Category Archives: Alabama

BBQ

BBQ

Now I know y’all didn’t think I’d venture through the South without trying a little BBQ?!  While I did not indulge my gluttonous desires for smoked meat as fully as I expected, I did try a few “legit” spots and had something approximating the concept at least a couple other times. To get straight to the point, Franklin BBQ in Austin slaughtered the competition.  It was like me fighting Mike Tyson, and I’m talking back in my prime and when he was already over the hill.

I am certainly not a BBQ expert, but it strikes me that more than most cuisine types BBQ is judged on factors beyond how good it tastes.  This may seem odd to the casual observer, and it merits philosophical debate beyond the scope of this post.  By way of example, Houston’s ribs might not earn high praise at a BBQ competition, despite that many find them delicious!

Let’s start with just a few words about the BBQ-resembling meals I had in the South.  There was the pulled pork sandwich at Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill.  It consists of slow roasted pork, house-made beer cheese sauce, garlic sauteed spinach and frizzled red onions.  Hard to judge the quality of the meat with those accoutrements, but beer cheese sauce was interesting.  I enjoyed it, despite that I felt my arteries hardening with each bite.  Then there was the pulled pork po’boy at Parasol’s in New Orleans.  Parasol’s is phenomenal, and this sandwich was delicious.  But again, we are not talking pure BBQ.  On to that…

The Brick Pit is in a small house-like structure in a fairly nice part of Mobile, Alabama.  Like most places outside Texas, the emphasis is on hog.  The walls inside are covered with writing from patrons.  They had TV screens on CSS Encore showing an old college football game with Auburn dominating.  One orders inside at a pass-through counter, I got the combo plate with ribs and pulled pork, and it comes with coleslaw, BBQ beans and a piece of Texas toast (basically extra thick white bread).  The pit master uses 75% pecan (which is all over the Southeast) and 25% hickory for smoke.  He goes 3.5 and below, meaning the rack should weigh less than 3.5 pounds.

The ribs were smoky and fairly good, as was the pulled pork.  But this was perhaps the clearest illustration to me of the “good BBQ” vs. “tastes great” issue above.  My meal did not taste great.  It may be good, true BBQ, but it just was not supremely enjoyable.  Perhaps my biggest beef (haha) is they do not season the meat, instead choosing to let the smoke impart all the flavor.  The result is meat that is just not THAT tasty.  I think I prefer the Memphis style with a nice dry rub, where sauce is pretty much optional.  They also did not remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs.  This is a controversial subject, but I think I prefer it removed.  The beans here were smoky and excellent, definitely the best of the beans I had.  The cole slaw was pretty heavy on the mayo and also quite good.  Jenni went with the sourdough brick bites which is a $4 slider that was actually a decent-sized sandwich.  Unsweetenened iced tea is available here, and pretty much everywhere in the South.

Next up was Iron Works BBQ in Austin, Texas.  I think it is widely believed at this point that Franklin is superior, but Iron Works gets mad respect.  There are framed pictures of George Bush and of Barack Obama eating there.  Parking is ample and the inside is old-looking and charming.  I got the combo plate with beef brisket, a beef rib and sausage.  It also came with potato salad and beans.  Here again, the distinction arose.  This brisket was sliced thin, and while enjoyable to be sure, I have enjoyed more a brisket I cooked in my oven from a Jewish recipe book.  The sausage was quite tasty, and the beef rib was delicious.  I did not realize until I was in Austin in March 2013 for Josh’s bachelor party how much I like good BBQ beef ribs.  That time I visited Salt Lick at its Round Rock location, and I would say that was the second best BBQ after Franklin.

And now for the champion.  Franklin BBQ is not merely a meal, it is an experience.  It opens at 11 am and I am told it has sold out every day since it opened in 2009.  Having been told by a local that we could safely arrive at 10:30 am, we showed up at 10:10 am for extra caution.  We were met by a line halfway through the parking lot.  I parked the car and returned to find Jenni standing directly BEHIND a group holding the “Last Man Standing” piece of cardboard.  OH, THE HORROR!  The woman working the line informed us there was no guarantee we would get any food, and the kicker was that we probably would not know until after 1 pm.  The likelihood of getting ribs was almost non-existent.  It seems there is a concept of pre-ordering, but I do not know how this works.

We thus faced one of the hardest decisions of our lives.  Cut our losses and move on, or tough it out and go for the glory?  To my everlasting relief, while we debated she informed us that the owner had decided to push back the line and we were now safe.  Hallelujah!!

We broke out the boat chairs for the first time in ages and read and made some phone calls.  At 11 am the doors opened and the first large group entered the restaurant.  But things move very slowly from there.  So at several minute intervals the line would move up a handful of feet, meaning you have to pick up your chairs etc. and relocate.  There was a guy across the street actually renting folding chairs for $5.  Supply and demand at its finest.  There was another Franklin employee walking the line and selling beer and soft drinks so Jenni got a blonde ale and I a lemonade.  Some groups also brought their own beer for the wait.

We entered the structure at about 1:10 pm and got served at 1:30 pm.  So here is the secret: show up early!  Like 8 am.  If you show up at that time, your overall commitment is actually equal if not less and you are guaranteed a selection of anything on the menu.  Plus, you would never have to move your waiting position as long as you are far enough up in the line to enter with the first group.  So show up at 8 am and order at 11 am from the full menu, or show up at 10:10 am and order at 1:30 pm with NO RIBS available.  By the way, Franklin serves pork ribs even though this is Texas.

Upon reaching the counter, your order is taken and filled (i.e. sliced, cut, etc.) by the owner and legend himself, Aaron Franklin.  Despite the immense popularity and praise (Bon Appetit declared it the best in the country), Aaron could not be nicer.  He does not subscribe to the theory of “my food is amazing, therefore I can be a dick.”  He asked whether we wanted fatty or lean brisket, and before we even answered he confirmed our suspicion by murmuring his own response of “fatty.”  Obviously.   He hooked us up with a couple large bites laid on the counter, which reminded me of Katz’s Deli in New York.  It was at this very moment we knew the nearly 3.5 hour wait was worth every minute.

There were three guys sequentially working the counter, and we had pleasant exchanges with each.  First with Aaron himself who asked where we were from etc.  The next guy on the line overheard us mention we had been to a Packers game and then said the prior night’s game was his favorite because he is a Bears fan.  The third guy told us a story about how he ordered a salad at a Whataburger in Oklahoma and the woman asked if he was from Los Angeles.

Back to the food…Jenni and I each got a two meat plate which comes with two sides.  One plate was brisket and turkey with cole slaw and potato salad.  The other was brisket and pulled pork with beans and potato salad.  The beans were good, the cole slaw was very good and the potato salad was OK.  The turkey was sliced white meat and very good, considering the materials.  The pulled pork was delicious, nice and moist and peppery.  I found it far better than the Brick Pit, which is known more for pork vs. beef.  The brisket, though, was fall out of your chair good.  I mean just ridiculously scrumptious.  It was cut very thick and was incredibly moist and flavorful.  They have three BBQ sauce options: a Carolina style vinegary sauce, an espresso flavored sauce, and a Texas style sauce that was a little tangier and spicier.  Sometimes with BBQ I want almost all my bites with sauce but make sure to try some naked bites to savor the pure dead animal.  At Franklin, this was reversed.  We also ate a banana bourbon pie that was yummy.

I would note that we did not order one, but the Tipsy Texan sandwich looked great.  It is chopped brisket and sliced sausage on a white roll with cole slaw and pickles.  There are several tables inside and a handful of picnic tables on a deck outside, which is where we sat.  Folks, when you are next in Austin, do yourself a favor and get to Franklin early (and often).

Florida, Alabama and Mississippi

October 29-30, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)

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Sunset from Grand Hotel

Florida and Miss were mainly drive-throughs, but Alabama was an eye-opener.

Leaving Georgia we saw lots of snowbirds with New York and New England plates taking I-95 to Florida.  Then we hit the 10 West, and my appreciation for the interstate highway system grew markedly.  I had never taken serious road trips before, and I was mesmerized by the fact that I was now on the same road that is part of daily life in Los Angeles.

Jenni got excited when we crossed the Suwannee River and put that song on.  I still stayed awake and guided us safely to lunch in Tallahassee at Kool Beanz Cafe on the main drag Monroe.  Breeze and a covered patio felt nice in the 80 and sunny weather.

The Florida State campus looks pretty nice.  It is not as charming as many I have seen, but there are plenty of live oaks with Spanish moss.

We crossed into Alabama and it felt more like Alabama with lots of Baptist churches, pickup trucks, signs for cheap tobacco, cotton fields and a Crimson Tide helmet mailbox.  I think we fit right in blasting Sweet Home Alabama with Sven’s top down.

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Figuring we will likely settle back in California and it will be harder to visit this part of the country, we had decided to spend a night by Mobile Bay on the way to New Orleans.  Some towns were mentioned in our 1,000 Places to See book, and I asked Leura for some recs.  She was super helpful and we ended up staying in her hometown.  And this day/night was probably the biggest surprise of the whole road trip.  In a good way.

One of the charming towns is Magnolia Springs, though our first experience here was probably the scariest moment of the trip.  We pulled into Jesse’s Restaurant parking lot and it is hard to explain what happened.  Basically we were parked in a gravel lot next to the street and next to an opening leading to more parking lot.  A car sped in, turned and skidded, then backed up kicking up gravel.  We saw another guy sort of chasing it, and then the driver floored it and started skidding on the gravel towards us.  I sensed the driver was terrified or enraged, or perhaps a combo, and figured it was mainly down to luck whether he hit us or not.  I was not so scared of injury as getting stuck in a repair shop for a few days in Alabama for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was a most narrow escape.

We drove down to the both brackish and spring-fed river and talked to this guy fishing who had a heavy Southern accent.  He was entertaining, talking about fighting a red fish that was 3.5 feet long.  But better tasting are trout or the smaller red fish, about 18-23 inches in length.

Earlier today I teased Jenni for playing Mozart in the Redneck Riviera, then ate my words when we saw a Values.com billboard promoting him.  We took Scenic 98 to Point Clear and the bay-side homes were gorgeous with deep properties and big oaks.  The Grand Hotel (a Marriott) is gated but I asked if we could take a look and they were most welcoming.  Not that this was special treatment at all, but I think in the South if you are white and appear to have some money then you can probably do anything you want.  The property was impressive and we caught a phenomenal sunset over the bay.  This place has swinging wooden chairs, hammocks, a nice little beach area, a golf course, etc.  It would make a fine vacation destination.

Lots of people were out walking or jogging and we made a quick stop at the Fairhope pier before parking in town for dinner.  I was rendered speechless by the contrast between my pre-judgments and reality.  I expected Alabama to feel impoverished and unsophisticated, and perhaps a lot of it is.  But you could drop Fairhope in the Hamptons and it would not seem out of place.  There were Range Rovers and Beemers all over the place, and high end shops and nice restaurants.  Camellia Cafe could have been in Carmel.  We had sushi (yup, sushi in Alabama) at Master Joe’s which was great, and we were the worst-dressed patrons.  One of the rolls we got was baked with cheddar.  Cringe ye purists, rejoice ye lovers of isht that tastes good.  I heard this area is increasingly popular with snowbirds.

During breakfast at our hotel.  Pause.  If you are thinking of a proper dining room with an omelet station and ample bacon, think again.  I mean the kind where the check-in area is about 150 square feet and has a few tables, some crappy coffee and a little cereal.  Play.  There was an older couple wearing t-shirts from Newport, Rhode Island and Whitefish, Montana, so it was fun to say we had visited both those spots already on this drive.

Mobile
Mobile

We passed through downtown Mobile on the way to the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion.  There were no other patrons so $7.50 (each with AAA) bought us a private tour.  This woman was hilarious.  There might have been 40 seconds during the 40 minutes when she was not talking.  I am not fact-checking any of this so I apologize for errors, but here are some things she said that I found interesting: the pineapple is a sign of hospitality and when soldiers came home from war they would put it out front stuck on a post, so it is a symbol of welcoming guests; there are curved walls near doors so ladies could pass with big dresses; something about newel post at the staircase base where they would put wedding rings and a penny on top because they spent their last cent on the house (??); the columns out front are 26’ high and made of Cypress; this was Judge Bragg’s home just for the social season, which of course is Thanksgiving through Mardi Gras; and Mardi Gras really began in Mobile and not New Orleans; there are beds with posts that rise up from the frame for draping mosquito nets; many weddings are held at the mansion; most houses back in the day did not have closets because these counted as rooms for taxes; Mobile is the city of six flags, starting with the French in 1702.  We did see a police car displaying these, and it was a trip to see a black officer driving a cop car with a confederate flag on it.

After the mansion we went to the Brick Pit, which I covered in my BBQ post.  A couple other things we considered doing in the area were the Oakleigh house, the USS Alabama and Bellingrath Gardens.  We also skipped the multiple bars with signs out front advertising cold beer and free advice, though I confess that is a strong offering.

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In Mississippi we made a brief detour to see the alleged world’s largest rocking chair.  Jenni loves this stuff and her fear of heights was drowned by excitement.

Alabama & Ole Miss

To break up the long drive from Georgia to New Orleans and check out some of Alabama and Mississippi, we did a little bit of research and decided on Fairhope, AL, which turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the trip. It’s Beverly Hills, Alabama! I had no idea this upscale town in the Mobile bay even existed, let alone that we would be so impressed by its beauty and its sushi restaurant.

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We spent a few minutes checking out the town of Magnolia Springs, having heard great things about Jesse’s restaurant. However, after pulling into the parking lot to check out the menu another car came flying into the parking lot, threw the car in reverse, started skidding and then started towards us at full speed and barely in control. It was one of those terrifying hopeless moments when you don’t know if you are going to get hurt (the car was coming towards the passenger side, where I was sitting), and the driver was clearly enraged, or else three sheets to the wind. They missed the car by a few inches thankfully, and it was then that we noticed a person kind of chasing the car from the parking lot. He turned around almost immediately and started using his phone, we assumed to call the cops. Weirdest situation, very confusing, very unnerving. We’ve no idea if this guy was pushed out of the car, or trying to meet the car. Was it a lover’s quarrel gone wrong? A drug deal? We’ll never know, but we got the hell out of there as soon as possible as we had no desire to wait and see if he/she came back.  Aside from this freakish situation, Magnolia Springs was a charming town, filled with the eponymous trees, as well as more live oak. And again aside from this random scenario we found the people in Alabama to be super friendly, in fact several bars around Mobile boasted cold beer and free advice.

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From there we headed to the Grand Hotel to check out the views, and we were treated to another stunning sunset (so many good ones on this trip).  We checked out the pier, smartly passing up the Yardarm Restaurant there for Master Joe’s sushi downtown. The downtown area was like the downtown of a really high end suburban town, not at all what we had expected to see on our one night in Alabama, we expected deep south ish, not Range Rovers and Bimmers!

We passed a sign in Alabama promoting Mozart and keeping classical music in general alive. It was ironic given that I had played some Mozart while driving through the Florida Panhandle and Alan teased me for doing so in the Redneck Riviera. Turns out they keep it very classy down here in Roll Tide country.

On the way out of town we stopped for a tour of the Bragg-Mitchell mansion. It was a beautiful house, but the tour was made very special by the fact that we got a private tour (by virtue of being the only guests there our entire time on the property) as well as our guide with the hilarious stories. She had the most epic delivery, never stopping to take a breath until she had to sit down, winded. We learned a couple of things about Southern culture and architecture which we enjoyed: pineapples are used in decoration as a sign of hospitality because the men used to bring them home from war and stick them on the gate posts to let people know they were back and ready for visitors; the walls in corner spaces are rounded so that ladies can fit through with their big dresses; the first banister on the main staircase are called Newell posts and were hollowed out to hold important things like wedding rings and deeds, and they were typically the last piece made in the home so a penny would be inserted in the top to signify the last cent spent; the bed posts had stakes that would raise up to hold mosquito nets; most rooms did not have closets back in the day because they were counted as bedrooms for purposes of calculating taxes. Our guide also claimed that Mardi Gras began in Mobile, AL.

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Our last stop in Alabama was the Brick Pit, so that Alan could try some proper southern BBQ. He started telling me about how this is “really good” BBQ even if it doesn’t taste that good, because BBQ is judged on lots of factors other than taste. Um, I’ll stick to the bad BBQ that tastes good, thanks. (Not that this was bad, just not that impressive, though I’m really the wrong person to go to for BBQ reviews. See Alan’s blog for the in depth BBQ post. What Alan doesn’t tell you in his post however, is that Justin Bieber’s name appears no less than four times on the walls of this place.)

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We looked for something interesting enough to do in Southern Mississippi and I was ecstatic to see that the World’s Largest Rocking Chair was on our route. I’m big on roadside attractions, something we did far too few of on this trip. I’d like to use this opportunity to state for the record that I’m very disappointed we could do Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas (it would have been hours and hours out of the way, but I’m still very upset we didn’t plan around this).

::lemon on the road::
::lemon on the road::