Thursday, July 30, 2015

Slab BBQ & Beer Review (Austin, TX) 

Slab BBQ Website & Facebook & Twitter (@slab_bbq)

I had two motivations when I visited Slab BBQ. One, it was a place I hadn't been before, and I always like trying a new place. But two, I heard they had white sauce.  

We'd posted a link to an article in early July about Alabama BBQ, and a twitter discussion had led to some people recommending white sauce for BBQ. So when I heard I could get some here I decided to try it. Their pits are out back but enclosed enough I couldn't get a good picture (and I was running late for work).
But this review is going to be a little different from the norm. Slab is primarily a sandwich shop. In fact, the only BBQ meat listed on the menu as available ala carte are the St. Louis Ribs. (I asked and you can order the other meats, but it's not what they normally do). In short, you're coming here for a sandwich.
After looking over the menu I decide to go all out and try "The Donk". This contains rib meat, chicken, brisket, pulled pork, sausage (this is ALL of their meats), Fritos, queso, and all four of their sauces (it also comes with jalapenos and pickles but I didn't get those). The four sauces are a standard red, a spicy mustard, a hot garlic-siracha, and a white sauce. They are all made onsite. I get the sauces and the queso on the side.

I decide to be scientific about this (well, as scientific as someone with a liberal arts degree can be) and break my sandwich into 12 bites. It will break down as follows: a bite of just plain sandwich, a bite with each of the 4 sauces, and a bite with all 4 sauces combined. I then repeat those 6 bites but with the queso added. However, I'm not going to comment on each bite, but a more general comment of how each seemed to impact the sandwich. The meat gets a base score, and the sauces and queso will get a + or - to that base score.

Meats: The flavor wasn't bad, and they were reasonably tender. What was missing the most was smoke flavor. Even on the plain bite I noticed almost no smoke flavor to speak of, and once you added anything it disappeared entirely. It tasted good, but not like a BBQ sandwich. 5.0/10 for just the meat itself.

Queso: To me, the queso distracted even more from any BBQ feel I was getting, whether with or without sauce. It wasn't a bad queso, but I go to BBQ places for BBQ and the queso increased the feeling that I wasn't eating BBQ. -1 to the base score when queso was added.

Siracha sauce: I have to lead with a disclaimer - I don't like the taste of siracha. It's not the heat. My boss let me taste some scorpion pepper hot sauce that I loved earlier. Siracha (and jalapenos) just don't appeal to me taste-wise. -3 to the base score when added, but this is strictly subjective based on taste.

Standard red sauce: This was a good sauce. It had just a little kick to it and wasn't too sweet.  +1 to the base score when added.

Mustard sauce: This was excellent, and one of the better ones I've had. It had a nice spicy bite with a sweet finish that went well with the meat. +3 to the base score.

White sauce: I have to be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect from a white sauce. I knew it was mayonnaise based, but other than that I had no expectations at all. After trying my first bite of sandwich, I went straight to my sauce container to see if what I tasted was correct. And tasting it straight, I felt it was: this tastes like a mixture of Ranch and Caesar salad dressings. Thinking I might be a little harsh, I let my boss try it. Her first words were "Ranch dressing"? Five other people tried it. The general consensus was that this is what we put on salads in Texas. One person did suggest that it might be good on fish, and I could see that. But for pork or beef? Nope. -2 to base score.* 

*Having never had a white sauce before, it's possible I got a bad one. But that's my take on my first experience with it. And let me clear, it's not that it tasted bad. In fact, I saved the rest and put it on my broccoli kale salad I had for dinner, and it was excellent. But it's salad dressing, not BBQ sauce. *

So how do I rate Slab BBQ?

Is it worth a visit? This gets a qualified yes. If you're looking for good BBQ with that wonderful smoky flavor, this may not be the place for you. But if you're looking for a good sandwich with some good sauce, this isn't a bad choice. In short, my sandwich was a good sandwich (esp. with the right sauce), it just wasn’t necessarily great BBQ.

Is it worth a trip? Nope. If you're traveling 60+ miles, there are better choices.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Johnny T's BBQ Review (Pflugerville, TX) 

Johnny T's Website & Facebook & Yelp

On our way to the birthday party of our “niece” (child of friends), Scott and I decided to stop at Johnny T’s for lunch. Johnny T’s is located in a strip mall in Pflugerville. They moved here about a year ago from their former location in Round Rock. They advertise as “The Best Butt in Town”. Pits are enclosed in a wood area in back.
Inside it seems like a normal setup at first: Walk to the counter and order. Then things get a little different. They give you a number and bring it out to you. So it’s kind of a cross between true counter ordering and a sit-down restaurant. 
They do offer meat by the pound and plates, but there’s a strong emphasis on sandwiches (11 on the menu). They also make their own sauces: an original which still has some kick, a spicy, and a North Carolina style mustard.

(Scott's commentary: The sauces I tried did help accentuate what I used them on. I had two of the 3 sauces. The mustard sauce was quite good, trying it with the ribs, sausage, and chicken. Still won't convince me to try a sauce with brisket though. I have some standards. Not many, but a few. )
Scott and I each get the ¾ pound plate with three meats each. Scott gets brisket, pulled pork, and sausage. I get turkey, chicken, and St. Louis style ribs.

Sausage: The sausage is Meyer’s Elgin sausage. Decent flavor, but not much snap left in the casing, and not much smoke flavor. Their presentation of this area staple is decent, but not great, Both – 6.0/10.
Turkey: The turkey has some smoke flavor, but not a lot. There’s not much else going on here, and it’s just a hair dry. We both agree it is decent, but not great. Both 6.5/10.

Ribs: The ribs have a decent smoke flavor and are tender, but do not have a crust to speak of. I think they have a good flavor, but Scott thinks there’s room for improvement, although he says his improved a great deal with the mustard sauce. Tom – 8.0/10, Scott – 6.0/10 (7.0 with sauce).

Brisket: Tender, but not a lot of bark. There’s a decent smoke flavor, but not much else working for me. Scott likes it more than I do. Tom – 6.0/10, Scott – 8.0/10.

Chicken: Interestingly, the chicken they have at the moment is advertised as chicken breast. IT reminds me of those prepared breasts you can get at stores without the bone. The cuts are way too even for this to be something they took off the bone. It’s a little tough (which doesn’t surprise us if our theory is right about the type of chicken), but has a decent smoke flavor. Tom – 7.0/10, Scott – 7.5/10.

Pulled Pork: This has an excellent smoke flavor. More importantly, it’s moist and tender without being greasy (which is a common issue with pulled pork). This is honestly one of the best I’ve had. Scott – 8.5/10, Tom – 9.5/10.

Special Side Dish Note: We don’t normally comment on side dishes, but Johnny T’s has one that is unusual enough that it is worth a mention – their Tamale Potato Casserole. This is exactly what it sounds like, and I decided to give it a try. On the plus side it’s an excellent tasting dish. Texture wise it is like a tamale pudding, and has a great flavor. It is definitely worth trying. On the minus side – it doesn’t feel like it blends well with the rest of the meal. A place like Valentina’s has blended their Tex-Mex BBQ quite well. This side dish doesn’t feel like it fits in. After a few bites during the meal, I quickly made the decision to finish it after the meal, because the flavor change from BBQ to Tex-Mex was a little jarring. Again, it is an excellent tasting dish. It just doesn’t feel like it fits in as a BBQ side dish.

Is it worth a visit? Absolutely. Note that most of their scores are in the middle to upper range of the “good” category. This would be an excellent place for a BBQ lunch that is better than Poke-Jo’s or Rudy’s. It also seems like a good choice for those in the area who want good BBQ without the long trip or wait to some of the top-shelf places.

Is it worth a trip? Not quite. There’s only one item Scott and I both agree is exceptional, and that’s not enough for a 60+ mile trip. I can see that they are close, and it wouldn’t take much for them to get into that category, but they aren’t there yet. One suggestion Scott and I talked about was serving actual chicken instead of what appears to be chicken breast.* They could also use a little more bark on the brisket. Those two things would probably get those items into the exceptional range (8+) and with three cores of 8 or higher they’d be worth a trip.

*Note: When I came home to write the review I noticed their website said they were doing a soft launch of whole chickens this weekend. I think that is an excellent move on their part.* 
(Scott's commentary: We should swing by another time just to check out a sammich or two.
Also, I liked the fact that they offered wheat bread as an option to Texas toast.  Seeing as there are many folks that that have to avoid white flour (such as white bread/Texas toast) for dietary reasons, a wheat bread option is nice to have.) 

-Tom & Scott

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review of Michelbob's Restaurant  (Naples, FL)

Michelbob's Website & Facebook & Yelp

Another venture today into Florida BBQ brings us to a local staple for some 36 years in Southwest Florida: Michelbob's Restaurant ( or sometimes just Michelbob's Ribs). Although they serve a full array of BBQ foods, they pride themselves most on their pork ribs. Their unique take is that the ribs are imported from Danish hogs that give the meat a distinct quality from North American pigs and then slow-cooked their way to make them a especially tender.  

The other hallmark is their BBQ sauces - which apparently won several awards. So if you are a purist in your barbecue taste, be warned that they will play a part in this review. The sauces at hand were three - sweet, spicy, and tangy; to me these equated to being a sweet, maple style; a peppery one; and tangy was more mustard-like. Of the three, I found the Bold & Spicy to be the best of three for enhancing the foods I ate. I can't really judge the merits of the sauces' pedigree; just looking at how it compliments the food.
(Scott's comment: Surely, there's someone out there with a Ph.D in bbq sauce!)
Michelbob's is a restaurant-style place that looks part-diner; part-lodge with it's dark, wood-framed interior. This is offset by the huge collection of bright, Coca-cola memorabilia; orange-crate art; and an assortment of fresh-water fishing pictures and mounted fish trophies. (Considering that one of the owners is originally from Minnesota, there's definitely a northern Midwest quality.) It makes it for an eclectic feel if you are used to Texas-style ranch looks of light stone, wrought iron, and brushwood in your BBQ joints. The smoker wasn’t visible, but I did find out that they use oak wood in their smoking process.  
Food is best ordered as a combo plate to get the most for the money, but you can also order large "dinner paks" portions (instead of by the pound) to go. You can also have the their signature ribs shipped to you overnight (more on this later).  They serve chicken, pork (sliced and pulled), sausage (mild, spicy, and jalapeno cheddar), sliced beef, baby-back pork ribs, and grilled steaks. We'll look at the ribs, chicken, sausage, and sliced beef.  

Chicken: I'm going to discount this one right off, because unfortunately it was a grilled chicken breast not the smoked chicken. A mistake on my part in ordering - it tastes perfectly fine but isn't true barbecue for this review. No score.  

Sausage: I decide to go with the mild this time around (apologies for the lack of a snapshot). There's a nice snap to the casing and the meat is juicy. The meat is smooth and not crumbly like some sausages. Flavor-wise, it is just as expected, a very mild flavor with only a hint of smoke. This is a case where the sauce really helps - bringing out some good accents but not overwhelming. Without sauce: 5.0 out of 10; with sauce: 6.5 out of 10.
Sliced Beef: Michelbob's doesn't have a true brisket, so I go with the sliced beef instead. This turns out to be surprisingly good - there's a nice ring that gives it a consistent, mild smoky flavor. While it lacks any fat, it is surprisingly tender and a little moist without any sauce. With sauce (especially the spicy), the flavor is enhanced instead of smothered. I lean towards: 6.5/10 without sauce; 7.5/10 with it.

Pork Rib: The baby-back ribs start with a crispy bark that has some sweet spiciness to it. It might be a rub, but tastes more like a glaze they would add last in their cooking. And then you hit the meat with a contrast of good smoke as the meat comes off tender and juicy. Everything rolls off and melts in your mouth just right - there's definitely no need for sauce on these (and I didn't try in any case). If there's any complaint, it's that the meat amount is inconsistent. Still, it was very satisfying for a guy who isn't necessarily a fan of the rib. Easily their signature dish is their best: 9/10.  

Is it worth a visit? Yes. All the food was good, and I didn't even hit on the sides which were pretty good as well.  It's got a nice, local charm to make it interesting to check out in any case. I could imagine the American Pickers would love it just for the memorabilia. 
Is it worth a trip? Only if you really love ribs! Otherwise, not really for a full BBQ experience. But there's a twist when it comes to Michelbob's: they will ship their ribs overnight if you order on time. They come fully cooked; just thaw, heat and serve and they will be just as good. So, that trip might not be necessary . We may try and test this claim by shipping an order from Florida to Texas for Tom and Scott to sample. (Stay tuned).
(Scott's comment: birthday's in few months...hmm...ribs make a lovely gift!)
So overall, Michelbob's does one thing really well, and the rest are good to middling. With their emphasis on pork and the sauces, I would say their style falls closer to Carolina-style than a Texas-style of BBQ. 


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

This week in BBQ PSA! (cue Wild Kingdom theme) 

Make sure and check you BBQ or Grill, you never what might call it home. See check it here:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Another Update 0n FullHouse BBQ (Austin, TX) 

Fullhouse Website & Facebook & Twitter (@FullhouseBBQ) ) 

I went back to FullHouse today since I was in the mood for BBQ and didn’t feel like traveling. It’s nice having a good place that’s only a mile or two away. Previous reviews can be found (here) and (here).
This updates the beef ribs. The first time I had them they were tasty but tough, and even Robert admitted the heat had gotten away from him. This time they are still tasty, but a lot more tender. Upgrade on score to 8.5/10. The sausage and brisket I got are also still excellent. FullHouse continues to impress.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review of Branch BBQ & Catering (Austin, TX) 

Branch BBQ's Website & Facebook & Twitter (@BranchBBQ)

I was looking for a lesser known place and decided to check this one out. Despite being located in a small strip shopping center they actually do have a pit out back. The place has a small cafeteria feel inside. They offer a variety of meats, including smoked catfish. Unfortunately they don’t have any when I stop by. But based on the description it is grilled over the pit as opposed to truly smoked. I still wish I could have tried it. I order the five meat sampler which states it comes with pork loin, brisket, pork rib, chicken, and sausage. However, it appears I get turkey instead of pork loin.

Brisket: The brisket has a nice smoke flavor. There's not much bark and the texture is a little tough. Considering I ordered moist brisket, it's also a little dry. 5.0/10.

Turkey: Again, a nice smoke flavor, but a little dry and tough. There's not much going on here besides the smoke (which is nice, I'll grant). But the dryness hurts. 5.0/10.

Chicken: The smoke flavor works well here. It's a little more tender than the others and not as dry, although it could be a little more juicy. 6.0/10.

Ribs: The rib doesn't look like much. Not much crust. However, it has a nice flavor and the smoke compliments the meat. It is juicy and tender. 7.0/10.

Sausage: The sausage is Elgin sausage, but has a nice smoke flavor. It's juicy and tender so they've prepared it well. 7.0/10.  

I noticed that Branch BBQ relies heavily on the smoke for their flavor. It seems to work in the case of the chicken and ribs, and Elgin sausage is always good if prepared well. They seem like a decent place to go. 

Is it worth a visit? It seems like a solid place to grab lunch. Nothing is bad, and some of it is on the high end of good.
Is it worth a trip? No. Nothing moved into the excellent range.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of Smokey Mo's BBQ (@Georgetown, TX

Smokey Mo's Website & Facebook page 
I'd never actually been to a Smokey Mo's before, and decided to stop by this one to pick some up on the way home. They are a regional chain (13 locations). One thing I notice is that they use electric smokers. This isn't really a surprise given that they are in a strip shopping center. I order two three-meat plates (ribs/sausage/brisket, and turkey/chicken/pork loin). However, I discover when I get home that both plates contain ribs instead of one having the pork loin. Note to self: double-check the order.
Brisket: The brisket is far and away the worst item here. It's dry, and doesn't have much flavor. While the bark looks impressive, there's not much going on even in the bark itself, much less in the meat itself. 3.0/10.

Sausage: The sausage is a little better. It is tender, but the flavor isn't anything to brag about. Tastes a little like Elgin sausage, but the casing has lost some of its snap. 4.0/10.

Chicken: The chicken is actually pretty tender and juicy. This is the first place I notice the smoke flavor, and there's an interesting metallic taste to it that makes me assume they are using liquid smoke (as opposed to an electric smoker with wood pellets). It's not bad, but definitely not the same as real pit-smoked BBQ. 5.0/10.

Ribs: Ribs are also tender and juicy. As with the chicken, there's that weird metallic smoke flavor again. I've had worse ribs elsewhere, but it is distracting. 5.5/10.

Turkey: Turkey is pretty tender and juicy. If it wasn't for the weird flavor in the smoke, it might be top-notch. 6.5/10. 

So my first visit to Smokey Mo's. Two misses, and three decents (and one no-show). 
Is it worth a visit? Yeah, if you are in the mood for a quick BBQ fix and don't feel like spending a lot it's not a bad place to stop. Stay away from the brisket and stick with the white meats. 
Is it worth a trip? Absolutely not.

(Scott's comment: "As the dogs as my witnesses, you were warned!") 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Franklin Barbecue Review (Austin, TX) 

Franklin's Website & Facebook & Twitter page 
Let’s face it. Franklins is considered the big bull in the BBQ scene in the Austin area. It’s certainly the most popular, with lines forming before 8:00 for an 11:00 opening, professional place holders, and rumors that someone makes a sizable amount of money each week renting chairs. But is it really that good? I managed to get a pickup order or today to share with friends.

I arrived about 9:20am (pickup time is 10:00) because I planned to talk to some of the crowd. One thing I eventually noticed: the line is not quite as bad as it might seem. While it stretches around the parking lot, there’s a lot of space between groups of people, and chairs take up more space than people standing in straight file line. 
Max Ortiz
Lisa Ortiz

Lisa and Max Ortiz were the first to arrive in line this morning at 6:50am. It’s their 2nd time coming to Franklins and they love it.  
Greg & Friends
57 people back are Greg and his friends. They arrived at 8am. So 57 people showed between 6:50 – 8… not bad…   It’s the first time for Greg and company.
Jensen, Barbara & Tom
Go back another 75 people and you meet Jensen, Barbara, John (not shown), and Tom. They arrived at 9:00am. Incidentally, Tom is from Chicago and came primarily for the BBQ. We briefly discuss a few other places he might also want to check out. 
There’s only about 15-20 people in line after this group, so total line at this point is @150. Greg and friends probably have the best spot: some shade and they are right under one of the misting fans. These are very nice.   
People certainly come prepared to this event. I see people playing cards, and someone is setting up what appears to be the boards for a game of washers. There’s lots of back and forth, with people from different groups talking and mingling. One thing this line certainly does is bring people together.  
Benji Jacobs
 The general manager Benji Jacobs is there. He mentions that this line is actually a little short for a Saturday, and suspects that after a big BBQ weekend like July 4th people are taking it easy. He also allows me to come back and take some pictures of the pits. It is an impressive site. Franklins also uses smoke, salt and pepper only, and it smells wonderful back here (although how they survive the heat…).

After a few more conversations 10:00 rolls round and I go inside to get our To Go order: 3 pounds brisket, 3 pounds ribs, and 2 pounds each pulled pork, turkey, and sausage. They bag it up along with some beans, bread, sauce, etc. and I head to my friends’ home.
Tasting today will be done by myself, Scott, AJ, and our friends Bill and Kelly (who have also graciously provided their house). Bill does not like white meat, so he only tries the brisket and sausage. (Technically he tried the pork and turkey but it confirmed his opinion that he just doesn’t like white meat).  Kelly just doesn’t eat much, so she only tries the ribs and brisket.
Turkey: Turkey is moist and has an excellent pepper flavor. It is just a smidge tough in places, but the flavor makes up for it in my and Scott’s opinion. AJ is not quite as big a fan. Final scores out of 10: AJ – 6, Tom – 8, Scott – 9.
Pulled Pork: The pulled pork also has a nice smoke flavor, and is tender. While I’m not normally a sauce fan, this one I recommend with their expresso sauce. All of us agree it is good. Final scores out of 10: AJ – 8, Scott – 9, Tom – 9.
Brisket: I find the brisket moist and tender, with a nice bark, excellent smoke flavor, and just the right consistency. Scott agrees, and both Bill and Kelly (who are nowhere near as dedicated as Scott and myself) both feel it is very good. Surprisingly AJ feels it is not moist enough. When asked what he considers moist enough, he references Rudy’s, with the grease running off the brisket. I think we’re going to have to disagree with him. But he’s from New Jersey, so we’ll forgive him…  Final scores out of 10: AJ – 6 (really?), Bill – 8, Kelly – 8, Scott – 10, Tom – 10.
Sausage: There’s a good snap to the sausage, it’s got a nice pepper bite, and is tender and juicy. It’s got a good smoke flavor. Final score: Bill and Scott and AJ and Tom all give it a 9.
Ribs: The ribs have a nice smoke flavor and good crust. I think this is the one item where there’s something more than salt and black pepper, as there are some sweet notes as well (maybe paprika?). Either way, it is a wonderful taste in my opinion. General agreement from those who try although Kelly thinks there’s a little too much going on with the rub and she can’t taste the meat the way she wants. Final scores: Kelly – 7, AJ – 9, Scott – 10, Tom – 10. 
If you’ve wondered if Franklins can live up to its reputation, it does. It is certainly some of the best BBQ in the area. They clearly know what they are doing.
Is it worth a visit? Absolutely!* Everyone needs to try this place at least once.  

Is it worth a trip? Again, absolutely!* Franklins may have become a cultural icon in Austin, but the quality of the BBQ means every purist should try them at least once.
(Al's comment: OK Tom, I saw your asterisk up there. I know that means you have a comment. Let’s hear it.)
You know me too well. When I rate a place as worth a visit or worth a trip, I’m talking about the quality of the food. But occasionally there may be other factors at work in a place that deserve mention so you can be fully informed. For Franklins, it’s the wait. One person at the front counter (speaking off the record) told me that a line like the one they had today takes about 2 hours to work though. And of course more people are coming during the day. And on a Saturday like today they usually run out about 3:00.
In short, when you add in the time factor EVERY visit to Franklins will probably qualify as a trip in terms of time. It’s a safe bet you can plan on a 90 minute to 2 hour wait if you get there at opening. And despite that it’s still worth doing at least once. Look at it as a social event as much as a food trip. You’re going to go out, mingle with a lot of people you haven’t met before, and whom the only thing you may have in common is the need to breath a nitrogen/oxygen mix and the desire for some good BBQ. And at the end you are going to have some excellent BBQ.