Tuesday, October 21, 2008
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.
Posted by JustinM at 3:39 PM
Thursday, October 16, 2008
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.
Posted by JustinM at 12:29 PM
Monday, October 13, 2008
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.
Posted by JustinM at 12:34 PM
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.
Posted by JustinM at 11:34 AM
Friday, October 3, 2008
333 E. Huntington Drive
Arcadia, CA 91006
For several years when I was a kid, Tony Roma's was my favorite restaurant in the world. I had a horrible diet; I pretty much only liked chicken fingers, fries, pizza, and fried cheese. There were actually a couple years when I would only go to a restaurant if they had fried cheese on the menu. Tony Roma's had an appetizer sampler with fried cheese, chicken fingers, potato skins, and buffalo wings, and they would let you substitute extra fried cheese for the buffalo wings. As far as I was concerned, it was the greatest restaurant of all time. I ate at Commander's Palace when I was a kid and I thought it was terrible. But Tony Roma's was great. It's a wonder my parents never left me on the side of the road somewhere.
As I became an adult and started to realize that there is more to life than fried foods, and that not every meal needs to be drenched in barbecue sauce, I forgot about Tony Roma's. Before I went there recently, it had probably been over a decade since I had eaten there. I went for the pulled pork sandwich, not expecting much. There was no smoke ring on the meat, and it was covered in a sweet sauce, but it was still pretty good. There was very little fat on it and it came on a regular bun. It will probably be at least another decade before I eat there again, but it was fun to go back and try and figure out what had appealed to me so much about the place.
Posted by JustinM at 1:10 PM
Thursday, October 2, 2008
210 Stearns Wharf
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
I've been going to Longboard's, on Stearns Wharf, since I was a teenager. Usually I just sit at a table by the window, or, if it's a nice day, on the patio, and have a beer and some fried shrimp. Sometimes I order a ridiculous drink like the one in the second picture (I ordered that and my buddy ordered a pina colada; the waitress laughed and said "You guys are on vacation, right?")
But last time I was there I decided I would try their burnt ends sandwich. The menu claimed it was smoked, but it was the only thing resembling barbecue on their menu. I seriously doubted they had a smoker on the premises just to serve this. I was not expecting much at all - this is pretty much a place where everything is either fried or overpriced, average food for the tourists (meaning me.) And the sandwich was pretty much what I was expecting: it was tough, there was no smoke ring, and it was covered in a sweet sauce. At least it was edible, though.
Still, you don't pay for the food at this place, you pay to sit there and look out on the water, which is always nice.
Posted by JustinM at 5:07 PM