Sunday, 1 October 2017

Skinny's Smoke House, Medicine Hat, AB - July 23, 2017

This is my first blog post about a BBQ joint in Alberta.  Now that I have finished documenting my Texas BBQ adventures, it is time to start writing about the scene closer to home.  It was a busy summer and start to fall for our family, so this post has taken a couple of months to move from draft status to published.

I had the opportunity to visit Skinny's last summer and was impressed with the BBQ, so when we were going to be there again on a Sunday afternoon it seemed like a no brainer to go back!  Our kids had been spending the week with their grandparents in Regina and we were meeting them in Medicine Hat to bring them home, so we planned to meet at Skinny's for lunch before everyone went their own ways.

Skinny's Smoke House, Medicine Hat, AB, Canada

Knowing in advance that we would be there and wanting to expand on my blogging experiences, I contacted the restaurant ahead of time to see if they would have a few minutes to talk with me while I was there.  I promptly received a reply from Jeff Brewster, one of the founders, who said he would be happy to visit.  This was going to be my first 'interview', and I'll admit to being a little anxious about it.

Skinny's is located in a small shopping strip in a largely residential neighbourhood, but it is easily accessed off of the TransCanada Highway, just 3 or 4 minutes from the highway.  My in-laws, with our kids in tow, were waiting inside when we arrived.  We joined them inside and since everyone was hungry it made sense to order and eat and then introduce myself to Jeff afterwards.  You order and pay at the counter and then they call you when your order is ready.

The décor inside Skinny's is very southern BBQ.  It isn't a big place and they have 4 large communal tables that fill the dining area.  Murals painted on the walls along with a pretty decent licence plate collection and some other knick knacks give it a casual and comfortable down home feel.

The license plate collection at Skinny's


The menu here is pretty standard BBQ joint fare; pulled pork, brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken for the meats.  Their regular sides are baked beans, potato salad and slaw and they have different daily special sides that they offer. 

The menu board

We all ordered individual meals and the pulled pork sandwich seemed to be the popular choice, with everyone except myself going that route.  I opted for the 2 meat plate with ribs and brisket, with slaw and the feature side of the day, corn bread topped with honey butter.  My order came accompanied by a dinner roll and some house-made pickles.  The ribs and brisket were served sauce free, with 3 sauce options available on the tables.  The pork rib portion of my order was 3 meaty ribs with a tasty, but not overpowering rub cooked on.  They were very good and came off the bone without too much effort, although I did think they could have used just a little more time in the smoker.  When my 11 year old saw what I had, she asked to try a rib and she also enjoyed it.

My daughter's partially eaten pulled pork sandwich with corn bread

Next up was the brisket.  The serving was two thick slices of meaty goodness.  The slices were probably double the thickness of what I've become used to getting in Texas.  My first thought was that they were trying to hide something, but after one bite I was convinced that it was just how they roll at Skinny's.  I've heard of places slicing their brisket thick when it is overcooked and too crumbly to slice thinner...not the case here.  Even with the extra thickness I was able to pull it apart with my fingers.  It was moist and delicious with a good bark on it.  The fat was nicely rendered and melted in my mouth.  A little dip of the meat in their regular sauce added to the flavour party happening!

My two meat plate with ribs and brisket

The cornbread was really good and the honey butter drizzled over top gave it an awesome sweetness. I really enjoyed the coleslaw and the house made pickles were great.

After we ate I went over and introduced myself to Jeff.  While we sat down to chat he was testing out some smoked chicken wings and offered me one to try.  It was great with a really tasty rub, a little bit of spice and also some brown sugary sweetness.  Definitely something they can consider adding to the regular menu!

Skinny's has been open in Medicine Hat since 2013 and Jeff is the co-owner along with Todd Lindsay.  At the time both men were looking for a change of scenery career wise.  Jeff was on a waterskiing trip in Florida and visited a BBQ spot in Auburndale, FL called Peebles Bar-B-Q; and that is where he caught the BBQ bug!  Soon after, he and Todd took a trip through the southern states doing research that took them through Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.  I asked Jeff if there were any stops on their trip that stood out for him.  He mentioned Q39 in Kansas City as having the best pulled pork he had tasted.  They visited LA Barbecue and Stiles Switch in Austin and Riscky's BBQ in Fort Worth.  Jeff mentioned that a couple of places in Danville, KY and Tulsa also stood out, but the names escaped him.  There is a great mural painted on one of the walls inside the restaurant depicting their journey.

Jeff & Todd's Excellent BBQ Adventure!

They cook on an Ole Hickory gas assist smoker using primarily cherry and apple wood, although Jeff mentioned that they had been experimenting with smoking some fish using mesquite.  Jeff also let me in on the fact that construction has started on a new location on the west side of Medicine Hat in a new commercial area just off the highway with a much larger capacity, between 150 and 170.  They are also selling their sauces commercially in area grocery stores.

These guys are making great BBQ out in Medicine Hat and I look forward to visiting them again and checking out the new location once it opens.  If you find yourself around Medicine Hat, definitely go and find Skinny's!  Support your local pit master and eat more BBQ!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Houston 2017 Trip Wrap Up

This will be my final blog entry about my February 2017 trip to Texas.  I have already written about most of the great BBQ experiences I had, and wanted to do up a quick entry on a couple of others places I had the chance to visit while in Houston. 


I was down there for work, which spilled into the evening on a few occasions, so unfortunately I did not have much opportunity to visit Houston area BBQ spots, even though I did have a list of places I hoped to visit while I was there.


One of my Calgary work colleagues happened to be down there at the same time with his wife and we met up at Pizzitola's.  They are famous for their spareribs and have an interesting story.  They have a 70 + year old brick pit in the restaurant that they cook on.  Houston does not allow such pits in restaurants anymore for safety reasons, but Pizzitola's pit has been grandfathered in and is still allowed.  They problem they have is that they cannot do any renovations or expansions because that would void the allowance for the pit, so it puts them in a bit of a tough spot.  That said, it is a neat old place with lots of pictures and historical mementos on the walls.  We all ordered the ribs since that is what they are known for, and also because by dinner time they were out of a couple other meats.  The ribs weren't they best I've had, but they were pretty good.  All in all it was a good BBQ meal shared with some good company!


The other place that I'm not going to dedicate a whole blog entry to is Pappas BBQ.  Pappas is a chain restaurant that is part of a larger group of restaurants and they have a number of locations in Houston, including one in Humble not far from my airport hotel.  I've been there on past trips and while it is a big commercial operation, the BBQ is decent, they always have everything available, the portions are generous with good sides and I love their pecan pie!  I bought a whole pecan pie this trip to bring back home to Calgary for the family.  When I leave the office late and don't feel like exploring some area of Houston away from my hotel, it's nice to have Pappas to fall back on for a good BBQ dinner!


All in all, I had some wonderful BBQ experiences on this trip and really that is what led to this blog.  I have already started making a list of new places I want to get to on my next trip south and I look forward to sharing those stories with you.  Until then, I am going to start writing about some of the joints closer to home that I have had the opportunity to visit.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Roegels Barbecue - last stop on the journey

It was March 4, 2017 and it was my last day in Houston on this work trip.  I had an early evening flight back to Calgary, which left me time for one more BBQ stop before heading to the airport.


Based on my thorough and in-depth social media research I had my sights set on Roegels Barbecue Co. in Houston.  I hoped it would be a fitting finish to what had been a great stretch of gluttony the previous 8 or 9 days!  I got myself checked out of the hotel and headed out.


Roegels is located west of the city centre, so it was a bit of a drive from my airport hotel. Despite my phone's spotty (at best) GPS performance, I made it in reasonable time without any wrong turns, other than driving past the restaurant on my first pass!  A quick turnaround at the shopping centre a block or two up the road and I was pulling into the parking lot. 


Not sure how I missed the sign!

Roegels is located in the building that previously housed a Baker's Ribs location, which was owned and operated by Russell Roegels.  A few years back he decided to cut ties with the chain and open his own joint.  In 2014 Roegels Barbecue Co. opened their doors and the accolades started coming.  They were recently named to the list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints in Texas by Texas Monthly magazine.

The interior decor of the restaurant is nice, although fairly typical.  It has a relaxed, casual feel to it, with lots of wood and western style decorations.  The photo on my blog's home page came from inside the restaurant.


I approached the counter and was greeted by a very friendly man named Bruce.  With Bruce's help, I opted for the three meat plate with the Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, but instead of the usual sausage  I switched it up for a link of their boudin sausage, something I had been wanting to try but that isn't very common in and around Houston (more of a Louisiana and East Texas specialty).  For my 2 sides, I went with coleslaw and Texas Caviar, a salad made with black eyed peas, corn and peppers.


I had tweeted them earlier that I was coming by, and when Bruce asked me if I was on a BBQ tour, I suspected that he had seen the tweet.  My suspicion was heightened when I overheard Bruce telling the meat cutter to make sure he gave me a nice piece of brisket (they did) because I would be taking pictures of it!  Whatever the reason, the tray of BBQ that I received looked outstanding.  I loaded up on pickles and some bread and grabbed a seat.  The place wasn't packed for early on a Saturday afternoon, but there was a steady flow of people coming in. 


The Texas Trinity with slaw and Texas Caviar


Folks, they are serving up some excellent BBQ here.  The ribs were outstanding with a great bite.  The brisket is right up there with anything I've tried and the thick peppery bark was outstanding.  I really enjoyed my first taste of boudin, some different flavours than I'm used to, but really good.  The coleslaw and the house made pickles were great and the Texas Caviar was a nice alternative to the traditional sides.


The only downside to my experience was my choice in dessert, but that is totally on me.  I was full after lunch and decided to get a dessert to go, thinking I would eat it later at the airport while waiting for my flight. The idea was good, but the execution in choosing the bourbon banana pudding was a mistake.  So was not making sure I grabbed a spoon.  By the time I got around to eating it, the pudding had warmed up and was a little runny...especially trying to eat it with a plastic fork.  The pecan cobbler probably would have been a better option.  Live and learn!


Like I said earlier, the food here is top notch.  The restaurant has a great ambience, the service was super friendly and in my opinion they are worthy of their Top 50 ranking. This is by far the best BBQ I have experienced in the Houston area.  Roegels is definitely worth a stop and I will absolutely try and get back there on future trips to Houston.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Kreuz Market in Lockhart

In 1999, the Texas Legislature proclaimed Lockhart, TX the Barbecue Capital of Texas.  The city is home to a number of major barbecue joints and as you can imagine, there are some stories to go with them.

One of the more interesting stories is that of Kreuz Market and Smitty's Market.  Kreuz Market started out as a meat market in 1900 and moved to a new location in Lockhart 24 years later.  Kreuz remained in that location until 1999 when, during a well publicized family feud, owner Rick Schmidt moved the business to its current location and his sister Nina opened Smitty's Market in the existing building.  TV and newspaper crews were on hand as pit master Roy Perez and Lehman Schmidt dragged a metal tub of the coals from the old location to the new Kreuz Market and used them to start the fires in the new pits.  A search of Kreuz on the Texas Monthly website, www.texasmonthly.com will provide you with a few different stories by Daniel Vaughn about the family ordeal, along with a great photo of the transfer of the coals.

After my meal at Franklin I drove around Austin a little and then headed south towards Lockhart.  It is a short 35 or 40 minute drive, so when I got there I was still full from lunch.  I made my way to Kreuz Market and headed inside.  It is a large red building with a brick and metal exterior.


Keuz Market exterior


There are 3 separate areas to the interior.  You enter through a foyer into a large dining area and corridor that leads you the pit area.  On the day I was there a band was playing country music in this room.


Sunday afternoon entertainment

The corridor takes you past this dining area through a set of doors into the pit room.  In here you find a number of large, brick pits and an ordering counter.


The Kreuz Market pit room

This is where you order and pay just for your meat and where you will often find the aforementioned Roy Perez tending the pits.  Perez and his mutton chop sideburns are legendary in the Texas BBQ world.  Sadly, he was not there on this day, so my hope for a photo opportunity was foiled!  I kept it light, ordering just one of the sausages that Kreuz is famous for.

From the pit room, you go through another set of doors into the main dining room and another counter where you order your sides and drinks.  I got a soda, some bread and pickles and a cole slaw to go with my sausage.  They also have some souvenirs available, including one featuring Roy Perez and his mutton chops that says 'Love Meat Tender'.  You can check out the selection at www.kreuzmarket.com.  The dining room was busy on this Sunday afternoon.  I found a seat at one of the long tables.

On the wall in the corridor when you first come in, a sign is posted listing their traditions since 1900. The first two are 'No Barbecue Sauce' and 'No Forks'.


The Rules!


This is real Texas barbecue and they don't feel that they have anything to hide by covering it up with sauce.  The lack of forks goes back to the meat market traditions where customers would buy smoked meats from the market along with some bread to use as a vehicle for eating the meat.  Part of what has drawn me to Texas BBQ has been the tradition, so I wrapped my sausage up in my bread, added some pickles and dug in!

While I was in Lockhart, I wish that I had the time, and more importantly, the appetite to check out some of the other great spots in town.  I guess there is always next time!

Kreuz Market is one of the legendary joints that is a must stop if you are in the area.  They are a Texas Monthly Top 50 spot, and even though the current building is relatively new, they managed to transfer some of the historical feeling when they moved.  This is quality barbecue and a great atmosphere, I just hope next time I go Roy Perez will be there!

Saturday, 17 June 2017

My Cooks - Smoked Chicken Wings, May 2017


This is the first time I post about my own smoking efforts.  My current cooker is a cheap, hardware store offset smoker.  It is made of thin metal and is designed for charcoal use.  I decided a while back that I wanted to try cooking by burning just wood and not charcoal.  I was able to find a firewood supplier that sells oak, unfortunately they are located just south of Edmonton.  A few weeks back I found myself up that way on a work trip and I was able to stop in there to stock up.  Of course, the firebox on my smoker is small, so I had to cut down the wood to make it fit.

It took a bit of work to get the fire going, but I was eventually able to get the smoker up to temperature.  I had hoped to maintain a temperature of around 250 degrees.  This cook was also my first opportunity to use the iGrill temperature sensor I got for Christmas.  I picked up an ambient temperature probe for it about a month ago so mounted the probe at the far end of the cooking area and set the iGrill for a temperature range between 225 and 275 degrees.  The iGrill syncs to your smartphone with bluetooth, so you can monitor your temperatures from a distance and also receive warnings when the temperature falls outside the range you set.  You can plug in up to 4 probes at once, allowing me to monitor the temperature inside the smoker as well as up to 3 different pieces of meat.

I wanted to test things out with something fairly simple and quick, so I opted for some chicken wings.  Something else I tried out for the first time was brining.  Austin's favourite Hardcore Carnivore, Jess Pryles, has posted a recipe for some buffalo chicken tenders that she brined in a buttermilk and hot sauce mixture.  I modified the recipe a little, adding just a few dashes of the hot sauce since I'm the only one in my family that likes spicy food.  My schedule only allowed me to have the wings in the brine for a few hours, so I don't know how much it added, but they did stay moist.  An overnight brine the next time should help even more.  I pulled the wings out of the brine, added some seasoning and onto the smoker they went.


Brined, seasoned and ready for some smoke!


I put a foil pan filled with water on the grill, closest to the firebox to keep more moisture in the cooker as well.  The lid on my smoker doesn't seal very tight, but I have found that a couple of paving stones on top of the lid helps keep it closed a little better!
I mentioned that I was trying to cook with just wood for the first time and I did find it quite a challenge to keep the temperature within my desired range and I was constantly having to adjust the dampers.

I let the wings cook for about 2 hours before checking on them.  The ones closer to the firebox were certainly more cooked than the others.  I moved them around a bit and at this point I slid meat probes into a couple of the wings and closed the lid for a while longer.  After another 45 minutes or so I was comfortable that the wings were cooked.  The problem with doing chicken at a lower temperature like this is that the skin doesn't crisp up.  That may be ok on a whole chicken where you can just not eat the skin, but that doesn't really work on wings!

I pulled the wings off the smoker, tossed them in some barbecue sauce and put them in the oven at high heat to crisp them up.


Smoked BBQ Wings

The Outcome: They were tasty.  Good, but not great.  I actually found the smoke flavour to be overpowering.

Next time out I will try a couple of things differently.  As I mentioned earlier, I'll brine them overnight and the other thing I'll try is to just have them on the smoker for about an hour to get some smoke flavour on the meat, but then I will finish them either on the grill or in the oven.

My other takeaway from this cook is that I need to spend more time figuring out how to maintain a steady temperature using strictly wood for fuel as opposed to charcoal.  Hopefully I can find an afternoon soon to just fire up the smoker and play around with holding the temp.  I also have some modifications in mind for it that hopefully will help.

I'll keep you all posted and I'll have some other posts up soon on some previous cooks!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Franklin

The famous Franklin sign


Aaron Franklin.  In just a few short years, the name has become synonymous with barbecue excellence.  His restaurant in Austin is as famous for its brisket as it is for the daily hours long lineup to get a taste of it.  They insist on using only the highest quality meats and smoke that brisket for up to 18 hours.

Reading Franklin's book, Franklin Barbecue - a meat smoking manifesto, you find out that the insistence on using only the best extends to the post oak used to slow smoke that marvellous meat.  Aaron worked tirelessly in his early days of business to find a wood supplier that could consistently provide him with the best possible product.  The attention to detail starts with the wood and the fire and extends to every process of the cook.

The day before, while in Taylor, I bought a cheap folding camp chair at Walmart.  I planned to be in line early Sunday morning and I didn't want to stand or sit on the ground.  The evening before, I had stopped by the Franklin location on my way to Stiles Switch, just to check out the spot and the parking situation.  At that point I noticed that they have a corral full of camp chairs for the guests to use while in line.  Luckily the chair only cost $10, so not a big deal!

I set my alarm for early Sunday morning and grabbed a couple of pastries, a yogurt and an apple from the hotel continental breakfast on my way out the door.  Franklin talks about the daily line up in his book and I had been reading about it on Twitter for months.  The line up has its own Twitter feed and I had heard stories of people paying others to stand in line for them.  It was also a weekend, so the line up would be longer than on a weekday.  From what I had heard and read, I expected the line up to start 4 or 5 hours before the 11:00 am opening.  I pulled into the parking lot about 6:30 am...crickets.  Nobody in sight.  Not another car in the parking lot.  My immediate thought was that I could have slept more.  I stayed in the car and ate my breakfast.  Within 10 or 15 minutes, two other cars pulled, much to my relief!  I finished my yogurt, grabbed a chair from the corral and got into the lineup.  6:45 am and I was the third chair in line!


6:45 a.m. The view of the door from my spot in line


The folks ahead of me were a husband and wife from Connecticut.  She had been to Franklin before but this was his first time.  The other car was a younger couple from a little ways outside Austin.  He was headed off to Arizona for school and wanted to hit Franklin one more time before going away, so he and his girlfriend had made a weekend trip.  You see, the Franklin lineup has kind of become a thing of its own.  I mentioned the Twitter feed.  They have a sign on the wall letting guests know that the line is BYOB friendly.  As the line grew longer and longer that morning, people were making a social event out of it.  A young couple a little ways back from my spot in line were drinking bloody mary's.  They had recently moved to Austin from Florida and spent a good amount of time talking with two guys ahead of them in line about the local bbq scene.  Groups were using their coolers for card games.  It was a really neat scene.  Around 8 o'clock the staff turned on some music and shortly after someone came out to let us know that a door was unlocked and we could go in to use the washroom if needed.  The cash was also open for those wanting to buy souvenirs prior to opening (hat and t-shirt added to the collection!).



Pictures of the growing line up


The great thing that they do is around 9:00 or 9:30, a staff member comes out and starts going person by person through the lineup, taking an inventory of what everyone figures they will be ordering, and how much.  Using this info, they will cut off the line at some point, letting anyone beyond that point know that they will likely not get any food that day.  The downside of low and slow cooked barbecue is that when it is all gone, it is all gone.  There is no throwing a few more steaks on the grill.  Since opening the restaurant around 2010, Franklin Barbecue has sold out of barbecue every day.  The previous day's sold out sign was still up on the door when I got there.  Closer to opening time, someone else came out selling beer and a few times during the line up staff came out, greeting the guests, answering questions and making sure everyone was doing ok.  From a business model standpoint, I would say they have about mastered the whole guest experience thing.  The lineup creates a buzz of its own and their actions help make it a fun, friendly and social experience.

With all of that said however, the lineup and the buzz would not exist without the food.  If the barbecue wasn't any good, none of it would happen.  The lineups started before Franklin had moved into the current building.  The restaurant started out as a trailer that Aaron and his wife Stacy had built into a food truck.  Shortly after opening, Daniel Vaughn gave them a glowing review and the rest is history!

A few minutes before 11:00, the chairs made their way back into the corral and we stood, eagerly awaiting the main door being unlocked.  Finally, it was time.  After almost 4.5 hours in line, I will admit that I was a little bit giddy with anticipation!


Just moments before opening!


The door opened and in we went, along the back wall and past the souvenir display and then down the side wall up to the counter to order.  I placed my order, watching the cutter expertly slice the brisket and pork ribs that I ordered.  A side of baked beans, white bread and pickles on the side along with a mini pecan pie for dessert.


My Franklin spread.


I joined the Connecticut couple at a table and it was time to eat.  The previous day, I had eaten brisket at two of the finest BBQ joints in Texas and it was outstanding.  Somehow, this was just a little bit better.  It is tough to explain just how, but it was.  It is also difficult to explain how a simple piece of bbq meat is worth waiting 4.5 hours in line for, but it was.  The pork ribs were outstanding in their own right, but the brisket was the star of the show.  Franklin uses a 50/50 salt and pepper rub on the brisket and it is elegant in its simplicity.  The beans were good, the pie was excellent (not house made, they bring it in from a local bakery), but the rest of the meal was overshadowed by the fabulousness of the brisket.


I'm happy to say that I have experienced the Franklin line, and I would absolutely eat there again...just not sure I'll wait 4.5 hours in line again. The food was outstanding and the whole experience was first rate.  In 2013, Texas Monthly named them the top BBQ joint in Texas and the new rankings released just a couple of weeks ago have them at number 2.  In my mind, they are undeniably deserving of such lofty status and braving the Franklin line up is a BBQ bucket list item I'm happy to cross off my list!


Thursday, 25 May 2017

My Ultimate Texas BBQ Trip, February 2017 - Day 1, Stop 3, Stiles Switch

After breakfast at Snow's and lunch at Louis Mueller, I rolled into Austin and got myself checked into my hotel.  I crashed for a bit of an afternoon nap before heading out once again.

I had a couple of items on my agenda to take care of on my way to Stiles Switch.  One of the Austinites I follow on Twitter is Jess Pryles.  She is a barbecue aficionado and her website, www.jesspryles.com has some cool swag, and I was hoping to pick up one of her Hardcore Carnivore t-shirts.  The website listed a local store as one of the places carrying her items so I stopped in there.  Unfortunately, all they carry are her rubs, so no luck there.

My next stop was to scout out the location for my next day's adventure, but more on that in the next blog post!  From there I headed for Stiles Switch...at least that was the plan.  My phone GPS was giving me trouble and I ended up missing my exit...causing me a substantial detour and some frustration.

I finally found my way to the restaurant and headed into Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew.  The restaurant is relatively new, but it is located in one of the oldest shopping centres in Central Austin.  Their website says that the location was used for filming the movie Dazed & Confused back in the 90's.  The decor reminded me of an old roadhouse.  Lots of wood and neon, tv's on the walls.  Simple wooden tables and some larger communal bar height tables.  You enter at one end of the large room and an aisle takes you along the wall up to the counter at the opposite end.  Being my third stop of the day, I decided to go for a lighter option and went with the smoked turkey breast along with pork ribs, coleslaw and potato salad (not really a light option...just lighter!).  The usual white bread and pickles along with a side of sauce and I was good to go.

Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew - smoked turkey & ribs

The ribs were very good, although I did find the bark to be a bit on the peppery side.  The sides were great.  The turkey was good, but a little on the dry side.  Stiles Switch was just named one of the 50 bbq joints in Texas in the new Texas Monthly ranking, so I'm going to assume that either I caught them on an off day or it was the fact that it was my third bbq restaurant of the day, combined with being tired and frustrated at getting lost on the way.  Other than the dry turkey, I can't really point to anything wrong, but I was left wanting more.  Given the circumstances and all the good things I've read about them, I feel like I owe them a second visit.  I'm pretty certain it was just me, so don't hesitate to check them out if you have the opportunity.

I had planned to check out some of the Austin nightlife, but after eating I just made my way back to the hotel (with another brief faulty GPS related detour) and crashed for the night.



Sunday, 21 May 2017

My Ultimate Texas BBQ Trip, February 2017 - Day 1, Stop 2, Louie Mueller BBQ

After my almost surreal breakfast experience at Snow's (see my previous post, Day 1, Stop 1), I hit the road and made the drive to Taylor.  The drive took 30 or 40 minutes and was quite a nice drive through the countryside.  This is the Texas hill country, so lots of rolling hills and farms.  The area had been hit by some storms and tornadoes recently, and I saw some evidence of this with debris in the fields.  The region must also be susceptible to flash flooding, because the low spots on the road had signs or poles alongside to show the depth of the water.

When I rolled into Taylor, I wasn't quite ready for lunch, so I hit the local Walmart for a few things and mostly just to wander around and walk off breakfast!  After putting in as much time as I could at Walmart, I stopped to gas up my rental before making my way over to Louie Mueller.  There was a line up almost to the door when I walked in.  It felt good to be back there and I took the time in the line up to reacquaint myself with the interior decor and also chatted with the folks in front of me.  They were visiting from the Dallas area for a ball tournament.  They must have snuck away early from the tournament to get in line, because before long the place was packed!  Once again, my timing was near perfect.  While in line, pitmaster/owner Wayne Mueller passed by and stopped to say hello once again, remembering me from our meeting earlier that morning.  I was feeling like a bit of a celebrity!!

Saturday line-up at Louis Mueller

I kept it minimal at the counter, remembering the beef rib incident from last time!  Moist brisket, a jalapeño sausage, a side of beans and of course, banana pudding!  Some bread, pickles and sauce on the side and I was good to go.

Heaven on a tray!

The brisket was excellent as usual.  One of the main things that separates the great bbq spots from the rest is the ability to consistently produce excellent quality meats.  Louie Mueller is able to do this with their brisket, and it is a thing of true beauty!  I found the jalapeño sausage to be spicier than on my two earlier visits, but perhaps I was just a little heat sensitive that day, because I also found the beans quite spicy.  They were tasty, but I think I'll just stick with the potato salad next time around.  I took my time eating, enjoying the surroundings and the hustle and bustle of the place.  It was a busy day and the people just kept coming.  I finished off my meal with that delicious banana pudding, an awesome end to a great meal.

I hoped to get the chance to talk to Wayne Mueller again and ask about the possibility of going back to see the pits, but he was busy visiting with some other folks.  Next time maybe!

I got back in the car and pointed it towards Austin for the next stop in my little adventure.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

My Ultimate Texas BBQ Trip, February 2017 - Day 1, Stop 1, Snow's BBQ

This past February (2017) I once again found myself in Houston for work on a 9 day trip...this is starting to sound familiar.  The company I work for has an office in Houston and our guy there takes his vacation at this time every year, so someone from Calgary goes down to man the shop while he's away.  This was the third time in four years that I was that guy, but I'm not complaining.  These trips have given me the opportunity to eat some of the best barbecue anywhere and the experiences on my weekend trip this past February are what inspired me to start writing this blog.

This blog is as much a way for me to preserve the memories for myself as it is a way to share with others.  I've said it previously, but the culture of barbecue isn't just about the food.  The history and the stories of the people and places are a big part of what intrigues and interests me.  Once again, I must throw out a thank you to Daniel Vaughn and www.tmbbq.com for bringing many of the stories of Texas barbecue to my attention.

One of those stories is that of Tootsie Tomanetz and Snow's BBQ.  At the age of 81, Tootsie is the pitmaster at Snow's, in the small town of Lexington, TX, in the heartland of Texas barbecue called the Hill Country.  They are only open one day a week, on Saturdays, and they open up bright and early at 8 am.  And so it was, that on this Saturday morning in February I was in my rental car and headed out once again from Houston on Hwy 290 , but this time with a different first stop on my journey than on my two previous trips up this highway.  I arrived in Lexington a little after 8:30 and followed the signs to the small, red, cabin looking building that houses the joint that in 2008 was named the Best BBQ in Texas.

I was about to learn that barbecue for breakfast at Snow's on Saturday mornings is a bit of thing.  Walking from my car to get in line, a gentlemen walked by me going the other way that looked familiar to me.  I got in line and a few minutes later he returned and joined the group in front of me.  At this time I will admit to eavesdropping a little on their conversation!  After a couple of minutes I realized that I did recognize him and it was indeed Daniel Vaughn, with whom I had been tweeting with just the day before to find out what time I should be there to make sure I didn't miss out.

He and his group were busy talking so I didn't want to interrupt, so I waited for the right moment (very Canadian of me, I know!).  As I waited in line I took in the surroundings.  The pits are located outside under a tin roof that also provides cover to a large seating area.  Two or three large wood fired offset smokers and a number of direct heat metal pits were being manned by the one and only Tootsie.  As I looked over at the pits, I saw another familiar face.  Tootsie was visiting with none other than Wayne Mueller from Louie Mueller in nearby Taylor.



Outside seating area at Snow's


Before long, he came over and chatted with Daniel for a few minutes.  After they were done talking I introduced myself to Wayne and was thrilled and surprised when he said that he'd been reading my tweets!  I hadn't expected that it was him that managed the restaurant's Twitter account...pretty cool.  We chatted for a minute and I told him that I was heading to his place after this.  By this time I had just about reached the door to enter inside and I had the opportunity to say hello to Daniel.  He also recognized me from our Twitter conversations and we had a brief conversation and I asked him what he recommended off the menu here.  He suggested the pork steak, one of their specialties.

I got inside the swinging door.  On my right was a display of t-shirts and souvenirs for sale and on the left was the serving counter.  I placed my order of some brisket, a rib and the recommended pork steak and paid for my tray along with a banana pudding, a t-shirt and a souvenir cup.  It isn't a large space.  Beside the t-shirt display is the counter where get your white bread, pickles, etc.  There is a drink machine along with tea and sweet tea dispensers and a cooler full of ice.  Six or eight large wooden tables with benches fill up the rest of the indoor dining area.  I found a spot at a table with a family already eating and sat down to bbq for breakfast!


Snow's brisket, pork steak and a rib with white bread and pickles on the side, with banana pudding for dessert!



I can't really say that any one of the meats I ordered was better than the other...it was all outstanding.  The brisket was as good as any I had eaten to that point, the rib was perfect and the pork steak was an incredibly pleasant surprise (thanks again Daniel).  I finished off my meal with a delectable banana pudding.  After eating and refilling my cup with sweet tea on ice, I chatted briefly again with Mr. Vaughn.  He mentioned that there was a group of BBQ people doing a tour of some of the area's many great spots and he provided some recommendations of other spots to visit.  It was a true pleasure to meet Daniel and I appreciate the chance to thank him for all the great reads.

I then headed outside to have a look around the outside seating an pit area.  The owner of Snow's is Kerry Bexley.  He was out by the pits visiting with customers.  I said hello to him and asked if it was ok to come back and meet Tootsie.  He said it was and I wandered into the pit area to wait my turn while she was talking to someone else.  She kept working while visiting, opening the large steel pit doors, shifting links of sausage around.  When she was done I went over to introduce myself.  She was incredibly friendly and seemed to genuinely enjoy the steady stream of visitors.  We snapped a selfie and I thanked her for her time and for the incredible food.


Me and the legend, Tootsie Tomanetz


On my way out, I noticed that there were even more people from area bbq restaurants there, enjoying this Saturday morning tradition in Central Texas.  If you want to read more about Tootsie and this great place, go to www.tmbbq.com/snows-queen.  It is a beautifully written essay about the life of a remarkable women.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Texas Tour Two - Part 3, Killen's BBQ, February 2016

It was a beautiful, sunny, Saturday morning in Houston, and it was the last day of my trip.  My flight didn't leave until late afternoon though, so that meant I had time for one more barbecue visit.  Prior to my trip, I had been hearing a lot of buzz about Killen's Barbecue, just to the south of Houston in Pearland, so I decided that it would be the final stop for this work trip/barbecue journey.  I had been texting that week with a friend about meeting for lunch on Saturday, and it turned out that he lives in Pearland, so we made plans to meet at Killen's.  I arrived about 45 minutes before opening, parked in the back and had a peek at the smokers situated behind the restaurant before joining the line out front.



I joined the line, which was about 20 or 30 people deep at this point.  My pal Jason arrived just a few minutes later and we spent the time in line catching up on each other's lives.  Jason and I work in the same industry and have gotten to know each other over the years.  The restaurant was offering free beer to the folks in line (something fairly common I've learned), while taking donations for a charity.



Once opening time came the line moved fairly quickly, and before long we were out of the sun in the shade of the entrance canopy and then through the doors into the building.  There is a small foyer once inside that leads to the ordering counter.  We ordered our meats and sides, plus I had been tasked with bringing home a pecan pie, so I also ordered a whole pie.  On my previous trip to Houston, I had commented to my family on how good the pecan pie (my all time favourite pie by the way) was, so it was requested that I bring one home.  I had picked up a round, plastic food container at Wal-Mart earlier in the week so I was prepared.  I asked the restaurant to wrap the pie in plastic wrap for me and they were happy to oblige!  

We paid the bill and took our trays to a table.  This is a much newer building (or at least recently renovated) than some of the other places I had been to that week, so it is missing that feeling of history and tradition.  There are no Louie Mueller smoke stained walls here for sure, but the design and decor gave it a bit of an old style diner look, so it definitely had character.  There is a counter for tea and fountain drinks, and also for the usual condiments like pickles and onions.  The table contained a couple of sauce options.  Again, like at Leon's a week earlier, I didn't take a picture of my plate (over a year ago I had no idea that I would one day be writing a blog about these adventures!).  I know I had brisket and pork ribs, both of which were top notch.  The brisket at Killen's is what I had been reading about and it was easy to tell why.  Delicious bark, beautifully tender with the fat well rendered.  The ribs were on the par with the brisket.  Great bark with a good bite, the meat pulling away from the bone with just a bit of effort.  The sauces were good, with the coffee flavoured sauce having a particularly interesting taste to it.

A year later, I am trying to remember if I ordered the 2 meat plate or the 3 meat plate.  Given how memorable the brisket and ribs were, I have to think I showed a rare bit of restraint and just went with the 2 meater as I am sure I would remember a third meat if I had gone for the third.  If my memory serves me, Jason ordered brisket and pulled pork and enjoyed them both.

I've heard good things about the beef rib, so I will have to make sure I get back to Killen's on a future trip.  By the way, the pecan pie made it home safe and sound and was enjoyed by the family, although we all noted that you could taste a bit of smoke flavour in the crust.  I say Killen's BBQ is worthy of all the hype I had read about prior to my visit and continue to see.  I will be interested to see where they rank when the updated TM BBQ rankings come out soon.


Killen's is owned by Chef Ronnie Killen and is just one of the restaurants in Pearland and Houston he runs.  There is also Killen's Steakhouse, Killen's Burgers and the new Killen's STQ in Houston, next door to Roegel's BBQ.

Check out Killen's at www.killensbarbecue.com and follow them on Twitter at @killensbbq.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Texas Tour Two - Part 2, Galveston Island, February 2016

After my Saturday featuring 3 BBQ joints in Taylor and Elgin, I made my way to Galveston on Sunday.  I had visited Galveston on my previous trip to Houston, but the fog that day was so thick you could even see the water from the sidewalk on the other side of the beach so I wanted to get back there and hopefully see some of the local attractions this time around.  I had also been disappointed after that first trip to find out there was a top notch barbecue place that I had missed out on, so I had a few things on my agenda.

I made the drive from Houston, arriving mid morning.  I parked down around Seawall Blvd. and took a stroll along the Gulf Coast line.  Along the boulevard opposite the beach are plenty of restaurants and bars, along with some shops.  There is also a large gift and souvenir shop on the beach that is elevated up over the water.  I walked out onto one the piers extending out into the gulf and chatted with a couple of folks fishing there.



 There is also a small amusement park, Pleasure Pier, with rides and games.  I took a stroll through the park.  It looks like it would be fun for the younger crowd, but there are only a couple of rides geared for adults.  The roller coaster looked fun, but I didn't want to be that creepy guy riding the coaster all alone! Besides, by this time I was ready for some lunch.  Before leaving the beach, though, I grabbed a picture of the Hotel Galvez & Spa.


It looked like a beautiful old hotel, facing the beach and the Gulf.  I haven't been to New Orleans, but the architecture of this hotel and many of the homes around Galveston reminded me of what I've seen on TV and in movies of New Orleans, not surprising since they are just across the Gulf from one another.


I made my way back to Broadway and to Leon's World's Finest In & Out Bar-B-Que.  If you're not looking for it, you'll miss it, even though it is right on the main drag through Galveston.  Leon's is a TMBBQ Top 50 rated joint, so while hard to find the food is legit.


Through the storm door and into a small dining room with the walk up counter.  The folks inside were very friendly.  If I recall correctly I ordered up a three meat plate with ribs, brisket and sausage (I failed to take a picture of the meal for some reason).  I also ordered up the kicked up spicy rice as my side and sat down to enjoy.  There was a group of college age kids there, licking their wounds after what sounded like a hell of a good time the night before.  I dug into my lunch and was very pleased.  The brisket and sausage were both excellent, but the ribs stole the show in my opinion, along with the slightly spicy rice mixed with cut up vegetables.  Those ribs though, just outstanding!  For dessert, I struggled to decide between the pecan pie or the buttermilk pie, but I ended up with the pecan option...it's my favourite pie, I couldn't help myself!  There was another fellow that came in while I was there and he was raving about the boudin sausage, so that will have to be on the menu next visit.  Boudin is a Cajun sausage made with pork and rice.  If you are planning a visit to Galveston Island, be sure to check out Leon's and visit them online at www.leonsbbq.com.

After lunch, I headed to the other side of the island to the port area.  There were a couple of crazy big cruise ships docked in the harbour and I strolled down the docks where a number of fishing boats were unloading the days catch.  From there I took a walk around the downtown area and visited a number of the gift shops there to find souvenirs for the family!

This was a much better visit than my first attempt at Galveston, partly because I could see where I was going, but mostly because of some darn fine BBQ at Leon's!


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Texas Tour Two - Part 1, February 2016

In February of 2016 I once again had the opportunity to head down to Houston for work and like the previous trip, I was going to have a weekend to myself.  By this point in time I was considerably more educated on the BBQ scene, thanks to social media and in particular the Texas Monthly BBQ blog written by Daniel Vaughn.  I highly recommend www.tmbbq.com if you are interested in learning about the BBQ joints, people and history of barbecue in Texas.

Armed with this newfound knowledge I planned my day trip for the Saturday and headed out early that morning, taking highway 290 out of town, once again for Taylor, TX.

My first stop was a return visit to Louie Mueller, but this time I had a different beef item in mind.  As well known as they are for the brisket, they are also famous for their beef ribs, so I figured I'd better give it a try!  I got there ahead of any big lineup and made my way up to the counter to order, and to enjoy that beautiful brisket sample of course!  I also wanted to have one of the jalapeño sausages I had enjoyed the last time.  When I gave the cutter my order of a beef rib, a sausage, a side of potato salad and a banana pudding for dessert he kind of chuckled.  A few moments later when he placed the massive beef rib on my tray I understood why.  It was huge.  While I have lived my entire life in cities, I have spent enough time outside the city to know how large cows are, but seriously, this thing was ridiculous.  The bone was the size of my forearm.  But here I was, the meal was paid for so there was only one thing to do...dig in!




The rib was excellent.  Tender, succulent meat seasoned with that famous black pepper and salt crust. The only issue was just how darned big it was.  The sausage and potato salad, while not needed, were both very good, but the star of the show was the rib.  I did enjoy the banana pudding at the end of the meal.  It was thankfully not too heavy or rich and the sweetness was welcome after all the savoury meat.

I had another stop to make while in Taylor, but I needed some time, so I found the local Walmart and wandered around there for a while to let that beef rib digest a little.


The town of Taylor is home to another well known barbecue joint, Taylor Cafe.  I had read a comparison, saying that Louie Mueller is a BBQ place that sells beer, while Taylor Cafe is a beer hall that sells BBQ.  After my short visit I have to agree.


Taylor Cafe looks just like your typical small town bar.  Neon beer signs on the walls, bar counters in the middle with tables lining the walls.  There are two bars inside, apparently a relic of the segregation days.  The attraction for me wasn't the food, but the opportunity to meet the legendary owner, Vencil Mares.  I first read about Vencil in the 'Peace, Love and BBQ' book.  He opened Taylor Cafe in 1948 after returning from World War II.  Now in his 90's, Mr. Mares occupies a seat by the bar most days, and that is where he was when I wandered in.  The bar was mostly empty and I took a seat at the bar and ordered a simple sausage on white bread with pickles and onions.  Vencil was visiting with a couple of regulars that were there.  After eating I took the opportunity to say hello and shake his hand.  From what I have read, the BBQ at Taylor Cafe may not be what it used to be, but I was grateful for the chance to meet a legend and to be able to say I've eaten there.

My third and final stop for the day on my way back to Houston was at Southside Market in Elgin.  Famous for their "Hot Guts" beef sausage, Southside bills itself as the Oldest BBQ Joint in Texas and has been in business since 1882.  Like many of the legendary Texas BBQ places, Southside started out as a meat market before the days of refrigeration.  To keep cuts of meat that didn't sell right away from spoiling, they were smoked to preserve them.  Over the years Southside has changed ownership a number of times and a fire in 1983 forced them to move from the original building to the current location right on Highway 290.

Walking in the doors, it was clear that this was a larger, more commercial operation than my previous stops that day.  It is a much larger restaurant with a gift shop area (I got t-shirts for me and my daughters and a bottle of sauce that we are still enjoying).  To be honest, by this time I was pretty much stuffed, but I had to try something.  I ordered a brisket sandwich and a sausage slammer, which was a delightful combination of jalapeño, cheddar, sausage and bacon...truly 4 of my favourite things!







I really liked the slammer and the brisket sandwich was good, but I was too full to give it a truly fair shake.  This is a large operation serving a much higher volume of customers than a place like Louie Mueller and as such it would be unreasonable to expect the food to have the same hand-crafted quality.  I haven't been back through Elgin since, but I would certainly like to go back and give them another taste...maybe when I'm not in the middle of a serious case of the meat sweats!  Check out their story at www.southsidemarket.com.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Cathedral of Smoke - February 2014

I mentioned in my first post that there just isn't a ton of real barbecue around Calgary.  Like I said, there is some out there and some of it is good...there just isn't a lot of it, so I didn't have a chance to try a whole lot.

I started a new job in June of 2013 and later that year I was asked to spend a week or so working in our Houston office in February of 2014.  I decided if I was going to be in Texas I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to try out some of the local barbecue.  While I was there my weekdays were going to be busy working, but I was going to have a weekend to myself.  I started doing some research online to figure out where to go and one place kept coming up, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX.  Everything I read made it seem like exactly what I was looking for.  Small town place, long history, great reviews.  Hell, the place is called "The Cathedral of Smoke".  It was decided.  Early on that Saturday morning in February I would head out from Houston for the 2.5 to 3 hour drive northwest to Taylor.  I checked in with them on Twitter the day before to see what time I should plan to be there...needless to say I was a little excited and didn't want to miss out on what I'd heard was their legendary brisket!

I hit the highway for the drive, arriving in Taylor around 11:00 am.  As I recall, my phone GPS was acting up so I had to drive around a little trying to find the place and even drove by it once looking for it.






When I did find it I was pleased to see that I had arrived in time to beat the line up!  I parked and walked up to the old screen door and when I stepped inside it was like I was stepping back in time 40 or 50 years.  The dark, smoke stained walls, the old signs, the framed magazine covers and posters all gave the interior a sense of history.  There was a short line up and before long I was at the counter, about to experience something I had read about.  You see, when you get to the counter at Louie Mueller, the meat cutter slices off a chunk of brisket on the big wooden chopping block and gives you a sample to enjoy while you order.  It was like nothing I had ever tasted.  Tender beyond belief, I hardly had to chew it.  It just kind of melted in my mouth, the long smoking process having rendered the fat down to an almost liquid state.  The meats are sold by weight.  I ordered up 3 slices of the brisket and was fortunate to get an end piece, full of fabulous salt and pepper bark.  I opted for a jalapeño sausage and a side of coleslaw, with sauce on the side.






This was three years ago now and the memory I have of it is wow!  Just like the sample I had received at the counter, the brisket was almost fall apart tender and so delicious, with the taste of smoke present, but not overpowering and the flavours of the bark flooding my mouth with happiness.  The sausage casing had a satisfying snap to it as I cut through it and the jalapeno gave it a nice, flavourful kick while not being overly spicy.  The coleslaw balanced out the meat nicely.  I tried the thin, tomato based sauce with the brisket, but frankly meat that good doesn't need sauce (something I would later learn is a bit of a trademark of Central Texas barbecue).


I picked up a t-shirt on my way out as a souvenir and to this day, whenever I put it on I swear I can smell that sweet smoke!





How It All Began

In this first post, I'm going to try and explain how I came to be a barbecue guy. How a Canadian guy who'd never really spent any time in the south became a fan of a cuisine that isn't necessarily easy to find where I live.  First, a little background story.

I've always been a fan of what I used to think was barbecue.  I have fond memories of childhood barbecues with burgers and hot dogs on the grill and our Mom sending my brother and I on our bikes to Mrs. Mikes for $2 worth of fries.  She would call ahead and there would be a big brown paper bag of their delicious fries waiting for us to pedal back home with.

Later on in life I became proud of my abilities to cook and create a variety of tasty dishes on my propane fueled Weber and enjoyed cooking for family and friends.  I still do. 

But in 2011 that all changed.  My wife bought me a book as an anniversary gift.  She thought it was a recipe book for the grilling type of barbecue that we had become accustomed to...she was wrong and I'm not sure I've ever been so thankful for an innocent mistake.  The book was 'Peace, Love & BBQ' by Mike and Amy Mills, proprietors of 17th Street Barbecue in Murpysboro, IL and BBQ legend.  While there are some darned fine recipes in there, the book is filled with the stories of the people that Mike has encountered in his years on the BBQ competition circuit.  Reading these tales triggered something inside me and sparked an interest in learning more about this style of food. 

Let's face the facts.  I live in Calgary, AB, Canada.  The options 'round these parts to taste authentic BBQ are limited, but I did what I could.  That Christmas delivered my first smoker, a simple Brinkmann barrel model from Bass Pro Shops.  Armed with just enough info to make me dangerous, my first attempt at ribs was less than stellar.  They took a lot longer than expected and while they were edible, they were far from spectacular.  My next attempt at ribs, along with a red wine infused moose roast was far better.

Using that barrel smoker there were a few more attempts at ribs and brisket.  Some good, some not so good...but never quite what I was looking to create.  I was learning that BBQ was something that took  time and practice to get decent at, and as a busy family man with 2 kids the opportunities to spend a whole day on the weekend to mind the coals were few and far between.

My definition of real BBQ was about to change however...