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 59 – Hazel Green Bar-B-Q Hazel Green, Madison
Although BBQ is a serious affair
here in the south, usually there is also some mild eccentricity involved. Typically,
the quirkiness revolves around pigs, with all kinds of statues, posters,
photos, metal and neon signs displayed in the restaurant.
But if there is a ten foot long smoker
in the backyard that has pig’s ears, nose and eyes out of metal attached to it
- that is the definition of eccentric quirkiness.
And that is what I found outside of
the Hazel Green Bar-B-Q. It actually fits very well the rustic atmosphere of
the restaurant, which is built in a kind of pseudo-log cabin style. Inside,
there is a big room with only four tables with two chairs each, which are metal
patio furniture out of the home improvement store. The window we were sitting
at had just a fly-net and no glass in it, the ceiling was covered with old tin
plates, and the floor looked like the victory circle of a NASCAR speedway, with
black stains all over it. Most of the business, from Friday to Sunday only, is done as carry-out, so I guess
there is no need for more places to sit down, or better furniture, or a
non-stained floor. So, it is very rustic, but also very clean.
As usual, I had the pork plate with
three sides, potato salad, baked beans, and slaw, and my wife had the brisket
with baked beans and slaw. The plates come with a slice of white untoasted
toast bread, and we both had sweet tea, which comes in 16oz plastic bottles
from Milos. For all that, we only paid about
twenty bucks, which is a very fair deal in regards of the amount of food you
The quality, however, was no reason for jubilation.
They claim that all sides are home
made, and I truly believe that. But that in itself is no guarantee that the
taste is something special. In this case, the potato salad and the baked beans
were rather pedestrian, taste-wise. Not bad, don’t get me wrong, but if it says
“homemade” my expectations are a bit more demanding. The slaw, on the other
hand, was kind of sweet, but with a spicy note in it. Very interesting, very
The pork was a bit oily, and had
some fat in it, but it was very tender and had a deliciously smoky aroma. While
one sauce comes with the plate, I allowed myself the luxury to add a second
kind of sauce for a small amount of money. I chose the mustard based Sweet’n’Spicy
and the tomato based Kansas City BBQ Sweet. They also have a white sauce and a
vinegar based Hot and Spicy sauce.
I must admit that I have a soft
spot for mustard based sauces. Mustard and pig just naturally belongs together
in my culinary world, and while this variety here was not bad at all, the
mustard aroma was too strong for my taste. Give the sauce a hint of mustard,
make it the key note in the aroma, but don’t let it take over the show. It was
just too much, almost like pure mustard. And the Kansas City style sauce was just boring, a
concoction with no outstanding features besides its sweetness.
My wife’s brisket also had a very
nice smoke flavor and was very tender, too. But about half of it was pure fat,
and while fat certainly is a carrier of flavor, it is also not very healthy and
too much of it should be avoided. She had the white sauce with it, which we
will deny vehemently if the BBQ police ever get wind of this sacrilege. The
sauce is a thin mayonnaise and vinegar based concoction with, again, no
In summation, I liked the rustic
but very clean environment, and also the price was very good. The food had some
highlights in the slaw and the flavor of the meat, but also had too much fat in
it, and the other sides and the sauces could use some re-work. No bad BBQ here,
but also certainly not one of my go-to places.
Quest Log No 58 – Biffle’s Slow Smoked Barbeque Madison, Madison County
BBQ out of a trailer – that does not immediately garner my confidence that I
will get something decent to eat. On the other hand, during the almost three
years of my quest I had BBQ at some permanent locations that was also somewhat
dubious, to say the least. So I guess the old saying, don’t judge a BBQ place
by its cover really has some truth to it.
In Madison, on Sullivan Street just behind the train
tracks, opposite the Downtown area on Main
Street, stands a brand new red trailer that hosts
Biffle’s Slow Smoked Barbeque. The Biffle’s are a retired couple who were
looking for something to occupy their time with, so they decided on a food
truck operation of sorts - only that their trailer remains stationary and does
not move between locations.
There are two canopies in front of
the trailer, where you can sit on a few chairs around a table or at a
bench-table combination. The trailer itself is equipped with a smoker and a
full kitchen. Due to the limited size of the smoker and the storage space in
the kitchen, at times they sell out some items before their official closing
time. As I was there, they only had some fruit punch left to drink, which was
not a big deal, but don’t expect everything to be available at any given time.
As usual, I had the pork plate with
potato salad and slaw. The plate also comes with either a bun or two slices of
sandwich bread, and all together it cost me seven bucks.
Not a bad deal for a sizeable
amount of food.
Alas, the quality was not up to
par. The meat was rather oily and lacked the tenderness I would expect from
slow smoked BBQ. There was no real smoky flavor, and the sauce, while
apparently home made, was just a variety of the typical St.Louis-style supermarket
sauces. It had some spiciness to it, but was mostly sweet. The potato salad had
a mayonnaise dressing and was quite tasty, with a sour tang, but the slaw,
while certainly fresh and crispy, had no taste at all.
I certainly had much worse BBQ in
the last three years, but also distinctively better. So, I guess, it really is
not so much the building you do it in, but how you do it that determines your
BBQ. This is, of course, not really a brand new discovery, but rather a known
rule. And while this peculiar style of BBQ certainly will find its audience, I
do not see myself stopping by that trailer again anytime soon.
Quest Log No 57 – John’s Bar-B-Que Moulton, Lawrence
I like it when small businesses are successful and expand,
opening satellite stations. That usually means that the public approves of the
product they sell, which is a fairly good indicator of quality and price. And
as long as the expansion does not compromise those attributes that have made
the product a success in the first place, the future might even bring further
success and expansion.
There are two locations where you can find John’s Bar-B-Que
in Moulton. One is a log cabin that I already visited half a year ago, and one
is in a typical boring small strip mall on Highway 157.
Since I could not remember what I had the last time, I made
the mistake to order the exact same thing again, although one of my rules is to
order something different at each satellite location of a chain. Mea culpa.
So, let’s just concentrate on the differences between those
two places – which should be minimal.
As before, I got the two meat plate with pulled pork and chicken,
with potato salad and Jailhouse Slaw. But contrary to the Log Cabin, this time
there were no hushpuppies served before the meal. Bummer!
The pork was very tender and lean, with a nice smoke aroma,
and that was also the case at the Log Cabin location.
Same goes for the chicken, which was again a bit dry and
with a lesser smoke aroma, but with a nice pepper infused crust that I did not
register the first time.
As fort the sauces, there was no difference. Their white
sauce is sour and peppery as it should be, and very fresh tasting. Top notch,
and still one of the best I ever had.
The other sauces, a boring mild sauce and a mildly spicy red
vinegar and pepper sauce, were acceptable for the pork if mixed together.
The Jailhouse Slaw is one of the most interesting and
tastiest side dishes I ever encountered at a BBQ place. It comes drenched in a
mustard based sauce with enough spiciness to give you a recognizable kick in
the pants. It can double as BBQ sauce, and they should really sell it in
bottles (I’d take a case or two …).
The potato salad had a hint of cinnamon in it, but not as
pronounced as the first time.
The meal, including sweet tea, was
not the cheapest I ever had in a BBQ place, with about fourteen and a half
bucks. But the quality of the food, and the very nice atmosphere do actually
justify that price. The dining area has the usual red faux-leather benches and
chairs, and some tables. The decoration is a whimsical mixture of BBQ related
paraphernalia, like posters, pigs, and neon signs, and also some fishing
related things like fishing poles and a stuffed fish. There is also the model
of a three-mast bark, which is kind of odd at such a place, but speaks to my
maritime past very much. The walls are wooden panels, and the counter is made
out of brick. This all contributes to a cozy atmosphere, and the place is very
clean, too. The Log Cabin is just a bit more authentic and quirky, and they
serve fantastic hushpuppies, so all in all I would prefer that to the location
on Highway 157. But if you just want excellent BBQ, and don’t care about the
surroundings, either location will fit the bill.
Quest Log No 56 – Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q Meridianville, Madison
A while ago, I debated the
question, whether dead flies on the window sill belong to an authentic BBQ
place. The conclusion was that I did not mind them and that in certain
circumstances they actually could contribute to the special atmosphere of a place.
Living flies, on the other hand, are still a total no-no.
And that is the problem with those
places that are primary take-out restaurants, with maybe just a few folding
chairs and a table outside. You are usually better off to eat in the car,
unmolested by pesky insects, or take the stuff with you at home, if this is not
too far away.
The Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q in,
ahem, Meridianville is one of those places. There is one table with four chairs outside the order window under a little roof, but since the
trash cans are right next to it I would suggest using this offer – unless you
like sharing your meal with winged pests.
Other than that, there is the
occasional spider web with insect carcasses in it to be found in some corners,
and a grimy substance covers most outside surfaces. That is, of course, coming
from the US Highway
that runs just a few yards away from the building. The building is also wedged between two gas stations. That all, and more serious
violations inside once have led to a score of 75 (of 100) at a health
inspection. You must score an 85 to get off the re-inspection list. So before I
tried this place, I wanted to wait until the health score was in a region where
I did not have to reserve a hospital bed before eating there. Now, they have a
94 and so I went.
First of all, the meals are really
inexpensive there. I paid nine bucks for a large pork plate with three sides
and a large sweet tea. Well, they do not have any overhead costs for
maintaining a dining area, so it should not be pricey.
My pork plate came with baked
beans, potato salad and slaw, a bun and a cup of sauce.
The meat was very tender and lean,
not very moist and with a very subtle smoke aroma. Together with the simple
vinegar-pepper sauce it tasted great, and I would say while it was not
spectacular, it was how BBQ pork should be.
The sides were also nothing
special, but also very good. The potato salad came with a mildly sour yellowish
mayonnaise dressing, the slaw was a bit too much on the sweet side for my
taste, and the baked beans were no different from what you can buy in a can. But
while not one item was something special, all harmonized very well together,
and the taste was extremely pleasant when one bite of the pulled pork with
sauce on it was followed immediately by the potato salad and the baked beans or
So, what you get at the
Meridianville Pit Bar-B-Q is middle-of-the-road stuff for a very reasonable
price. Just try to avoid the spider-webs and you’ll be fine.
BBQ No 38 – Dreamland Big Daddy’s Rib Shack
Regions Field, Birmingham, Alabama
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 ...
Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd; buy me some
peanuts and BBQ … BBQ? Of course, BBQ – we are in the South here, and Hot Dogs
and Burgers are so Cooperstown (which is located in the beautiful State of New York, of course). So
when the Birmingham Barons built their new wonderful downtown stadium, one of
the concessions was claimed by Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Yes, that Dreamland, from Tuscaloosa, where at game
day the Tide fans pack the restaurant tightly, to eat some fine ribs before
they watch Bama roll over another hapless opponent. I tried to get in there
once on a Saturday morning – no freakin’ chance in hell. But it is on my
to-do-list, just not on a game day.
So then, Regions Field was finished just in time before the season
started, and I was at the inaugural game there, which was kind of a
transcendent experience. The architecture, the crowd, the atmosphere, the view
of the lighted up downtown Birmingham
– magical. Alas, no Dreamland. In early April, there was just the framework of
the building where the BBQ place once should reside. So I ate a hot dog.
But then in early September, after a glorious season, the Birmingham
Barons got into the playoffs of the Southern League – and I went to Regions
Field again. In the meantime, Dreamland Big Daddy’s Rib Shack was fully
operational, and so I gave it a spin.
First off, I have to say that nothing in the world beats the atmosphere
of a Baseball stadium on a play-off day in late summer. And to eat BBQ there is
equivalent to celebrating a religious service in a gothic cathedral. It does
not get any better than this. Period.
Too bad then that the Q was not really that special. I ordered the
pulled pork plate, which essentially was a BBQ sandwich with some potato salad.
The pork came already drenched in sauce, on a standard bun. There was also a
tiny cup of cole slaw hidden underneath the bun.
I struggled to find a non-sauced piece of pork, and eventually
succeeded, only to find out that I had not need to bother – it was kind of
neutral tasting, no real flavor in it. But the sauce, the Dreamland sauce,
would certainly save the day. Ain’t so. The Dreamland sauce they serve in their
location in Huntsville
is a spicy, very flavorful concoction. The sauce on the pork here was your
standard super-market-variety-sauce. Disappointing. The slaw was a letdown,
too, it had also no distinguishable aroma.
The potato salad on the other hand was nothing short of spectacular. It
came in a creamy dressing, with peppers and dill in it. The taste was more to
the sour side, but the dill balanced it out marvelously.
But quite frankly, I did not come to the ballpark to have superb potato
salad, I was expecting superb BBQ. And here there is definitely much room for
improvement. And the price was also not to my liking - $11.25 for a BBQ
sandwich and a sweet tea is kind of steep. Well, next year, I will go to
Regions Field again, pack some money and maybe try some ribs. After all, it is
probably called “Rib Shack” for a reason. We’ll see. In the meantime – Go