Letter Grades for BBQ Places (Old-School Gradin & BBQ Nirvana)
While talking with James today (see the Ruby’s review), we began discussing various BBQ places and how they ranked. I mentioned that I had four “tiers” of BBQ. After some thought, I’ve decided to share them with you. However, I’ve decided to change them to the old letter grading system: A, B, C, and F.
Before we begin, I’m sure some out there will disagree with one or more of my examples in each category. That’s OK. Heck, I suspect some of my fellow Reconers disagree with some of them. The goal here isn’t to come up with a list that perfectly labels every BBQ place in a way everyone agrees with (that’s impossible). It’s to share my criteria for distinguishing between the excellent, the OK, and the awful. Also note that I’m just showing examples, not listing every place I’ve been (or even reviewed). With that in mind here we go:
Grade – A: The hallmark of a BBQ place in this category is consistency. Not only is a majority of everything they do going to taste excellent (and it will be a matter of personal taste if you don’t like something), but it will always be done to perfection. If you could magically pull brisket from 10 different days of the year and try them all at one time, they’ll all taste equally good. That chicken you got on Tuesday will be just as tender and juicy as the piece you got on Friday. Discrepancies are few and far between (and often related to an outside event). If I’ve ever said you were worth a trip? You have the potential to be in this category (I’d have to eat there more than once to be sure). They are definitely places worth taking friends to when they visit. Examples in this category include Louie Mueller's and Cooper's.
Grade – B: These places cover the opposite side of the consistency issue. Either they have only 1-2 things they do exceptionally well and everything else is just OK, or else they alternate between just OK and really good on everything. So one day the brisket is 9/10 and the next it is 5/10. Or every day the brisket is 9/10, but it is the ONLY thing that scores above a 6. Places in this category are good to take a friend to when you don’t want to deal with long waits and/or trips to one of the A-grade places, but it won’t be the best possible BBQ experience. Examples include Salt Lick and Mann’s (I’m holding out hope that my last visit to Mann’s was a fluke).
Grade – C: I’ve always said that it’s hard to really screw up BBQ if you pay attention. There’s a certain basic level that just about anyone can reach if they put forth a little effort. These places have reached that minimum, but never really gone further. They are most often local chains, who have hit on a basic formula that works for their model and stick with it. They’ll never get an exceptional score (8 or higher) in anything but seldom get a 4 or lower). They are usually solid 5s. They aren’t the place you take your friends from out of town. There the places you go because you want BBQ right now and don’t have the time or money to go anyplace better (these places are usually cheaper than others). Examples include Rudy’s and PoK-e-Jo's.
Grade – F: Remember above when I said it was hard to really screw up BBQ? Well, these places have managed to pull it off. Most often chains, these places have managed to make brisket that is dry and flavorless, ribs that are chewy and tough, and sausage that brings to mind Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”. They cover for it with flavorful sauce, lots of side dishes, and being cheaper than anyone else. You only take a friend here if you are planning on ending the friendship. Examples include Bill Miller's and Dickeys.
*(Before anyone says it, I know Bill Millers is insanely popular in large parts of Texas. I myself love their fried chicken. They do a lot of things well. Just not BBQ).
So there’s my grading system for BBQ. Thoughts? Comments are always welcome.