Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wood Ranch BBQ

I wrote my thoughts on Wood Ranch last August, but the pictures I had for that post were of poor quality. The other day I went to lunch with my mom at Wood Ranch and I was able to take better quality photos, so I thought I would post them. My main reason for wanting to visit Wood Ranch was that I had received a coupon in the mail for a free appetizer. Their appetizers - barbecue chicken potato skins, onion strings, grilled balsamic shrimp, etc. - are my favorite items on the menu so this was a great deal... except I lost the coupon.
I ate one of their garlic rolls while I was waiting for my food. In the past I have never been a big fan; it always seems like you could squeeze a shot glass worth of butter from each roll if you are so inclined. But these were far less greasy than any I have ever had here.
My mom and I both ordered the exact same thing: "America's Best BBQ Tri Tip Sandwich" with fries. Now, once upon a time, I would have at least entertained the argument that this is one of the best barbecue tri tip sandwiches in America. But, as I wrote last August, the quality of the sandwich has gone down considerably as the years have gone by and the restaurant chain has expanded.
The first time I ever had this sandwich, just over a decade ago, it was one of the best things I have ever eaten. And the meat was so abundant that I never ate more than half the sandwich, always taking the other half home with me for the next day. The last few times I have ordered the sandwich I have finished the whole thing with no problem. (And trust me, I ate way more when I was 20 than I do now.)
The other thing that I have noticed about this sandwich over the last two or three years is that at least half the times I order it, the meat is riddled with fat. This sandwich was the best (or, perhaps I should say, worst) example of this trend. At least every other bite yielded a giant piece of fat, some as large as a quarter. This is unacceptable. A properly cut piece of tri tip should have very little fat on it. I have cooked well over 100 tri tips in my life, both grilled and barbecued, and never once have I had a tri tip with as much fat on it as this sandwich. It was also completely drenched in sauce. I suppose that was their attempt to hide the fact that the meat was so nasty.
This may well have been the last trip to Wood Ranch for me. It's not cheap and the quality is just no longer worth it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Texas Lil's

Texas Lil's
28495 Old Town Front St
Temecula, CA 92590

The other day, before going wine tasting in Temecula with my friends Zach and Elizabeth, I suggested we start out with an early lunch. Almost exactly one year earlier we had gone tasting together, along with Zach's brother Tyler, and we didn't eat first. It wasn't pretty. (We had stopped at one last winery on our way out of town only to discover that the tasting consisted of nine wines. We immediately headed to In-n-Out after that and destroyed some double-doubles.)

Since we had just eaten barbecue for dinner about 14 hours earlier, I suggested... well, more barbecue. I'm not sure I could ever get sick of eating barbecue. On a Memphis trip a few years back I ate it for every meal except two: a deep-fried burger at Dyer's, and some kind of chicken pita sandwich at a cafe by the river. (My friend Dave and I were going to go back for another deep fried burger, but our friend Min convinced us we should eat at least one healthy meal during the weekend.)

Last fall we had gone to Sweet Lumpy's in Temecula, but it appears to be closed now, so we went to Texas Lil's. It's basically a bar that serves food. (This is in no way a complaint.) We grabbed a booth inside by a window and contemplated our orders.

Elizabeth got the steak sandwich: skirt steak on garlic cheese toast, served with a giant onion ring on top. The steak was decent but nothing special. Skirt steak, like the nearby flank steak, contains very little fat and is best when marinated for quite a while. If not, it needs to be cut up into small pieces, like beef fajitas. This steak was good when cut up, but pretty tough as it was served. Elizabeth was nice enough to give me a bite of her onion ring. It was awesome, a giant sweet onion (perhaps from Texas), and I wished I'd gotten an order of onion rings.

Zach had the brisket sandwich. He liked it, and I took small piece and agreed with him. I had the pulled pork sandwich. It was good. Not as good as the brisket, but still a quality sandwich. It was covered in sauce, like the sandwich I had the night before at Famous Dave's, but at least it was a tasty sauce. I rarely make a big deal about the side dishes at a BBQ joint, but these fries were the best I have had in a few weeks: crispy, seasoned, fresh-cut potatoes.

Elizabeth had some of her steak left when she was done eating, as well as a piece of garlic bread, so we again made a butty, with steak, fries and cole slaw. It was damn good, much better than the one we'd made the night before.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Famous Dave's

The first time I ever saw a Famous Dave's was in the Mall of America outside Minneapolis. My friend Min and I walked every level of the place - about a two mile walk - to work up an appetite for lunch. We ended up going to Bubba Gump, but we passed by Famous Dave's. I made a note to myself to look it up. When I did, and learned it was a chain with a massive menu, I doubted it would be any good.

My suspicions were somewhat confirmed when I went to a Famous Dave's for the first time a few years later in Palmdale. My food was pretty lousy, however the restaurant had just opened a few days earlier. Knowing that most restaurants, and especially barbecue restaurants, cannot be accurately judged when they first open, I went back several months later. It was fantastic the second time. I knew eventually I would try it a third time.

Over the weekend Elizabeth and I went down to hang out with our friend Zach in Oceanside. We decided to go to Famous Dave's for dinner on Friday night. It was packed but we grabbed seats at the bar and had a drink while we waited. The server gave us a small bowl of fries so we could try the five sauces they had on the table: Devil's Spit, Georgia Mustard, Texas Spit, Sweet & Zesty, and Rich & Sassy. They were all decent, although none of them were amazing. (Both Zach and I thought the Rich & Sassy was spicier than the Devil's Spit; maybe they switched the sauces?)

Elizabeth ordered the brisket sandwich. It was fantastic. I did not see any smoke ring, but the brisket was amazingly tender and the slaw was very good. I love a well-smoked piece of brisket, but I never imagined I would find it at a chain barbecue restaurant.

Zach ordered the two meat combo with pulled pork and brisket. He liked the brisket more than the pork. As his two sides, he ordered fries and mashed potatoes, which I thought was just awesome.

I ordered the BBQ Buddies - four mini sandwiches, one each of pulled pork, brisket, pulled chicken, and hot links. I was incredibly disappointed when they arrived: they were all drowned in the Sweet & Zesty barbecue sauce, which was by far my least favorite of the 5. This is unforgivable. It does not say on the menu anything about the sandwiches being served with sauce and, as I mentioned, there were FIVE bottles of sauce on the table. What the hell is the point of having a variety of sauces if they're going to serve your food with sauce already on it? It's one thing to be insecure about the quality of the meat you serve and feel the need to drown it in sauce before serving it. That's annoying, but many places do that. But it's quite another thing to think that the same sauce is going to complement pork, brisket and hot links equally well.

Three of my four sandwiches were good. The chicken was dry but the pork was very good and the brisket was the same excellent beef that Elizabeth had on her sandwich. The hot link was great, too: juicy and full of flavor. Of course, the quality of the sandwiches was a double-edged sword: I was happy that they were good, but I couldn't stop thinking how they good could have been if I had been allowed to sauce them myself. I would have loved to try the mustard sauce on the pork and the Texas Pit sauce on the brisket. The hot link was so flavorful it would have been better without any sauce.

Still, despite my frustration, I enjoyed the meal. It could have been better but it could have been much, much worse. We were near a sign the read "EAT LIKE A PIG." So we did. Zach had a couple slices of bread left and some mashed potatoes, and Elizabeth had some fries on her plate, so I piled it all onto the bread and made, as my friend Geordie taught me, a butty. I even added some barbecue sauce. We all took turns trying it and we all decided it was a bit much. But it needed to be done.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Baby Blues BBQ

Baby Blues BBQ
7953 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046
I first heard about Baby Blues BBQ in Venice several years ago but I never made it out there. I have never been a big fan of Venice. I don't hate it and I certainly understand its appeal, but I have never liked dealing with the crowds, and I especially don't like circling around looking for parking. There is nothing in the world I hate more than looking for or waiting for a parking space. I would rather park a mile away and walk. My brother lived in Venice for more than a year and I think I visited his house once. Not that he blamed me; he paid a fortune for an athletic club membership - that he never used - so that he could park in their lot.
A couple years after I first became aware of it, I saw it featured on Food Network. Guy Fieri - he of the bleached hair and backwards sunglasses and the tattoo reading Kulinary Gangsta, despite the fact that he is 41 and grew up in Humboldt County - did a feature on it, and the food actually looked really good. The place looked simple, like it didn't make much fuss over its appearance, just the food. When I heard a few months ago that they were opening a West Hollywood location, I figured I should try that out.
The other day, one of the few sunny days we have had in the midst of this ridiculous June Gloom, Elizabeth and I headed over to Baby Blues for lunch. It didn't look like much from outside, but as soon as I walked in I immediately liked the place. There is an open kitchen, wooden chairs hanging from the ceilings, and tables that aren't crowded together, or even placed in any kind of order.
To the left of the entrance was a fantastic-looking bar, the kind I have spent countless hours in on my travels through the South. It would not have been out of place just off of Bourbon Street. A couple guys were drinking cans of PBR and a flat screen television was playing the Angels game. I had high hopes.
When I sat down at the table there were three squeeze bottles of sauce, the middle of which was labelled "porno sauce." I asked the server what that meant and she said it was their hottest sauce, a mix of habaneros and barbecue sauce. That sounded good, despite the silly name, although I doubted it would be good on barbecue. They also had a large container of cider vinegar with chilis on the table - a perfect complement to well smoked pork.
The menu had a nice selection of drinks, including sweet tea, which I did not hesitate to order. They also had Kool Aid on the menu. I do not remember the last time I saw that. Elizabeth ordered a glass. We started with an order of fries, a mix of shoestring and sweet potato. They were quite good, although expensive, at $7 for a basket. Still, I reminded myself, we were not at a roadside barbecue stand in North Carolina; we were on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. Going to any kind of sit-down restaurant and expecting low prices would be unreasonable. I tried some of the porno sauce with the fries. It was indeed spicy. Perhaps I would like it with some chicken nuggets, but I wasn't in the mood for much of it with my lunch.
I got the pulled pork sandwich and Elizabeth got the brisket sandwich. As soon as they arrived my heart sank: they were both served on charred, rock-hard ciabatta buns. I have written this before and I'm sure I will again: if you have any kind of pride in your barbecue, you want people to eat it plain. You don't serve it already drenched in sauce and you certainly don't serve it on a distracting, hard roll. Serving your barbecue on ciabatta buns, or pretzel buns, or garlic bread is basically announcing "I don't want you to pay too much attention to the meat."
Not surprisingly, neither meat was good. The pork was very dry and lacking any flavor. There was a small trace of smoke ring to some of the pieces and a generous amount of pork on the sandwich, but I could not get past the dryness. I put a healthy amount of cider vinegar on it, but it barely helped. The cole slaw on the sandwich was good, not much more than cabbage and vinegar, but that was little consolation.
I took two bites of Elizabeth's brisket, several minutes apart. The first bite was very fatty. The second one was better but also had no flavor. She liked her sandwich, though. "You're a barbecue snob," she said. I wasn't really in a position to argue. I have had some of the best barbecue all over the country, and I don't hesitate to point out when something is mediocre. (I also do not hesitate to point out when something is spectacular.)
We also got a side of mac n' cheese. It was very good, full of several kinds of cheese. Some of their other sides looked good, too. I wished they'd put the effort into our meats like they did into everything else.
There is a lot about Baby Blues that I like, but, unfortunately, that doesn't include the food I had. The service was fantastic and you get a decent amount. The interior is beautifully designed, like a marketing consultant took the best parts of places like Lucille's Smokehouse and Famous Dave's and incorporated them here. But my food was no better than any of those chains, and that's a shame.

Friday, June 5, 2009


You might think Applebee's has absolutely no place in a blog about barbecue. That's because it doesn't. Nothing on their menu is remotely close to barbecue, and anything they call "bbq" is most likely covered in a much-too-sweet sauce. But I do have a story about Applebee's.

Years ago, my friend Tom and I drove around the country together for 5 weeks. Before the trip started we came up with several ground rules: when given the choice we would always visit a less well-known city (e.g. instead of going to Chicago, we took a car ferry across Lake Michigan to Green Bay and ate lunch at a sports bar across from Lambeau Field), we would drink local beers whenever we could, try to go to more minor league baseball games than major league, and would not eat at chain restaurants (except Subway for lunches on the road.)

We'd spent a long day in Memphis, visiting Mud Island, seeing the Civil Rights Museum in the former hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and visiting Graceland. After showering back at the hotel we decided we wanted to go to Corky's BBQ for dinner. We thought we knew where it was. We did not. We drove around for a long time and eventually we were starving. Finally we saw an Applebees and said "screw it, let's just eat there."

It was horrible. I had some kind of Asian chicken salad that made me sick to my stomach. We would have been better off just going to AMPM and eating mystery meat hot dogs.

Recently, when I saw Applebee's came out with some pulled pork sliders, I remembered this night and our aborted attempt at barbecue. I realized I had not been to an Applebee's since then. I have never much cared for it. I'm not crazy about chains to begin with, and Applebee's has always seemed to me like Chili's with worse food. But I figured I would give the pulled pork sliders a try.

They were actually very good. They were not barbecue at all. The pork was most likely cooked in an oven. But it was still very tasty. There was no fat in the pork, the sauce wasn't sweet, and the buns were the nice, soft buns I love with sliders. I don't anticipate ever eating at Applebee's again, but I'm glad I got a little of the taste of that Memphis Applebee's out of my mind.

By the way, three years after that trip to Memphis, I was back again for the Memphis in May barbecue festival and my friend Hatcher and I went to Corky's. It was disappointing. It was 100 times better than Applebee's, but nowhere near as good as Rendezvous or Jim Neely's Interstate.