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 No 38 – Dirt Road BBQ & Grill Decatur, Morgan County
As I was driving to Dirt Road BBQ
& Grill on the Beltline in Decatur
today, a strange scene caught my eye. There was a pig and a blonde chick
standing by the side of the street, frantically waving at the passing cars.
I stopped and asked, "Where
did you get that?"
The pig said, "I won her in a
No, this is not an entirely true
story, just a very lame blonde joke, based on an actual pig-and-blonde-chick
sighting. They were trying to entice drivers to stop at the restaurant for
lunch. But besides me, I did not see anybody follow this siren song. Well,
since I had planned to eat there anyways, so that does not count either.
My wife and I visited the original
Dirt Road BBQ in Trinity about nine months ago, and since then a small
franchise was born. The newest addition to the Dirt Road BBQ family is this new
restaurant on the Beltline in Decatur,
which opened in August 2012. Its middle name is “Grill”, which describes the
general focus of this establishment pretty well – think “Sports Bar”, and you
are not far off. They even have Karaoke nights.
The restaurant is situated at the
end of a strip mall, next to some optical shop. The exterior is dominated by a
very large sign with the name on it. The interior is your typical family
restaurant/sports bar layout, with the exception of about half a dozen booths
on side that are made out of raw hewn wood planks. The original location in
Trinity has more charm, but as a franchise concept I guess you have to
streamline some things.
So I entered one of the booths, got
my free sweet tea (they not only have Karaoke nights, but also free tea Fridays
…) and ordered a Junk Yard Dog and a Turkey Sandwich.
Wow, wait a second – what happened
to pork, potato salad and slaw, you might ask? Well, I invented this new rule
that whenever I go to a different restaurant of the same franchise, I have to
try something else then before.
Hence, the dog and the sandwich
today, because last time I had the pork plate, comprende?
The Junk Yard Dog is a mess. I
didn’t even try to eat it using only my hands – I would have looked totally
stupid trying to tame the massive amount of stuff piled on that bun. A six inch
long sausage with the diameter of a football (okay, that may be an exaggeration
…), a very healthy helping of pulled pork, topped of with the special Dirt Road
BBQ sauce and two handfuls of shredded cheese. Oh, and two pickle spears that
were buried underneath the sausage.
I am not ashamed to testify here
that I used a fork to partition this heap of meat, cheese and bread.
It says on the menu that the Junk
Yard Dog is the favorite of Jason, the Pit Boss. I can understand this, because
it is really good. But you have to make sure that with each bite you get all of
the ingredients. The sausage alone is very mildly seasoned and kind of bland.
Thankfully, it is also not fatty at all and the texture is surprisingly
exquisite. The pulled pork is lean and tender and has a very nice smoke flavor.
The cheese is the typical cheddar you find everywhere, and the pickles are …
The special BBQ sauce is much too
sweet for my taste, without any zing to it. But together will all the other
stuff, it makes for a very harmonious yet interesting taste. The sweetness of
the sauce, the sourness of the pickles, the smokiness of the pork – never
thought that this would work so well. Personally, I would probably exchange the
cheese for some fried onions – then this Dog would possibly be sensational. As
it is, I would rank it as amazing right now.
So, after this heap of food, I was
surprised to not being filled up, but that I had some space left for the Turkey
Two thick slices of smoked Gobbler,
some slaw and white sauce, all on a standard bun. The turkey was very well smoked,
with a superb flavor, but unfortunately a bit on the dry side. The slaw was of
the “let’s shred the cabbage into microscopic pieces” variety and has a
sweet’n’sour taste, which dominated the whole sandwich, and I really didn’t
taste the white sauce at all.
But don’t get me wrong – although
the slaw flavor was quite overwhelming, the sandwich was tasty and at the end,
when I reached some bites with only the turkey with a little slaw left on it,
it was actually very good. The smoky flavor of the turkey came through quite
nicely, which was overlaid by the slaw before. A little less of that, and this
sandwich would actually have potential.
Well, I am no expert of the
restaurant business, but I think we might see the beginning of a success story
here. Yesterday Trinity, today Decatur
– what’s next? I hear that Birmingham
could use some good BBQ restaurant …
Quest Log No 37 – O’le Dads Barbeque Hazel Green, Madison
The Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist
Association publishes a guide called “North Alabama Barbecue Trail”. Of the 16
BBQ place featured in there, I have visited only seven. Well, I might need to
expand my coverage beyond the three counties of Madison, Morgan, and Limestone eventually.
But do I really need to travel to Cherokee or Boaz for good BBQ? We have about
sixty BBQ places in those three counties mentioned above, and I am struggling
to visit each of them – which is still my goal - as it is. And quite frankly,
there aren’t many BBQ restaurants outside this area that are really worth
driving two hours for. We are truly blessed not only with a fairly high density
of BBQ joints here, but also with some of the best BBQ one can imagine. The
quality at the top is just amazing, and even the average restaurants are
usually better than what you can find elsewhere.
So then, the seventh of those
restaurants mentioned in the brochure, which I visited during my quest was O’le
Dads Barbeque in Hazel Green.
My large pork plate came with three
sides – potato salad, vinegar slaw, and baked beans. Also, you have the choice
between a roll and three hushpuppies. Well, what choice? Exactly.
The meat was tender, with a very
distinctive but not overbearing smoke flavor. It was also quite moist, which
lets me think that maybe a liquid of some kind was added to keep it from drying
out. Thankfully, it was not oil, which would have given me the cramps (see The
Main Dish for reference). I am not a great purist, and since the pork was very
tasty and the meat, while more moist than it probably should have been, was not
soggy or flabby, I don’t want to make a big fuzz out of it.
The baked beans had some meat in
them and were not sweet at all – very good.
The potato salad, on the other
hand, was a bit blah, basically your standard on the sour side tasting mayonnaise-based
concoction without any outstanding features.
And the slaw was of the sweet
variety, which I personally don’t fancy that much. All sides together, however,
with the meat and the hot sauce on it, generated an amazing taste experience.
Sweet, sour, peppery, smoky, plus the different textures – amazing.
Oh, and the hot sauce is really
hot. It is a simple vinegar based pepper sauce with some kick – and a very
attractive orange color. It might even glow in the dark.
The mild sauce is just a standard
thick brownish-reddish sweet’n’spicy sauce – you can grab one of those at the
So then, we come to the absolute
highlight of the meal – hushpuppies. Three of them, fresh out of the fryer,
each the size of two golf balls.
In my humble opinion, and in my
wife’s expert opinion, these are the best hushpuppies on this planet (sorry
Greenbrier Restaurant, you just lost that title …).
Crunchy on the outside, fluffy yet
firm on the inside, with a perfect golden color and not too sweet - just the
way hushpuppies were intended to be.
Dip them into the remnants of the
baked beans sauce and this is better than any dessert.
For all of that, times two because
my wife had the same meal, plus a large cup of sweet tea and a can of soda, we
paid just under sixteen bucks - which is a more than good deal in my mind.
Of course, there is the drawback
that for this you have to drive out to Hazel Green, the well known center of
the universe. But the place is very easy to find, it sits right at the very
busy US Highway 431/231. Most people get their BBQ as carry-out, which clearly
has its reason in the fact that the dining area of O’le Dads Barbeque is half a
dozen tables in a screened porch at the front of the building. The porch has no
air condition, but features the lovely background soundtrack of speeding
eighteen wheelers, ambulance sirens, and general heavy traffic.
It is not the homiest place you can
imagine, but surely one of the most authentic you can find. And the food more
than compensates for that little nuisance.
During my occasional travels, I
try to sample BBQ at those near and far away places outside the Quest area. I
just really, really like that stuff ...
The name Porky’s will forever have a specific meaning for us folks old
enough to remember the teen-movie from 1982. In the movie, Porky’s was a place
of ill-repute, a hillbilly-redneck gentlemen’s club where a group of Florida
High Schoolers were treated poorly and then took revenge on the slimy owner and
his goons. Great fun movie, the critics hated it, the kids loved it, and it is
in fact the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time.
To name a BBQ place Porky’s is not really a revolutionary idea – it
actually seems quite obvious to me -, but during almost two years of being on
this quest now, I only found one restaurant that had the moxy to call itself
so. Maybe it is the association with the place from the movie that let people
shy away from this name.
Be it as it may, in Grant,
Alabama, they have a Porky’s
It is situated right at the main street in the middle of town, and
other than the movie place that sports some outlandish big neon-piggys on the
roof, the place in grant only has a simple sign with the name on it.
Well, it kind of fits the somewhat sober interior. About half a dozen
booths on the wall, two rows of tables and on the other side of a six feet high
wooden barrier the same layout. It is just a typical, nondescript eatery like
so many along America’s
Although, one thing sets it apart from many other restaurants – there
is a smoking section in the seating area beyond the barrier in the middle of
the room. This is quite unusual to find these days in restaurants, and
rightfully so. I like my meat smoked, not the air that I breathe.
And quite frankly, their meat could have used some of that smoke that
floated around the room when I was there. It was lean and tender and had a very
distinctive pork taste, but no smoke flavor whatsoever, and it was very dry.
The sauce on the table was of the run-of-the-mill thick red
sweet’n’spicy variety. I only noticed other sauces at a table next to the soda
fountain, when I refilled my drink after the meal.
The slaw was made with vinegar and had a very nice peppery flavor and a
good crunch to it. The potato salad was made with mayonnaise and tiptoed on the
sour side of life.
In addition to that, the pork plate came with a slice of Texas Toast.
For just under nine bucks with a fountain drink, the amount of food was
very fair, and the overall quality was acceptable. But the smoke was definitely
in the wrong place at Porky’s in Grant,
Quest Log No 36 – Big Cove BBQ Huntsville, Madison County
The King died because he stuffed
himself with Burgers, Fries and Cherry Cola. Coming from Tupelo,
and eventually living in Memphis,
this was a somewhat strange choice – had he stuck with good old southern style
BBQ instead of the junk food (and pills), he might still perform in Vegas.
Because BBQ done right is not only soul food, but it is health food as well.
When you enter Big Cove BBQ, one of
the first things you will notice is the life-sized cardboard cut-out of Elvis
in his glorious years, standing in one of the corners. Whether he was placed
there to remind the customers of the dangers of an unhealthy diet, or to serve
as a tribute to the southern way of live, or as a guardian angel for all that
is old style, I do not know. But it works – this place is as southern, old
style and healthy as the young Elvis, straight out of Tupelo, once was.
You order at a small
hole-in-the-wall counter just opposite the entrance door. The menu is of the
k.i.s.s. variety – keep it simple, stupid. Pulled pork sandwiches and plates,
stuffed baked potatoes, slaw, baked beans … nothing fancy here, just good old
The dining room has about half a
dozen tables, decorated with neat red-and-white-checkered plastic table cloths.
The chairs are of the usual black-metal with faux black leather seats variety.
The walls are covered with wooden panels, with some old pictures, news paper
articles, and the like as decoration. There is a gumball machine in one corner,
and some pig figurines placed in a shelf next to the cooler that holds the soda
Sitting there, it felt almost like
sitting in someone’s living room – very cozy and homey, and spot clean. That
feeling was certainly amplified by the extreme nice and attentive attitude of
the staff – it never hurts to be polite, friendly and considerate.
There is also a patio with more
tables in the back, but I doubt that this is used very often. Most folks seem
to come here for take-out food and those who stay seem to be regulars. Well,
given that this place is kind of hidden on a by-road behind a gargantuan WalMart SuperCenter, not very many outsiders
will ever find this BBQ.
This is a crying shame, because
apart from the old style atmosphere, they serve a righteous BBQ!
As usual, I had the pulled pork
plate – which, for not even eight and a half Dollars including free refills for
my sweet tea, ended up to be a killer deal. Not only was the portion enormous,
but also the quality was excellent.
The pork was succulent and tender,
very lean and with a good smoke aroma. They have two sauces, one thick red mild
one that is of the common sweet’n’smokey taste. Nothing wrong with that, but
this is the sort of BBQ sauce the WalMart carries, too.
But the hot sauce there is of a
different breed. It is actually more orange then red, which should give you the
first hint of its character. Yes, it is hot. My guess is a lot of cayenne
pepper, some ground jalapenos, and a bit of black pepper mixed into a base of
tomato sauce. First, it took my breath away, but after the third bite or so, I
actually liked the tingling on my tongue that put a different twist on the
smoky flavor of the pork.
The plate also came with three
sides. The potato salad was, hands down, one of the best I ever had in a BBQ
joint. Slightly sour, with big bites of potato, and a well rounded aroma.
The slaw was made with a
yoghurt/sour crème based sauce and tasted very fresh and light. Actually, I
could taste the cabbage, which is not always the case because most slaws are
just smothered with mayonnaise and/or sugar and vinegar. Not so here, the
flavor was very well balanced between a slight sourness, the freshness of the
sauce and the aroma of the cabbage. Also, I like it a lot if the cabbage pieces
are ‘bite sized’ – that means not shredded into oblivion, but also not cut so coarsely
as to leave the leafs almost intact. This slaw had the ‘right’ size – which is
hard to describe and certainly varies from person to person. But it worked for
The baked beans on the other hand
were a bit bland, way too sweet for my taste. But I liked that they were
enriched with green bell pepper, which gave it a little unexpected crunch.
Also part of the plate were two
buns, which I did not touch – I just was full to the brim, it was a massive
meal even without the buns.
The only negative experience there
was that they have real nice T-Shirts for sale, with a guitar playing pig on
it, but they were sold out of the 2XL size. Well, judging from the crowd you
usually see eating at those places, this should be the most popular size in North Alabama. The skinny types ain’t into southern soul
food that much, I guess.
Too bad, I would have proudly worn
their T-Shirt, to let everybody know that I am now a fan of their BBQ. So, I
guess that I have to return there once in a while to check on their T-Shirt
situation – looking forward to it.