allowed for a good crust and a nice smokiness. Pork ribs were almost as good and a bit meatier. The pork came off the bones easily enough and again the crispiness of the surface was a nice textural change. The seasoning seemed more herbaceous and heavy-handed than with the beef ribs. After all the meat, we finished with two slices of pie. The marshmallow covered chocolate pie was decadent and rich while a buttermilk pie had an addictive hint of lemon. I'd gladly visit again just for the pies which come from Fort Worth's Black Rooster Bakery.

After all that food I couldn't convince the family to try the $75 beef shin, but a tour of the pit room allowed me to catch a peek of one in progress. There seemed to be enough spare room in there for a few briskets. Stacks of wood are piled against several smokers in the screened-in room, and I learned that the various woods on the menu is not a gimmick. Each smoker has a specific wood written on the side and are only fueled with that wood. A hispanic man whose name I didn't catch was tending the pits and was happy to show off the next day's special of quartered cabrito that was getting a nice smoky crust.

Minus the lack of brisket, I really liked this place. The nouveau barbecue might be hard for some purists to warm too, but this is well executed food that is more accessible than you might expect from the long menu. As a Dallasite, I'd gladly make the forty-five minute trip from Dallas to Fort Worth and eat here again, and I'd tell any of my cohorts in Dallas to do the same, so the only rating that makes sense is...

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.