Friday, April 22, 2011

A man with a plan...

We arose Saturday morning with a plan…touring the Hill Country of Texas gorging ourselves on the best bbq we could find. Having done our research ahead of time, and travelling with someone who lived in Texas for a while, we agreed that the day had to begin again in Lockhart. So, with Imodium and Pepto Bismol in hand and a Venti Iced Coffee from Starbucks (basically, something to keep things moving, and another to shut it down, if necessary), we were off.

We drove the dusty roads on the outskirts of Austin again, arriving at Kreuz Market at 11:00am. You’d think it’s a little early for lunch, but since we hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, we figured we’d grab some early grub. Apparently we weren’t the only people with that idea. Even at 11:00am, there was a wait to get to the meat counter. There must have been a reason for this, and we soon discovered it…it’s called “BBQ”.

Kreuze was a very different experience from Black’s. Black’s was small, intimate roadhouse, where you might end up sitting at a table next to the owners. Kreuz was a giant warehouse of a place… cavernous, with giant communal tables. However, that cavern housed some of the best brisket I’ve ever tasted. I suggest it was only incrementally better than Black’s…small nuances separate “the best” from “the very best”, but sitting at a communal table, eating perfectly cooked brisket, with the proper balance of fat, crust and beef…heaven on butcher paper.

Oddly, I took note of some people sitting at a table near us. An hour later, when we walked in to Black’s to purchase our requisite T-shirt, I saw those same people now enjoying the best that Black’s had to offer. This is what people do there-eat bbq!

After a brief tour of the Hill Country of Texas, we ended up at “The Salt Lick” in Driftwood. “Driftwood” is really just another name for “Nowhere” .

As I mentioned, The Salt Lick and Adam Richman’s gluttony were the foundational elements for this trip. The Salt Lick and it’s indoor open pit (see pictures) set the stage for an enticement that caused me to book a flight, hotel and rental car, and drive into the middle of nowhere with one of my closest friends while “Dueling Banjos” played in my head.

While the food didn’t quite live up to my wildest imagination, it certainly felt good to be sitting there eating that food. It was the same feeling from Black’s and one that would repeat itself several times this weekend: the “I can’t believe I’ve been seeing this place on TV all these years and I’m finally eating here” sensation that can’t be adequately described but needs to be experienced.

While the food was quite good, it wasn’t quite the “better” of any one thing, except the ambiance. I give it high marks for the ambiance mostly for the location, the indoor open pit and the live blues band playing outside for the patrons that had an hour and half wait ahead of them. Despite not being the best of the food, it’s a must-see on the bbq tour and I am excited for a return trip.

Later that night, back in Austin, we decided to walk up to “6th Street”, the club/bar/restaurant strip which is a cross between Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Duval Street on Key West, and De Wallen in Amsterdam. As a friend said, “it’s hard to describe-you just need to see it”. He wasn’t wrong.

While “clubbing” wasn’t our thing that night (or ever), we did have a pleasant walk up and down the street. Over a five-block area, there were bars and clubs with live bands, acoustic performers, hip-hop disc jockeys and motorcycle gangs, but not once did we feel threatened or uncomfortable. I call it “controlled chaos” and credit a strong police presence for the sense of safety. I also have to say that in general, Texans are amongst the friendliest people I’ve encountered, and that goes for the motorcycle gang members we were chatting with that night as well.

The evening ended with a brief appearance on the “Jordan Rich Show”…2:00am EST! After a long hard day of eating and driving, I was happy to relax and share some thoughts with Jordan and the listening audience. On May 20, I’ll be back on the show, talking more about this trip, and other food topics.

The weekend will continue with the next post, but until then, enjoy “Easy Rider”.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Texas, part 2

Don’t think we ended Friday with just lunch…that would be like putting down a “Playboy” after looking at one picture. So I’ve heard.

Upon our entry into Austin, we checked in to a very upscale “Marriott Courtyard” down by the Convention Center, and only 2 blocks down from the in/famous “6th Street”. The quality of the hotel was enhanced by the presence of a full-service Starbucks in the lobby. I really love Texas.

Friday afternoon, we took a walk several blocks up to the Texas State House. While we really just popped our heads in, on the way out, we ran into this guy…clearly someone who had issues with lawyers. We chatted, and he was a funny guy. Told me he was “takin’ it to the streets”. Must be a Doobie Brothers fan…or just a fan of the “doobie”, as far as I could smell.

We opted for “Tex-Mex” on Friday night at the “Texas Chili Parlor”; an inner-city roadhouse. Very good chili, washed down with a couple of enchiladas and a Shiner Bock. A party in my mouth.

After dinner, we rode over to “H-E-B Central Market”, a very upscale supermarket on the order of “Whole Foods”, but with an even more extensive selection of produce and dry goods, as well as bulk spices and other items. It even had it’s own restaurant and ice cream stand/coffee bar. Great to visit and see what markets are like down south.

A long weekend of bbq debauchery awaited for us. The next day, another pilgrimage to Lockhart, and then a road trip ending in Driftwood. It was time to regroup and get ready to rumble, at least with my digestive system...

Friday, April 15, 2011

It was a noontime arrival on a warm afternoon. The wind buffeted the plane violently as we came in for a landing, but when I walked in to the terminal, I wanted to kiss the ground; not in thanks for the safe landing, but in thanks for my arrival at the barbecue Mecca known as Austin, Texas. It was “game on”.

Last weekend was Marty and Eric’s Excellent BBQ Binge Fest, brought about by a mutual viewing of “Man v. Food” and Adam Richman’s visit to the Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, a farm about 20 miles outside of the Austin City Limits. For context, Marty was my roommate from my freshman year in college at Northeastern, before I journeyed westward to Amherst, and we’ve remained close for 27 years. On this trip, we not only survived, we thrived, and can now tell the tales of our weekend in Austin, and no, it won’t read like a letter to “Penthouse Forum”.

There’s a lot to tell…too much for one blog post. So, I think I’ll go day by day. We crammed a lot in on this trip, on the odometer of our car and in our colons.

As soon as we left the airport, it was time for a quick 30 mile drive to Lockhart, TX, the literal barbecue capitol to Texas, as named by the Texas State Legislature. Our first destination was “Black’s”…don’t know why, but there was something pulling us in. We passed “Kreuz Market”, a destination for the next day, and turned right down a dusty side road and pulled right up to the front door of “Black’s”. When we opened the front door, the sweet and pungent odor of smoke hit us in the face like a velvet glove. It was both a slap, and a caress, and we knew that we were about to experience something sublime.

As we found out, like most barbeque joints in Texas, Black’s is semi-self-serve, ordered by the increments of pounds, like at a deli counter. Grab a tray, walk up and tell them what you want. In my case, it was “two slices of a brisket and a beef rib, please”. Seeing is believing, so check out the picture to the right. A new expression has been coined: “Food Porn” or “Forn” for short. If there is such a thing as “forn”, this is surely it, and I assure you, it felt and tasted as good as it looks.

Eating at Black’s was like having sushi in Japan, kimchi in South Korea, a croissant in Paris, schwarma in Jerusalem or coffee at the Pike Place Market in Seattle. It was a transcendent moment; one that almost cannot be described but must be experienced.

On a whim, after we ate, we asked if we could get a tour of the “pit”, or for the uninitiated, the smoker. The pit-master could not have been nicer, taking us back into the smoke room/kitchen, explaining his whole process, the temperature, the different meats and times, and the wood used to impart the sublime essence.

It was a great end, to the great beginning; I said to Marty as we walked out, if I didn’t have any more barbecue the rest of the weekend, I was all-right.

As the slogan on the t-shirt says: “Take me back to Black’s”. Right now.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Binge-Fest 2011

Just a reminder, I launch into field work next weekend, and will be sharing my travels, and trevails of the BBQ Binge-Fest 2011 with you, here on and on WBZ1030am. Feel free to tune in for my live remote next Sunday morning at 2:00am on of 1030AM.

My Dinner With Andre'

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a quiet dinner with one of my oldest and closest friends. The food was really irrelevant to the opportunity to spend some time with him, but so surprisingly good that I feel I need to review the restaurant.

The “Ugly Duckling” is on the top floor of a converted farmhouse on Route 20 in Sturbridge, where after dinner, you can head over to Old Sturbridge Village for a “group churn”. Downstairs is a high-end place called the “Whistling Swan”, and upstairs, a more casual and relaxed environment.

Having been there years ago for lunch, I remembered it as a sandwich and burger place. It still may be, for lunch, but it has turned to quite a bit more at dinner.

We arrived on a rainy Thursday night, to a fairly empty house. The setting is rather pleasant. As I said, since it’s in an old farmhouse, the post and beam construction was exposed, and the wide-plank pine flooring added to the authenticity. The service was prompt and attentive, and the menu offered a variety of moderately upscale choices, but with reasonable price points. An added bonus-live entertainment by local musicians. That night was a saxophonist and an upright bass player. Quite polished and very entertaining.

That evening, we enjoyed an appetizer of Truffle-Parmesan Fries along with our salads. I ordered “Roasted Chicken Breast” which is described as a lightly smoked statler chicken, served with creamy parmesan polenta, sautéed spinach and balsamic-cinnamon cherries. My friend ordered the Cracker Crusted Haddock 
Sautéed vegetable orzo, Meyer lemon and fresh herbs. The service was attentive but not intrusive, and both dishes were well executed and tasty. We give it two forks up.

I have to say, The Ugly Duckling Loft was a pleasant surprise along the mean streets of Sturbridge. A while there, I had to wonder-what goes clip clop, bang bang, clip clop, bang bang? An Old Sturbridge Village Drive-By…

You’ve been great. Enjoy Jay Beckenstein.

Must Not See TV

As I get ready to depart on some Palate field work, I've been wonder: whatever happened to “Must See TV”, the classic NBC advertising campaign back in the 90s? We were urged to tune in to NBC on Thursday nights and we could sense that we were watching real classics in the making. Whether it was the Cheers, Seinfeld, Wings, Friends or Mad About You, it was practically appointment television.

Back then, if you might not be home, you had to learn how to split the atom and program your vcr to “tape” these shows, and watch them some other time. Now, most people I know have a DVR or TIVO, which has made missing shows a non-issue. You can DVR the higher-quality shows and watch them at your leisure, leaving the networks to fill all the rest of the empty time, hoping to grab your attention. As a result, I think the combination of cable and TIVO have caused the dearth of quality TV.

Back in the day, there were only 3 networks and a handful of cable stations. Most of the cable entries were HBO, Cinemax and the like, ESPN and CNN with Headline News. Having cable tv really meant that you got a static free signal and didn’t have to worry about adjusting rabbit ears…it did not mean an offering of a garbage meant to makes your eyes and ears bleed.

Sadly, I think that is the current state of television today. At “Palate Palace”, we have the “Dish Network” and subscribe to “America’s Top 200” with our local channels. As I have written before, what this really offers me is 200 channels of nothingness…the non-fat, decaf skim lattes of television (might as well order a cup of air). Sometimes I feel I’m better off watching a blank screen.

For those of you willing to take a chance with your brain cells, feel free to tune into Nickelodeon. Back when cable was fresh, “Nick at Nite” was the repository for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Bob Newhart Show”; you could also catch episodes of “The Odd Couple” and other classics. As cable grew and the channel line-up expanded, and Nickelodeon and Disney expanded from 1 channel to 118, the need for new programming became paramount. There are only so many repeats of the old shows people will watch, and certainly younger viewers weren’t tuning in for repeats of “The Patti Duke Show”. So, along comes “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide”, “Zoey 101” and “Big Time Rush” (a brief digression-I am not sure there has ever been a worse show than “Big Time Rush”. A derivative rip-off of the all-time “classic” “The Monkees”, except without talent and without humor, and without the LSD-inspired bump-ins and bump-outs. Closing in fast in “Ned’s Declassified…” and “Zoey 101”) Spend time watching this junk and you might need professional help.

The more channels, the greater need to fill the air. So instead of high quality writing and acting, these stations dump the classics and instead we get “Victorious, “True Jackson, VP” and “Shake it Up”. I dare you people to watch these shows.

I purposely left “Drake and Josh” and “ICarly” off the list. These shows border on “pretty ok”, as their comedy can be slightly subversive and attractive to both kids and adults. The producer, Dan Schneider, also produces “Zoey 101” and “Victorious”, proving the adage that even a blind chicken gets some grain now and then.

Overall, the simple economic theory of supply and demand has created a black hole of creativity in the development and execution of television. The more available television space, the greater the need to fill with “original” programming, the greater the likelihood that less skilled writers and creators will get a chance to put up shows like “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide”. I’m not sure I can “survive” that much more…