Friday, August 29, 2008

Barn Burner Texas BBQ


Barn Burner Texas BBQ
1000 S Fair Oaks Ave
Pasadena, CA 91105
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Almost all of my friends whose opinions on barbecue I respect dislike Barn Burner. They claim the food is below-average and overpriced and the service is lousy. The first time I went there, I wondered what restaurant they were talking about. The waiter was really nice and my pulled pork sandwich was incredibly good. The slaw was great and the sauce, while much too sweet, was pretty good when mixed with some mustard. And the whole thing cost about ten bucks. I really liked the place, with the exception of the over-the-top Texas decor. (But at least there weren't flies buzzing around, unlike another Texas BBQ joint.)
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So I went back a couple months later. Now I see what my friends were talking about. I waited about twenty minutes to see a waiter, even though I was constantly told by three people it would be "just one minute." I got a full order of ribs, the order cost about 30 bucks, and not one of the ribs was edible. They were full of fat and yet very dry. Not a good combination for ribs.
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Barn Burner is owned by the same people who own the Pasadena El Cholo, which explains a lot. I used to live a couple blocks from the El Cholo on Western and I really liked it. (Of course, that probably had something to do with the fact that my friends and I used to watch Lakers games there back when the Lakers were the best team in basketball and didn't blow 21 point leads at home in the NBA Finals.) I never liked the Pasadena location very much. It never seemed very friendly. After my last visit to Barn Burner I see a lot of similiarites.

Alex Bar-B-Q (Shell Beach)


Alex Bar-B-Q
853 Shell Beach Road
Shell Beach California

I first ate at Alex about a dozen years ago, but I didn't have barbecue. Those were my teenage years when I mostly ate chicken fingers and fried cheese (and still only carried 150 pounds on my 6'2" frame, dammit) and barbecue was far too fancy a cuisine for me.

But not long ago I was on my way up to Monterey and I figured why not stop in and try their barbecue. The smell of oak smoke in the parking lot was amazing, although when I walked in there were only about three tables occupied, all with much older people. Of course, this was about 2 PM, so they might have been eating dinner.

I had the pulled pork sandwich with fries and slaw. I prefer shoestring fries to steak fries, because usually steak fries aren't cooked long enough. But these were done perfectly and were some of the best I've ever had. The slaw tasted like it came out of a Smart & Final container, but that's never a big deal. The pulled pork was very good. I had been suspicious when the menu claimed it came with a chipotle barbecue sauce. I love chipotle, but seriously? If you're so proud of your "oak smoked" meat, why would you put a flavored sauce on it? But... it was damn good. I actually got a side of it for my fries.

I used to frequently stop at a seafood restaurant in Pismo Beach whenever I drove up or down the coast, but over the years I have watched the prices at this particular restaurant go way up and the portions go way down (anyone who knows Pismo Beach knows exactly where I am talking about.) From now on I think I will make Alex Bar-B-Q my lunch stop.

Frank & Joe's Southern Smokehouse


Frank & Joe's Southern Smokehouse (Closed)
110 E Colorado Blvd
Monrovia, CA 91016

Frank & Joe's has been closed for some time now, and that's too bad... but not necessarily for culinary reasons. The place was attractive - full of Southern memorabilia. The owners were extremely nice, always shaking hands and asking how you were doing. And they always had plenty of ice cold bottles of Turbodog.

However, the food was very inconsistent. Sometimes the crawfish corn chowder was as good as any chowder I have ever had; sometimes it tasted like old corn in spoiled milk. Sometimes the fried catfish was reminiscent of the food stands at JazzFest; sometimes it tasted like the original KFC popcorn chicken (i.e. fried chicken skin.) And sometimes - usually, in fact - the pulled pork sandwich was like the one here: not much pork, too much lettuce, and all of it swimming in one of two barbecue sauces: either the much-too-sweet sauce or the "smoky" version that tasted like straight liquid smoke.

Still, sometimes the food could be pretty good, and as I said, it was a nice place to spend a hot summer afternoon watching baseball and drinking beer. There was a rumor they were trying to reopen somewhere, and if they do I will go back. But I doubt I will ever get the pulled pork sandwich again.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dallas BBQ (New York City)



Dallas BBQ
1265 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10021

Several years ago my friend lived by a liquor store in Venice Beach. One night we ran out of beer and headed over there just before closing. The only other customer in the place was an obviously homeless, deranged man who was lecturing about God to a bag of Funyuns. My friend and I were trying to decide what to buy (as if it made a difference at that point) and my friend made a comment about Steel Reserve, something along the lines of "that's supposed to be terrible."

At that point the bum interrupted his sermon and turned to us and said "Oh man, don't get Steel Reserve. That shit make you crazy!"

So we bought a can, and, indeed, it was the most foul thing I have ever tasted.

I thought of this story after eating at Dallas BBQ. I had wanted to eat at Blue Smoke, but the wait was about two hours and I was hungry. So my friend and I got in a cab and asked the driver to take us to a barbecue place. This is where he took us, and, after I paid him, he added (not too helpfully) "But you probably don't want to eat here, it'll make you sick to your stomach." And indeed it did.

To be fair, as soon as we saw the food we should have left. My pulled pork was a disgusting looking mess, served on a bun about four inches thick. My friend's ribs were drowning in a nasty sauce. I don't know how anyone can serve food like this to customers.

So from now on, I will always listen to deranged men on matters of malt liquor and cab drivers on barbecue.

Rogue Distillery & Public House (Portland)

Rogue Distillery & Public House
1339 NW Flanders
Portland, OR 97209
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After the amazing sandwich I had at the Deschutes restaurant, I figured I should try Rogue. (I have never liked Rogue beers as much as Dechutes, but it is still beer.) This pulled pork sandwich was more like what I'm used to getting at brewpubs. It was pork already mixed with sugary barbecue sauce, taken out of a container, microwaved and served to me. (I have heard this referred to as "crockpot barbecue.") It was terrible.
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I still enjoyed the place, though, because 1) my friend and I started with an appetizer of popcorn shrimp that was fantastic, and 2) the waiter gave us free beer. That's really all it takes for me.
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They also have an appetizer called "Kobe Blue Balls" - balls of kobe beef with blue cheese. It sounded great and my friend assured me it was delicious, but there was just no way in hell I could bring myself to ask for an order of Kobe blue balls.

Willy's Smokehouse (Monterey)


Willy's Smokehouse
95 Prescott Ave
Monterey, CA 93942
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I had pretty low expectations for this place. It is located right off Cannery Row, so I figured it would be one of those tourist places that populate the area, like Bubba Gump, El Torito, and, God help me, a place called Steinbeck's Espresso Bar. Walking into the restaurant further lowered my expectations - it looked like it was trying too hard. It was clean, there were posters of some of the more famous barbecue restaurants in America, and everyone was ridiculously friendly. Now, none of those things are necessarily bad, but they made the place seem inauthentic. (When it comes to barbecue, I much prefer the curtness of a place like Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, where the maitre d' looked like he was deciding between seating us at a table or stabbing us repeatedly.)
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My pulled pork sandwich, however, was very good. The meat had plenty of smoke ring and obviously was not reheated. The sandwich could have used more meat, for sure, but at least what they did give me was good. The sandwich, which was described on the menu as "Memphis-style," was topped with an "apple-jalepeƱo coleslaw." About the best thing I can say about that is it wasn't too distracting.
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I don't ever plan to eat there again (actually I don't plan to ever go to Cannery Row again) but it was definitely worth eating there once.

Friday, August 22, 2008

T.G.I. Friday's

T.G.I. Friday's
2625 E Eastland Center Dr
West Covina, CA 91791
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This one I did not see coming.
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I have eaten at T.G.I Friday's three times in my life, and all three times were terrible meals. I mean truly awful. When I was 18, visting a friend in Boston, we went to T.G.I. Friday's because he assured me they would serve us beer without asking for our ID. He was right, but even after several beers I still thought the food was horrible. (I was 18 then and a Rick's Spuderito was a main staple of my diet, but I still couldn't eat the crap they served me at Friday's, even when drunk.)
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A couple years later, after a Chinese meal in the Washington, D.C. area, a few friends and I went next door to a T.G.I. Friday's to have drinks. After a couple hours we ordered some appetizers. Same story: terrible food. A couple years after that I ate lunch at a Friday's in Boulder, CO, and I almost got sick to my stomach. So when a friend suggested we eat at T.G.I. Friday's after we had been to IKEA, I did not have high hopes. But they had been recently promoting their "Jack Daniels Pulled Pork Sandwich," so I thought I'd give it a try.
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I kid you not - it was fantastic. Although it's impossible to tell in this picture, because the pork is drowned in sauce, there was actually a smoke ring on the pork. I never in a million years would have expected that. The pork tasted fresh and the sauce was pretty good.
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So now I have been to Friday's four times, and only three of them were terrible. That's not a good average (although the Dodgers will still sign you for $36.2 million.)

Santa Fe BBQ Company


Santa Fe BBQ Company
1505 Encinitas Blvd
Encinitas, CA 92024

This was another stop my friend and I made down in the San Diego area. Neither of us were impressed. My pulled pork had plenty of smoke ring but tasted old and tough. The sweet barbecue sauce didn't help. The fries were good, but you can get good fries lots of places. Good barbecue is harder to come by. My friend described his chopped brisket as pretty average, too. He has eaten many times at Rudy's BBQ in Texas so he has a pretty good idea what good brisket is, and this wasn't it.
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I see online that they have gone out of business and been replaced by "Brett's BBQ." They look to have a better menu than Santa Fe BBQ had.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Raxx Barbecue & Brewing Co.

Raxx Barbecue & Brewing Co.
3397 Mission Inn Ave
Riverside, CA 92501

I'm always a little suspicious about trying barbecue at a place that bills itself as a brewing company. Sometimes, like Deschutes, it's actual barbecue. But more than likely it's reheated out of a package, already bathed in sauce, and slapped on a bun. (It's not barbecue if I can do the same thing at home in less than five minutes.) Thankfully, Raxx falls into the first category.
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I started with the "Texas Egg Rolls" - pulled pork and cream cheese stuffed into a chili pepper and then a wonton wrapper and fried. That sounded awesome. It was.
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My pulled pork sandwich was also very good, although after the pork and cream cheese I was so happy I probably could have started eating the menu and not cared. The sandwich was topped with fried onion strings and sauce (unfortunately they did not have a mustard sauce; if ever there was a sandwich crying out for a South Carolina-style mustard sauce, this was it) and I added some of my slaw to it. The shoestring fries were great, although to be honest I only ate two of them after the egg rolls and sandwich.

Vermont Street BBQ (Lawrence, KS)

Vermont Street BBQ
728 Massachussets Street
Lawrence, KS 66044
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I love Lawrence. It's gorgeous, the people are friendly, and it's only about a half hour from Kansas City, one of my favorite cities in America. However, I've never had much luck with food there. Several years ago my friend and I ate at an Old Chicago and we both felt like crap the rest of the night. On this most recent trip, I asked a guy at a gas station for a barbecue recommendation, and he enthusuasticly replied "Oh, man, you gotta go to Vermont Street. It's the best I've ever had." Seeing as how he is so close to some of the best restaurants in the world, this seemed like quite a statement. I see now that he probably has never eaten barbecue in Kansas City.
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The people at Vermont Street BBQ were very friendly, and their mustard barbecue sauce was good. That's about all the compliments I can give. The pork on my sandwich was dry, there was not very much of it, and it was served on hard bread. I thought maybe that was a joke, like maybe they serve their day-old bread as a garnish, but after a few minutes I realized that actually was the bread they intended me to eat. My fries were limp and the slaw was drowned in a much-too-sweet dressing. My friend's hot links tasted like a steamed hot dog; not exactly a bad thing, but not what I was expecting in a bbq joint just west of Kansas City.
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Maybe they can get away with this kind of stuff because they're in a college town. The prices were good. But I seriously doubt they could compete with the big boys in Kansas City.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Swinging Door Texas BBQ


The Swinging Door Texas BBQ
11018 Vanowen Street
North Hollywood, CA 91606

I've heard from people that this place has closed, and if so, that's a shame. I've only been here a few times, but every time was very good. These pictures are from the first time I ever went, with my buddy Zach. He travels to Texas a lot for work and is a big fan of the Texas style of barbecue. I am much more a fan of the Carolina style, but between Scotch and nothing, I'll take Scotch.
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We started with an order of fries that were great - thick steak fries right out of the fryer, with some of their spicy barbecue sauce. We both had brisket sandwiches. I had mine chopped with slaw, Zach had his sliced, with beans. I loved the slaw, I don't remember what he said about his beans. But the important thing is we both thought the brisket was great.
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We liked the place so much and ate so much food we didn't even go get a second lunch afterwards (we have a history of doing that.)

Memphis Bar-B-Q Company (Sacramento)


Memphis Bar-B-Q Company
455 Bercut Dr
Sacramento, CA 95814

I don't know what it is about barbecue joints with the name "Memphis" in the title, but so far I have been let down by them. One day I will make it to Memphis Minnie's in San Francisco; I hope that isn't as big a disappointment as Memphis Championship Barbecue or Memphis Bar-B-Q Company.
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This is a pretty big restaurant, although when I went in for lunch there was only one other table occupied. I've been to lunch in Sacramento many times, and I have never seen a restaurant so empty for lunch. That should have been a sign. I asked the waiter a couple questions about the barbecue. I would have been just as informed if I had asked the silverware. He was a nice guy, but he didn't really seem to have a clue about anything, except probably the best tatoo parlors in town. (I'm not saying I needed to know the ingredients in the sauce or where they buy their pork, but asking if the meat is smoked or cooked in an oven seemed like a reasonable question.)
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When my pulled pork sandwich arrived I took a bite of the slaw to see if I wanted to put any on my sandwich. It was good. And the fries were hot out of the fryer. The bun was fresh, too, and I had high hopes for the pork. It sucked. It was fatty, didn't tast like it had been smoked (at least not recently) and the sauce tasted metallic.
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They definitely do not deserve to have the word Memphis in their name.

Bam Bam BBQ


Bam Bam BBQ
853 E Route 66
Glendora CA 91740

I had never heard of Bam Bam BBQ, but I saw it one day while driving down Route 66, so I figured I would give it a try. The girl working there was very nice; I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and asked her recommendation for a side. She said the cole slaw was her favorite but that the mac & cheese was the most popular side. I went for the slaw.

The food was incredibly mediocre. The slaw was like a high school cafeteria (which is not entirely bad, but not something I want to pay for as an adult) and the pork had obviously been sitting in a steam tray for quite a while. Even worse, as you can see, the sandwich was drenched with barbecue sauce, a ridiculously sweet, syrupy sauce that added nothing to the meat. I took a picture of my food and the girl said "oh, you must really like it." I didn't have the heart to tell her what I really thought.

I would not ever go back there, but it's a moot point now because they are closed. I hope that nice girl found a job somewhere else. She deserves to be serving better food than this.

Blake's Place

Blake's Place
2905 E. Miraloma Ave. #3
Anaheim, CA 92806

I had heard that Blake's Place gets really crowded at lunchtime so I figured I would get there early and beat the rush. Well, it was worth a try. I arrived about ten minutes after 11, on a weekday, and the place was already full. (By the time I left, about 35 minutes later, the line was out the door, at least 20 people.) But it wasn't a big deal because the line moved pretty fast and they were very friendly.
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There is a picture of a pulled pork sandwich on their website that I had planned to get, but while I was waiting I saw someone at one the tables had a trio of sandwiches so that's what I ordered (the "sandwich sampler.") The meats are smoked brisket, turkey, and pork. All three were very good but my favorite was the turkey, and I would have to say my least favorite was the brisket. It was the driest of the three. They only put a touch of sauce on the sandwiches, which I appreciated, although their sauce was very tasty so I added some more to the brisket sandwich.
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It's a bit of a drive down to Anaheim so I probably will never go back, but I am glad I went.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mr. Cecil's California Ribs

Mr. Cecil's California Ribs
13625 Ventura Boulevard
Sherman Oaks, California 91423

In the book "Charles Kuralt's America," the author writes: "There may still be a law on the books in North Carolina that if you don't cook it over hickory logs, you can't call it barbecue." I was reminded of that while eating at Mr. Cecil's, which was just about the worst "barbecue" experience I have had in the L.A. area. There is no way this food was cooked in a smoker. It had to have been (over)cooked in an oven.

My brother and I started with some hot links. They were decent. Nothing special, but edible. Things got worse from there. I got a pork sandwich that was probably the driest sandwich I have ever eaten. This was surprising, as there were several giant chunks of fat strewn about the meat. But even after I picked those out (and that took a while; there was a lot of fat) the sandwich was inedible.
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My brother's ribs were also overcooked. They were charred on the outside and completely dry. I would be embarrassed to serve this kind of food at a backyard barbecue, let alone to paying customers. The barbecue sauce on the table was very good, and the fries were great. But I had not driven out to the Valley for fries. Now I understand why I have heard so many people say negative things about this place.

Jake's Roadhouse

Jake's Roadhouse
622 S Myrtle Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
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I first starting going to Jake's about ten years ago. I had a summer job working in the canyons up in Monrovia and every day my best friend and I took our lunch break down the hill. Usually we had lunch in the Home Depot parking lot because we both had a crush on the girl who ran the hot dog cart. We would each eat about three hot dogs and drink somewhere between two and twelve cans of Country Time lemonade and sit there for an hour admiring her. Hot Dog Girl, we called her. Our originality matched our coolness.
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But some days we wanted more food than hot dogs from a cart, and we would go to Jake's. It was always good, and, although I don't remember the prices, I'm sure they were reasonable. But after that summer I never went there again. I returned almost a decade later, though, and I don't see that much has changed. I got a pulled pork sandwich. It was very good. I liked the sauce (although they used too much, as places that pre-sauce a sandwich usually do) but the sandwich definitely did not need mayonnaise on it. It says on the menu that they put mayo on the barbecue sandwich, which I have never seen before on a pulled pork sandwich, and I immediately thought 'well, I'll just ask for it without mayo.' But then I thought 'well, I do like mayo, maybe it will be interesting.' It wasn't. There is a reason I've never seen mayo on a barbecue sandwich: it's completely unnecessary.
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Anyway, I was pleased to be back at Jake's. It isn't great barebcue, but it's good, and they were very friendly. I considered driving by Home Depot and getting a hot dog for old times' sake, but I decided to let that one go.

Texas West BBQ (Sacramento)

Texas West BBQ
1600 Fulton Ave
Sacramento, CA 95825-5112

There are a few things in life that are guarantees for me. I have never had a shopping cart at Trader Joe's that worked properly. I have never found an Adam Sandler movie even remotely humorous. I have never met a German whom I did not like. And I have never eaten at a barbecue restaurant with the word Texas in it that was any good. Texas West, however, turned out to be a spectacular exception.

The first time I went there, I got the chopped pork po' boy sandwich. This was fantastic. It was covered with so much sauce that I didn't think I was going to like it, but the sauce was pretty damn good. The meat had plenty of smoke ring and was melt-in-your mouth tender. The french roll it was served on could not have been more than a couple hours old; it was the perfect match for good meat. The fries were well done, which is exactly how I like thicker-cut fries. My friend's hot links were very good, too.

That was for lunch, but I liked it so much I went back for dinner (my friend wouldn't join me; she said eating at the same barbecue restaurant twice in one day is "too weird," which I suppose is true, but, whatever.) This time I got the "Memphis Pulled Pork" sandwich. Usually when a BBQ joint calls a sandwich Memphis-style, especially in California, they mean it is served with slaw on the sandwich. This came with slaw on the side. There was nothing really special about the slaw, but it was still good. The pulled pork was good, probably the best pulled pork sandwich I have had in my many trips to Sacramento, but it still wasn't in the same category as the chopped pork sandwich I had for lunch.

I also had an ice cold Budweiser. I don't know what it is about Bud, I never drink it (I'm pretty much only a Guinness man) except when I eat barbecue. I would say that the last 50 times I have eaten barbecue (which covers at least the last three weeks) I have either drank iced tea or Budwesier.

Memphis Redbirds

I loved Autozone Park the first time I ever saw it. It's got the perfect location - one block off Beale Street, right in the heart of downtown. If you stand in the outfield and take a picture you can get a great shot of the Peabody Hotel sign in the background looming over the stadium (I took a great picture of this and, of course, lost it.) It's got the classic red brick exterior that has become so popular that it sometimes looks silly, but in this case fits in with the surrounding buildings. And it's big. It's one of the largest minor league stadiums I have been in.

Unfortunately, the first time I saw Autozone, the Redbirds weren't in town. The second and third time I was in Memphis it wasn't baseball season. But finally, when I made it to Memphis for Memphis in May, the Redbirds were home. It was a great place to see a game. The seats were inexpensive, relatively easy to get (I had assumed games during Memphis in May would have been more popular, especially a Saturday night game like the one I saw.)

And, I had the best concession stand item I have ever eaten: a footlong hot dog covered with chili and cheese, impaled with three forks, each ringed with a beer-battered onion ring. I started to get heartburn about halfway through the dog. But it was totally worth it.