Thursday, September 15, 2011

To shig, or not to shig, that is the barbecue question

Excuse me if I'm late to the party, but I just learned a new word: shigging.

It means stealing, or attempting to steal, someone's barbecue secrets. The term seems to have come out of the BBQ competition circuit, but also works for joints and backyard pitmasters.

For example, my good friend Bryan Gooding, who won the chicken category at the Blues, Bandits & BBQ cook-off in Oak Cliff last year, won't share his recipe.

But I watched him. And there's vinegar -- and ice cubes -- in his brine.

And on tours, the Posse is almost always shigging. We're constantly observing, and asking questions about smoking technique.

Some observers think shigging should be a felony, especially in Texas.

I put the practice in the same category as stealing signs in baseball. If you can do it from the dugout or the coaching boxes or the bases, it's just part of the game. Go for it. But don't get caught hiding out with binoculars somewhere beyond center field.

"What a great word," said another friend, best-selling author Sam Gwynne, when I shared my new knowledge. "Also, a great art form since, as 10,000 sub-par bbq joints around the country attest, it ain't easy to steal smoking secrets."

Sam knows barbecue. He was part of the Texas Monthly team that discovered Snow's, which the magazine declared to be the best joint in the state in 2008.

Aaron Franklin, the reigning king of Texas barbecue, seems to be well aware of the threat of shigging. It seems that every interview he gives -- from Bon Appetit to the blogs -- contains a slightly different description of his technique and cooking times.

Aaron, are you doing that on purpose?

Franklin just smiles.

Of course.

Photo of Bryan Gooding by R.J. Hinkle

Friday, September 9, 2011

Looking for some real Texas BBQ on the west coast?

OK, I know this is the Texas BBQ Posse. But every now and then we discover the real deal outside of the Lone Star state and feel the need to tell you all about it. Such was the case when I visited Lonnie Ray's BBQ in Harrisburg, Missouri, earlier this year.

Introducing Podnah's Pit Barbecue in Portland, Oregon. Posse member Michael Ainsworth was vacationing in Portland recently and ended up at Podnah's. Michael was the first Posse member to try Franklin BBQ, before the super long lines and signs announcing they were sold out of BBQ by noon. He knows great BBQ when he tastes it.

Michael sent a text from the dining room, proclaiming he had found brisket on the left coast that might be close to the same level as Franklin's. I was skeptical, but then he sent the photos and explained the back story of Padnah's.

Owner and pitmaster Rodney Muirhead is from Waxahachie, Texas. He opened Podnah's in late 2006, but he'd already been smoking Texas style barbecue in Portland for almost four years on a pit-on-trailer, with hopes of opening his own place one day.

The story of naming the joint is explained on Podnah's website: "To honor his Texas roots, he named it "Podnah's Pit" after his grandfather's nickname--"podnah" being Texan for partner. There's a really simple explanation for Rodney's success: he don't mess with Texas. While many things have changed since Rodney started barbecuing back in 2003, there's one thing that will always stay the same--relying on the barbecue methods of the Lone Star state."

This is a serious Texas BBQ operation. Like Franklin BBQ, they have been recognized by Bon Appetit magazine as a great BBQ joint, no small fete. Podnah's makes these promises to their customers:

"For Rodney and the rest of the pit crew this means:

---Getting up at 5:00 every morning to fire up the pit.
---Using honest oak hardwood in the firebox.
---Using high quality, natural meats.
---Preparing the food fresh daily.
---Never precooking the meat. It's all slow smoked right there in the pit.
---Only cooking as much meat as the smoker will comfortably hold, and that's about 200 pounds a day.
---When the meat's gone, it's gone. Until tomorrow at lunch time that is.
---They love making honest, slow-smoked, Texas style barbecue for their patrons.
---And they love their patrons too. So much so that they even make Carolina style pulled-pork for them."

Podnah's Pit Barbecue, 1625 NE Killingsworth, Portland, OR, 503-281-3700. Hours: Breakfast: Sat-Sun 9am-1pm, Lunch: Mon-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat-Sun Noon-5pm, Dinner: Mon-Sun 5pm-10pm.

Photos by Michael Ainsworth

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Road trip to Llano - Laird's vs. Cooper's BBQ challenge

During a recent trip to Fredericksburg with my wife Michele, I made sure the backroads route from Dallas included driving through Llano. During the two years the Posse has been visiting and blogging about BBQ, few joints have stirred up as much debate as Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano. We've gotten emails proclaiming it as the best in Texas, while others labeled Cooper's as an overrated stop for BBQ tourists.

Posse member Michael Hamtil & his wife Lara Solt did extensive comparisons between Cooper's and Laird's Bar-B-Q, also in Llano, for their wedding catering a couple of years ago. They were married atop the famous Enchanted Rock north of Fredericksburg and wanted to be sure the BBQ was as amazing as the view from their wedding ceremony setting. They preferred Laird's hands down and fall in the overrated camp when it comes to Cooper's. I wanted to check it out for myself.


Laird's resides in an old house on Hwy. 16 while Cooper's is housed in a red steel building on the other main drag in town, Hwy. 29. Both have deer trophies on the wall, paying homage to Llano's reputation as a deer hunter's paradise, but otherwise they don't have much in common. The Laird's operate out of the kitchen on their old house. The dining room is cobbled out of the dining and living room areas and bathed in window light. We felt like we were eating at our grandmother's house.

Cooper's has numerous picnic tables lined end-to-end, enough to seat several hundred diners in the fluorescent lit dining room with red brick painted walls. You line up outside and choose your meats off the warming smoker, then you take the meat on a plastic tray inside where they weigh your meal before paying in another line. It's very much like Hard Eight BBQ, where the meat is cooked in one smoker and moved to the warming smoker for display purposes.

Advantage: Laird's

Cooking styles

Both Cooper's and Laird's cook with mesquite wood, which is plentiful in this rain-starved part of Texas. Cooper's cooks over direct heat in numerous brick smokers, fast and hot, before moving the meats to the warming smoker, where you choose your meal. Pitmaster and owner Ken Laird, who once worked at Cooper's, cooks on a single pit fueled by mesquite coals, which he burns down in a separate firebox. There's a big difference in the scale of their operations, but their techniques are similar.

Advantage: Cooper's

The meats

Unfortunately, my wife isn't as big a fan of BBQ as I am, so we settled on comparing brisket and pork ribs at both places. Cooper's famous pork chop will have to wait until our next trip, though Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper calls it "amazing."

We ordered a two-meat platter from Laird's, which came with two sides. We also ordered two drinks which made our lunch bill less than $11. Both the pork ribs and brisket were very good, though not what I would call amazing. I thought the ribs were the better of the two, cooked perfectly with nice rub and smoke. The brisket was cooked very well, but a little more bland than the ribs, with a thin bark.

I chatted up two diners, who as it turns out eat at Laird's at least once a week. When I asked them which joint they preferred, they said Laird's all the way. One added that the only time he goes to Cooper's is when out-of-towners make him take them there. "I used to eat there all the time, but once they went all corporate they went downhill," he said. (Cooper's has multiple locations including Llano, New Braunfels and a new location in Ft. Worth. The original Cooper's is west of Llano in Mason, but has different ownership than the other three locations.) Overall, I was impressed with Laird's and we headed back up Hwy. 16 to Cooper's.

We stepped up to the pits at Cooper's and ordered two ribs and 1/2 pound of brisket. We we stepped up to the register, the sticker shock set in as we paid almost $30 for our meat and two drinks. This was nearly three times more than we had paid at Laird's, though the ribs were slightly bigger. The brisket was tremendous, among the best I've tasted on the Texas BBQ trail. It was tender with a great bark and rub, definitely a step up from Laird's. However, the ribs were a major disappointment. They were slightly undercooked and just looked ugly, not a lot of taste when compared to Laird's ribs or even their own brisket. All in all, I had to give the slight edge in our unscientific Llano BBQ challenge to Laird's, especially when you factor in the cost of our meals.

I look forward to making a full-scale assault on Llano in the future with my fellow Posse members. You can't really judge a BBQ joint by visiting once. Most food critics allow for three visits before assigning a rating to a joint. Not to mention, I want to try that famous pork chop at Cooper's on my next trip to the deer hunting capital of Texas.

Slight advantage: Laird's

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse. On each combo, top photo is Laird's and bottom photo is Cooper's

Friday, September 2, 2011

BBQ Signs of our Times - Chapter 4

Once again, our BBQ signs series continues. And yes, we like homemade signs the best. Our Texas BBQ tours went on hiatus for most of one of the hottest summers in Texas history, but we'll be hitting the road soon for Houston, among several other planned BBQ journeys.

The top photo is from Dairy Land Drive Inn in Jacksboro. You can click to see the first BBQ Signs of our Times post, or BBQ Signs of our Times II and last but not least BBQ Signs of our Times III. Stay tuned for more tales for the Texas BBQ trail.

Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Llano

Laird's Barbeque & Catering, Llano

Van's Barbecue, Oakville

Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Llano

Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor

Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Llano

Sam's BBQ, Austin. The meat is really HOT here!

Photos by Chris Wilkins, Gary Barber, Phil Lamb & Guy Reynolds

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Goodbye Luckie's Smokehouse, hello OC Smokehouse & Bar

UPDATE: OC Smokehouse went out of business within a few months. Stay tuned to see what opens there next! 12/2011

When one door closes, another one opens. Such is the case of Luckie's Smokehouse on Davis Street in Oak Cliff. The new OC Smokehouse & Bar will be opening for business there tomorrow.

As predicted by the Dallas Observer's City of Ate food blog two weeks ago, Luckie's closed due to disputes between co-owners Nhat Ngo and Charles "Lucky" Johnson. Speculation was running rampant as to who would move into the building in the upcoming and trendy north Oak Cliff neighborhood.

When Posse cofounder Gary Jacobson and I had lunch today at Pecan Lodge, we teased co-owner and pitmaster Justin Fourton that we heard they were moving in there. He smiled and said that would be interesting; it's a great location for a restaurant. But Pecan Lodge isn't going anywhere.

My Dallas Morning News colleague Roy Appleton, who covers Oak Cliff, confirmed with former co-owner Nhat Ngo that the joint opens again on Friday with a new name, after some improvements to the building and the menu. The building owners have added more air conditioning, enlarged the deck and improved the parking lot. Ngo will be the manager of the new restaurant.

They will be using the same Southern Pride smoker for their barbecue, but are adding several other menu items when they reopen. Ngo promises better food this time around, which would be great. We were not impressed with the BBQ offerings on our two trips there. Neither were The BBQ Snob, D Magazine or The Dallas Morning News food critics.

Good luck to Mr. Ngo and his new backers. Dallas can always use one more great BBQ joint........

Photos by Chris Wilkins