Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Barbecue

It started off by accident on a previous trip earlier this year to Kansas City where we started searching for the Holy Grail of Barbecue. We ate at the top ranked BBQ place in Kansas City many years running and even tried out some Korean BBQ. The Korean BBQ most certainly won my heart for that trip but wasn't what I was looking for when I was looking for the Holy Grail of Barbecue.

So off to St. Louis we went, bitter BBQ rival to it's cross-state rival Kansas City with the goal of eating some barbecue. Out of the the six meals I ate while in St. Louis, three of them would be barbecue. I had a goal of getting some local toasted ravioli and a St. Louis style pizza while on the trip but just didn't have the stomach capacity nor the opportunity. Perhaps the next time.

The first BBQ stop for me was entirely by accident. We stopped in at Uno's Chicago Grill not because we knew anything about it but because it was in the mile and a quarter between our motel and the Magic House where we were heading over lunch time. I saw some BBQ Sliders on their menu and though familiar with sliders from my stint up in the frozen tundra of central Minnesota where they are everywhere, I had never heard of a BBQ slider. So I saddled up a little earlier than I expected and ordered two of them with a plate of fries. The sliders were BBQ'd pork butt that was extremely tender and coated with a layer of provolone cheese. It was outstanding but I still hesitate to consider it traditional BBQ. So while I didn't rank it with the other places we ate at, it was definitely good enough to get if you are in the area of that restaurant. I suspect it may be a chain judging for its formula like layout and menu layout so there may be one closer than you think. But that was definitely my first experience with Uno's Chicago Grill.

The next stop on the BBQ Train was Bandana's BBQ. I know this one was definitely a chain since I saw several pop up on my Garmin when I did my search for BBQ joints in my vicinity. I also recalled reading a review on it before I left and knew that it wasn't the best BBQ in the area but after the BBQ Sliders for lunch, I was in the mood for some light fare and didn't want to waste a trip to a classic BBQ spot for just a small portion of food. The restaurant itself is one of those gimmicky places with lots of paraphernalia hanging on all available surfaces like Applebee's or Texas Roadhouse. That alone would count against it in my book but the excellent waitress we had more than compensated for that fact. She allowed us to order off the lunch platters (for the lunch price) which allowed us to get smaller portions of food. My wife got the beef brisket and I opted for the pork butte. Like all good BBQ, the meat is fixed without sauces of any kind and the only spicing is a dry rub added before the meat was cooked. Dry rubs often caramelize leaving a glaze like finish that people mistake as sauce but the waitress was quick to confirm my suspicions that no sauce had been added. Instead, we had a full half-dozen sauces to choose from sitting at our table. I tried them all but was split between the Kansas City style sauce and the original Bandana's mustard based sauce. I really like the Kansas City sauce on the garlic bread that came with the meal and it was good on my wife's beef brisket but the original sauce seemed better with the pork. The meat was extremely tender and good but despite the good sauces, I sensed that better sauce could be found. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't hesitate to take people looking for good BBQ to Bandana's but it wasn't quite the Holy Grail I have been after.

Our third stop was at a place called Pappy's Smokehouse. I had a strong inkling from all the good reviews that this might be the place where the Holy Grail of BBQ could be found but found the location kind of strange. It wasn't on a thoroughfare and barely had what could be called a sign. In fact, I was almost entirely into the parking lot before I saw the sign announcing that I was in the right place. If it hadn't been for my Garmin, I certainly wouldn't have found it. Pappy's Smokehouse is definitely what you would call a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was a space with an odd assortment of furniture with everything from wooden picnic tables to booths to stand up counters. Pappy himself was outside standing under the eaves smoking when I pulled in and judged by my action of looking for signage to confirm I was where I wanted to be, knew I 'wasn't from around here.' He asked as we walked up to the door what brought up to the restaurant and I told him that I had heard he had the best BBQ in town and wanted to see for myself if it was true. I think Pappy really liked that answer and personally waited on us the rest of the evening and even conversed with me a bit after we left and as he smoked another cigarette out of the rain. At Pappy's Smokehouse, the menu is a big chalkboard behind the counter and I have come to equate this to good BBQ for some reason. We walked up to the cash register, ordered our BBQ and before we could fill our drinks and sit down in one of the booths, Pappy was out the serving doors carrying our food and apologizing for the long wait. Again, I got the pork and my wife got the beef brisket and we set to work. Pappy's, like Bandana's, didn't cook the meat with sauce and instead we had three or four different types to choose from. The meat was tender and excellent and the original sauce of Pappy's was very good. The beef brisket was perfect and is the Holy Grail of BBQ beef brisket but the pork though close, just wasn't there. I hadn't eaten better but I suspected that there was something better out there if I could just find it. What he definitely was the king of was the coleslaw side. Unlike everyone else, his wasn't in the creamy white sauce and instead was natural in some sort of clear sauce. I ate two bowls of the stuff and would have had more had I any room left after my plate of BBQ. My wife also loved the BBQ corn-on-the-cob that she got as one of her sides. All in all, it was several notches better than Bandanas in food and many more notches above in ambiance without all the gimmicky flair. It also didn't hurt that Pappy himself waited on us through the night. If you have a Garmin and can find it, definitely check it out.

The last place and though and not in St. Louis, was a place we had been eying for some time and decided to eat there as a control with St. Louis fresh on our taste buds. Woody's Smokehouse Champion BBQ and Catering is just down the road from our apartment in the urban jungle and like Pappy's Smokehouse, just a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. In fact, there are only four tables perhaps a scanty two feet in diameter and then a narrow shelf along one wall for seating. In fact, just five minutes after we arrived shortly before lunch, all thirty seats were full and not one person came in the door. Evidently the locals no about the seating capacity and know by the cars along the curb in the street whether or not there is room to come inside to eat. Like Pappy's Smokehouse and all good BBQ joints, the menu was a chalkboard above the counter and lone cash register. We got our normal plates and within minutes were snarfing it down. I must add that at Woody's Smokehouse, there is always a pan of cornbread sitting up front near the door and you are welcome to help yourself to some of the tastiest cornbread around. While the beef brisket and pork were obviously not of the same caliber as that at Pappy's or even Bandana's, it is still very good and the best I have found in Iowa. However, Woody's original sauce was outstanding and I perhaps think even better than my previous local Iowa favorite of Cookie's BBQ sauce. I think if I had Woody's sauce on Pappy's BBQ, I would have had the Holy Grail at last.

So like my last trip, this one too ended up tantalizingly close to the Holy Grail but not all components together in one spot. However, all these places ended up being places I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to friends or go to again when in the area. My recommendation and what I suspect may be the path to the Holy Grail of BBQ is to pick up some of Woody's Original BBQ sauce the next time you are in Des Moines, head on down to Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis and get some of it to go. Then in the comfort of your home, partake of the Holy Grail of BBQ. If you are only a little bit hungry, don't hesitate to stop in at Bandana's for the all day lunch menu or the local Uno chain restaurant for some BBQ sliders.


R. Sherman said...

Bandanas, while a chain, is St. Louis based. They started with one restaurant and have now expanded around town. The other St. Louis based BBQ with multiple locations is Super Smokers, also good.

Of course, when it comes to St. Louis BBQ, the classic is either spare ribs or pork steak. These are seared on a hot grill for a few minutes then smoked off-heat at a low temp (prefer about 200 degrees) for sever several hours. Then, the meat is either immersed in the sauce or, (my preference) coated with sauce and then grilled again to caramelize the sugars before cutting the meat off the bone.

BTW, buy some Maull's. It's the only St. Louis sauce.

Phil's BBQ on Gravois is one of the more authentic St. Louis places. Check it out on your next visit.


sage said...

I think I'd like Pappy's and Woody's. If you really want to be serious about your search, you got to get down to NC!

Ed said...

R. Sherman - Thanks for the tips. I know I'll be back so I'll have to check them out. When the in-laws come, they are always looking to go to a big city and I'm kind of tired out of Chicago. I was thinking heading to St. Louis with them the next time.

Sage - I almost had the chance earlier this summer but the stars didn't align. I ended up in California instead. It is definitely on my list though. Until then, I have to head into the deep south next month for a wedding in Alabama so I'm sure to get some BBQ along the way.

Beau said...

Nice BBQ write up... you'll definitely have to repost after your AL trip. I enjoy BBQ tremendously but have not sampled most of the restaurants in the region.

TC said...

I think it's cool that Pappy himself waited on you! I love service like that.

Bone said...

My favorite BBQ chain is Corky's. I think they're mostly in the South, originating in Memphis.

The best BBQ I've ever had was at a place called Big Al's. It was inside a gas station and we'd stop there on the way home from Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately, it burned down a couple of years ago.

Hope you enjoy your visit to the land of cotton.