Monday, December 29, 2008

Return to Barn Burner

It had been a couple years since I'd been to Barn Burner. I really didn't have any desire to ever return. Saturday I was at the airport to pick up a friend of mine coming in from New Zealand, and the flight was delayed by a couple hours. Except nobody had bothered to post that on the internet or even at the airport terminal, so I just waited around for a couple hours wondering when the hell he was going to show up. By the time he did I was starving, and my phone was dead from all the internet surfing I was doing to kill time.

So I stopped by my place to get my phone charger. Barn Burner is close by, and when I gave my friend some choices for lunch, barbecue sounded good to him. When we walked in there were only two tables occupied. This seemed strange at 1 PM on a Saturday. After eating our lunch, it did not seem so strange.

We started with an order of onion rings. They were good - beer battered and crispy. It would have been nice to have something other than ranch dressing with them, but they were good enough that they didn't even need sauce.

I got the pulled chicken sandwich. It was one of the driest sandwiches I have ever had. There was no moisture to it at all. I had trouble even swallowing the first bite. I got a side of slaw with the sandwich, which was good, so I added it to the sandwich, along with plenty of their barbecue sauce, which is much too sweet for me, but at least it made the sandwich somewhat edible. (I only ate half of it and left the other half in my friends' refrigerator; I will be interested to see what they say if they ate it.)

My buddy got a sandwich with pulled pork, brisket, and hot links. He sawed off a part of it for me to try. It was better than my sandwich, but it was by no means good. The pulled pork was decent, although there wasn't very much of it. The brisket was dry, just like my chicken, and the hot links were very salty.

This was my last trip to Barn Burner.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jake's Roadhouse (Again)

It had been a long time since I had been to Jake's in Monrovia. (That blog entry was from August, but the meal itself may have been at least two years earlier.) The other day I was helping my mom do some Christmas shopping and she wanted to go to lunch somewhere in Monrovia. I didn't feel like going to any of the nicer restaurants there, and I know my mom likes barbecue like I do, so I suggested Jake's.

I ordered the pulled chicken sandwich (the first picture) and she ordered the pulled pork sandwich. My sandwich was swimming in sauce. You can tell that there is a lot of it in the picture, but what you can't see is that the bottom of the basket is a covered with a pool of their much-too-sweet sauce. Of course, when I took a bite I understood why - the chicken was completely dry and flavorless. I am positive there would have been absolutely no flavor to it without the sauce.

I took a bite of my mom's sandwich and it was much better than mine, similar to how I remember the pulled pork from my last trip. Jake's fries are great, and their slaw is just about perfect: it's got dressing in it but it's not soaked in the dressing to the point that the cabbage is completely limp. I added plenty of slaw to my sandwich with a couple slugs of hot sauce and it made it better.

Despite my sandwich being lousy, I still really like Jake's. The people are nice, the inside is cool, the prices are cheap, and most of the food is decent. Just not the pulled chicken sandwich.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tugg's River Saloon (Minneapolis)

Tugg's River Saloon
219 N Main St SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414

A couple of my good friends moved to Minneapolis for businness, and I, always up for a road trip, volunteered to drive with one of them to get her car up there. It was a fanastic trip, through Las Vegas, Denver, Mt. Rushmore, and across the Great Plains into Minnesota. Unfortunately, it was the worst trip I have ever been on in terms of culinary adventures. We ate at a terrible restaurant in Las Vegas that was basically a crappier version of Islands. I ate at Burger King in Denver. I ate at Chili's in Rapid City, South Dakota. The one highlight of the drive there was ordering 10 piece chicken McNuggets at a McDonalds in southern Minnesota and getting 11 pieces. (Actually, I still think about that and smile sometimes.)

The first night in Minneapolis we went out for a sushi meal that was terrible. My friend Dave (or rather my friend Dave's company) paid for the dinner, and I was still upset about it. The next morning was a gorgeous morning so the three of us went for a walk. We crossed over the Mississippi and walked around a bit, then saw a nice outdoor patio and figured we would get some lunch there.

I ordered the "smoked bbq pork sandwich." It was quite possibly the worst sandwich I have ever had. I cannot accurately describe how much fat was on this sandwich. It's possible that at least a third of it was fat. It is the only barbecue sandwich that can compare with the atrocity that was JR's Texas BBQ. I think I had maybe two bites and gave up.

The rest of the weekend wasn't much better for finding good food. Months later, when my friends had gotten familiar with the area, they told me that their loft was only a couple blocks from the best food street in Minneapolis and they couldn't understand how we possibly kept missing it when we went out looking for food. (Apparently it would be analogous to staying at the Marriott in Old Pasadena and missing Colorado Blvd every time you went out for a walk.) I kind if wish they'd never told me that.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Whiskey Creek (Hays, Kansas)

It's almost comical the number of nights I have spent in Hays, Kansas. It might be 5 or 6 nights now, and I cannot think of a single reason why. I was there when I was a kid with my mom and grandmother. Once my dad and I stayed at a Holiday Inn there and ate at the Chinese retaurant in the hotel; easily one of the top 5 worst meals of my life. Once I remember eating at an Applebees in Hays, and remarking to the waitress that it was really windy.
"It's always like this," she said. "Where are you from?"
"Southern California," I replied.
She turned her head to the side and stared at me for a few seconds, like a confused puppy. "Then what the hell are you doing in Hays?" she asked.
The last time I was in Hays I stopped at Whiskey Creek for dinner, mostly because it was the only restaurant with cars in front of it. I figured that was a good sign. I started with an order of "Southwest Tootsy Rolls," hoping they would be better than the name. Basically they were egg rolls of shrimp, cream cheese and chives. They were pretty good, although nothing special at all. (But they did not make me sick, which is more than I can say for the Chinese meal I had in Hays.)
The pulled pork sandwich was not very good. They claimed it was smoked for hours over hickory, but I doubt that. There was no smoke ring and it was not tender at all. Perhaps they only cook barbecue a couple times a year, keep it in the freezer, and heat it up and serve it to the Californians passing through town, figuring we won't know any better.
I would like to tell you that if you find yourself in Hays to keep driving to the next town for dinner, but that means a few hours. So if you are in Hays I guess you should probably eat here. Just don't order the barbecue.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Frisella's Roastery

Frisella's Roastery
179 N Glendora Ave
Glendora, CA 91741
I had lunch with my brother in "downtown" Glendora, not far from where he lives. I have never been there so I asked him for suggestions. I don't always have to eat barbecue, believe it or not, but when it is an option I always want it. He suggested a roastery that he said he thought had barbecue.
I don't know what it is about downtown Glendora, but I felt like I was walking around a retirement community. Literally 9 out of every 10 people on the sidewalks and in the three restaurants we walked past had to be over the age of 75. I'm only saying this as an observation. I have nothing against old people. I loved my grandparents and when they were alive I would eat with them frequently. (This usually involved meeting another couple at Coco's at 5 for dinner. My grandmother would get there at 4 to get "settled in." It was never made clear to me exactly what that meant; apparently it had something to do with my Granny reciting every item on the menu and saying "oh, that sounds good," and my Grandad wondering what Howard Jones would do with USC Football that year, even though Jones stopped coaching the Trojans in 1940.)
I ordered the barbecue pork sandwich. The entrees come with homemade potato chips and a choice of one side, or you can get fries in lieu of the chips and side. I went with the chips and cole slaw. My brother got the quarter chicken with dark meat. He opted just to get the fries.
My sandwich was very good. I doubt the pork was smoked; it tasted much more like it had been roasted, but it was still good, although there was a little too much fat on it. The bread was fantastic. It was substantial enough not to fall apart with the sauce on it, but soft enough to melt in my mouth and not get in the way of the pork.
The chips were not good. They were not fresh and they were overly seasoned. The cole slaw was Smart & Final. I hate when that happens. I like Smart & Final cole slaw at a picnic or a ball game, but when I am paying for a restaurant meal, I wish they would tell me when their slaw isn't homemade. Especially considering that my brother's fries were awesome. I should have gotten those. He said his chicken was really good, and it had a smoke ring to it, but I didn't try it because I do not like dark meat chicken.
I liked Frisella's. It was far from a "barbecue" restaurant, but it was good, and the bill for the two of us, with my sandwich, his chicken, and a couple iced teas, was 22 bucks.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mo's Smokehouse (Pismo Beach)

Mo's Smokehouse
221 Pomeroy
Pismo Beach, CA

I first visited Mo's three years ago. It was the middle of the week and I stopped in relatively early. The barbecue was terrible, and obviously a day or two old. I said to the guy working the counter "This wasn't smoked this morning, was it?" He simply shrugged and mumbled "I dunno." A couple months after this trip I mentioned my experience to my buddy Les - one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of barbecue - and he reported having a very similar experience when he went there.

So I pretty much put it out of my mind. But then a few years went by and I found myself in Pismo Beach again and I figured why not give it another try? It was much, much better this time around.

On my previous trip I had an order of garlic fries that were cold, including the garlic topping, and a pulled pork sandwich that was old, as I mentioned, and also completely drowned in cole slaw. I do not mind slaw on a sandwich, but that was the only time I can remember having more slaw than pork.

This time my friend and I got a large order of homemade potato chips. As soon as we saw them we knew we couldn't have gotten a smaller order. But they were so damn good we ate almost all of them. Homemade potato chips are one of my biggest weaknesses. I got the shredded pork sandwich and she got the shredded chicken. Since the sandwiches come with slaw on them, we got potato salad on the side instead of slaw.

The shredded pork was very good. It was fresh, and even though there was a lot of sauce on it, the sauce was good. The shredded chicken was phenomenal. I took one bite and it melted in my mouth like the barbecue equivalent of cotton candy.

They have four barbecue sauces: original, hot, Sweet Carolina's, and Philthy Phil's. The first two were good although there was nothing to set them apart from hundreds of sauces I have tried around the country. The sweet sauce was lousy. I am not a fan of sweet sauces, but this was just ridiculous. You could put this on ice cream and it would not be out of place. The Philthy Phil's sauce was fantastic: a vinegar sauce with brown sugar, mustard and spices. I bought a bottle of this to take with me.

So I have been to Mo's twice now. Once was terrible, reheated food, and once was fantastic and very reminiscent of a Southern barbecue shack. One of these days I will make it back for a third time and see what I find.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Robin's Redux

Unlike the last time I went to Robin's with my camera, I did not lose the pictures from my most recent trip. I ordered my usual chopped pork sandwich. When it came, I noticed that there was less meat on it than usual. However, it was fantastic. There was plenty of smoke ring, and the pork was tender and pulled apart easily, with very little fat. It was probably the best sandwich I have ever had there, and I have had dozens.
I got sides of both the "Carolina Sweet Mustard Sauce" and the "Memphis Red Vinegar Sauce." They were not as good as usual. The mustard sauce tasted just like French's yellow mustard, and the vinegar sauce had too much sugar in it and was far too sweet. It didn't matter, really, because the pork was so good it didn't need sauce.
I also got a hamburger to go for someone. It did not look very good and I did not even bother trying it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Matt Denny's Ale House

Matt Denny's Ale House
145 E Huntington Dr
Arcadia, CA 91066

I have been eating at Matt Denny's for over a decade now. There was a time when I visited it as frequently as once a week, although now it's more like once every few months. My standard order is almost always the "smoked turkey sandwich," which is one of the best turkey sandwiches anywhere. (I have had many other items on their menu, including fish & chips, Guinness pot pie, fried shrimp, pastrami sandwich, and grilled halibut... everything on the menu is good, except the Caesar salad, which is curiously one of the worst I have ever had.)
The turkey is always juicy and never has any fat on it. The sauce comes on the side, although it is really good so I add it to the sandwich. The third picture is a pulled pork sandwich. One of the employees, whom I sometimes see outside of the restaurant, told me it was even better than the smoked turkey, so a little while ago I gave it a try. It was indeed good, but definitely not as good as the turkey.
Matt Denny's also has a great beer selection, and there is always sports on the TVs. Their menu is pretty expansive; I would love to see them cut out several of their items and concentrate more on barbecue, because they are very good at it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Gilroy Garlic Festival

On the list of things I love, somewhere between barbecue and Thanksgiving, is garlic. I love it roasted, fresh, infused in oil, or any other way I can eat it. I even considered calling this blog "Baseball and Garlic." (Actually, that's a lie. That would have been a terrible name for a blog.)

For years I had wanted to make it to Gilroy - the "garlic capital of the world" - for their annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. A couple years ago, after watching Huell Howser do a special on the festival, I decided I had to do it. It was a lot of fun, although it was well over 100 degrees, and after eating garlic egg rolls, garlic pizza, and a dish of garlic shrimp that seriously challenged my line that "there can never be too much garlic," my friend and I were sweating garlic out of every pore.

There was also a barbecue stand there, so I had to try a pork sandwich. I was not expecting much, and that is exactly what I got. It was drenched in a sweet sauce and did not have any smoke ring. I can't really complain about being disappointed for ordering a cheap barbecue sandwich at a festival centered on garlic, but if I ever go back, I will stay away from this sandwich and just go for another round of garlic ice cream.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Little Rock River Market

Very rarely do I visit a city for the first time and find it exactly as I expected. New York City, Las Vegas, Memphis and Chicago are the only ones that come to mind. Often a city is a big disappointment, like Seattle, St. Louis, or Cleveland. But every once in a while I expect little out of a city and I am pleasantly surprised. No place was more of a shock than Little Rock, Arkansas.

I had driven through Arkansas twice before visiting Little Rock: once in mid-July when the humidity rivaled any sauna I have ever sat in, and once in October when the foliage was as beautiful as anywhere in New England or the Shenandoah Valley. On my third trip to Arkansas I stopped in Little Rock to visit the Clinton Presidential Center. Since I got in in the early evening and stayed right by the center, I decided to go out for a while in the "River Market District" and see what trouble I could get into.

It was one of the most fun places for nightlife I have been, like a grown-up version of Bourbon Street or a non-Yuppie version of Old Pasadena. My friend and I had several beers at a bar and watched the sun set over the Arkansas River before hitting several other places on President Clinton Ave. We had so much fun that we forgot to eat dinner. The next morning, with my head slightly aching and my stomach growling, I stopped by the River Market Building and got a chopped pork sandwich from a stand there. It was perfectly smoked with no fat chunks in the sandwich, and the slaw complemented the sandwich nicely.

I then spent a few hours walking around the Clinton library and museum. Afterwards my friend asked me what I wanted to do for lunch. I said I wanted another barbecue sandwich. There are lots of food stands inside the building so she agreed to go there because she could get non-barbecue food. (She actually ate sushi... and said it was excellent.) My sandwich was the same as the previous one, which was a good thing. I contemplated getting a third sandwich, but we were on our way to Memphis and I knew I would be having barbecue that night, so I didn't. There is a limit to the amount of barbecue I can eat in one day. Actually, that's a lie.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Smitty's Grill

Smitty's Grill
110 South Lake Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
I have had dinner at Smitty's once or twice over the years. I like the place, although I certainly don't love it. I order a steak at a restaurant about once a year; 99% of the time I want a steak, I want to cook it myself. I don't want it overcooked or over-salted, which too many places do.
A good friend of mine works on Lake Ave. and we try to have lunch together every couple months. Usually we go to Crocodile Cafe or Celestino, but we decided once to give Smitty's a try. I do not think I have ever been in a louder restaurant. (Once I ate at Green Street Tavern and it came close, but that was due to a table of ten drunk, not-too-bright people in their late 30s who were trying desperately to act like they were still 21.) We had to repeat almost everything we said at a yell. We have not gone back for lunch since then.
They have a "Carolina Style Pulled Pork Sandwich" on their menu, which is always going to get my attention. The pork was actually very high quality, but it was absolutely drenched in barbecue sauce. It was literally the messiest sandwich I have ever eaten. My friend, who is a vegetarian (no, I did not feel the least bit bad about eating it in front of her) was laughing at me. "You're a mess," she kept saying (imagine it with a Scottish accent and it's even funnier.)
Still, the sauce was pretty good for what it was. Not sweet at all, and complementary to the pork. It just could have used a lot less of it. I don't know if I would ever go back to Smitty's for lunch; my head rang for hours with all the noise. But if I do I will probably get the sandwich again, easy on the sauce.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sweet Lumpy's BBQ

Sweet Lumpy's BBQ
28464 Old Town Front St., Ste. A
Temecula CA 92590

Some friends and I planned to meet up and have some barbecue for lunch before going wine tasting in Temecula. When we showed up, however, the entire Old Town was blocked off to traffic and thousands of people were walking around. We did not know it beforehand, but the "Temecula Rod Run" was going on. Hundreds of cars lined every street in Old Town. We parked and started walking down to the restaurant. There were some absolutely beautiful cars there. Vintage Porsches, hot rods, entire parking lots full of Corvettes. I will add a couple pictures of my favorite cars at the end of the post.
When we got to the restaurant we saw that their regular menu was not being served and instead they were serving a "special events menu." This disappointed me, as I figured the quality would have to suffer with such a large amount of food they were bound to be serving. Three of us (including me) ordered the pulled pork sandwich, two ordered the brisket sandwiches, and one ordered the tri-tip sandwich.
The first two food pictures are the brisket sandwich. I tried a bite of my friend's, and the brisket was very tender and moist. Unfortunately, it had the strongest smoke flavor of any piece of barbecue that I have ever tasted. I imagine that in their desire to cook brisket for hundreds - if not thousands - of orders, someone put too much wood in the smoker. I would love to try this sandwich on a normal day of business, though, because it was still quite good.
My pulled pork sandwich (the next two pictures) was great. The pork was tender, there was hardly any fat, and it did not have the overpowering smoke flavor of the brisket. They have two sauces at Sweet Lumpy's, a sweet and a spicy. The sweet was much too sweet, but the spicy was good: full of slow-building pepper heat. I mixed some of it with French's mustard and put it on the sandwich.
The last picture is a friend's tri tip sandwich. I did not try this one (I didn't know her well enough to ask for a bite, although I certainly did not hesitate to take a picture of her lunch) but it looked good, and she enjoyed it. I was very impressed that Sweet Lumpy's could make such high quality barbecue on such a busy day. Their fries were crisp, the slaw was fresh, and, other than the overly-smoky brisket, all the meat was delicious. I can't wait to go there again and try their regular menu.
After lunch we spent a while wandering around looking at the cars. We agreed that if we didn't have wine tasting plans, we would have loved to spend a few hours looking at the cars, listening to the bands, and, probably, stopping by a couple of the barbecue stands to eat some more 'que.

Friday, October 10, 2008


I took these pictures on my trip to Memphis for the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, and I never planned to put them on my blog, as they are not good pictures. But then I had a conversation the other night and I figured I would go ahead and post them. The reason they are so poor is that the battery on my digital camera died one day in Memphis and I bought a disposable camera to take pictures. The first picture is a pulled pork sandwich at Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street, and the second picture is the pulled pork plate at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, across from the Peabody Hotel.

The reason I am posting them is that the other night my friend Shawn asked me: "Do you ever visit any barbecue places you like?" He admitted that he had not read my whole blog, but I do see his point. I do indeed like many of the places I visit, but barbecue in Southern California, with only one or two exceptions, is just not very good. Even the places where I have had certain meals that I think are great, such as Robin's or Spring Street Smokehouse, have also provided me with meals that have been horrible. The consistency is just not there.

However, in my four trips to Memphis, I have eaten five meals at Rum Boogie and two at Rendezvous, and every one of them have been spectacular. The first time I had the pulled pork at Rum Boogie, in 2002, my friend Tom and I were sitting in the bar listening to blues, and I proclaimed it the best pulled pork I had ever eaten. It was a revelation. The next time in Memphis I ate at Rendezvous and had their pulled pork and mustard slaw, and I proclaimed it the best pork I had ever had. I have never uttered anything close to that in Southern California.

So I am posting these pictures of terrible quality to show that yes, there sure are barbecue places I love. But hardly any of them are around here.