Of Fermented Ketchup and BBQ Snobs

by zydecopaws on September 26, 2010

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On the way home from the lake last week Pigdog and I stopped to eat at a restaurant touting BBQ with all-you-could-eat sides and had a unique experience. Among other things, I found out I am a BBQ snob, everything I know about BBQ is wrong, and that if you leave homemade ketchup out long enough it ferments.

I’ve written a couple of BBQ restaurant reviews here that were less than flattering, and one or two that recommended that you stop whatever you were doing and go to the restaurant being reviewed immediately. I’m not going to mention this particular restaurants name, mainly because I might want to go back again but not necessarily for the food. If nothing else, last night was an interesting experience.

The restaurant in question was run by a husband and wife team, a very nice couple that built the building themselves, had their own farm, and basically did the restaurant thing because they enjoyed it so much. The restaurant itself only had about eight or nine tables, a corner where music was played on occasion, and was very nicely decorated in a knotty-pine kind of way. We were nicely escorted to our seats, fussed over by both the husband and wife, given a brief overview of several of their sauces, and left to peruse the menu.

Opening the menu presented the first of several surprises of the evening. The first menu item was smoked rack of lamb. At almost $30 a plate. Next up was smoked baby back ribs at a price point a bit higher than we are used to seeing up here, but not outrageous. This was followed by four different sizes and varieties of sirloin steak. The menu was rounded out with a Caribbean chicken, a smoked chicken, and a smoked salmon filet. There were some combos as well, but that was it for the selection of entrees. No pulled pork, no brisket, no spares. And the average price for a meal was well north of $20 per person. Without drinks.

Concerned, but undeterred, I ordered a half-rack of ribs and half-chicken combo meal. Pigdog opted for a half-rack of ribs and sirloin steak. Followed by a five-minute discussion about how Pigdog wanted his steak prepared. Just what is so hard about medium-well? Next came the dissertation on the homemade BBQ sauces. They have 17 varieties for sale; fortunately we were only treated to the stories of five. Of course we heard about them at least three times during the course of the evening; if they hadn’t been so tasty, I might have been annoyed after the second time around.

Somewhere during the ordering process Pigdog tells them that we are food reviewers. I’m pretty sure that Pigdog has never written a full restaurant review in his life (although he does comment from time to time here and on other blogs around the Interweb) and the minute this phrase escapes his lips I’m giving him the WTH are you thinking look. Now we have to explain that I have a blog and occasionally write reviews about BBQ restaurants. At this point, the wife asks me “why the heck would you ever want to do that?” in a tone of voice that left no question in my mind that she thought that this activity is a complete waste of time. Then she proceeds to go off on “food snobs” who think they know all about food but never order anything, and how they always give them the worst of what is available while reserving the best for those with better stories. At least she put servicemen getting ready for a tour of duty near the top of that list…

At some point she ran down and we toddled off to the salad and side dish bar. The sides consisted of some mixed lettuce and some other veggies for salad, a pasta salad, spaghetti, something they called BBQ beans, and some beef vegetable soup. The green salad wasn’t bad, and the homemade salad dressings (about a dozen different varieties) were excellent. The pasta salad was nothing special, but at least it was better than the hot sides which had clearly been in the warming trays far too long. And you’ll notice from the selection that once again they were not the usual sides you would expect to find in a traditional BBQ restaurant.

The one redeeming side was some fresh-cut and piping-hot French fries brought to the table and accompanied by a squeeze bottle of homemade ketchup. The fries were excellent by themselves, but after a taste or two of the ketchup I warned Pigdog not to eat any as it tasted like it was made with some sort of alcohol (Pigdog doesn’t do alcoholic anything). About this time the wife walks over and following the denial of alcoholic content proceeds to stick her finger in the ketchup on my plate and test it. And immediately declares it to be fermented and removes it from the table with a very embarrassed look on her face. It was eventually replaced with a fresh batch which was good, but I think they might have been onto something with the fermented batch because it actually had more flavor.

About this time the entrees arrived. On my plate was a small half-chicken and a blackened unidentifiable lump of something. I looked over at Pigdog’s plate and saw a similar lump next to a steak, so I figured it must be the ribs. I turned it over and confirmed that was the case as the bones were clearly in evidence. As a certified BBQ judge with the PNWBA, I would have given these ribs a 2 for appearance if I saw them in a competition. Of course I never would have said this to the owners, as the wife had already proclaimed that BBQ competitions were for lesbians and where men went to pick up women. Where this came from I have no idea, but it certainly didn’t make sense, nor did it square with my experiences at BBQ competitions. Maybe I’m doing something wrong…

At any rate, the ribs tasted only slightly better than they looked, and were made edible only by the sauces (which were very good and all very different). Pigdog kept trying to convince me they were good, but later admitted that perhaps they weren’t all that good after all. The chicken wasn’t bad in spite of being a bit dry; again the sauces made up for what the meat lacked. The highlight of the meal was Pigdog’s steak; in spite of it being cooked more than I like it had a great flavor and was very tender.

Once we finished eating we sat there and conversed with the owners for quite a while. During the conversation we found out that their pit was some unknown custom made smoker that was airtight and that they flash-grilled everything when it came time to serve. This explains why the steak was so good and why the pork and chicken weren’t. I started to mention something about the difficulty of keeping low-and-slow cooked food fresh when the wife cut me off and proceeded to tell me that BBQ came from the Caribbean, that it was hot and fast, and “that Texas stuff” wasn’t really BBQ. And that BBQ was about the sauce, not the meat. Interesting perspective from someone that was raised in Virginia…

Apparently they don’t cook the traditional BBQ meats as they “are crappy cuts of meat” and “anyone can cook them.”. Although not the husband, as his comment about brisket was something about throwing it the smoker for twelve hours and that he did it once, didn’t like it, and refused to ever cook it again. It appears he isn’t savvy to the concept of taking a cheap cut of meat and turning it into a meal that people will rave about when done correctly. And having cooked brisket a time or two, I can safely say that there is an art to making a good one that isn’t easily mastered. Of course, the fact that he didn’t start cooking BBQ until “three days before the restaurant opened when the smoker was installed” might have something to do with this. That and the concept that “people open BBQ restaurants because it is the easiest thing in the world to cook.”. But he might be on to something there that would explain why there are so many bad BBQ restaurants out there…

There was more of this all in a similar vein. I managed to stay out of an argument and hold my tongue until we left, but I bent Pigdog’s ear the rest of the way home. I’m still not sure how I would rate the restaurant as the service was excellent, the food was all over the map from horrendous to excellent, the prices were on the high side, and the conversation, while interesting, was simultaneously fascinating and bizarre. I wouldn’t recommend this restaurant to anyone, yet am considering going back just for the experience again.

Although next time, I’ll order the steak and smell the ketchup carefully before I taste it…

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