Find a Que joint.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Science of Wood and my Dad.

A question many weekend pit warriors may never consider when it comes to wood is: "How long can it last without being used - being exposed to outdoor elements over a prolonged time, will it still be safe for meat since toxins are released in smoke?" This question may never cross the mind of Pitmasters from barbecue joints because they are constantly replenishing their supply based on demand. For your holiday only cooks, this is a different situation.

I found myself pondering this while smoking ribs on a balmy 90* Father's Day with what turned out to be about five year old (at best) post oak. A smoky yellowish hue was billowing out of the stack which caused personal concern. Would today be my last to eat ribs? Or would I turn into a flesh eating zombie - on Father's Day nonetheless?

I bought my Dad a smoker for Christmas in 2006, and it may sit on or around the number of times used at 20. So as you can imagine the wood has been stacked outside for a long, long time. Possible leftovers from Noah's Ark with exposure to rain, snow, hail, insects, snakes, and possible fungus from the little droppings of rodents seeking shelter under the aluminum boat which covers the woodpile. Geez, America has elected the same president twice in this time frame.

To understand smoke, I believe it's important to know the cause of it. The science of wood.

 The components.

I'm no wood-obsessed Ron Swanson from NBC's Parks and Recreation but we all know wood is imperative to the flavor of meat, color of the smoke ring, and the composition of bark. Air-dried wood is used for one distinct reason. Fresh cut wood contains on average of 50% water, therefore utilizing more energy when burning that can produce steam in lieu of the pronounced smoke we're accustomed to seeing.

All wood is primarily composed from cellulose, hemi-cellulose, and lignin. Along with soil and climate, minerals such as oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and potassium are all factors of wood which impact the flavor and fragrance of the wood type being used. For fresh cut wood, recommendations of allowing dry time range upward to 12 months with 6 months being on the lower end. We can pretty much assume my Dad's five year old oak was moisture free.

Detectors can be used to gauge the amount of moisture still being held within. A quick note is that much depends on your region's Equilibrium Moisture Content (EMC). You can find more information on EMC provided by this link from the USDA/Forest Service. Various methods for drying and storage can be found with basic research as well.


My Dad is a former teacher of all things science who could rival Bill Nye with an uncanny ability at lulling students and sometimes himself to sleep...while sitting at his own desk. He would be amused to know I've invested so much time learning all this high school chemistry stuff I swore I'd never use again. Well here it goes.

When combustion or Pyrolysis occurs, a solid is turned into a gas product with the secondary effect being the production of light and heat. There are three stages of combustion with three basics of said combustion that will be covered in short.

Let's start with the three basics being time, temperature and turbulence. Adequate time is needed with the right conditions for the completion of combustion. Temperature is needed for the fuel gas mixture to properly ignite. Finally the mixture of combustible gases with oxygen is the result of turbulence.

First stage is when the water within the wood begins to boil from slightly over 200* of heat. Combustion cannot occur until all moisture is depleted. When the heat rises, combustible gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and acids located in the oily liquid preservative known as creosote are formed. These gases can burn and enable heat. 

Creosote is a playmaker in the color of smoke and flavor of food while still acting as a preservative. Oversmoking can cause a bitter aftertaste on the food but methods can be used to control the creosote amount.

The second stage of combustion is when heat begins to reach 500* after the moisture has evaporated. This is basically the burning gas fuels which in turn creates the fire's flames. The wood is now ready to burn.

The final stage occurs when the wood is burned down to ash and the remaining carbon chains we know as charcoal. Charcoal is what burns long, slow and provides a low heat rate with additional energy being discharged. More wood will be added to maintain the familiar temperature of 225* which is common to pitmasters who smoke meat low and slow with their average time amount varying from 12-18 hours.  

Death by wood...smoke?

With a brief and boring summary of science above, we now take a look at carcinogens which are substances that are productive in the cause of cancer. If the carcinogens from tobacco don't kill you, the carcinogens from wood can.

Beside the minerals listed above, wood smoke also contains formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and other nuisance gases such as nitrogen oxides. Pretty much you're one step ahead of the funeral director by embalming yourself before death.

Every single negative health symptom that a cigarette can cause mirrors that from wood smoke. Because of the particles being so miniscule, they aren't as easily filtered out and can make their home deep within your lungs-staying for months. Unlike cigarette smoke, I don't know of any studies or examples of pitmasters dying at either a young age or older age from cancer. Any information provided would be welcomed.

Back to the old age question.

The only sure advice I found when it comes to wood that has been exposed to outdoor elements is to not use wood infected by fungus or covered with mold. No real evidence was found regarding age versus use. For obvious reasons, visuals should be performed before using said wood and when in doubt, do without. 

As far as the smoke coloring, white smoke is the evaporation of water, blue smoke being the evaporation of compounds, and finally the mysterious and in my book, deadly yellow smoke. No clue. It only hovered a few seconds before dispersing into the stale June air and I don't think Dad would purposely try to kill me for not buying a Father's Day card..right? A good measure for smoke is "thick and white, it ain't right. Clear and blue, it's time to Cue".

Between hickory, pecan, oak or mesquite, there's no right or wrong, it's all self-preference. Learn the variations of taste from each type then mix and match while enjoying excessive amounts of meat. I encourage you do research first because wood like pine, redwood and cedar, among many others are suitable for firepits but because of their toxins, are not suitable for smoking food. Also wood which has been stored upon a pallet is not suitable for usage.

By the way, I have yet to crave human flesh and the oak smoked ribs glazed with pepper, ginger and lemon didn't turn out too bad either. We'll just say the oak was "well seasoned," much like my Dad who also happens to have his degree in Agriculture. Guess I am learning something from him after all these years. Happy Father's Day Dad!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smoke in the Piney Woods - Day One

The road to East Texas begins in Austin...

When Robert Lerma initially mentioned his idea of a multi-state BBQ trip in June, I was hooked. After meeting Matt Gross soon after and hitting it off, I suggested to Robert that we invite him. This bolstered our number whilst adding a dynamic skill set. Robert being a studious photographer, knowledgeable Matt having an inquisitive interviewing style complete with pen and pad and I, with a knack for getting personable with folks which often is the easiest way making them feel comfortable. Many Pitmasters are secretive and inverts upon initial impression but what we discovered by the time we left each visit, we were treated much like family.

The trip consisting of four days and three nights through East Texas, Arkansas, Memphis, Mississippi, New Orleans and back to Austin had been widdled down slowly over the couple weeks leading up to departure. The end result would be two days and one night covering Texas Monthly Top 50 joints and whatever else we could get our hands on in East Texas (ETX). It was clear, concise and more focused on which we all agreed would be the most successful way of accomplishing what we needed.

We set the bar high on the Wednesday evening prior to leaving by plowing through plates full of meat with Pitmaster Evan Leroy at Freedmen's Bar in Austin. None of us could imagine any joints in ETX measuring up to such wonderfully cooked BBQ. Evan would be to blame for possibly setting us up for failure. After spending that afternoon before dinner drinking beers at the pool, we were cashed. It was time to call it a night. The following Thursday morning would be arriving soon and consisting of many miles.

Bennie and Kirby.

Our first stop took us to Whup's Boomerang Bar-B-Que in Marlin, TX. Located among old and decrepit homes along sparsely populated Bennett Street, the cliché "off the beaten path" most likely pertains to this little green shack. Here you will find Pitmaster Bennie Washington manning the smokers and family handling the ordering. "I'm pretty busy cooking right now", he first responded when we approached him to hang out. It didn't take long after before he took us in and we found ourselves shooting basketball on an all dirt court near his woodpile with his Grandson.

(Robert capturing images)

His story isn't complicated or mysterious but similar to many other Pitmaster's stories we would soon be hearing along our way. His father worked for the railroad and cooked when Bennie was a child frequently roasting kid goat known as Cabrito. Bennie worked for Pepsi as a sales and delivery man and while doing so found himself cooking for various company gatherings. He had previously attempted cooking commercially and finally located to his current location in 1999.

Taking a rule of thumb from Pepsi with product consistency, Bennie strives for this the three days a week he is open putting out close to 1,000 lbs. of brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken. For 12-15 hours a day he uses a mix of mesquite, hickory, or pecan or "whatever is closest". His hot links come from Waco, TX based H&B packing Company under the name "Farmer Jones", while the sausage is straight from Eckermann's Meat Market in Elgin, TX. All in all, we were pleased with what we tried with the chicken being particularly good. The visit alone was well worth the trip and the plate of food an added bonus.

Up the two-lane stretch of road north of Marlin is a town named Mexia - the location of Kirby's Barbeque. There you can find Kirby Hyden not only working the pits but stationed at the cutting board also. Food tickets hang a bit higher than eye-level in the kitchen beside the ordering window in this downhome country interior. As family history goes, Kirby's father owned Hyden's Barbecue located south of Mexia in the town known as Groesbeck. This operation began in the 1970s with Kirby joining his father in 1980. In 1991, he took over the restaurant his Grandfather established in the 1960s known as Holloway's. This became Kirby's and he eventually moved a bit south of town into a newer facility in 2008 off the highway.

Kirby is a humble and friendly gentleman but when Marine One would land at the small regional airport located across the highway, he was the man chosen to barbecue for then President George W. Bush. This claim isn't for purposes of being a braggart but a self-homage to the blood and sweat put into his business.

(Kirby Hyden)

Green post oak and a bit of hickory is the wood of choice for his food and unfortunately, you will only have the opportunity of tasting the ribs on Friday and Saturday. We were one day shy. The brisket had the ring and bark though lacking a bit of smoke. Sadly they covered part of the brisket and all of the sausage in sauce. There is a second location under the name Hyden Family Barbeque found in Teague, TX which is operated by his brother using the same family recipes.

Kirby grew up in Central Texas within a long-line of family owned restaurants, around pits with smoke running through his veins. Before we left, his modesty came in the form of two sentences he quietly uttered."My pits ain't nothing fancy. Nothing fancy about this place."

Sweet Baby J...and the dismal ETX taste.

Time found us early in the afternoon and Robert called an audible when he decided to call the owner and Pitmaster of Baby J's Bar-B-Que and Fish, Preacher Jeremiah McKenzie. Making the transition from Central Texas to ETX...This 2008 Texas Monthly Top 50 winner located in Palestine seemed like a good Segway. What we found was Baby J in despair.

Since being on the 2008 list and participating at the Texas Monthly BBQ Competition in 2011, he briefly uprooted to South Texas then came back home. The only problem was when he returned his customer base did not. He found that the method which had been so successful in winning competitions and landing him in publications didn't resonate well with the locals. He altered his cooking and lowered the overall taste quality. When asked, Robert politely replied to Baby J that "it didn't live up to his last visit."

Jeremiah was open to suggestions. I wanted to narrow it down to the beginning of where he went wrong. It was an easy answer. For one, he left. When the face of a restaurant leaves more likely than not...the customer base will too. Out of sight, out of mind. Secondly, he altered his winning methods of cooking for customers thus lowering his standard. Third was a simple solution. It may be time to start over, where locals and tourists alike would appreciate his original style.

As Matt commented on Tweeter "East TX BBQ joints are at a disadvantage. The locals have palates less refined than an average 3 year old. What sells is not the best BBQ." This caused a minor commotion with a couple of ETX homers who eventually made it clear that they had no clue what they were tweeting about.

Matt was right.

In ETX, the majority do not appreciate the flavorful fat and bark provided thus two-thirds of the joints we visited would automatically trim everything with no questions asked. It was hard watching beautiful burnt ends wind up in the trash. On the other hand, owners such as Stephen Joseph of Joseph's Riverport Bar-B-Que located in Jefferson, TX and Nick Pencis of Stanley's Famous Pit in Tyler, TX make it their way and serve it their way. Will they compromise to a customers request and trim? Sure they will. But they at least provide their salacious meat up to their standard first. No cutting corners for appeasement.

As of last week, Baby J's building is for sell at $315,000. Included is the historical old stone and log cabin attached which was built in the early 1930's as a general store. Also "Big Baby", his massive smoker with a steeple-like smokestack will stay. We wished him success with whatever decision he chose but his comment, "I'm outta here and starting new," completed the somber visit.

Coming next - Finding history in Jefferson and Blues and Booze in Tyler.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bartley's Bar-B-Que...Top 50 worthy?

2 Stars

While reflecting on the three meat plate I just fought through, my phone went off. I picked it up to check what the notification was for and it was my Dictionary application informing me of the "Word of the Day".

Abdicate, verb: to give up or renounce.

What an ironic and fitting choice my app decided to generate as I moved my eyes back to the disappointment before me. Bartley's in Grapevine somehow bested 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House, Odom's, Off-the-Bone, Railhead and newly opened Slow Bone for a coveted spot on the Texas Monthly Top 50 list. In hindsight, this selection should be abdicated.

Being on the list is a thing of honor. You had better be cooking top notch product because the attention that is about to be bestowed upon you is of the highest pedigree in the oft controversial world of Texas Barbecue. Only in Texas will you find as much passion in a conversation about BBQ as you would sports, politics, and religion. Needless to better have more than your "A game" every stinkin' day.

Texas BBQ Posse and I met at 11:30 am and immediately got to the line before the steady stream of customers hit shortly after. We all requested the three meat combo with me being the only one who got the brisket. I was the guinea pig because after seeing it, no one else wanted it. The less than personable cutter didn't retrieve a complete brisket. Bits and pieces were picked through before he drummed up what appeared to be a piece of the point, cut in half diagonally, then folded over. A few other slices were more traditional to form and displayed for photographic purpose. The hot links were Eckrich and the ribs were their own.

Hickory is their choice of wood although by the taste of the wouldn't guess any wood was used. A general consensus among the table that the brisket was most likely a day old. Dry, roast beefy, and absent of seasoning. Not even the bark heavy pieces were tolerable. The casing on the Eckrich hot links was snappy but again...commercial sausage. The little bit of hope here were the ribs. Nothing smoky but the flavor had a decent sweetness to them. We had people stagger their visits while we there from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm and nothing fresh was introduced.

We may have found the chink in the chain of the prestigious Texas Monthly list. I feel bad for the stream of travelers who will use the list as a guide for the following years only to be let down. If you want a sub par BBQ experience, head to Big Racks in Grapevine and at least you'll have something worth looking at.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On the fourth day...The Beef Rib was created.

Vince Lombardi's quote "If you're 10 minutes early you're on time, if you're 5 minutes early you're late", wasn't a guideline...but a rule to live by. I'd say I generally attempt to be 10 minutes early for most anything. Adhering to this has at times caused about as much conflict as a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors with girls from my past.

This works both ways...a man must learn patience and a woman should really try getting ready 10 minutes earlier. At some point you think women would get tired of running to the car barefoot, heels in hand, curls in hair or attempting to paint their face while testing my driving skills at 90 mph down the highway. Either way I was at Pecan Lodge approximately 10 minutes before Chris Wilkin's 11:30 am timeline for the fourth day of the Texas BBQ Posse "DFW 7 tour".

Having to skip the visit to Lockhart Smokehouse and initially not planning on heading to Pecan Lodge, I fell out of the loop that Chris would be in line at 9:30 am with the rest of the Texas BBQ Posse and surprise guests including, Leslie Brenner (Dallas Morning News dining editor) arriving at 11:00 am. I walked into Shed #2 and was taken back by the length of the line which had to be similar to when the Egyptians were passing stone to erect the pyramids. Strolling up and down I didn't recognize any of the Posse members so I knew what to do...head to the dining area. Ah ha.

There they were situated around a round table, happily plowing their way through two platters of meat. There I was with arms raised, "I thought 11:30 was 11:30!" Much like Charlie Brown's teacher, I couldn't make out anyone's response from the mix of laughter and mouths full of food. To my advantage there was enough meat to try and I managed to skip the line. This would be my first time tasting the pulled pork, beef rib and jalapeno sausage. The brisket was still smooth but I was excited for the other products. The pulled pork was short of flavor and this was confirmed by a couple others. The sausage was great although I enjoyed their original much more but the winner today was the beef rib. For a while I've wanted to use the word "succulent" and now I can when describing this rib. The mesquite smoke was not overwhelming and it actually tied the salt and pepper rub together. The pepper wasn't too strong leaving more of the smoke and salt to blend. This massive singular cow rib is something definitely worth gorging on.

All in all, a good outing with good people. I walked away satisfied but not full although missing out on a pork rib. Tomorrow is the wild card as we travel with Indiana Jones like uncertainty to Bartley's in Grapevine.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Garland, TX - One of the least inspiring towns of my BBQ travels.

Photo Courtesy of Daniel Goncalves 2013

On the second day of the Texas BBQ Posse's "DFW 7 Tour", we planned on congregating at MeShack's in Garland. At the end of May, Matt Gross and I had stopped by on the day the Texas Monthly Top 50 list was released. Unfortunately, MeShack's had sold out by 2:30 pm.

Matt and I solicited for a while, pestering the very patient lady at the window for any scraps, leftovers or "hidden stashes" they may have. I felt like a seedy drug addict in the bad part of town. People were still pulling up for Travis Mayes' product as well and we started telling folks they were out, while selfishly hoping we would be handed anything to try. Nada. Travis came out to shoot the breeze with us for a bit and he said that "some days you love your job, but some days you wake up and you don't love your job." That day was a day he didn't love his job and decided not to smoke as much meat. Disappointed. He had also entertained the idea of taking a few days off within the next couple of weeks...

...Fast forward a couple weeks to present day. I was looking forward to my revisit of MeShack's so I could have them hold the sauce this time and enjoy the naked meat. Well another disappointment came about as I parked my truck, walked up, and didn't see any smoke or smell one whiff of pecan. The joint was closed. No notice. No sign. No explanation. Then my memory retrieved the conversation Matt and I had with Travis..."thinking of taking a few days off within the next couple of weeks." Dammit. Our tour visit may have fallen into that "couple of weeks."

There was a joint right around the corner we decided to try. The name will not be mentioned but the high reviews on Yelp confirm the abundance of ignorance which oozes on that site. Quotes such as "The sausage and brisket seemed pretty normal to me nothing out of the ordinary, but not bad. I think this BBQ joint is first place I've ever seen fried rice as a side, but it's cool," from a 4 star reviewer. Then you have a 5 star reviewer that proclaimed, "Everything here is good, but these items are particularly great. Like other reviewers have mentioned, the portions are generous and the price is right. Once you eat here you'll never go back to Spring Creek BBQ or Dickey's." Speechless. After eating there once I'll never go back period. Needless to say, I'm seriously questioning the origin of the grey slab of beef we ate. Along with the reheated and boiled ribs...which should be forgettable if not for being so bad. Jim Rossman of the Texas BBQ Posse uttered the words "Never speak of it again please." Let's just say Daniel Vaughn gave them 2 stars. I will give them nothing more than my $12.

The group stood in the parking lot defeated again. Chris Wilkins mentioned to me of a new place a few miles away which recently opened. Holding on to hope, I wanted to salvage my drive to Garland.

Double S Texas BBQ had just opened back in September of 2012 in an old shopping center near 635 and Northwest Highway. The sausage was Eckrich so I skipped that although they are working on a recipe and ordering a grinder to make in house sausages. I ordered the two meat plate but be careful...ribs are an additional $2. Two meats and two sides for $15 is pricey considering the deal we had at Hutchin's in McKinney the previous day. The brisket lacked of pecan smoke from the gas assisted Ole Hickory smoker. Brisket also lacked of bark as pitmaster Darren begin to scrape it off when he unwrapped the meat. There didn't appear to be much to start with regardless and there was very little seasoning also. The ribs were quite unique with a pronounced flavor of cayenne, cumin and a sweet glaze, though missing the smoke as well. The texture almost seemed as if they had been boiled for a bit.

Wanting to see Double S succeed, Darren asked what I thought. He seemed genuinely interested in my pointers, saying he could work on them and appreciated my input. I complimented the ribs and said I looked forward to trying the handmade sausage soon. On this visit, I would have to deal a 2 star rating with it close to a 3 star. I hope these adjustments can be made for the betterment of the Garland, TX BBQ scene.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Vitek's Bar-B-Q

3 Stars

Recently on Twitter, a funny guy claimed there were at least four BBQ joints in Waco better than what was listed on the Texas Monthly Top 4 of their Top 50 list published in May. Makes me wonder if he is also related to the culprit who recently decided to steal $35 worth of ribs from a Waco H-E-B (Go Here). I can think of at least four BBQ joints in Dallas I'd rather steal ribs from. Poor choice sir but then again if not for bumbling criminals, we wouldn't be blessed with shows like "Cops" and "America's Dumbest Criminals."

I popped down to Vitek's and fortunately hit it before the lunch crowd. Before stepping into this establishment, I took a peek around the back to the smoke pits. What I saw sadden me. A natural gas assisted smoker by Southern Pride. I'm torn between gas assisted smokers or "cheating" as the purists would claim and being open-minded to other methods. Who am I kidding, wood and work all the way. I encourage you to read a recent blog on the difference by Jess Pryles on her website, I wonder if this "cheating" is what Bill Frank had in mind when he begin smoking meat in 1972 after Vitek's successful history of being a meat market since 1915.

The Texas Trifecta was ordered with burnt ends as sides and the handmade Jalapeno sausage my wiener of choice. Considering their history of making sausages in house, having an Eckrich sausage as one choice out of four was quite baffling. I honestly wonder what customer would order a commercial sausage when handmade were offered and furthermore, why Vitek's would cheapen their line up this way. It's almost insulting to their heritage. Jalapeno sausage took home the blue ribbon on my visit. They did not hold back on the jalapenos and the heat collaborated with the pepper among the coarse ground meat very well. Ribs had a very good pork flavor but lacked seasoning and smoke as well. I found this to be true with the brisket. A good beef flavor with subtle smoke. Unfortunately I wish there had been more salt and pepper to elevate the bark. There were promising bites but nothing consistent. The burnt ends were good but with a bit more love, they could've been great.

From my experiences in Waco, there is nothing higher than middle of the road here. If there was one BBQ joint which delivered top notch product, this could cause others to follow suit and raise their bar. Unfortunately as long as college students continue to order the Gut Pak, Vitek's will continue to miss the mark with a few tweaks here and there to become the best BBQ in Waco. The ball is in their court but the Gut Pak seems to be their lead scorer.