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Sunday, July 28, 2013

So you want to start a Competitive BBQ Team huh?

Disclaimer for those with a lack of humor - this is meant to a be light-hearted satire filled guide, poking fun at every BBQ stereotype. And the Dallas Cowboys.

In The Beginning...

A group of guys with a love of meat while being under the influence of beer is usually the origin of an idea for starting a Competitive BBQ Team. Backside elements such as avoiding weekend chores from the wife, the Dallas Cowboy's season has finished early - again, and an opportunity to beat the male chest in a gorilla-like fashion while touting oneself as the BBQ King also factor in.

What does competing mean in the long run? What is the attraction to the lack of sleep, careful planning and execution, and grit involved in a BBQ competition? Why do folks travel all over the country with self-supported logistics - dissecting the fine line of good and great - to either have success or go home defeated while taking a financial and egotistical hit? For the majority - it is simple. The allure of being outdoors amongst your BBQ brethren with food, fellowship and fun is the reason. You may leave with an empty pocket or hurt feelings because reality just woke you up with a 39th place out of 40 in the Rib Category but one thing that won't leave you is the overall experience.

After all this and you still desire to start a team - then your heart and mind are in the right place and the next question you must ask yourself is "How do I begin?" First put that beer down and knock out the chores because your wife isn't going anywhere and the Dallas Cowboys are still mediocre.

The "Honey-Do" List of BBQ.

Before dreaming of which Texas lake you'll be using the new rod and reel bought with your first place brisket cash, you must first have a plan for your new team. Start by having a name. This is critical because it defines who you are. At this monumental moment in your life, you become a brand and if you do well and ride the competition circuit, you will forever be known as the brand you've created. The Meat Monkeys, Rib-kateers, and BBQ Bunny Rabbits are all good and great but make sure it's internally agreed upon and t-shirt worthy.

Secondly - recognize each team member's strengths and weaknesses. This can take many weekends of backyard smoking for the time sensitive proteins like brisket and pork butt and multiple weeknights for the lesser timed products such as ribs and chicken. You may have to sit on your pride with this one because your buddy's brisket may pack a heavier punch than yours. BBQ crybabies are not allowed nor a great team name...self-chosen or involuntarily given.

Team sizes are usually dictated within competition rules so it's important to gain familiarity with each competition's guide. Because of the "too many chiefs - not enough Indians" analogy, choosing a head cook would be wise. Sometimes overlooked but equally important is having an extra hand or "yuk monkey". They may be your greatest asset since the cooks are busy being face first in smoke. Someone crossing the T's and dotting the I's behind the scenes is crucial to the team mechanics and overall success. Ask any great Pitmaster this and if they don't agree - then they're struggling somewhere. Let's put it this way, a truck will be idle without fuel, oil and Waylon Jennings on the stereo right!?

The next important - no the most critical step in the team formation process is the smoker and wood choice. Dependent upon the amount of categories you choose to enter or pounds of protein you will be cooking is how you should gauge the smoker size. That should also be a good indication of how many strings of wood will be needed as well as charcoal and wood pellet amount.

A shout out to the self-appointed safety experts reading this - a fire extinguisher within arms reach would be a smart idea too. Of course we all have that buddy who says, "Here. Hold this," while handing you his can of Budweiser then proceeding to remove his shirt before doing something incredibly stupid. For our wannabe Evil Knievals - first-aid kits can be found at your local retail giant and should be kept on site.

Alright so you have all your supplies and you're ready to do battle - but have you thought about being prepared for the outdoor elements? Learn the site size your team will be allotted and bring canopies. A gorgeous sunny day is your best friend until you find yourself over-cooked and miserable. Of course be ready for the opposite of sun as well - rain, wind, and in case of the Armageddon - you're on your own. Researching how different weather can effect cooking should not be taken lightly. Mother Nature may be a vegetarian.

As far as manning the pit for 14 hours - you may want to have lawn chairs and comfortable footwear. If you're not allowed to have an RV right near the cook-site and must sleep on a cot - bring insect repellent. Reminded of the legendary Far Side comic where the explorers grab an aerosol can of "ON" instead of "OFF" and being swarmed by mosquitos is not the situation you want to find yourself in. Repellent candles are environmentally friendly, economical and very efficient in the war against bugs. If you choose to bring your wife or girlfriend along - let her choose the scent. She'll appreciate being a "valued" team member. This is one of many ways to include a woman in a predominately "male" hobby but you never know...she may be the next Diva Q.

Meat Management: 101

Assuming that everything is going smoothly and your buddy hasn't done anything incredibly stupid - meaning your first-aid kit hasn't been cracked open - it's now time to cook and deliver. Keep in mind that while cooking, keeping proper sanitation of your team site is not only a judge-worthy category but also the right thing to do. No one wants to die from food poisoning because of unclean cooking practices and cross-contamination. Health coordinators are usually on-site and will enforce sterile technique. Standards should never be compromised. As far as littering, most of us remember the commercial where the lone Indian sheds a single tear because trash is covering the beautiful land in the background - don't be the team to bring a tear to anyone's eye.

Be prepared for having the meat ready for inspection prior to cooking. Attempting to gain a head start over your competition by injecting, soaking/marinating, and pre-cooking are some of the methods used and is like playing baseball on steroids. Bottom line, you will get yourself disqualified. Temperatures for meat inspection before cooking are on average 40* and after cooking - an average temperature of 140* must be maintained. This is where thermometers shouldn't be forgotten back at home and again, read the rules!

Keeping a close watch on the clock for judging times should be everyone's job. The Army saying that "two is one and one is nothing," is a general rule of thumb in preparation for field operations. I would recommend having a designated location for two - not one - but two clocks set simultaneously. Different meats cook at different speeds (depending on weight of course) which will need to be closely monitored and coordinated with the judging times for each category. As Twitter follower Nick Dunin (@atcNick) suggested - have a timeline written out as you cook because minor steps can easily be missed while staggering times.

With a mix of American ingenuity and intentional gluttony - we have attempted to deep fry any kind of food possible for State Fair awards. You could say this occurs within the BBQ community as the "Mystery" category is frequently found in competitions. This addition can get the creative juices flowing and piques interest among judges, teams and the public alike. Here's your opportunity to become a free-spirited meat hippie.

We're all winners.

A quote from Texas Monthly Barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn to me is forever seared into my mind. "With great barbecue comes great humility." So your team entered with high expectations but didn't make the top three in any category. Take it on the chin this time and continue to perfect your cooking skills and in the meantime become ready for the next competition. Learn as much and as often as given the chance!

Many competitions are tied into charities and helping the less fortunate is more rewarding than an animal shaped trophy any day. When you have the opportunity to help those in need by elevating your hobby to the next level - humbling experiences can be taken away from this - that is if your heart and mind are in the right place. There are many charity organizations available who hold cook-offs and I implore you to seek them out.

So - what does competing mean in the long run? I cannot give you the answer. That's something for you to discover but I will be glad to join anyone's team if they need a "yuk monkey". I'm pretty good at emptying cans of Budweiser and cleaning but when it comes to jokes - you won't find me anywhere near the top three. Ask my ex-girlfriends. Now get out there and beat your chest.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fat Cow BBQ

1 Star

With a quick search of BBQ joints around the Lake Lewisville corridor of I-35 - I found this little spot on the corner of a small strip center off Valley Ridge Blvd. A heavy scent from Mesquite sat in the stiff air from the smoker located around back - maybe a good sign. I walked in and ordered a three meat plate with a mix of fatty and lean brisket when much to my surprise, "We don't serve sliced brisket here," said the young female cashier. I peered around the corner and asked who the cutter was and a very jovial man emerged who happen to be the Pitmaster/Owner.

He explained his method for brisket and reasons. Catching all the brisket juice in a pan from the smoker, he then removes the brisket, chops it up and lets it soak in the juice. "Why?" I asked. "Simple," he began. "I don't believe in serving garbage to customers so I don't use fatty brisket. I cut off all fat and throw it away because it's not good." I stood puzzled and replied that fat adds to the flavor and he quipped, "Not with my brisket".

I could tell I would get nowhere fast in this conversation. I asked if he had tried sliced fatty brisket from Pecan Lodge or Lockhart Smokehouse and he scoffed while dodging the question because this was his place and that stuff - brisket with fat - is garbage. He became more prideful and boisterous as he went on. Trying to stay on his side of the conversation within reason, I mentioned his similarities to the East Texas style. He didn't pick up on that and answered back with "I make $8,000 a month and this is what my customers like." Liking and not knowing better are different.

The three meat plate with chopped brisket was ordered. "So are the ribs sauce free?" I asked. "No. We have to sauce them to keep them moist or they dry out in no-time when we pull them off because of the rub." I asked whether the sausage was handmade because Lewisville local, Old Town Market, hand makes sausage and maybe they supply. With another black eye to BBQ traditionalists he stated, "There's no reason to waste time making sausage when you can get commercial grade on the same level." The sausage was Sysco and it took two weeks of taste testing before he chose the best. The sides were made in house and as he told me where the sauce was, I interrupted with a smile that I let the meat speak for itself. "Now you're talking my language," he said as I then wanted to reference back to why he feels the need to sauce the ribs.

The plate was served, I dug in. Sausage was first and maybe he should've taken a couple more weeks of taste testing or just allow Old Town Market to be an asset to his business. The chopped brisket was equal to pot roast but with a light smoky flavor. The ribs - with no crust - slid meat from bone after one bite. The texture seemed as though they were cooked in the oven. The homemade sides were excellent but after watching him deliver food to an elderly group using baby talk, I couldn't take it anymore. From the subtly aggressive claims as king of the local BBQ world - he may have created his owned BBQ category of "Most Delusional Pitmaster". Toward the end I was eating out of hunger and wanted to search the dumpster for the fatty brisket scraps.

It's hard to compare to the top in Texas if you've completely ignored what's in your own backyard. Maybe in his grandiose BBQ world - Texas Monthly doesn't exist and he missed the May Top 50 issue. Not to take away from his friendliness, trying to steer away from painstakingly honest reviews and really hating to ask so many questions - it's better to know "If you want sliced brisket - you won't get that here," than lead unassuming folks into a money suck. If anyone wants to add some competition to a bustling location and deal stellar BBQ - the Lewisville area has plenty of room.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Blues and Booze at Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q

East Texas Blues

400 Miles for one day is typically taxing on most when driving within your home state. Add in a handful of BBQ joints and spending on average one hour and half at each - this can become very exhausting - especially after eating at each stop. I was beaten down to the point that I had to consume a different cow product - so I had ice cream.

After leaving Jefferson with the sun sinking low, Robert, Matt and I drove to the "Rose Capitol of the World," of Tyler, TX for a few beers at Stanley's Famous Pit before shut eye. Stanley's isn't new by a longshot. It is among the oldest "Mom and Pop" restaurants in Tyler and was originally owned by J.D. Stanley. After being established for near 60 years, Nick and Jen Pencis came into the fold in 2000. With some tweaking of the menu and patience - they've propelled Stanley's into the light with their award winning ribs, brisket and popular Brother-in-Law sandwich.

 Photo by Robert Lerma.

Not only being one of my early write-ups (Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q) and beside the food, the music-friendly atmosphere left an euphoric impression upon this blues aficionado. With East Texas birthing blues legends like Lightnin' Hopkins and the "Father of Texas Blues" Blind Lemon Jefferson, Stanley's transition from restaurant only to a live music venue was a no-brainer for Nick. Beside his impeccable cooking skills is the fact that he is an accomplished musician. Before manning the smoke pit he once manned the drum kit for The Greyhounds. If you dig a soul-shakin' fusion of blues, jazz and funk I would recommend their album "Liberty".

Photo by Robert Lerma.

Nick introduced himself by settling in behind the drum kit on the stage connected to their newly covered deck. Just as comfortable with drumsticks in hand as with a rack of ribs - Nick tied together a seemingly effortless impromptu jam session with the house band. Afterward he walked up with an announcement. "Tomorrow we will be switching wood types. It's called - morning wood." Pleased to meet you too Nick. This kind of humor mixed with his laid back demeanor is why Stanley's motto "Be kind. Have fun," is imperative to their success. One shared Brother-in-Law sandwich and more than a few Summer Beers later - it was time to call it a night.

The meat lab

The next morning we were introduced to a character of sorts and key element of Stanley's rhythm. Pitmaster Jonathan Shaw or simply Shaw, is the meat and potatoes of the smoker to the point where Nick relies on him for consistent production. If Nick were to be absent - not a beat would be skipped as long as Shaw was slingin' wood and meat.

Nick Pencis and Jonathan Shaw. Photo by Robert Lerma.

While there, a constant supply of protein was presented for tasting. From the brisket and ribs to the smoked chicken and adult (or kid) friendly - candied bacon. Any member of Nick's kitchen crew would sample pieces, discuss taste and adjust if needed. A collective quality control if you will. We were lucky enough to try a fairly new menu item being the Friday and Saturday only beef rib and hit the jackpot getting to try the first Mother Clucker chicken sandwich - a joint creation by Chef Jordan Jackson and Shaw. Each bit of food was carefully crafted for success.

Mother Clucker. Photo by Robert Lerma.

If you ever find yourself in Tyler and happen to turn on Beckman Ave. with your windows down and you so happen to hear a blues rift cut through the thick ETX air - there's a good chance Nick is holding rhythm. Allow the green and red neon lights to act as your guide into the parking lot and take a step back into nostalgia. Unwind for a couple hours and enjoy Stanley's BBQ while peeling the label off a cold beer to a Stevie Ray tune. The only rule to follow here is "Be kind. Have fun."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Joseph's Riverport Bar-B-Que

The rebirth of old in Jefferson.

Resting north of Marshall, Texas and west of Caddo Lake - off Highway 59 and crossing the Big Cypress River on a singular bridge - is Jefferson. Once considered the "Riverport to the Southwest," it's now a living historical marker of an era gone bye. After viewing the downtown's French-styled architecture and surrounding Greek-revival homes you will understand why it's known as the only true Louisiana town in Texas. Spend time there and you'll be immersed with a heritage as distinct as you'll find anywhere.

With a dark history of chilling ghost stories from the Grove plantation, and infamous murder of Diamond Bessie Moore, Texas' first murder trial - to the classy Excelsior hotel where 19th century affluent such as railroad mogul Jay Gould, author Oscar Wilde, and President Ulysses S. Grant once made their reservations.

All this due to Jefferson's important role as Texas' 6th largest city during the Steamboat age. Jefferson also offers the natural beauty of the states only natural lake - Caddo Lake - along with swamp and bayous lined with bald Cypress trees and Spanish Moss.

Joseph's Riverport Bar-B-Que is more than a brick structure on the corner of Polk and Lafayette Streets in downtown Jefferson. Propriotership runs in pitmaster Stephen Joseph's family as the building was once a clothing store, pharmacy and Radio Shack. The building itself where Stephen cooks Texas Monthly Top 50 Barbecue was approximately 100 years old before an unfortunate fire reduced it to ash in 2012. Armed with more than a personal goal to rebuild - Stephen understood that the town needed him as much as he needed them.

A long time coming.

Halfway into their 20th year of existence and roots coming from the familiar ETX barbecue chain named Bodacious Bar-B-Que - these roots end with the title having no influence on Stephen's recipes, style, or technique. Not to slander an ETX favorite by any means, it's just Stephen has merely grown into his own after his college beginnings cutting cabbage in the Bodacious kitchen. How does one begin cutting cabbage you might ask? He will answer, "My dad told me to get off the couch and get a job."

Self-admittedly because of cook and ownership responsibility, Stephen never found time to travel to other BBQ joints let alone search the internet for cooking tips. His methods of research begin within the last few years by careful examination of pictures from other barbecue restaurants across the state. With an impressive eye for detail - he attempted to match colors and textures from these pictures to replicate on his briskets and ribs. Smoking hickory, pecan and oak using a Bewley pit, a true artistic approach was taken to help form his masterpiece.

To anyone else this may seem like a tall-tale and something that legends grow from. Maybe so but highly unlikely. After sitting and conversing with Stephen while eating perfectly rendered brisket with a bark that deserves it's own spot in the Top 5 - there'll be no room for doubt let alone any room for dessert. The brisket crust, held together with a balanced measurement of black pepper and salt, delivered a slab of buttery meat surrounded by an immense smoke flavor. This rub equation translated successfully to the ribs though with a hint of sweetness to be discovered.

Asking for his opinion on the ETX customer's appeal for bark-less, flavorless lean brisket - he was clear where he stood about his product. "If it doesn't hit my mark - it's not going on my menu." His story told with sincerity of his current success isn't new to the town of Jefferson. They've known it for years as both parties are intertwined in it. I'm just thankful the town of Jefferson is happy to share Riverport's success with the rest of us.