Friday, May 21, 2010

Zeke's Smokehouse

I've written about Zeke's a couple times before - I have been going there for many years and, on their best days, it is outstanding barbecue - so I will keep this relatively short. The other day I was running an errand with my brother and we were trying to decide where to go for lunch. We drove through Montrose, thinking about trying 3 Drunken Goats, but at the last moment we decided just to get some barbecue. (This is never a tough decision for us.)

I had not been to Zeke's in more than half a year. There are some new additions - or perhaps I hadn't noticed them before and they're only new to me. Either way, the feeling's the same. There is a small menu on each table called the "Dog Gone Hard Times Menu," featuring items like sliders and catfish bites. I love catfish but my brother is not much of a seafood fan, so we didn't get an order. (I will, however, be returning at some point with someone who is willing to split them with me.)

There is also a specialty beverage menu with drinks like Mexican Coke, Abita Root Beer (from my beloved Abita Brewing Co. in Louisiana, makers of Turbodog), and Original Dublin Dr Pepper. For those not familiar with that last item, it comes from Dublin, Texas and is the oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant in the world. It uses the original Dr Pepper formula - pure cane sugar - and is only supposed to be available in the Dublin area, although it is well known that people purchase it in the area and "bootleg" it out of state.

An item I had never seen before on the menu was called the "mixed rib sandwich." I inquired about it and was told it is meat taken off of pork and beef ribs, mixed with sauce and served on a bun. I immediately ordered it, with some kettle chips and cole slaw. My brother ordered a two item combo of dark meat chicken and a ham steak, with double fries.

The food was ready in only a few minutes. I have never liked the buns they use at Zeke's; I cannot understand why they serve barbecue that is often great on dense, stale buns. I have written before that if they used soft buns, or even plain white bread, their barbecue could be legendary. But the bun on my sandwich was, thankfully, very fresh. It made a big difference, and the meat was delicious. I was concerned the sauce would overpower the meat, but Zeke's sauce isn't too sweet. It would be better without the sauce, I'm sure, but it was still very good.

I did not try any of my brother's 'cue, but he cleaned his plate, so I'm sure he liked it.

As I wrote, I had not been to Zeke's in more than half a year. When I have been in the mood for barbecue recently, I have experimented with new places rather than going with the tried and true option of Zeke's. But I am going to go back at least once or twice soon to try some of these new items.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Joey's Smokin' BBQ

Joey's Smokin' BBQ
3564 N. Sepulveda Blvd.
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

I have never been a fan of Luke Walton. I'm talking about Luke Walton the basketball player, of course, not Luke Walton the man. Personally, Luke could be a great guy. I have never met him and I imagine I never will.

But Luke the basketball player has always been a frustrating act to follow. I watched him for years when he played college ball for the University of Arizona. With the possible exception of Adam Morrison, I have never seen a player who was allowed to commit offensive fouls with as much frequency as Luke. His entire offensive game was basically catching the ball, extending his left arm out in front of him and driving to the basket, pushing off against whatever player was guarding him.

I was relatively sure that would not translate to the pros, and it has not. My friend Troy refers to Luke as "1 and 2," because for every one good thing Luke does, he makes two equally boneheaded plays immediately after. Watch him some time, you will be amazed; it's like clockwork. This short clip explains my frustration with Walton's apathetic, weak play - it would have taken only a minimal amount of effort to dunk the ball and avoid it being blocked, but that was asking too much:

Consequently, when I heard years ago that Luke Walton was part owner of a barbecue restaurant in Manhattan Beach called Joey's Smokin' BBQ, I did not think I would ever make it there. That's not a part of town I venture to with much frequency, but more importantly, I read several reviews of the place on the web, and pretty much every blog whose opinions I respect absolutely trashed Joey's.

But recently I was called upon at the last minute to pick someone up from LAX. I had some free time, so I decided to head down to Joey's - it's just a couple miles south of the airport - and have lunch. It was packed when I walked in.

I decided to order the "Southern Sliders": three mini sandwiches, one each of pulled pork, brisket, and hot links. My first indication that things were not going to be great was the menu description that each of the sliders is served with "sweet barbecue sauce." If you have ever read this blog before you can probably guess what I'm going to say: any barbecue chef who serves you barbecue with the sauce already on it - and especially a sweet sauce - does not want you to pay much attention to the 'cue. (And why someone would think the same sauce will be equally good on three different kinds of meat is beyond me.) I opted to get some cole slaw and fries along with the sliders.

It only took about ten minutes to get the food. While I was waiting I poured myself two small containers of barbecue sauce - their sweet sauce, the kind of sugary junk you would find at Tony Roma's (back when there were actually Tony Roma's in the San Gabriel Valley), and their spicier sauce, which was actually quite good. It was peppery and reminded me of Rudy's, probably my favorite tomato-based sauce in the country.

Let's start with the best part: the brisket was slightly smoky, with a deep beef flavor. The sweet sauce added nothing to it, and all I could think was how much better it would have been if they had used the spicier sauce. But I liked the beef.

The "Memphis pulled pork" was horrible. I could not see smoke ring anywhere in the sandwich and the meat was a damp mess, full of fat and no flavor. I scooped some slaw onto it and added mustard, hoping it would make it a little bit better. It did not. I'm not a lawyer but I don't see how Joey's can co-opt the word "Memphis" without suffering some kind of retribution. In five trips to that city I have never seen a sandwich resembling this.

The hot link was the worst of the bunch. There was no flavor to it and the casing on the link tasted like a rubber band. I eventually had to peel off what I could and try to eat the remaining link. Unfortunately, pretty much all that was left was fat.

The cole slaw was acceptable, the same sweet stuff you get at KFC. Not terrible but nothing you hope you will ever eat again. The fries were terrible. They were limp and room temperature. Obviously they had been sitting out for a while.

I want to say Joey's was disappointing, but that would imply I had some kind of high expectations for it. I did not. It was exactly the kind of place I thought it would be: food drenched in a sweet sauce and called barbecue, served by people who don't really care about what they're doing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bonnie B's

Bonnie B's Smokin
1280 North Lake Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91104

Bonnie B's opened a few months back, but until a few days ago I had not been, for many reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, almost all desires for barbecue in Pasadena have been filled in the last year by Perdue's, which is only a few blocks away from Bonnie's. Second, the menu on their website features stock photos. This is somewhat of a red flag for me: if a place has pride in the barbecue, why are they using someone else's photos of someone else's food?

So I never made it in. Just the other day, however, I was having lunch with my mom and I suggested we give Bonnie B's a try. The inside of the restaurant, while a much different look than the down-home style of Perdue's, nonetheless reminded me of the legendary Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City: photos of world leaders on on the walls and an assortment of out-of-place signs ("Friend of Bill W"). Of course, at Arthur Bryant's the photos are of famous people who have actually visited the restaurant; I'm guessing the people pictured on the wall at Bonnie's have not been there. Perhaps someday.

My mom ordered a brisket sandwich. I ordered a half pound of chopped pork. The woman told me they did not have any. I asked if that meant they did not have any that day, or if they no longer offer it. She said have stopped offering it, they just have not changed the menu yet. Disappointed, I changed my order to a hot link on a bun. Hot links aren't the best measure of a 'cue joint's ability, but I do love them. And, at any rate, I was relatively sure my mom would let me try the brisket.

We sat down. Also reminiscent of Arthur Bryant's, there were three squeeze bottles of barbecue sauce on the table: mild, medium, and hot. I figured they would probably just be the same sauce with varying levels of heat added to them. I was incorrect. More on that in a second.

The food was ready in a little over five minutes - something else that distinguishes it from Perdue's, in a good way. I first took a bite of my mom's brisket. I was not very impressed. It was good, but tasted as if it had been cooked in an oven instead of smoked. A few minutes later I took another small bite of a piece, however, that had a bit of smoke ring to it and tasted much more of barbecue. My guess? That the brisket was smoked, but perhaps at least a day earlier, and then reheated. I would be glad to try this again as long as it was fresh out of the smoker, but not if it was a leftover.

My hot link, on the other hand, was fantastic. It is the best one I have ever had in Pasadena. This town isn't exactly a barbecue paradise, I understand, however I have had at least a half dozen hot links from other places in town, and this beat them all. It was slightly smokey, a little bit spicy, and very dense. I will absolutely be having one of these again.

Now, about the sauce. I first tried a splash of the "hot" sauce on my hot link. I had to double check to make sure I had grabbed the right one, because it was not spicy at all. Just a basic, too-sweet sauce. I tried the mild next. It was almost the same, although not quite as spicy. Reluctantly, I tried the medium last, thinking it would certainly be the same as the other two.

It was not. It was a much-thinner sauce, and it was delicious. I have written many times that I prefer vinegar or mustard-based sauces, but if it's going to be a tomato-based sauce, this is very much how I want it to taste: thin, a little spicy, with the taste of black pepper.

I liked Bonnie B's more than I thought I would. The potato salad we both got was not anything special, but was passable. I wish they had more pork options, and there was no slaw on the menu, but the hot link was so good that it guarantees I will return.