There ain't no bad BBQ in all of Bama.
It's all good ... some more good, some less good.
A darn shame, though, that one's lifetime is too short for visiting all the BBQ places there are between Huntsville and Mobile.
So I decided to scale it down to a more manageable quest - all the 60+ BBQ places in the counties of Madison, Limestone, Morgan, and Lawrence in Northern Alabama (that is the Hunstville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area).
And that is my Great North Alabama BBQ Quest.
Quest Log No15 – Hickory Barn Bar-B-Que Highway 72, Between Athens and Rogersville, Limestone County
If you happen to drive on Highway 72 between Muscle Shoals and Huntsville, go there. Well, even if you are somewhere on I-65, near exit 351, go there. In fact, when you are on I-65 in Mobile, drive to that exit near Athens, and go there. Heck, if you are on the Jersey Turnpike, turn around and go there. Just go there, where ever you are.
Because “there” is, where Bill Davis cooks. No, he is not the caped superhero BBQ-Man, nor is he the fat bellied demi-god of serene BBQ, and he is also not the winner of the last installment of American BBQ Idol. He is just an ordinary guy who won the Jack Daniels “Shade-Tree cook-off” Grand Championship in 2006, and now owns a little BBQ joint at Highway 72, like there are so many in this neck of the woods.
He calls it Hickory Barn Bar-B-Que, I call it the Big Rock Candy Mountain BBQ.
It is not a big place, with sitting accommodations for maybe forty people or so – if those people don’t mind to share their personal space with other folks.
The furniture consists of a few of those combined wooden picnic table/bank units, with red and white plaid plastic tablecloths that have oversized ants printed on it. The sauces are stored in old soft drink six-pack containers, and the plastic tableware is in a small tin box on the table, where you will also find a roll of kitchen paper towels.
Sounds rustic? You bet.
This rustic atmosphere is even more amplified by the wall decoration, which consists mainly of old car license plates. My wife liked the one that says “SAMPLE” the best, I thought that the plates with “BBQ” in some form on it were the most interesting.
Other tings you might spot on the walls and on the ceiling are old Coke vending machines, a plush armadillo, campaign signs of local sheriffs, and all kinds of other stuff one might pick up at garage sale or two.
Nevertheless, the place is spotless clean – they got 97 points out of a possible 100 at their last health inspection. No dead flies on the window sills here, and yet the authenticity of this place and the wonderful atmosphere it exudes, intensified by the background music of classic Country and Western, Blues, Southern Rock, and the Englishsouthern redneck language that is spoken there is unmatched.
And then there is the food. Let me pause for a minute to pray to thank the good Lord for pork, fire and spices, and that he put people on this Earth who know what to do with it.
The pulled pork I got there was nothing short of sublime – lean, but juicy and tender, with a fine hickory taste, some bark and a wonderfully defined pink smoke ring. The sheer quality of the meat just blew me away before my brain even started to process the firework of information the taste buds were sending out.
The ribs my wife had where equally fantastic. Although there was a little fat, this only contributed to the overall superb taste. You can buy the dry rub used on those ribs in a jar there for five bucks, which would be an investment with infinite dividends for every serious home BBQ event. The meat was extremely tender, it fell off the bone easily and it also had a crunchy bark that was saturated with the dry rub. And don’t you even think of pouring sauce over the ribs – this would be a sacrilege of the first magnitude.
On the other hand, not drenching everything on your plate with one of the four home made, original sauces on the table would probably be an even bigger sin.
There is the mild sauce, which is a thick red tomaty-fruity not-too-sour-not-too-sweet-but-way-better-than-ketchup concoction. The hot sauce is essentially the mild sauce plus dominantly pepper, which provides a certain spicy tang but does not make it real hot and gives it a very nice and balanced taste. Then there is the ubiquitous white sauce, which is on the vinegary side and also with a peppery undertone. And then – to the sound of a lonely harmonica - comes Cortez the Killer, disguised as a mustard based BBQ sauce.
There are not very many places that serve this variety and that is truly a shame. If it is done right, this kind of sauce is the perfect match with pulled pork – and done right it is at Hickory Barn. There are many layers to this sauce – first comes the mustardy basement, then the structure of pepper and other spices, and on top a certain, very light sweetness. You can buy this sauce in a very home made looking jar and take it home with you. Or you can just come back to the restaurant over and over again and enjoy it with the perfect meat they serve there.
Well, and they also have sides that are exceptional. The potato salad is made of a rather compact type of potato, with some yellowish mayonnaise and just a minimum of spices. At first I found it to be a bit bland by itself, but than I discovered that the salad is in total harmony with the meat and the sauces.
The slaw on the other hand kicks your behind. It is quite peppery with a hint of vinegar and sugar, and with some crunch to it, too. The BBQ beans my wife had with the rib plate had little pieces of ham in it and there was no trace of cinnamon, which usually spoils baked beans more than it does any good.
My pork plate came with a roll, which was very nice for scooping up the excess sauce, and a pickle spear, the rib plate had only the spear.
We paid twenty-five bucks with taxes and drinks, which is not actually cheap, but the portions we got for this were more than adequate, and the quality was … well, see above.
My only gripe with this place is that it is only open from Thursday through Saturday. And of course, those 25 miles I have to drive from where I live to get there is something I need to complain about - a satellite station across the street would be nothing short of my personal Nirvana.
Quest Log No14 – David Gibson Bar-B-Q Bob Wallace Avenue, Huntsville, Madison County
There is one philosophical question I am pondering now for quite a while - do dead flies on window sills contribute to the authenticity of a BBQ place?
They certainly have a negative effect on overall cleanliness of a place, but is this merely disgusting or is it rather oozing a special southern charisma? Well, ultimately everyone has to decide for themselves where their threshold is when it comes to mummified insects in the general vicinity of their pulled pork.
So, another Friday, another Gibson – you can’t swing a dead cat over your head without hittin’ a Gibson’s BBQ around here. This is the fourth different BBQ place I went to in the last few months that carries this identifier in its name. However, the good people at David Gibson Bar-B-Q in Huntsville make it abundantly clear to you on their menu card that they are not in any kind affiliated to all those other Gibson’s businesses around here, and that they only have this one location to serve us.
But of course there is a family relationship to the aristocracy of North Alabamian BBQ.
In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. David S. Gibson began their business with David’s father – the famous Big Bob – in Decatur. In 1956, they moved to Huntsville and in 1960 they opened the restaurant at the corner of Bob Wallace Avenue and Jordan Lane. Today, it is owned by their son.
Not very much seems to have changed from those good ole times, judged by the dated furniture that shows clear signs of extensive use, by the sparse decoration of a few pictures on the wooden walls, and the worn out everything-else in this place.
Up until now, I always thought that Styrofoam plates are at the lowest end of the plate pecking order. Not anymore. Disposable Styrofoam school-lunch trays have just taken that spot. You know, those compartmentalized yellowish rectangles with the embossed work MILK in one of the compartments and embossed slogans like DON’T DO DRUGS, or EAT YOU VEGGIES on one of the inner walls. Unbelievable. They are probably dirt cheap and yes, they fulfill the intended purpose, and they are certainly unique, but classy they ain’t.
Any one part of all this alone would make the place just tacky and, figuring in the flies, also kind of yucky. All together however, this forms kind of an organic entity that oozes the genuine charm of unpretentious authenticity. So, to answer the question from above, I guess dead flies are a necessary part of the décor in those places.
And don’t fret, since they are already dead none of them will hop into your pulled pork. Although, if they did they might be resurrected at the spot, because the meat is just divine.
Very tender and succulent, with a very distinct hickory taste to it, it is to die for (sorry flies, for the disrespect). I had quite a bit of bark in my portion of pulled pork, too, which is of course the best part of the whole thing.
As for the sauce, they keep it very simple – a vinegar based pepper sauce that is only mildly hot, a wonderfully creamy sour white sauce and ketchup. Here, I mixed a bit of the ketchup with lots of the mild pepper sauce and out came a very agreeable BBQ sauce. The white sauce on the other hand is just the perfect match for their hushpuppies, which you can have instead of rolls. The puppies are not sweet but well seasoned, and they taste great although being a bit on the compact side and not of the more fluffy kind.
And then there is the potato salad, which has a mustardy sour and tangy taste to it – one of the best there is, really top notch. But this is all topped by the slaw. A hint of spiciness permeates the fresh cut pieces that are dipped in just enough vinegar to moisten the cabbage without drowning it in sourness. This is really the most outstanding slaw I had so far. Oh, they also give you baked beans with the meal. Those are okay. But the slaw … and the meat … utterly delightful.
Also very positive are the civil prices – for a large and a small pork plate, each with a drink, we paid under twenty-two Dollars.
The amount of food, though, is a bit disproportional. My large pork plate, which was three Dollars more, had distinctively more meat on it than the regular pork plate my wife had. But since she had the better view at the dead flies on the window sill, I guess we’re even.
Quest Log No13 –Gibson’s Bar-B-Q Memorial Parkway, Huntsville, Madison County
How often does it happen that you a greeted and seated by a hostess in a BBQ joint?
They also serve the meals on actual chinaware, with metal silverware. This has to be like the crown jewel standard of BBQ restaurants. No Styrofoam, no plastic (except for the drinking cups …), no butcher paper for a plate – I was impressed.
A few months back, I already went to the other restaurant of the Gibson’s Bar-B-Q mini-chain in Huntsville on Whitesburg Drive (there are only those two places), and found the atmosphere to be … well, underwhelming.
Not so in their Memorial Parkway location, which is their main base and it clearly shows.
The dining hall is spacious, bright and very clean. On the menu, they claim that they are here since 1956, and that is about the vintage of the current furniture, too.
It is all wooden, with noticeable bumps and bruises in its dark colored surfaces, but very well maintained and you won’t find quick fixes by duct tape anywhere. It has clearly aged in style and it contributes quite nicely to the overall homey and friendly atmosphere of the place.
The service is also very friendly and also quick and responsive. So, while the external conditions are quite favorable, what about the food then? At least I do not usually go to a BBQ place to delight myself on the view, but to have some good stuff to eat.
Well, do not fret, it’s all here. As usual, I had the large pork plate with slaw and potato salad. They also serve hushpuppies with the meal, and I got four of those. And they are not exactly skimpy with the meat, either, so the amount of food was thus very gratifying for the fifteen bucks I had to pay for it.
Same goes for the quality – excellent!
The pulled pork had a distinctive but not overpowering smoke flavor to it, with a nice pink ring and some seriously tasty bark on top. It was more on the dry side, not as moist and succulent as in other places, but it was also very tender and very lean and had no pockets of fat in it, as I had to experience at another joint, also with Gibson in its name, not so long ago.
I have to admit, I like it when the meat is a bit more on the dry side – gives me an excuse to pour lots and lots of sauce over it.
You have the choice between two original sauces, a run-of-the-mill bottled hot sauce and the ubiquitous ketchup. The first sauce is thick and red, and although there actually is some sweetness to it, it has also a good amount of spiciness, It is not too hot, though, and would not leave a tingling impression in your mouth. For that, they have the second sauce, which has bit more thrust in that direction. It looks like a vinegar/oil basis with some ground chili and other peppers in it.
Mixed together in the correct ratio, it comes quite near to what I would call the perfect BBQ sauce.
They also have a white sauce on the table that is kind of vinegary/sour/peppery, which goes perfectly with the somewhat sweet hushpuppies.
The potato salad is made from scratch, which I was able to observe since the potatoes for next day’s batch were peeled and cut at a neighboring table (as usual, I was there after the lunch rush had been run out, so the crew had time to take care of some scores). The taste is leaning towards the sour side, but with a deliciously sweet undercurrent. Not the best potato salad I ever had, but definitely in the top ten.
The only disappointment is the cole slaw, which is rather watery, with extremely small cut pieces, and without any discernable taste.
But other than that quite miniscule grief, Gibson’s Bar-B-Q on Memorial Parkway in Huntsville is one of the best places to get your BBQ fix in Northern Alabama.