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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My tribute to West, TX

Usually when most people get a wild hair it takes them to destinations such as Las Vegas or an exotic cruise into the Caribbean. Often times it can lead to a major purchase like a motorcycle, fishing boat or plastic breasts. The wild hair I caught started out as a thought turned decision, which was relatively easy based on the reasons behind it. Though it still came with inklings of  nervous hesitation from the unknown.

All Texans, all Americans, and possibly most of the world (who have a TV) learned about the fertilizer plant explosion which violently awoke the sleepy Czechoslovakian town of West, Texas a week ago Tuesday. The explosion so incredible, it moved train tracks together while being measured on the Richter scale as equivalent to a low earthquake. I myself was glued to the TV and social media much of the night and briefly distracted from the horrific bombings the day before in Boston. Not because I have media ADD as most Americans do but because as a Texan, I know West. I know West because like the majority of Texans, we find our way to either the Czech Stop conveniently located off Interstate 35 or we meander to another bakery in town to purchase our Kolaches and Klobasneks which reluctantly cater to the clogging of our arteries. Unfortunately many Texans don't know the difference between the two thus ordering "sausage filled Kolaches". Sorry fellow state dwellers but let me take this opportunity to clarify; Kolaches have the fruit filling and Klobasneks have the meat. You're welcome.

Two days after the unnatural disaster I found myself thinking of the weekend ahead of me. Attending a going away party for a friend of a friend that Friday night at the Loon, a crawfish boil at McKinney Avenue Tavern the following Saturday benefitting military personnel, and of course a lazy Sunday afternoon most likely spent by the pool and a Rangers day game to watch on TV. What a great weekend I had planned. It couldn't get any better than that. Good job me. But this bothered me as I thought about my fellow Texans who had lost their lives and those who had no beds to sleep in. They don't get to enjoy their weekend. I was consumed with guilt from my selfish weekend mapped out with hours of thoughtless alcohol-fueled fun. I then realized, life isn't fair. And it definitely wasn't fair to the town of West. It was time to stop being one of those people who "feel sad for the victims, if only there was something I could do." Well there was something I could do.

Having met Trace Arnold at his 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House in Frisco during opening week, I quickly became a fan of his BBQ and most notably the ribs. I noticed on their Facebook page he had packed up the Ultimate Smoker and Grill and headed down south with a request for volunteers. I knew what the right thing to do would be. With no living quarters in place, I packed enough clothes for the weekend with a grand idea to sleep in my truck bed with my Army issued sleeping bag and when rank enough, take a baby wipe bath. I had once went two gritty weeks in Iraq without a shower except the occasional baby wipe bath so I could deal with a couple of nights without hot water and again...the citizens of West didn't have the luxury of a bed or shower so why complain?

Friday morning my bags were packed and by this time a couple of friends from the Thursday Night Social Run group in Plano, TX I run with had posted on Facebook that they too were heading down to volunteer for the weekend. Communication flowed, plans were made, and his RV was volunteered by me for our living quarters. Little did I know the dog mafia of four would be joining and assisting in the most pure form of entertainment a dog could possibly provide, disobedience. I decided to head down after noon to recon the area as word had spread that volunteers were being turned away. Trace still needed help and that was still my plan. On the way down Interstate 35 I booked a reservation at the near empty campground in West and attempted to call City Hall to get anyone on the phone for an update on the relief efforts. A message was left on the City Secretary's voicemail because surely they would have some information. Upon returning home Sunday night I learned the City Secretary had perished during the disaster. I had unknowingly left a message with the deceased and that itself is haunting.

I arrived at the 3 Stacks massive smoker located on the west side of I-35 mirroring the Czech Stop on the east side. Getting out of my truck I immediately noticed Firemen bunked out, haggard in appearance, and waiting for meals so they can return to Ground Zero and continue their efforts to find any sign of life. I knew I was in the right place and my heart was settled of nerves. Finding Trace wasn't hard to do by the sound of his voice and his signature white straw cowboy hat. "Let me know me what I can do", I asked. After a couple words about the BBQ review I gave him (5 stars) he directed me to Dawn Cruzan, President and founder of Camp Craig Allen, who then mentioned she too had read the review. It was nice to know at least someone reads it. Dawn quickly introduced me to the assembly line of sandwich making. And sandwiches, by the hundreds and hundreds, we did make. Like a fine-tuned and well oiled machine, we churned out enough meals for thousands over the weekend. Volunteers ranged from Dallas Cowboy, Tyron Smith, to citizens of West; from friends of Trace to members of his family and even a stranger or two. During this time, from a few female volunteers, I learned I resembled Jeff Gordon, the Nascar great. I am no Nascar great but I'll take it. That being said, a great turnout to help those in need is an understatement.

During that Friday and over the following Saturday, my eyes will never forget the images provided by reality. Weary but relentless citizens of West were fed, civil servants such as Police, Firemen, and DPS officers were fed, Chaplains who were overwhelmed in their Godly duties to console the victims were fed, any and every volunteer were fed, and food deliveries were made to Hillcrest hospital in Waco and Scott and White hospital in Temple for staff who were tirelessly working overtime to aid those hospitalized. Our goal was to not turn away one person and by all means, we ensured that did not happen. Even when the brisket and ribs were gone, sausages provided by Slovacek located in Snook, TX were served in buns along with chips and cookies.

My friends who had arrived late Friday night with RV and four-legged dog brigade in tow had found their way Saturday morning to the fair grounds to assist in the donation collection for victims while I was on the other side of town prepping food, monitoring meat in the smoker, grilling and cutting brisket, sausage and ribs. When the occasional breaks were taken, talk with the locals and anyone else who cared to talk ensued. Reports of the missing or found lingered in almost every conversation had. By the end of that Saturday exhausted was a word felt but not easily used. By sundown my companions had joined me at the smoker for dinner as the fair ground closed at 7 pm due to the curfew in place. This didn't mean the work was over as families and others still trickled in with hunger. The hotel next door was congested with those helping and those misplaced from their homes. They too may need food.

With every experience or situation we come in contact with, no matter how major or minor, there is always one or two moments that shake you to the bone. One of these moments came in the form of a woman and her children who drove into our parking lot late that evening. She was in the most solemn mood I had seen from any other person that day. As she gave her order of food to one of the helpers, she then tried to pay with a handful of cash. I watched subtly as she tried her best to negotiate payment for the food as the volunteer continued to deter this. And then it happened. The woman begin crying as she had lost a family member and was gracious for the meals provided. Since she was alone with her children only an assumption of who had passed could be made.

The following Sunday we awoke and my camping/volunteer pals minus the dog posse were heading back to the Fair Grounds and I decided to join them to see the overall operations. We were then turned away and given directions to the downtown bank as an annex was being converted to a makeshift food and clothes distribution center. We ended up staying longer than planned as the job was not done and help was needed. One of the local men in charge of the operation at the fair ground lent me his truck (he clearly didn't know me and most likely wouldn't had if he was familiar with my driving habits) and several trips were made bringing pallets of water, cleaning supplies, and dog food to the annex, which was already full of toiletries and clothes. Oh and toilet paper. Lots and lots of toilet paper. I never want to see another roll again. Ever. During the distribution center's setup another "come to Jesus" moment was presented as we found ourselves working next to a West volunteer FD member. This man who surely had lost friends only 5 days before was working to continue in support of his community. He appeared to be just your average citizen and only God knows the internal battle he is facing and will continue to do so as not months but years over years it will take in the healing process of this town with a population of slightly over 2,000.

With the makeshift distribution center complete, it was time to move on and head back north to Collin County. With gratitude and appreciation being given from the locals who were there, I personally did not need it. Nothing that I could do in a matter of three days could even scrape the surface of the rebuilding this town will need. I didn't go for a "thank you" from them. I didn't even feel like a "you're welcome" would be an appropriate response from me. It wasn't a favor but a desire in which no praise was needed. It was a duty and love is not self-seeking. Admittedly at times I get depressed by my fellow Americans because of this "selfish age of convenience" we now live in, me being just as guilty, but the desire for good will is not dead or ill. If anything learned from the tragedy in Boston or West, that desire is alive and well. If you have forgotten the strength of the human spirit, or genuine kindness and complete humility, or if you think faith and religion have all but faded, go ahead and take a peak yourself. It's only a short drive from where you are in a town all Texans know as West.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Slow Bone Barbeque


Update: No movement

One perk when Matt Gross visited was getting to try places I had already been to. This time with a fresh set of taste buds. The first time I ate here it was on opening day. The brisket and sausage rocked yet the ribs were served before completion. On this stop, the rib quality was elevated yet some bites closer to the bone were still tough to pull apart. Your average customer may not think twice about this. I wasn't completely happy with the cutter slicing our brisket into small thin pieces which felt like eating finger food appetizers. The flavor was still an even mix of salt, pepper and hickory. The jalapeno brat and original sausage were tried this time. The taste was very good but without an ease of snap. Brats usually have a different texture regardless and snapping one usually doesn't work. In the words of Jack, "we've only been doing this for 5 weeks and have made many changes. In 5 months, many more changes will occur."

4 Stars

Since Social Media darling and Maple & Motor owner, Jack Perkins, announced his plan for a barbeque joint in the Design District of Dallas...the local food scene has been anything but quiet on the subject and mainly because of Mr. Perkin's not-so-subtle "personality and charm".

Having taken the local hamburger scene by storm since his Maple & Motor conception opened in September 2009, his critics and fans alike have as much passion about his burger then any other burger joint in Dallas. The anticipation has been high. Was it possible for his burger success to translate into the BBQ scene and mark it's territory? After being lucky enough to sample (many times) his award winning brisket from Meat Fight 2012...this past Tuesday could answer that question. At least for me.

I strolled in shortly after 12:30 and from what I heard, luckily missed the lunch crowd and enabling enough time for more of Slow Bone's meat product to be ready. Also noted, "Miss Jessie", the Oyler smoker went into meat coma that Tuesday evening from too much meat birth. Jack was nice enough to provide free meals the following Wednesday to those who showed. I ordered the three meat plate which cost $15. This included your choice of bread (corn or hushpuppy) and two sides. I chose the breaded okra and Brussels sprout and cauliflower casserole. For the meats, I ordered the lean brisket (which had a minimal layer of fat) with burnt ends, also the cilantro sausage and St. Louis ribs. The ribs weren't completely ready at the time of ordering.

Sitting at the bar with my old school lunch tray of meat eagerly awaiting the ribs, I felt like a child with a bladder full of Dr. Pepper on a road trip with no end in sight. Finally the ribs were placed in front of me. First things first, photo opportunity. I picked up the cilantro sausage link and started with the traditional snap. It wasn't the cleanest pop having to twist a bit but by that time the meat was in my mouth faster than a...(insert Harry Hines Blvd. hooker / Dallas politician joke here). It was good. Uniquely good. Being a fan of cilantro as most Texans are, this ought to be ordered at least once in your life. This recipe was pieced together from one of the employees located where they purchase the sausage from. A little hint, it's in Austin and the name can be found on "Miss Jessie". Now time for the brisket.

A couple of months ago Jack was interviewed for his preferred method of smoking brisket. High heat was the answer he gave. What I found out after sitting down with him was the slow and low method for 18 hours at a constant temperature. The brisket was exactly what I would expect from central Texas. Solid hickory smoked flavor. Fat was rendered well, moist, beautiful ring and the bark provided the icing to the cattle cake. Nicely done. The ribs were next. I had ordered them prematurely and Jack told me, "they shouldn't had been served if they weren't ready." Rightfully so and I can't judge the texture due to my impatience. Some bites were more rendered than others. There was a good amount of heat to the flavor which I noticed red pepper and cayenne involved with a hint of sweetness though not provided by sugar as Jack informed me. Secrets. I will gladly return to try the ribs again after being thoroughly cooked.

The sauces were vinegar based, one being more of a heavy flavor and thin (located at the condiment bar), while the BBQ sauce was a bit more thick yet, nice tomato base and lighter with the vinegar. Both sides I found to be exceptionally good and even though Mr. Perkins wants to cater to a vegetarian crowd as well...those vegetarians may walk out of Slow Bone being converted into carnivores. Although Dallas has always been a red-headed step-child to the Texas BBQ scene, I believe if this Design District restaurant continues with consistency and maturing improvements, this will be another staple along side Pecan Lodge, Mike Anderson's, Off the Bone and Lockhart Smokehouse. If you want some solid meat, Jack's Slow Bone will surely oblige.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Woodshed Smokehouse

2 Stars

Being a fan of Tim Love's "Dirty Love Burger" and having never visited his Lonesome Dove restaurant in the Stockyards but hearing great reviews, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect with his newest culinary and dining destination, Woodshed Smokehouse. Located along the bank and a stone's throw from the Trinity River, it has the perfect setup. With party bulbs crisscrossing above your head, trees wrapped with white lights, fire pits and picnic tables, there you may forget you're right outside of Ft. Worth and if not for a lion's roar...the Ft. Worth Zoo.

Woodshed uses Hickory, Pecan, Mesquite, and Oak to smoke the meat. Much like a key to a map, on the menu you will find the wood used beside each food item. Sitting outside on a semi-cool March evening the aroma of different woods from the smokers were abundant. Heads up...if you're looking for a true smoke flavor you won't find that here. This is gourmet BBQ and for some reason what I've noticed with these type of restaurants...that often translates into "smoke free". Are the wood piles out front just a ploy?

To the best of my ability I ordered my standard. Market sausage happen to be an ironic concoction of hunter and prey, Rattlesnake and Rabbit. A half rack of pork ribs and half pound of brisket were ordered as well. Throw in the Mexican corn for amusement. The sausage was good but having two mild game flavors mixed didn't provide the pop I had hoped for. A bit of spice would've been a nice addition. One look at the brisket served and I knew what was about to come. No smoke ring or bark...tender roast beef.

Daniel Vaughn had reviewed Woodshed Smokehouse in September of 2012 remarking the lack of brisket on the menu with the statement "this might be the only smokehouse in Texas whose smoker hasn't seen a brisket"( ). Well now it seems that the brisket still hadn't found the smoker or rather the wood hadn't found the smoker. I was absolutely baffled as to how this could be? Surely Tim Love wouldn't neglect the brisket and surely his kitchen team would be knowledgeable in smoking brisket. It didn't seem right and it didn't stop there as the ribs were next. Smoke-less as well. Heavy on the parsley, maybe sage, rosemary and thyme. Its almost as if Simon and Garfunkel were the inspiration for the rib seasoning. The texture was spot on and I'll give it credit for the moistness and overall good flavor. They were unique but due to the word "Smokehouse" within the restaurant name...I was judging as a purist.

I left here with my belly full but with my BBQ soul empty. It's good and obviously has the business. You can't take away from the creativity and atmosphere. If the items ordered actually had a hint of the wood used, as noted by the menu key, this gourmet BBQ would have been completely welcomed and appreciated. But it's no authentic Que joint. Luckily I can enjoy it for what it is. If I walked around with a closed mind then I'd never learn. We're not in Central Texas anymore and that's what I must remind myself.