Monday, July 15, 2013

Confessions of another BBQ Snob*

Bruce Tomaso, right, joins fellow members of the Texas BBQ Posse on our 2013 Best of Texas Tour.
(Photo by Tom Fox/DMN)

By Bruce Tomaso

A few weeks ago, while on a BBQ tour with the Posse, I had an epiphany.

It wasn’t a magnificent epiphany. I’m not Archimedes. But it was enough to permanently change the way I approach this quest of ours for “the greatest smoked meats in the greatest state in the Union.”

I realized that I’ve become a BBQ snob.

I’m not particularly proud of this, but I don’t apologize, either. I’ve simply reached a stage where I have no interest in eating mediocre barbecue. (And sweet baby Jesus, there’s a lot of mediocre barbecue out there.)

If the meat’s not exquisite, don’t expect me to visit.

You see, I’ve been to the mountaintop. With the Posse, I’ve crossed the state and enjoyed the finest brisket, ribs, and sausage that wood smoke and pit artistry can produce.

I’ve eaten at Snow’s on a cool, misty Saturday morning, at La Barbecue on a sunny spring afternoon, at Franklin when it was still the turquoise trailer, at Pecan Lodge long before Guy Fieri’s producers discovered it. I’ve had superb meals at Louie Mueller in Taylor and Meshack’s in Garland and Fargo’s in Bryan. I’ve known brisket perfection in Marshall Cooper’s North Dallas backyard on days when, for no particular reason, Marshall felt like putting some meat on the smoker, icing down a cooler of beers, and inviting a few friends over.

Each of these dining experiences was transformative. Each left me with a cherished, indelible memory of the moment. (Even now, if I close my eyes, I can see and smell and taste that platter of brisket that Aaron Franklin sliced for us on our first visit. As we devoured it, Aaron sat at our outdoor table and talked for nearly an hour about his smoking methods, his handmade pits, his hopes of someday opening a real restaurant, one with walls and a roof and a floor…)

The Posse hangs out with pitmaster Aaron Franklin in simpler times at the original Franklin BBQ trailer in 2010.
 (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Having known the best of the best, I’ve lost patience for the rest. I won’t waste my time eating bland, overcooked brisket, prepared without skill and served without pride. I have no use for sausage that could have come straight from Wal-Mart, or ribs that need a thick coat of sweet, gooey sauce just to make them passable.

Why put money in the pockets of cynical restaurant owners who know that if they hang a Dallas Cowboys schedule on the wall, throw up a couple of posters of pickup trucks or women in swimsuits, stick a defrosted peach cobbler in the steam table, and ladle up whopping sides of fried okra, ranch beans and potato salad (from big plastic tubs), most of their customers will leave stuffed and satisfied, belching around their toothpicks, no matter how unexceptional the barbecue is?

Why, indeed?

Call me a snob. But I’m leaving the mob.

A few days ago, Posse stalwart Jim Rossman posted a photo on Twitter of a T-shirt that said, “Life’s Way Too Short for Lean Brisket.” Jim’s right. Life’s also too short for crappy brisket.

Perhaps the most eye-opening discovery on my path to BBQ snobbery has been this:

Most barbecue isn’t very good. (And that’s in Texas. Imagine how barren the landscape must be in New York or Michigan or Idaho.) I don’t know why this surprised me – most of everything isn’t very good. For every Ferrari on the road, there are a thousand Scions. For every Brady or Manning, there are two dozen Romos. For every Gaga, there’s a silly, synthesized chorus of Ke$has, Nickis, and Selenas. As a nation, we have a vast appetite for junk. People eat at Dickey’s. They go to Pitbull concerts. They watch the local news. I don’t know why, but they do.

Before I embraced my snobbery, I let myself be disappointed over and over by barbecue that I hoped would be good, because someone said it was. Often, this “someone” was a reputable food critic. Food critics talk a good game, but as the Chinese proverb goes, talk does not cook rice. I’ve learned the hard way that from coast to coast, there are restaurant reviewers – many from prestigious magazines, newspapers and websites – who don’t know jack about barbecue. (Years ago, there was a food critic in Dallas who chain-smoked throughout her adult life. She continued to toil confidently at her craft long after Marlboros had deadened every taste bud in her head. Had someone blindfolded her and put her to the test, I doubt that she could have distinguished a pork rib from pickled herring.)

Left to right, Bryan Gooding, Bruce Tomaso & Gary Jacobson try the pork ribs at The Bone on the Grill BBQ west of Sherman. Weeks later the newly-opened joint was gone.  (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Most of the time, though, the bearer of false barbecue witness has been Texas Monthly’s vaunted list of Top 50 Barbecue Joints. The list, published every five years, is the gold standard of ratings, a combination Sagarin, Moody’s, and J.D. Power and Associates for Texas barbecue.

It’s also baloney.

Most people assume, as I once did, that any place good enough to make the list must be serving exceptional barbecue. After all, Texas has, what, 11 billion barbecue joints? If Texas Monthly says a spot is in the Top 50, that must mean something, right?

Wrong.

The joints at the very top of the list are truly exceptional. This year, the magazine ranked Franklin best in the state, followed (in no particular order) by Louie Mueller, Snow’s, and Pecan Lodge.

No arguments there.

There are plenty of gems sprinkled throughout the rest of the list. But there are plenty of clunkers, too.

The mistake is to believe that Texas Monthly’s list holds up from top to bottom. It doesn’t. On any list, there’s going to be a world of difference between No. 1 and No. 50.

Take cities.

New York, the biggest U.S. city, is also, arguably, the most exciting, vibrant, electrifying. Next in size are Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. They all have their shortcomings -- the Lakers, the Cubs, the Astros, Philadelphians – but all are great cities nonetheless.

By the time you get to No. 50, however, you’re at … Arlington, Texas.

Or take international soccer.

The U.S. Women’s National Team is ranked No. 1 in the world and has been, continuously, for five years. That’s a record that no other country is likely to match, ever. The Americans won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, and they’re currently on a streak of 33 matches without a loss. The last time someone beat them was March 5, 2012 – 16 months ago – when they fell to Japan 1-0. They might not lose again before the 2015 World Cup.

Now compare that to No. 50 in the rankings: India. To put it bluntly, the Indian women are hapless at “football.” They’ve never qualified for the World Cup or the Olympics, and they probably never will. They struggle against the likes of Myanmar and Uzbekistan. Were they to play the United States, which is unlikely, they might lose by 100 goals.

Mighty big drop-off there between 1 and 50.

Just because you make the list, that don’t mean I can’t resist.

My snobbery, while snobbish, makes perfect sense – and not just in the realm of smoked meats.

If you’re going to blow your diet by eating chocolate, why squander the calories on a Hershey’s bar? Go to Dude, Sweet. Go to Chocolate Secrets. Or buy a box of See’s. If you get a craving for a cheeseburger, don’t settle for a tasteless gray-green patty from McDonald’s. Go to Liberty Burger. If you decide to take down a pint of ice cream, make it Ben & Jerry’s.

As Stanley Marcus used to say, “I have the simplest taste: I am always satisfied with the best.”

(On the other hand, Mr. Stanley was said to be a huge fan of Sammy’s BBQ.)

*The term ‘BBQ Snob’ is stolen borrowed from Daniel Vaughn, the outstanding Texas barbecue author and, as of this spring, Texas Monthly’s first barbecue editor. In truth, Daniel is anything but a snob. Before joining Texas Monthly, he visited and wrote about well over 500 joints for his own blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ. Far more often than not, Daniel, a gentleman, found something good to say about the places.

5 comments:

  1. In reference to BBQ, some people have used a variety of words to describe me and my penchant for good meat, snob would be on the more milder list. My BBQ days go back to the late 60s when Southside Meat Market was downtown by the railroad tracks and Fred Fontaine was the cooker at LMB. One of the first things I do when approaching a new BBQ joint is to make a circle around the building. If I don't see a very large stack of wood, I drive on. When ordering meat, I want to see it cut in front of me, not out of sight in a distant kitchen. If they don't make their own sausage, I will pass. I don't want to hear about a half pound minimum, I want two thick slices of fat brisket, two pork ribs, and one link of sausage, no sides and no sauce.
    If all of this places me in a catagory with you and your cohorts, I will proudly bear the title of "BBQ Snob".

    RockportDon

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  2. I can remember just a few years back taking my brother-in- law to Sonny Bryan's and he marveled at how good the ribs were. Weeknights when the wife was out of town the kids and I would go to Dickie's thinking what a great guy's night out it was. Sadly I can never return to those days. Now I see the long lines at Franklin's or Pecan Lodge. I know the long drives out to Lexington and now Austin. I realize it will never be easy and around the drop-in corner again. Such is life that now the expectations are so stratospheric and there are so few that can actually trigger that brain tingling BBQ high. Peggy Sue's was just a gateway BBQ leading me down the path to the harder stuff. Sadly I am the snob in red glasses.

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  3. Bruce,
    I certainly hope you weren't referring to Waltrina Stovall. There has been no better palate in the business. And even if you are referring to Waltrina or Betty Cook, your comment is mean because they have both passed away. You could have written this whole piece without that comment.
    Nancy Nichols

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    Replies
    1. Nancy,

      I mentioned no one by name. You did. No one should jump to the conclusion that I was referring to either of those individuals. It is physiologically impossible to smoke for years and have a keen palate.

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