Barbecue Couture: SAW’s & Sam’s

SAWs capI’m not much of a baseball cap guy. I think they’re terribly overdone, often worn in inappropriate situations. You don’t look good with a tie and a baseball cap in the same way you don’t look good in a suit and Converse sneakers, regardless of how edgy you think it is.

With all of that said, caps can have their place, and they are a modern example of clothing from sport making its way into common usage. This is a time honored process, and many great classics of modern clothing have such an origin (eg, the polo coat, the chukka boot, and even spectator shoes).

That is my apologia for my new cap, more of a trucker cap than a baseball cap, from SAW’s BBQ in Birmingham, my favorite barbecue in Alabama. I was strangely tempted by it when I first ate there. Hearing that my friend Josh would be at SAW’s, I ordered a cap from him. It arrived in the mail last week still smelling of smoked pork. This is not a throwback wool cap from Ebbets, but the sort of cap with plastic mesh on the back–“One Size Fits Most.”

Many barbecue establishments offer their own t-shirts, caps, and even aprons. Some are clever, others are pretty standard, silk screened on a Hanes t-shirt. (My wife has a shirt from Dreamland BBQ in honor of her favorite barbecue sauce.)

But once in awhile you see something that takes the BBQ shirt to another level. Readers of Pinstripe Pulpit know about my past trips to the Billy Reid warehouse sales in Florence, Alabama. Reid frequently offers specially designed t-shirts for bands that are featured at his yearly Shindig music festival in Florence.

At the last sale I came aSams BR t-shirtcross a Billy Reid t-shirt for Sam’s Bar-B-Q in Humboldt, Tennessee. I couldn’t let such a creature slip by, so I grabbed one. This is a serious step up from the typical barbecue joint t-shirt.

I’ve never eaten at Sam’s, but having read about it I hope to change that in the future. Located in western Tennessee, Sam’s is part of a barbecue tradition that finds its most famous, but not necessarily best, expression in Memphis. My wife hails from that area, and it’s where I first ate serious barbecue.

In 2012, Sam’s burned down after a grease explosion in their pit. The Southern Foodways Alliance and The Fatback Collective arrived to help rebuild. You can read about Sam’s rebuilding at Southern Living and the Memphis Flyer. John T. Edge had earlier featured Sam’s in his Garden & Gun tour of west Tennessee barbecue. And don’t miss the 2003 Southern Foodways Alliance interview with Sam Donald of Sam’s who passed away in 2011.

Reid’s t-shirt helped bring attention to the iconic barbecue joint during its rebuilding and recovery period. Sam’s also sold the shirts at the shop; having an award winning fashion designer produce your shirts is a claim few barbecue restaurants can make.

I won’t endorse barbecue couture for more formal occasions, but when you’re relaxing, catching up on yard work, or maybe eating barbecue, it could be just the thing.

Lexington BBQ: Blue Door Smokehouse

Blue Door frontAlways on the hunt for good barbecue, I was game when my lunch appointment suggested a newer place in Lexington called Blue Door Smokehouse. Now “smokehouse” makes a positive assertion that I appreciate. A growing number of places are using gas on their meat, and it’s just not the same. I commend Blue Door for putting the smoke on display.

Blue Door Smoke

Central Kentucky is a tough place for barbecue. There hasn’t been a strong barbecue culture here, a fact confirmed by signs like “Texas BBQ” in the window. One wouldn’t go to a place in Memphis that said “Kansas City BBQ.” I recognize the marketing aspect (many places do this), but I suppose my gripe is that if you’re going to do barbecue, take a stand that it’s your barbecue.

Blue Door is a friendly place, with patient, but prompt, service. They have a nice offering of meats and sides. I chose brisket and baby back pork ribs. I added sides of ranch beans and potato salad.

The meat at Blue Door is good, well cooked and flavorful. It has a nice crust, but isn’t tough. I liked the brisket a little better than the ribs. I would be glad to have either again.

Blue Door plate

I have to admit I was disappointed with my side choices. I was warned the ranch beans wouldn’t be sweet like standard baked beans, which I was fine with. My beau ideal barbecue shack Oklahoma Joe’s serves a version of ranch beans, in fact. I found these just a little too harsh, however.

The potato salad just wasn’t to my taste at all. While I found the beans too harsh, the potato salad was bland. It needed some flavor kick. My friend let me try her collard greens, and they were quite tasty. I would recommend trying those. I almost ordered the vinegar slaw, and wish I had. I think it would have been more to my liking. If worse comes to worse, they do have Grippo’s chips.

Blue Door offers three sauces on the table: sweet, spicy, and tangy. I always try the meat first without sauce, but then I like to test out whatever they have. It wasn’t long before I found that my sauce of choice was the tangy, which is a vinegar based sauce of the same style as Alabama’s Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Blue Door’s tangy doesn’t have quite the flavor depth as Dreamland, but it’s quite good if you like a vinegar based sauce. The other sauces were also good, but I mostly stuck with tangy after I found it.

Blue Door sauces

So as my Lexington barbecue adventure begins, Blue Door Smokehouse was a good start. It’s solid barbecue, that doesn’t reach the level of greatness. Still, I hope to return and recommend you stop by.

Blue Door BBQ
226 Walton Avenue
Lexington, KY 40502
Monday-Thursday 11 am – 3 pm
Friday-Saturday 11 am – 9 pm
Closed Sunday


Some of Huntsville’s Best: New Market BBQ

New Market JeffersonOne of the barbecue spots in my sights has been the north of Huntsville joint, New Market BBQ. I was set to go a few months ago but discovered its limited hours, only open each week Friday-Sunday. With my time remaining in Alabama short, I put a trip to the small village of New Market high on my list of things to do before I left. My friend Sean, who had been once before, was a willing accomplice. New Market white church The trip to New Market is a pleasant one, and the town has more than its share of interest. There are lovely churches and old homes. The Presbyterians and Methodists have done well in maintaining their historic buildings. (And it looks like New Market architecture is well prepared if Thomas Jefferson ever comes to visit.) The very small downtown row is ripe for renovation. Perhaps New Market BBQ will help lead to a renaissance there. New Market woodArriving at New Market BBQ, wood was piled high outside, always an encouraging sign. The fire inside confirmed real wood smoke is used at New Market. Accept no substitutes for your barbecue. New Market fire

New Market menu board

The menu options are wide, but I opted for a standard sampler for me, ribs and chicken with beans. Brunswick stew is a common offering locally, and with a chill in the air I was happy to try it as my second side. Both turned out to be reliable choices. New Market chow

The smoked meat was very good, the ribs were flavorful and meaty, tender, but firm enough to stay on the bone. Likewise, the chicken was spot on, not dry, which can often happen. I always try the meat without any sauce. It’s only then you really know what you’re getting.

New Market offers three sauces, a vinegar sauce, a thicker red sauce, and Alabama white sauce (for chicken). I rank their sauces highly, although a notch below my Alabama favorites (Dreamland for vinegar, Saw’s for red, and Big Bob Gibson for white). This is by no means a knock. Across the board New Market is doing barbecue the right way, the best I’ve had in Madison County.

New Market meat New Market pb pieIt was hard to resist the dessert offerings at New Market. Most places will offer banana pudding, and it’s usually very good. New Market BBQ clearly prides itself in going above and beyond with a rotating offering of different pies. I opted for a slice of the day’s peanut butter pie, and was surprised to find a very light pie rather than the often dense and heavy peanut butter pie one frequently encounters. And it was good, clearly homemade, a satisfying ending to a rewarding visit.

This weekend if you find yourself hungry, and with a little time for a drive, head on up to New Market BBQ. Drive around town a little to see the sites. You’ll enjoy the barbecue. New Market home

New Market BBQ
5601 Winchester Rd
New Market, AL 35761
Hours: Friday-Saturday, 11 AM – 7 PM; Sunday 11 AM – 4 PM

Dr. Ralph, The Ryman, & the Redneck Taco: Martin’s BBQ Joint of Nolensville, Tennessee

Ryman Auditorium

I finally made good on a trip I’d wanted to make for some time. I headed north to Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium for one of their summer Bluegrass Nights. The equally legendary, and nearly as old, Ralph Stanley was headlining in possibly his last full concert appearance at the Mother Church. A farewell concert by a first generation Bluegrass legend at ground zero for Bluegrass music was a recipe for success.

Always on the lookout for new places to eat, I noticed that Southern food guru John T. Edge had listed something called the Redneck Taco at Nolensville’s Martin’s BBQ Joint on his Garden & Gun 100 Southern Foods. There’s not a better combination than barbeque and Bluegrass, so I put Nolensville onto my travel map and started toward Nashville.

Martin's BBQ Joint

Martin’s apparently used to be a bit more of a hole in the wall (which I enjoy), but the new place is a stand alone building in nicer shopping area. Good sign number one: smoke was billowing out. The smell of pork filled the air.

Martin's PigThe inside is properly porky, signs and artifacts cover the walls. The restaurant was busy, but there was no wait time when I was there. You walk by a very large menu board that highlights “The Notorious Redneck Taco.” There are several meat options, each with its own sauce recommendation. I went with the basic pulled pork with  Sweet Dixie Sauce. I gave my order to the young lady at the order window and waited for my taco to be brought out.

The Redneck Taco is a hoecake covered in meat–pulled pork, in my case–then a layer of slaw, finally topped with barbeque sauce. The hoecake is similar to a regular pancake, slightly sweet. I found the pulled pork tasty and moist (tried alone without sauce). The slaw was finely chopped. The recommended sauce, Sweet Dixie, lived up to its name. It is tangy, a little sweet, with good flavor. The beans were likewise tangy, and although I liked them at first, later, I wasn’t entirely sure if I did or not. I will say this, I appreciate a place that doesn’t just give you warmed up beans from a can. I want them to at least do something to make them their own. Martin’s fulfills its responsibilities to the beans.

Martin's Redneck Taco

You really need a little more sauce than they put on it, so ask for more or it gets a bit dry. In what may be a barbeque restaurant first for me, there was no sauce readily available. You have to ask for extra in which case they’ll bring you a small paper cup with sauce. Maybe Martin’s will find some squeeze bottles and put this stuff out for their patrons. BBQ Joints shouldn’t be stingy with the sauce.

Having Martin’s Redneck Taco was a great experience, one I recommend. The atmosphere is right, service is solid. Now I want to go back to try their ribs and other sauces. Speciality items are one thing, but ribs are where an establishment can stand or fall.

With the Redneck Taco behind me, it was on to Dr. Ralph and the Ryman.

Bluegrass MarkerRalph Stanley is probably most known to modern audiences as the voice behind the song “O, Death”, featured in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Stanley is really the last of the true old guard in Bluegrass music. He began his career as half of the Stanley Brothers in 1946, and even toured with Bill Monroe. When Carter Stanley died in 1966, Ralph retooled and began his solo career using the Clinch Mountain Boys as his back-up band. Ralph hired teenagers like Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Marty Stuart over the years, giving the future stars their starts.

The show opened with co-headliner Jim Lauderdale and band who did a fantastic job. Lauderdale and Dr. Ralph did a couple of albums together, and have toured extensively. Lauderdale has written a great bit of material for Stanley, some of which Lauderdale performed during his set.

Dr. Ralph Stanley came out with his Clinch Mountain Boys for the second set, and I wondered how well he would hold up. At 86, he’s understandably slowing down a bit. He’s no longer playing his banjo, and had a chair on stage to rest.

Ralph Stanley O Death

But although Stanley started the set a bit slow, he nailed the a cappella “O Death” (capping it with a sung, and sincere, “thank you”). From that point on, Ralph Stanley seemed only to pick up steam getting stronger with each song. My only disappointment: there’s no mandolin in the current iteration of the Clinch Mountain Boys–what?!

I wasn’t sure how long Dr. Ralph would be able to keep going, but they did a 90 minute show, which was amazing. Stanley was spelled with lead singing by his grandson and various instrumentals. A highlight was Jim Lauderdale joining Dr. Stanley onstage for a song.

It was a great way to begin seeing shows at the Ryman. And I was glad to have the opportunity to have Dr. Ralph Stanley sign my official Hatch Show Print for the summer Bluegrass Nights.

I should have asked Dr. Ralph if he had ever eaten a Redneck Taco.

Ryman Hatch Print

Decatur’s Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q: Another Look


Back in October I wrote about my visit to Decatur’s Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q. It’s an area favorite, award winning—a northern Alabama barbeque landmark. The problem was, I wasn’t as impressed as I expected to be. It was fine, but I didn’t think it lived up to its reputation.

My barbecue co-conspirator Sean discovered, however, that famed pit-master Chris Lilly was not at the main Decatur location, but at a smaller, second location tucked away on Danville Street. We decided to give it a try.

BigBobGibsonsV2-windowThis second Big Bob’s location is an order at the counter joint while the original is “sit down” with waitresses. I ordered the small plate with a quarter chicken (white meat) and pork (diced into chunks rather than what I normally consider pulled).

What a difference a location makes. My last visit found the chicken dry and the pork a bit soggy. This time both chicken and pork were moist and flavorful–spot on. Big Bob Gibson’s is well known for its white sauce, and it complements the smoked chicken well. I agree with Sean that the main sauce is a bit too sweet, but some might like it very well.BigBobGibsonsV2-plate

So what’s the difference between visits—location or simply a different day? Is it the Chris Lilly magic? Whatever the reason, I suggest giving the Danville Street location a try, where the barbeque lives up to the Big Bob Gibson name.


[An interview with Chris Lilly | Follow Chris Lilly on Twitter]

Review: Fat Boy’s Bar-b-que Ranch in Prattville, Alabama

The Southern road trip is an iconic experience. The potential for great discovery is just around the next bend in the road. And in the South one must always keep an eye out for good barbecue. Driving through Prattville, Alabama last week, a barbeque establishment called to me for exploration: Fat Boy’s Bar-b-que Ranch. With a name like that they had better be ready to bring it.

Fat Boy’s embraces their “ranch” theme with a fence and ranch gate. And while that sort of thing can be fun, one must be wary of too much focus on the gimmick and not enough on the meat. Thankfully, Fat Boy’s tends to business.

Sampler platters are handy when trying out a new place. Assured at the counter there was enough for two, my brother-in-law and I ordered the Fat Boy’s Favorite to split: a rib, pulled pork, brisket, sausage, chicken and turkey. For sides we chose beans (good), potato salad (fine), and Brunswick stew (excellent).

A highlight were the hushpuppies offered instead of the default white bread. Hush puppies are a Southern staple and fit well with barbecue. They ought to be offered more frequently. Fat Boy’s puppies came out hot and tasted just right. Order them.

But while attention to sides is important, if the meat’s not up to par nothing else matters. Fat Boy’s hits home runs with their pulled pork, which is flavorful and moist without being soggy, the brisket, and, for me, a surprise: the smoked sausage. The sausage was flavorful, worthy of your attention when you visit.

I’m not a particular fan of barbequed fowl, and while the chicken and turkey were fine, they didn’t overcome my barbeque prejudices. A traditional Alabama white sauce would be a welcome offering, though.

For me the crown jewel of barbeque is pork ribs. And at least for this visit, I was disappointed. The rib was meaty, but not quite as tender as I would have liked, not lively. Granted, we had only one rib to try; a wider sample might change my opinion, and perhaps a return visit is in order as the other meats were done well.

Fat Boy’s house sauce was a bit of a surprise. It was tomato based with a sweetness to it uncommon in Alabama sauces. The ingredients listed pineapple juice, which seems to be the secret. I tend to prefer a vinegar based sauce, but the Fat Boy’s sauce was flavorful. A hot version of the sauce might be worth considering. (there was Tabasco on the table).

If you find yourself in the neighborhood of Prattville Fat Boy’s Bar-b-que Ranch certainly is worth a stop. It’s a few minutes off I-65, but not far enough to deter you. Make sure you try the smoked sausage and the hushpuppies.

Real Men Eat (Oklahoma Joe’s) BBQ

Our Farewell to Kansas City Meal at Oklahoma Joe’s

While four years in Kansas City didn’t turn me into a complete convert to Kansas City barbeque, it did turn me into a disciple of Oklahoma Joe’s. Named by Anthony Bourdain as one of “13 Places to Eat Before You Die”, Men’s Health Magazine now has identified Oklahoma Joe’s as the Manliest Restaurant in America. Check your cable listings for the Travel Channel’s episode featuring them, “Food Paradise: Manliest Restaurants 2.”

Can you get manlier than eating ribs in a gas station? Apparently not.

That makes me want a rack of ribs and a Z-Man.

(Also on the list is Atlanta’s Hankook Taqueria. Sounds like a road trip! Check out the full list of Manliest Restaurants.)

Best Ribs You’ll Find (Cute Child Not Included)

Southern Culture: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q of Decatur, Alabama

Last week my friend Sean and I drove down Mooresville Road through Belle Mina, made a detour into the streets of Mooresville itself, then cut over across the Tennessee to Decatur. The fall drive itself was worth the outing–antebellum homes and churches, autumn leaves and fields of snow white cotton bolls. Despite the Southern beauty of the journey, we had a clear destination: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q.

Situated on the main drag in Decatur, Big Bob’s has the right barbecue vibe. It’s a big place, attesting to its great local popularity. We arrived after the main lunch rush, and were seated quickly.

Big Bob had my immediate respect with his five foot tall trophies from Memphis in May, which included the 2003 grand champion trophy. No meat smoker with one of those can ever be dismissed when it comes to barbecue.

I ordered a quarter chicken and pulled pork plate with beans as a side (and a bag of Golden Flake barbecue chips). Although I’ve mostly been a skeptic of barbecued chicken, Alabama white sauce has made me a quick convert. Sean ordered the barbecue potato with brisket.

Memphis in May Overall Champion 2003

The food came promptly; no need to wait at Bob’s. The verdict, though, wasn’t quite up to expectations. I found the chicken a little dry and, oddly, the pulled pork a little too wet, bordering on soggy. The taste was good, but not great. I did like Bob’s white sauce, and his regular barbecue sauce was solid.

A weak spot was the beans. I took a bite or two, but in my opinion it doesn’t take too much effort to crank up the taste of beans. Bob’s hadn’t put the effort in.

With Bob’s local popularity and Memphis in May success, I owe them another shot. I would like to try their ribs, and wish they would let you add one or two to the sampler.

If you’re driving through Decatur give Bob’s a try. The locals love it. You’ll certainly have some good barbecue, and maybe some great barbecue if I was simply the victim of bad timing.


Update: Sean has reminded me that Big Bob’s chicken and white sauce is on the 100 Alabama Foods list. You can read about how Big Bob invented white sauce for chicken.

Another update: Be sure to read my follow-up: Decatur’s Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q: Another Look

Southern Culture: Saw’s BBQ of Homewood, Alabama

Saw’s BBQ Junior Sampler

With a wife from Memphis and years spent in Kansas City, I’ve had my share of barbeque. Lord willing, I plan to have more than my share.

For years, my Birmingham barbeque of choice has been Dreamland (“Ain’t Nothin’ Like ‘Em Nowhere”), although purists insist that the only Dreamland that counts is the Tuscaloosa original. Southern food aficionado, and semi-itinerant preacher, Gary Henry recently recommended Saw’s BBQ of Homewood. With a Birmingham road trip planned with my friend Seth, I figured it was a good time to try it.

Online reviews spoke of long lines–a positive sign–so we arrived early, 11 AM, and faced no line at all. The store front is in lovely Homewood, a small town within the city of Birmingham (Homewood is also home to the excellent men’s clothing store, Plain Clothes). The restaurant is small with limited seating, and if you’re an Alabama sports fan you will appreciate the Roll Tide heavy decor (we sat beside a 1965 Alabama bowl pennant). For an authentic barbeque joint, the atmosphere is “right.”

We both opted for the junior sampler platter: one rib, pulled pork, and smoked chicken with white sauce plus one side. I opted for beans, although Seth went with the deviled eggs. They looked good, and I commend them for offering such a seldom seen restaurant side.

You can see from the picture what arrived: a plate full of goodness, and that was the junior sampler! That rib was even bigger than it looks, too.

Truly quality barbeque starts with the meat, not the sauce. And the Saw’s meat is good. It’s both moist and flavorful. They do offer two sauces, their standard bottled Saw’s Sauce and another unidentified sauce in a squeeze bottle. Usually this is a BBQ joint’s hot sauce, but this one wasn’t really hot. It did have a bit of a spicy kick, and was sweeter. Both were thin, vinegar based sauces, which is how I like them. They were both sweeter than Dreamland’s more straight up vinegar sauce. I switched back and forth, and enjoyed them both.

The surprise hit of the sampler was the smoked chicken. My barbeque bias leans toward all things pork, although I’ve gained an appreciation for brisket. Barbecue chicken has always seemed like a bit of a waste of my time. Saw’s replies with their fine smoked chicken.

The chicken is moist, as it ought to be, and very flavorful. Saw’s makes good use of traditional northern Alabama white barbeque sauce, which helps transform the chicken from an also-ran to a clear barbeque winner.

Saw’s BBQ warrants a return visit, and without hesitation I recommend it to you. Show up early, though. By the time we left the lunch line was already to the door.

What’s your favorite barbeque?